In the face of this summer's cold snap in the mainland car market, even optimists like BMW's head of Greater China imports, Ulrich Thum, avoid discussing sales targets. 'We have a target but I will not talk about it,' Mr Thum said when asked about sales at the premium German car giant's joint venture with H share Brilliance China Automotive Holdings. 'Of course we have a certain minimum target [for this year] but we are flexible [according] to market demand,' he added. A 20-year veteran of BMW, Mr Thum became the company's Beijing-based Greater China imports managing director nine months ago. To the soft-spoken 45-year-old, the mainland sales slowdown is a passing phase, a growing pain. 'What we see at the moment may be just a temporary thing,' he said. 'In two, three months, the situation will be different. 'China has a great economic future ... a lot of consumers are buying cars for the first time.' According to brokerage analysts covering Brilliance China, its manufacturing joint venture with BMW has set a sales target of 15,000 three- and five-series cars this year, a drop of 3,000 from earlier targets. In the first seven months, it sold 5,583 units. Mr Thum sought to distance BMW from the price war that has broken out in the mainland car market and dismissed suggestions that the company would need to cut prices to boost sales. 'As a premium car manufacturer, BMW does not take part in price wars in its global business and this is true in the mainland market,' he said. However, the credit tightening ordered by the central government early this year has squeezed sales. Year-on-year industry sales growth tumbled from 76.8 per cent in February to 38.2 per cent in April and 4.83 per cent in June. Sales in the past two months were stagnant against the same periods last year. Optimists believe the worst is over and sales should pick up in the fourth quarter - a traditional peak season - as manufacturers launch more models and offer more discounts. Sceptics worry that the credit tightening will last a long time given that fixed-asset investment and inflation remain high despite the austerity measures. They fear the industry downturn will mimic the 1993-94 cycle, when tightening policies saw sales growth retreat from 50 per cent in 1992 to 22 per cent in 1993 and then linger at about 5 per cent until 1998. For BMW, sales on the mainland - including imports and domestic production - grew 33.5 per cent year on year to 10,850 in the first eight months, higher than the entire car market's 20 per cent. While 33.5 per cent pales beside growth of 179 per cent in BMW's mainland sales last year, Mr Thum stressed the 'high base effect' when looking at sales figures. 'Yes, everybody in 2003 enjoyed a lot of growth, but you have to look at the relatively high base of 2003 ... where in the world can you achieve 33 per cent growth? I don't know of any other country.' He believes China will mature faster than markets such as South Korea and the Middle East. 'The market is getting more diversified [in terms of the number of brands and models] at a faster pace than many expected.' To cope with this, BMW plans to expand its outlet network from 35 to 55 by the end of next year. It is also co-operating with China Merchants Bank, with BMW referring customers to the latter for car loans. Although Mr Thum would not disclose arrangements for the co-operation, he said BMW intended to stick with the bank in any future car financing business. In the meantime, Mr Thum believes it will take eight to 10 years for the mainland to become a significant exporter. 'I think China might start with a mass product with comparatively lower prices and exporting to third world countries ... then going into more mature markets but in the lower-end segment.' For BMW, which began producing in northeast China a year ago, consumer acceptance is key to the localisation programme. Mr Thum dismissed concerns that localisation would affect its products' premium image. 'If there is such a perception with the customer, I can only recommend that the customer test drives those locally produced cars and he will find out that it is the same as an imported car.' With no urgency to include its high-end seven series product for local production and given imports still account for about 40 per cent of BMW's mainland sales, Mr Thum will be busy with the firm's import operations. '[My job in China] teaches me business-around-the-clock. I normally sleep six hours and the rest is automotive business.'