China's premier auto show opens amid growth slowdown

China's premier auto show opens amid growth slowdown
Workers clean a Rolls-Royce ahead of the 16th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition.

SHANGHAI - Global car makers show off hundreds of vehicles in China's commercial hub Shanghai on Monday, as the world's biggest auto market continues to attract despite a sharp deceleration in sales growth.

On the sidelines of China's premier auto show, foreign car makers admitted an economic slowdown in the world's second largest economy had taken its toll, but said the market was simply too big - and important - to ignore.

"The market will increase less than in former years, but still much higher than in any other relevant automotive market in the world," President and CEO of Volkswagen Group China, Jochem Heizmann, told reporters on Sunday.

"It's still a tremendous market," he said.

Vehicle sales in China reached 23.49 million last year, well ahead of the United States, which it overtook in 2009.

But annual sales growth halved to 6.9 per cent last year from 13.9 per cent in 2013, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM).

The slowdown continued in the first three months of this year, when sales rose just 3.9 per cent.

However John Lawler, Chairman and CEO of Ford Motor China, told reporters on Saturday: "The market continues to grow. We know that the Chinese economy is coming back to the 'new normal' - about seven per cent growth."

China's economy expanded 7.4 per cent over last year, the slowest in nearly a quarter of a century.

Among the bright spots is the market for SUVs (sport utility vehicles), one of the fastest growing segments in China.

"There's a lot of opportunity left with the growth for SUVs," said Lawler.

Ford is introducing seven new vehicles in Shanghai, including two SUVs and the Taurus, intended to be its flagship sedan for the China market.

But the "premier" car segment - which sells for US$33,000 (S$44,000) to US$197,000 - and the even more pricey luxury market have been slammed by the economic slowdown as well as a more than two-year campaign to crack down on corruption and government waste.

That did not stop Britain's Rolls-Royce from unveiling the new Phantom Limelight in Shanghai for the show, with features including leather-covered accessory boxes and handmade fragrance holders.

Italy's Maserati, a luxury brand of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, hopes to maintain volumes in China after more than doubling sales last year from 2013 to 9,400 vehicles.

"We all know about the slowing down of growth, still significant growth but significantly less than the years before," Maserati CEO Harald Wester told AFP.

"A year of consolidation but I'm still very optimistic," he said.

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