Foreign brands' China-only cars prevail at Shanghai Motor Show 2013
Foreign manufacturers race to deliver exclusive-to-country cars at Shanghai show, driving home the message that this is the new make-or-break frontier
While it may be a cliché to describe this year's Shanghai Motor Show as the biggest and best ever, it's true that it has grown more important than ever on the world stage.
Since 2009, the mainland has been the largest car market in the world, with sales last year exceeding 13 million units - a year-on-year rise of 7.6 per cent. And with domestic brands' market share falling from 46 per cent in 2010 to 42 per cent last year, it's no surprise that foreign brands struggling to make headway in Europe and North America are looking to China.
But luxury manufacturers now realise that, to appeal to the Chinese market, they need to do more than produce dragon-themed special editions.
Maserati chose this year's show, which ends on Monday, for the world premiere of its new Ghibli, along with a 330-horsepower, three-litre V6 version of the Quattroporte that is exclusive to the Chinese market. Four-door saloons such as these are crucial to create sales volume in the country.
Porsche's Panamera was originally launched in Shanghai in 2009. This year the carmaker is back, debuting the Panamera Executive, which has been stretched by 15cm for the Chinese market.
"We introduced the first Panamera to a world audience here in Shanghai - and very intentionally here - because it was clear to us that our gran turismo would be precisely the right model for this future market," says Porsche chairman Matthias Müller, adding that one in every three units is now sold in China.
Both BMW and Mercedes-Benz premiered concepts of SUVs for future production. With Chinese sales of SUVs increasing by over 25 per cent last year, the Germans are obviously not missing a trick.
Both firms seem to be playing it safe, with BMW introducing a scaled-down version of its successful X6, while Mercedes has chosen a radical departure from its more mainstream offerings with the GLA.
"The attractive package will appeal to customers who may not have a Mercedes on their shopping list. It has the look of a tough leisure companion, but at the same time it is young, dynamic and stylish," says Professor Thomas Weber, a board member of Mercedes-Benz's parent firm, Daimler.
With Mercedes trailing Audi and BMW in the local market, cars like the GLA are crucial.
Staying with the SUV theme, Volkswagen chose Shanghai to unveil its CrossBlue Coupe. We will likely have to wait until 2015 to see how much of the hybrid petrol-electric drivetrain and hi-tech interior get carried over to a production model aimed at US and Chinese markets. The concept, though, promises a far more striking SUV than Volkswagen's current offerings and more in the vein of the X6 and Range Rover Evoque.
Buick might be an American marque, but China is rapidly becoming its home market, accounting for sales of three out of every four cars produced by the brand. Were it not for this, Buick would likely have gone the way of Pontiac.
The Buick's Riviera concept, which had its world premiere, was also designed in Shanghai. While features like the wirelessly recharged hybrid system are unlikely to make it to a production model anytime soon, it offers a glimpse of the firm's design direction, with elements such as a new grille and daytime running lights.
The big news of the show back in 2011 was the emergence of sub-brands for the Chinese market. This theme continues this year with Toyota launching the Ranz brand with joint venture partner FAW (a Chinese state-owned company), and Kia offering the Horki brand with Dongfeng.
Pushed by the government, they have been used as a way for manufacturers to keep selling older models while transferring as little technology as possible to the Chinese partner. So far only the Baojun brand - produced by General Motors and state-owned SAIC Motor - has met with any real degree of success, which is largely thanks to the car having been designed for the Chinese market.
Kia's Horki-1 concept, based on Kia's new Cerato platform, certainly looks the part and if the South Korean manufacturer decides to follow this down the production route, rather than recycling old technology, Horki may be an exception to the sub-brand failures.
Noticeably absent from the motor show is BMW Brilliance's recently announced Zinoro sub-brand. Striking an even sorrier sight is Denza, the joint venture between Daimler and BYD Auto intended to produce electric cars. When Daimler partnered with the Shenzhen-based carmaker in 2010, eyebrows were raised. Internet rumours indicate all is not well between the partners and the sad showing of a peculiar prototype does little to quell them.
Another major trend of this year's show is the introduction of China-only models. While Volkswagen and Buick have been doing this for years, other manufacturers are now well and truly jumping on the bandwagon - none more so than Honda.
At last year's Beijing show, Honda showed the Concept C, and following on from this is the production-model Crider, which is due to be launched in June by Guangqi Honda to compete with cars such as the VW Sagitar (previously known as the Jetta) and the Fiat Viaggio.
Also introduced is the Jade, due in September from Dongfeng Honda. Based on the Concept S, it looks likely to create a stylish niche for itself. Honda is showcasing Concept M, which is likely to spawn a multipurpose vehicle for the Chinese market next year.
Ford has resurrected a great name from its past - the Escort - for its new concept for a China-only car. With a design evoking the European Mark 1 Escort, the concept certainly strikes a pose in brown. It remains to be seen how much the name Escort will mean to Chinese consumers - as Ford never sold any of the original versions in the country.
Hyundai introduced the Mistra concept, showcasing its new China-only model that slips in between the Elantra and Sonata but seems to lack the design flair of either.
Citroën DS showed off its Wild Rubis concept, which previews a China-only SUV flagship for the range.
Finally, hot on the heels of its Geneva launch, Qoros - an Israeli joint venture with Chery - has unveiled its range to China, where it will initially go on sale before tackling Europe. What is overridingly clear is that for the major brands, the Chinese market is key for their future success or failure.