BEIJING • Cheap is no longer chic for China's carmakers.
As more consumers aspire to buy cars and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) with some cachet, domestic companies want to shed their reputations as mass-market rides and go upscale with them.
Great Wall Motor and Geely Automobile Holdings are unveiling new premium brands which they want drivers to consider in the same league as a Lexus or Genesis.
Car companies in the world's biggest market are trying to follow the paths of Japanese and Korean competitors that engineered image makeovers. With passenger car sales in China surging more than 15 per cent, local manufacturers do not want to cede the higher-end demographic - with its accompanying higher profits - to foreign brands.
"Chinese automakers today are at a stage where they believe it's necessary to move upmarket," said Mr Zhou Jincheng, an analyst at Fourin in Japan. "If they don't try now while the market is growing, it will be even harder to start when the market is stagnant."
The manufacturers seek to capitalise on an economy that grew by 6.7 per cent in the third quarter, giving people more money to spend.
Billionaire Wei Jianjun built Great Wall into China's largest SUV maker by pricing vehicles at a fraction of comparable foreign nameplates such as Volkswagen's Passat. But in the past four years, he has spent 10 billion yuan (S$2 billion) creating a premium brand called Wey - a phonetic spelling of his surname.
At this month's Guangzhou Auto Show, he unveiled three Wey- branded SUVs - starting at 150,000 yuan - with features usually found in more expensive foreign models, such as a warning system for lane changes and a cruise control that maintains a safe distance from the car ahead.
"Wey's mission is to carry the flag for Chinese luxury SUVs globally and to end the era of excessive profits earned by foreign brands in China," Mr Wei said.
Fellow billionaire Li Shufu introduced Geely's upscale brand Lynk & Co. The cars will be built in China on the same platform used by Mr Li's other company, Volvo Cars, and will be sold globally.
Lynk & Co will start sales in the second half of next year, said Mr Gui Shengyue, Geely's chief executive officer. The cars will be electric and connect to the Internet through technology developed with Microsoft and Alibaba Group.
The billionaire pedigree, and the hiring of executives from European brands such as Audi, may help the Chinese succeed.
Introducing new marques can help carmakers eliminate the baggage of the past and convince customers to pay higher prices, said Mr Stephen Dyer, a Shanghai-based partner at Bain & Co overseeing the China car market.