BEIJING -- For decades, American consumers largely set the pace of international automotive trends. Their preferences fueled the proliferation of everything from air conditioning and automatic transmissions to super-sized cup holders and gas-gobbling sport utility vehicles.
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 carmakers rush to win buyers in the Middle Kingdom, Chinese tastes are already 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 and even social media marketing campaigns, 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 says of the latest design language for the Buick brand, 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," he said in an interview at last month's Beijing motor 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 vehicle sales surging 46 percent to 13.64 million units. In the first quarter of this year alone, sales jumped 72 percent to 4.61 million units. Analysts expect the pace to taper off. But most still see full-year growth clipping along somewhere between 15 percent 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 tail lamps, detailed wheels and the delicately sculpted grille, Welburn says. The look is being promoted globally and is best exemplified the latest LaCrosse sedan, he notes.
Drivers worldwide may also 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, the car's owner typically sits in the rear and is chauffeured. That means they want more leg room, reclining seats, video screens on the back of the front headrests, lots of controls for the audio and video and ample attention to rear seat air conditioning and heating.
Bigger in Back
"China has certainly taught all of us how to execute a rear seat that is just as attractive as a front seat," Ford Motor Co. global marketing chief Jim Farley said in a separate interview.
Luxury makers respond by offering stretch versions of their cars, or simply bigger back seats. At this year's Beijing show, BMW introduced a long wheelbase 5 Series, while Mercedes-Benz unveiled an extended E-class sedan. Such cars are developed for China, but could be global hits.
BMW Group global marketing chief Ian Robertson recalls his U.S. unit's initial thumbs-down to receiving the long wheelbase Phantom Rolls Royce that was created for China.
U.S. customers drive their own cars; they don't sit in back, they said. And besides, the Phantom was already big enough. But BMW brought the car 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 says.
"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 a younger generation of Chinese driver that wants something smaller and more fuel efficient. That engine will enter global production and is expected to eventually make it into U.S. cars.
New Media Moxy
Likewise, Japan's Mazda Motor Corp. created a sedan version of its Mazda 2 compact for the Chinese market because people here like sedans. It sold so well, Mazda decided to expand production to its assembly plant in Thailand and start exporting the variant throughout Asia.
The car had previously 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 or Geely are already doing it at cut-rate prices, says 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 says. "International brands, especially in the low to middle range, will have to provide more features."
China has also taught foreigners a thing or two about selling cars back home.
In the United States, Ford wins praise for its innovative Fiesta Movement social media marketing blitz to build hype for its Fiesta small car. Ford gave Fiestas to 100 young drivers last year and asked them to post impressions on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and other social sites.
But Farley says the idea came straight from Ford's China marketing team, which pioneered the idea while launching the Fiesta here. In China, where the government controls much of the traditional media, the Internet is a booming channel of freewheeling social interaction.
Farley says U.S. executives were stunned when their Chinese counterparts pitched the strategy: "People think of the U.S. as the most advanced social media market, but China is way out there."
It worked so well for the Fiesta, Ford now spends a quarter of its media budget on interactive marketing. Customers can expect a similar campaign for the launch of the re-engineered Focus.
"China is not only impacting the way the product is executed," Farley says. "It's also really impacting the way we are marketing our products."