China's young elite take life in fast lane past 300km/h

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am


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Life feels sexier when you are flirting with 300km/h; on the straightaway at Shanghai's Formula One racetrack; behind the wheel of a new 6.3 million-yuan Lamborghini; cheered on by a group of young mainland millionaires.

That cocktail of adrenaline, exclusivity, youth, and money is proving a recipe for booming success on the mainland, as the world's biggest manufacturers of super sports cars grow increasingly geared toward roaring demand in China.

Last year, as overall mainland passenger car sales eked out growth of just 5.2 per cent, the market for 'supercars' kicked into overdrive.

Ferrari's sales on the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan rose 63 per cent last year to nearly 800 cars. Aston Martin's mainland sales more than doubled, rising 103 per cent. And Lamborghini delivered more than 340 cars on the mainland last year, up over 65 per cent from a year ago and following on growth of 150 per cent in 2010.

'Racing and super luxury sports cars have become the basis of a powerful, just-emerging subculture in China,' says car industry consultant Michael Dunne of Hong Kong-based Dunne & Company. 'China's new world-class super highways let drivers open things up in ways that were previously only possible on German autobahns.'

The Lamborghini track event in Shanghai provides a telling demonstration of how far supercar manufacturers are willing to go to woo wealthy prospective clients on the mainland.

At a cost of around 250,000 yuan (HK$307,000) per day, the Italian carmaker rented out the Shanghai racetrack over two days in October for an invitation-only test drive for potential buyers of its-newly launched Aventador.

A stylish beast that travels from zero to 100 km/h in only 2.9 seconds, the car tops out at a blindingly fast 350 km/h. With a 700 horsepower, 12-cylinder engine, it brakes with a g-force roughly equivalent to that experienced in a bungee jump. It grabs corners like a rugby player locking into a scrum, and its screams fill the empty bleachers on the straightaway. It is a motoring experience that requires some getting used to. As prospective buyers take turns putting a trio of Aventadors through their paces, a young woman fresh from the track makes a beeline past a buffet table and straight into the restroom. The sound of vomiting follows. 'It happens,' admits one executive.

Most winters, Lamborghini also organises a track day for current owners, who travel to a frozen lake in Inner Mongolia to try their hand at drifting. Ferrari too organises track days for its owners on the mainland, as do a number of other supercar makers.

'In China, people generally drive slower than in the West. This is good, otherwise I think there would be a lot more deaths than there already are,' says chief instructor Peter M?ller, who was flown in from Italy for the Shanghai track event, and who has taught driving safety for 20 years for companies including Lamborghini, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

'A lot of these people are used to being chauffeured,' M?ller says of mainland buyers. 'But these cars, they have to drive on their own.'

Indeed, that is the trick. Unlike Europe, home to nearly all super sports car manufacturers, or the US, with its passion for Detroit's muscle cars, China has neither a historical love of sports cars nor a home-grown racing culture.

Until the most recent decade, most mainlanders who owned a car also employed a driver. The explosion of wealth in recent years, and the growing ranks of mainland millionaires and billionaires, made China a natural market for executive limousines.

Last year, the mainland overtook the US as the biggest global market for Rolls-Royces, while Bentley sold more cars in China than in Britain for the first time in its 92-year history. Still, much of this growth is not being driven by the rich who are in current positions of corporate or political power; instead it is being driven by their children.

'Economic reforms of the late '70s and early '80s produced the first-generation entrepreneurs - they got rich and bought Audis, Mercedes and BMWs,' says Lamborghini China south region sales manager Eric Zeng.

'Now it is their children's turn - the second-generation rich who were born after 1980,' he says, estimating the younger generation might account for as much as 80 per cent of his customer base.

'Their parents might think these cars are too showy, but the children are more open-minded and adventurous,' Zeng says.

With mainland sales nearly or more than doubling from year to year, filling orders and planning expansions to dealer networks becomes another challenge for supercar makers.

'Mainland buyers really do not want to wait,' says Ferrari Greater China president and chief executive Edwin Fenech. 'But we need time to produce the car.'

Custom orders require additional time. Fenech says unique customisation requests on the mainland included one order for a car where every piece of interior leather was a different colour.

And then there is the case of a pink Ferrari California decked out with 'Hello Kitty' logos that plies the streets of Shanghai.

'Lots of people have told me they have seen it,' says Fenech. 'Some customers do their own personalisations.'

Matthew Bennett, Asia-Pacific regional director for Aston Martin, says supercar makers need to strike a balance when it comes to expanding to meet demand.

'In China we have as many conversations about investing in our dealerships as we do about selling cars,' he says. Aston Martin is in the process of rolling out dealerships in Chongqing, northeastern Shenyang in Liaoning province, and Ordos, Inner Mongolia.

'Now we and our competitors are increasing the focus and resources on the inland cities,' Bennett says. 'These are places that are getting significant levels of wealth very quickly, and also where the brands are unknown.

'What we find is that Chinese buyers are not shy about rewarding themselves. You get a lot of, 'I've done well and I want to show it',' he says.