BEIJING -- For decades, the desires of U.S. car buyers influenced vehicles around the globe. American tastes led to the proliferation of everything from air conditioning and automatic transmissions to supersized cupholders and gas-guzzling SUVs.
But a new alpha consumer is reshaping global showrooms.
China has usurped the U.S. crown as the world's biggest auto market, and size matters. As international automakers rush to win buyers in the Middle Kingdom, Chinese tastes are starting to dictate features popping up in cars sold in other markets, even the United States.
What Beijing buyers want, they get; and, increasingly, so do buyers in New York and beyond.
From roomier back seats and extended wheelbases to fuel-efficient three-cylinder engines, the "Chinafication" of globally marketed cars is here.
General Motors Co. even has a term for China's impact on American styling. "We call it the C-Factor," GM global design chief Ed Welburn said of the latest design language for Buick, developed by stylists at the Detroit carmaker's Shanghai studio.
"It's influenced by jade sculpture, calligraphy and a lot of the art dating back centuries," Welburn said last month in an interview at the Beijing auto show, where GM showed 37 production and concept cars. "It's a perfect marriage with Buick because it's very flowing, very sculpted."
GM and its international rivals have little choice but to indulge Chinese sensibilities. Their influence is growing in tandem with China's seemingly unquenchable appetite for cars.
China exceeded the United States as the world's biggest auto market last year, with total sales surging 46 percent to 13.64 million vehicles. In the first quarter of this year alone, sales jumped 72 percent to 4.61 million.
Analysts expect the pace to taper off, but most still see full-year growth clipping along between 15 and 20 percent.
Not surprisingly, Chinese consumers have their own tastes. They like roomy back seats, high-tech amenities such as iPod jacks and video screens, conservative color schemes, lots of chrome, extended wheelbases and any car that exudes an aura of grandeur.
In Buick, the C-Factor translates into flowing character lines, intricate head and taillights, detailed wheels and a delicately sculpted grille, Welburn said. The look is being promoted globally and is best exemplified by the latest LaCrosse sedan, he said.
Drivers worldwide also may start noticing more comfortable and well-appointed back seats, not just in GM products but in just about any brand that does business in China.
In China, car owners typically sit in the rear and are chauffeured. That means they want more legroom, reclining seats, video screens on the back of front headrests, lots of audio and video controls and excellent rear seat air conditioning and heating.
"China has certainly taught all of us how to execute a rear seat that is just as attractive as a front seat," Jim Farley, Ford Motor Co.'s global marketing chief, said in an interview.
Luxury makers have responded by offering stretch versions of their cars or simply bigger back seats. At this year's Beijing auto show, BMW introduced a long-wheelbase 5 series, and Mercedes-Benz unveiled an extended E-class sedan. Such cars were developed for China but could be global hits.
BMW Group's global marketing chief, Ian Robertson, recalled his U.S. unit's initial thumbs-down to receiving the long-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantom, created for China.
U.S. customers drive their cars and don't sit in back, they said. Besides, the Phantom was already big enough. But BMW brought the car to the United States anyway.
"We introduced it to America, almost as a kind of experiment, and immediately, 10 to 15 percent of the orders switched to long wheelbases," Robertson said. "We learned some important lessons there that ideas from this region could be transported. Changing consumer habits is something we should never underestimate."
But it's not just premium cars getting such treatment. Ford's new EcoBoost 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine was designed for young Chinese drivers who want a small, fuel-efficient vehicle. That engine will enter global production and eventually is expected to make it into U.S. cars.
Likewise, Mazda Motor Corp. created a sedan version of its Mazda2 compact for China because people here like sedans. It sold so well that Mazda decided to expand production to its plant in Thailand and start exporting the variant throughout Asia.
The Mazda2 previously had been available only as five-door hatchback.
Mass market brands such as Hyundai, Buick and Volkswagen will come under increasing pressure to pack their cars with amenities because home-grown Chinese brands such as BYD and Geely already are doing it at cut-rate prices, said J. Scott Laprise, an auto analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in Beijing. Those features will spill over as benefits to global customers.
"The Chinese brands are really quick to adjust to local demand," Laprise said. "International brands, especially in the low to middle range, will have to provide more features."
Examples of Chinese tastes reaching other global markets
- The extended-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Phantom
- The styling of the Buick LaCrosse
- The sedan version of the Mazda2 compact
(Source: Automotive News)