Global Car Companies Should Be Wary of Local Competitors

Chinese brands boost quality and gain market share, Says Yang Jian

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SHANGHAI ( -- A year-and-a-half ago, I did a column alerting domestic Chinese automakers to the trend among global players, such as General Motors Corp., of moving downmarket to encroach on their traditional territory, the inland China market.

Yang Jian
Yang Jian
Now the tables are turning. It's time for global automakers, especially those whose brand strength is relatively weak, to watch out for fast-growing home players.

So far this year, domestic Chinese brands have gained market share. In the first ten months they grabbed 29.1% of the domestic passenger vehicle market, up from 28.5% for the whole of 2008, according to Automotive Resources Asia, a unit of J.D. Power.

BYD Auto's F3 compact car is beating the Hyundai Elantra Yuedong and Buick Excelle as the best-selling model this year. In the first 10 months, nearly 220,000 F3s were sold in China, doubling sales for the same period last year.

More importantly, domestic automakers have made a noticeable improvement in product quality.

Never before have I seen so many indigenous brands winning awards in various J.D. Power surveys. To name just two, Chery Automobile Co. earned the highest ranking for both the compact and the premium compact segments in this year's China Initial Quality Study.

Jianghuai Automobile Co.'s Tojoy, meanwhile, was the highest-ranked model for the premium compact segment in the China Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout Study.

Also this year, in September, Great Wall Motor Co. succeeded in certifying four of its models -- two cars, one SUV and one pickup -- for the European market.

In addition to narrowing the gap with international brands on product quality, domestic Chinese automakers are also catching up on service. Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.'s Roewe brand came out on top in Power's 2009 China Sales Satisfaction Index Study.

To be sure, most indigenous brands still compete mainly on price, and none of them have sold vehicles in mature markets such as America and Europe.

But they are becoming increasingly competitive in their home market, which puts pressure on international brands. Most of all they are challenging those with a relatively weak reputation in China, such as South Korea's Kia and France's Citroen.

China is not only the world's largest automotive market now. It could also be its most competitive.

Facing tougher competition from a resurgent domestic industry, the weakest foreign brands will have to up their game, or be squeezed out.

Yang Jian is the managing editor of Automotive News China, a publication of Crain Communications.

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