A YouTube posting showing Brilliance China's BS6 car crumple like a can in a German crash test in June was a public relations disaster for the mainland's car industry. 'Koreans build better cars. Say no to Chinese cars,' was one comment on the posting, highlighting the ground the industry has to make up if it is to win the trust of consumers outside the mainland. There have been some successes. Chery Automobile early last month said it would co-operate with Chrysler to produce cars, becoming the first Chinese carmaker to land in the American market. Just this month, it cemented a joint-venture deal with Italy's Fiat to produce and distribute Chery and Fiat cars, paving the way to export its products to the western European market. But like the Japanese and South Koreans before them, mainland carmakers face a tough battle building respected global car brands. And marketing, as much as engineering, will play a big part in whether they will succeed or fail. In the 1960s and '70s, the much-derided Datsuns were labelled 'Japanese junk' in the west, with Japan's exports considered cheap but unreliable. Today, Japanese cars are renowned for engineering excellence, with the industry's manufacturing techniques copied by competitors. The big question is whether mainland carmakers can emulate their Japanese and Korean counterparts and whether names such as Brilliance and Chery will be the Toyota and Hyundai of the future. The mainland, the world's second-biggest car market, is still a minnow in terms of exports but growing fast. Last year, exports surged 97.2 per cent to 343,500 vehicles and are expected to grow to 510,000 this year. By comparison, Japan exported 5.42 million vehicles last year. The China Association of Automobile Manufacturers says the country exported 241,200 vehicles in the first half of this year, a 71.3 per cent increase from a year earlier. For years, the industry has been making cars for the domestic market with foreign partners such as General Motors and Volkswagen. Now the authorities have given them approval to spread their wings globally in a big way. Boosting exports is an integral part of the industry's 11th Five-Year Programme (2006-2010). 'When local carmakers can successfully enlarge their market share overseas, it will also help their brand recognition at home,' said Tian Yamei, a senior engineer at the association. The first Chinese commercial vehicle was exported by First Auto Works in 1992 to Tanzania in east Africa. Since then, Chery, Geely Automobile Group and Great Wall Motor have established footholds in the Middle East, Russia and eastern Europe. Chery has a joint-venture assembly plant in Uruguay with Argentina's Socma Group. Its first model off the line will be the Tigo, Chery's first sport-utility vehicle. But making inroads into western Europe and the United States is the ultimate prize of these carmakers as they raise brand recognition and improve engineering standards. Slowly but surely, they are laying the groundwork. Anhui-based Chery earlier last month said it would co-operate with Chrysler to produce small cars, becoming the first mainland carmaker in the US market. Zhejiang-based Geely is also planning an overseas presence; it joined the Detroit car show last year. Shenyang's Brilliance China has signed a contract with dealer HSO Motors Europe to export 158,000 cars to Germany by next year. Industry players say mainland carmakers should not underestimate the difficulty of breaking into US and European showrooms. Fitch Ratings said Chinese car exports would remain focused on the emerging markets of the Middle East, Latin America and Russia. 'Chinese carmakers will need time to completely meet the safety and emission standards of developed countries,' said car analyst Matthew Kong. 'It also will take time to establish distribution and after-sales networks as well as brand recognition in foreign markets.' The Zhonghua Zunchi M1, known as the BS6 in Europe, failed to pass a benchmark German safety test, the German ADAC car club announced at the end of June. It was the second mainland car to fail the test after the Landwind SUV from Jiangling Motor suffered a similar setback in 2005. 'The BS6 model received only one out of five possible stars in the crash test under European new car assessment programme regulations,' said ADAC's Maximilian Maurer. Consumer perceptions of poor quality are familiar territory for Hyundai and could provide lessons for the mainland industry. After Hyundai entered the US market in 1986, its cars became notorious for shoddy workmanship. That led Hyundai to boost quality and provide a 10-year, 160,000km warranty for every vehicle sold - a marketing move that has made it one of the most favoured brands in the US. 'Patience is a difficult but critical part of brand-building in the US or any other market,' said Hyundai Motor America chief operating officer Steve Wilhite. 'Undoubtedly, Hyundai's still working on brand building in the US market though we've been here for two decades. The Japanese carmakers also took as long to firmly establish their brands in the US.' Mr Wilhite stressed that quality was the greatest concern for any car buyer, the very factor the BS6 was found lacking in the German safety test. And it is not only on safety where mainland carmakers have to improve their game. Geely, the mainland's largest privately owned carmaker, suffered a setback at the Detroit car show last year after its cars - with their simple curves and straight lines that are easy for mainland factories to make - looked starkly utilitarian by western standards. 'It is not surprising that [mainland] carmakers will take a long time to gain the confidence of consumers, just as Volkswagen's Polo took a long time to secure a firm position in the Chinese market,' said Lawrence Ang Siu-lun, an executive director of Geely. His assessment was in contrast to the optimism of Geely chairman Li Shufu, who in Detroit predicted sales of its Free Cruiser in the US would reach 100,000 a year. Mr Li subsequently changed his story, saying: 'We're still studying detailed plans to reach overseas markets, without an exact timetable for delivering the first vehicle to the US.' He added that the company planned to sell its cars at less than US$10,000 per unit. CSM Worldwide, a US consultancy specialising in the vehicle industry, said passenger cars would be the mainstay of the export business and companies with foreign partners could spearhead the drive. 'About 500,000 passenger cars will be exported from China by 2013,' said Yale Zhang, a director of the consultancy. 'The trend is joint-venture companies forming long-term plans to export from China rather than domestic carmakers.' Honda became the first foreign carmaker to export its Chinese-made cars, saying early last month it planned to ship 42,000 Jazz models from the mainland to Europe this year, up 70.7 per cent from a year earlier. Guangzhou Honda, a 50-50 joint venture between Hong Kong-listed Denway Motors and Honda, will also invest two billion yuan to develop its own line of vehicles, becoming the first joint-venture carmaker to do so. Other carmakers are trying to go it alone. Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp and Nanjing Automobile Group are developing self-branded cars with the ultimate goal of exporting. SAIC, the largest domestic carmaker by sales, has launched the Roewe 750 using technology and designs it bought from MG Rover in 2004. Nanjing Auto, which acquired the assets of MG Rover in 2005, hopes to turn around its business by tapping the latter's established dealership networks in Britain. However, as the mainland car industry prepares to do battle on the global stage, some analysts are concerned its resources are spread too thinly. They say despite the reforms and restructuring of the past 20 years, the process of sifting out weaker domestic players is unfinished. Unlike Japan, the US and Korea, which usually have only two or three leading carmakers, the mainland has at least 10 so-called 'important' carmakers. The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council announced in March it planned to consolidate the mainland's vital industries, including carmaking, with a few 'pillar' companies. In other words, laggards would be elbowed out. 'The development of local carmakers to go it alone without a foreign investor has just started ... eventually, they should be able to compete with multinational carmakers globally on a level playing field,' said Xu Changming, director of the Information Resources Development Department of the State Information Centre. Car industry analyst Alison Seng of Standard & Poors said exports could help carmakers boost earnings as they face increasingly crowded domestic markets, but it was not a 'cure-all' solution. Criticisms aside, mainland carmakers are expected to use traditional pricing tactics to make inroads into foreign markets. 'Chery and Chrysler plan to offer made-in-China cars in the US next year for about half the price of the US company's cheapest model,' Chery chairman Yin Tongyou said. Chrysler's least expensive US model, the Dodge Caliber, sells for US$13,850, according to car sales website Edmunds.com. As mainland carmakers face the trials of going global, they could do no better than take note of Korean carmakers. Market research firm Strategic Vision found Hyundai tied for first place with Nissan in a customer satisfaction survey of 27,000 Americans last year. That is a long way from its position in the 80s as a market pariah. John Bonnell, director of market intelligence in Asia-Pacific at Automotive Resources Asia, said the Hyundai warranty programme was key to turning consumer perceptions around. But more importantly, Hyundai built success at home before attempting global expansion. 'Hyundai has got good fundamentals, a stable market position in its home country which it focused on before expanding overseas,' he said. Mainland carmakers are trying it the other way around - banking on export success to lift their image at home to improve sales. It remains to be seen whether that will lead to global triumph.