China rises at Frankfurt car show as it positions itself as global carmaker

Borgward presents the new Isabella Concept at the IAA Car Show in Frankfurt Main, Germany, on Sept 13, 2017.
Borgward presents the new Isabella Concept at the IAA Car Show in Frankfurt Main, Germany, on Sept 13, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

FRANKFURT (AFP) - Traditional heavyweights Fiat, Peugeot and Volvo may have shunned this year's Frankfurt auto show (IAA), but for Chinese and Taiwanese carmakers looking to make inroads in Europe, the chance to step into the limelight was not to be missed.

Two years after becoming a surprise hit at the last IAA with an electric sedan concept car to rival Tesla's Model S, Taiwanese upstart Thunder Power was back at Europe's top industry showcase, which runs until Sept 24.

But this time, there was no mistaking its ambitions.

Positioning itself a stone's throw away from luxury brands Maserati and Ferrari, Thunder Power unveiled a second prototype, a high-end electric SUV with which it hopes to capture a slice of the booming 4x4 market.

"I'm not interested in (petrol) cars. I want to build an electric car that is the best in the world," said chief executive Wellen Sham.

The sedan is set for mass production in 2019, followed by the SUV a year later, he told AFP, adding that the firm already had a factory in China and planned to set up one in Spain.

Starting with Germany and Britain, Thunder Power eventually aims to sell 40,000 units a year in Europe, he said.

EUROPEAN LITMUS TEST

On the other side of the mammoth Frankfurt convention centre, fairgoers marvelled at the renaissance of storied German brand Borgward, which went under 50 years ago but was brought back to life in 2015 with the help of Chinese truck maker Beiqi Foton.

"We are coming to Europe this year," said chief executive Ulrich Walker, adding that its limited-edition BX7 SUV, priced at around 45,000 euros (S$72,751), will go on sale in Germany first before other models are launched across the continent.

Tapping into nostalgia for the brand's heyday, Borgward also unveiled a sporty Isabella concept car inspired by a legendary 1950s coupe of the same name.

The reborn German-Chinese manufacturer, which is already producing cars in China, plans to increase its European footprint by building an assembly plant in Borgward's original hometown of Bremen in northern Germany next year. The plant will manufacture electric vehicles for European consumers, with production slated for 2019.

"Like the Japanese and South Koreans in the past, Chinese manufacturers want to show they can be successful in Europe, it's a mark of quality, a test before expanding to other markets outside Europe," said Mr Walker.

Two other Chinese manufacturers, high-end WEY and the mass-market Chery, made their IAA debuts this year.

WEY, the newly created luxury label of Chinese carmaker Great Wall, showcased a range of compact 4x4s offering both petrol and hybrid drivetrains.

It also wowed with its XEV concept, a sleek crossover with futuristic-looking gullwing doors, but did not make any announcements about when it might land in Europe.

Chery showed off the Exeed Tx, an urban crossover designed for European tastes that it says will be made available with hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fully electric drivetrains.

"We have the firm intention to come to Europe, but it's too early to disclose the details," Chery chief executive officer Anning Chen said, hinting only that "this product isn't going to be the cheapest car on the market".

NO INVASION

Chinese carmakers' more visible presence at this year's IAA is not just for European consumption, said industry expert Laurent Petizon at consultancy AlixPartners.

Showing that they appeal to an international audience is also a way for the brands to increase their cachet back home in the world's largest car market, he told AFP, pointing out that those jostling for attention at the IAA were not China's biggest players.

"The goal is not to invade the European market, at least not for now," he said.

But analyst Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer of Germany's CAR research centre noted that Chinese manufacturers had worked hard in recent years to improve their chances of gaining a foothold in Europe's competitive and mature car market.

"The design and quality are now at the level of those seen in general European manufacturers like Renault, Opel, Volkswagen," he told AFP, calling the Chinese focus on offering electrified SUVs "a good strategy".

Chery's Mr Chen for his part said he was confident of a European breakthrough.

"We are not just a Chinese automaker, we are a global automaker," he said, brushing off concerns about the crowded European market. "In China, we are not afraid of competition," he said.