Made for China is luxury marques' new mantra

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 April, 2010, 12:00am

Luxury-car designers at Rolls-Royce and Bentley used to have to anticipate the every whim of Western bankers and industrialists. They now have a new cashed-up client in mind: the offspring of Chinese coal-mine owners.

The mainland is the one great hope for luxury-car makers amid waning demand for their super-expensive toys in traditional markets such as Dubai, Europe and the United States. Four in ten luxury-car buyers on the mainland are the playboy offspring of wealthy coal-mine owners.

The rising power of the cashed-up Chinese means they have more say in how the cars look and drive on the road, a far cry from just a few years ago when mainland consumers would have been the last thing on the minds of the designers of the latest Lamborghini, Bentley, Bugatti or Rolls.

According to global consulting firm JD Power, the Chinese market is a ray of sunshine for luxury-car dealers as sales in mature markets continue to slide. Bentley sold 404 cars in China last year and 422 in 2008. The carmaker's sales in western Europe slumped to 1,368 cars last year from 2,683 a year earlier.

Lamborghini sold 66 of its famous sports cars on the mainland last year, up from 53 in 2008, while sales in western Europe dropped to 565 last year from 697 in 2008.

Rolls-Royce sold 106 cars to Chinese customers in 2008, accounting for 50 per cent of its sales in the Asia- Pacific region. Beijing is now the city with the third-highest sales of Rolls-Royces in the world.

That may explain why the showroom of Rolls-Royce in Beijing's Jinbao Street, where most of the luxury brand outlets are concentrated, is empty - all the cars have been sold.

Ivan Tong, chairman of Bejing-based luxury-car dealer Sparkle Roll Group, said 40 per cent of luxury-car buyers are the children of coal-mine owners, who have a reputation for living the high life. Other big customers are factory owners and property investors.

'The top executives of luxury brands are interested in what the Chinese customers like,' said Tong. 'Mainlanders are just feeling good about buying high-end products.'

That means tweaking designs and colours in the factory. In order to accommodate the Chinese market, Rolls-Royce has shortened its 5.6 metre Phantom Coupe by 10cm as mainlanders believe longer cars are less elegant. Bentley meanwhile has created a 'Design Series China', with its Contintental model available in different colours - blue, khaki and brown. 'The car only comes in a single colour for other markets,' explained David Hu, a sales manager at Bentley Beijing.

Hu said Bentley would also like to produce some limited editions for the mainland market. Bentley said last year it would spend 300 million yuan in China over the next few years with the aim of doubling its annual sales to 4,000 by 2014.

Of the five traditional Bentley models in its Continental series on display in the company's Jianguomenwai Avenue showroom in Beijing, four carry 'sold' stickers.

Rolls-Royce's has received 100 orders from China for its new Ghost model, priced at 3.98 million yuan (HK$4.52 million). The first will be delivered in May.

The mainland's annual Auto Show - which starts next week in Beijing - has become a crucial event for the executives of luxury brands touting their cars to the mainland market. The event is held in Shanghai and Beijing in alternate years. This year Lamborghini, Bentley and Bugatti will unveil new models costing between six million and 10 million yuan.