The Chinese aren’t at the Detroit auto show, but China is everywhere.
The parent of one of its automakers, Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd., owns the Swedish automaker whose Volvo XC90 is the 2016 North American Truck of the Year. That’s an ironic twist for the ward Ford Motor Co. starved of capital before unloading in 2010.
A General Motors Co. joint venture in Yantai, China, produces what will be the first Chinese-built vehicle to be sold by a Detroit automaker in American showrooms. The Buick Envision compact SUV, unveiled this week, fills a hole in the brand’s lineup even as it blows a bigger hole in the notion that automakers always build where they sell.
The next Chinese wave sweeping the North American auto industry isn’t carrying the boxy sedans, cartoonish SUVs and talk of entering the U.S. market that Chinese automakers touted at auto shows past. This one is more subtle, but no less powerful because the country’s vast market and burgeoning investment community are becoming increasingly integrated parts of the global auto industry.
“We watch it very closely,” Johan de Nysschen, president of GM’s Cadillac brand, says of China. “It’s not inconceivable that it could become our No. 1 market.”
Call it automotive co-dependency: China’s growing middle class of brand-conscious consumers, coupled with official desire for economic modernization, is a rich target for American and European automakers hungry for the higher growth their brands need and their investors demand.
At the same time, Chinese investors are pumping capital into automotive startups like Lyft Inc., the ride-sharing company that counts GM and a Chinese e-commerce player, Alibaba, among its latest round of investors; acquiring and investing in suppliers like Saginaw-based Nexteer Automotive Corp.; and pushing the pace of innovation by pressing for next-generation mobility technology to answer China’s pollution and urban congestion.
The Chinese “desire to adopt new technology is really strong,” says James Verrier, CEO of BorgWarner Inc., a supplier of turbocharging and powertrain components. “They’re going to influence the technology as well as be a growth market. It’s very, very important to us.”
In interview after interview this week at the North American International Auto Show, industry executives expressed continuing confidence in the ability of the Chinese market to maintain a respectable growth trajectory, albeit below the double-digit rates of past years because of economic volatility and gyrating stock markets.
“I don’t think China is going to crash,” says Carlos Ghosn, chairman of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. “We’re going to have a very volatile market. We still think 5 percent (growth) in China is a very reasonable level in 2016.”
China’s light-vehicle market remains the single largest for Audi and GM, among others, larger than their home markets of Germany and the United States, respectively. China is critical to Ford’s growth plan for its struggling Lincoln brand; is the No. 2 market for Cadillac; and Buick says 1 million of its 1.2 million vehicles sold worldwide last year were sold in China.
The allure of the Middle Kingdom is not likely to dim anytime soon, given the rising demographic trends, economic growth at least double the rates in Europe and the United States, and continuing hunger in China for European and American brands.
“There is a lot to do in China,” says Rupert Stadler, CEO of Audi AG, the premium unit of Volkswagen AG. “Nevertheless, this is 1.2 billion customers and there is a growing market and there is mobility, and we see in the long run further growth.”
The pull of a 24 million-vehicle market, likely to hit 30 million in the coming years, executives say, can fuel such optimism. It can also influence whether the Chinese players that flirted with Detroit at past auto shows are more likely to stay closer to home for now, where satisfying near-term growth is less problematic than trying to pierce established markets in Europe and North America.
“I tell my team: let’s be humble because those guys in China are learning very fast,” says Nexteer CEO Laurent Bresson. “They are providing some alternatives to global suppliers. Those guys are running very fast.”
He should know. Saginaw-based Nexteer, majority-owned by Chinese shareholders and traded on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, sees faster growth in China than in the rest of the world. Since its initial public offering in October 2013, the company has added three plants in China even as it remains North America’s No. 1 supplier of electric power steering components.
China “has had a big impact on the automotive world,” says Mike Manley, chief operating officer of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Asia-Pacific region and head of the Jeep brand. “Ultimately, there will be a Chinese-made, Chinese-branded vehicle in the U.S. — absolutely no doubt.”
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.
Auto Writer Michael Wayland contributed.