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Automakers unveil new models at Beijing show

By Joe Mcdonald

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, April 22 2012 11:05 p.m. MDT

Visitors look at a model standing next to a BMW i3 Concept car on display at the Beijing International Automotive Exhibition in Beijing, China Monday, April 23, 2012.

Andy Wong, Associated Press

BEIJING — Ford unveiled a three-cylinder mini-SUV and Chrysler showed a dragon-theme Jeep on Monday as automakers rolled out models designed for Chinese buyers at the Beijing auto show amid tougher competition in the world's biggest vehicle market.

Automakers are looking to China to drive revenue amid weakness in the United States and Europe. But explosive sales growth that hit 35 percent in 2010 fell to just 2 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Ford Motor Co. premiered its latest SUV, the scaled-down EcoSport, designed for "urban adventurers" with a 1-liter engine. The vehicle is due to be manufactured at Ford's main China factory in the southwestern city of Chongqing.

"This new SUV is specially designed for growth markets like China," said Kumai Galhotra, Ford's vice president of product development for the Asia-Pacific region.

Automakers that used to sell the same models worldwide with few local changes increasingly create products with Chinese buyers in mind.

Nissan, Toyota and other automakers also used Auto China 2012 to showcase luxury sedans and SUVs aimed at Chinese buyers. The event, China's biggest auto show this year, opens to the public on Friday.

Chrysler Group LLC announced it will sell a dragon-themed Jeep, with gold-toned accents and dragon designs on headrests and elsewhere.

"To be successful in China, we must tailor or vehicles to the specific tastes of Chinese customers," said Mike Manley, Chrysler's chief operating officer for Asia.

Japan's Infiniti rolled out new luxury sedan with a bigger back seat for Chinese businesspeople and a display model of the first car from an electric vehicle joint venture between Daimler AG and China's BYD Co.

"The products that we are building today globally have a lot more attention paid to what the customer needs in China," said Kevin Wale, president of General Motors Co.'s China unit, in an interview ahead of the show.

GM sells a Cadillac sedan in China with an unusually small four-cylinder, two-liter engine to meet demand from local buyers for smaller engines, Wale said.

"Nowhere else in the world would it have been done," he said.

Automakers are targeting both ends of the market, rolling out luxury models for newly rich urban Chinese and economy models for the low-income but vast rural population.

Jaguar Land Rover, owned by India's Tata Motors, unveiled a Range Rover Evoque Special Edition four-seat coupe Sunday co-designed by Victoria Beckham with gloss black forged alloy wheels, rose gold-plated accents and mohair.

Chinese auto sales growth plunged last year after the government tightened lending and investment curbs to cool an overheated economy and inflation.

Total auto sales rose just 2 percent in the first quarter of this year over a year earlier to 1.2 million vehicles, according to LMC Automotive, a research firm.

Global automakers kept their own sales growing faster than the market last year by taking share from Chinese rivals such as Chery Automobile Co. and Geely Holding Group, though industry analysts and companies say that trend is unlikely to last.

Sales by Volkswagen AG and its Chinese partners rose 12 percent in the first quarter, while Chery's fell 22 percent, according to LMC Automotive.

"I don't think that's a long-term trend," said Wale. Pointing to the experience of Japan and Korea, he said, "you should never underestimate the ability of a major industrial market to generate globally competitive car companies."

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