Automakers adapt cars to Chinese tastes

Alysha Webb

Automotive News | 2006-11-1

To make the Buick LaCrosse more suitable for Chinese consumers, General Motors used a distinctive Chinese theme for the rear lamps. The lamps are shaped like the numeral 8.

Eight sounds like the word for wealth in Chinese. "The clear plastic cover is really popular in China right now, and customers really like the double-eight rear lamp design," says Tang Liang, a salesman at the Shanghai Taiping Hongqiao Buick dealership.

Since its launch in February, the LaCrosse has enjoyed brisk sales. The design of the rear lamps was just one of many changes that GM China made to transform a mid-sized sedan designed for Americans into an upscale car for successful businessmen.

When China's passenger car market took off five years ago, choices were limited to a few models. Now dozens of new models are launched every year. To compete, automakers must adapt their cars' look to suit Chinese tastes.

"GM's success in China can be partially attributed to making changes to suit Chinese customers." says Sun Jian, a vice president with consultant A.T. Kearney in Shanghai.

General Motors pioneered the approach with its redesigned Regal sedan, launched in late 2002. GM's sales in China in the first seven months of 2006 rose 40.3 percent compared with the same period in 2005, to 253,228 units, according to Automotive Resources Asia, a consulting firm in Shanghai.

The LaCrosse was GM's second-best-selling model at 24,103 units, behind only the Excelle subcompact, which also was designed for China.LEFT: GM designed the space between the entertainment console and the rear seat to just fit a size 9 shoe. That makes it more comfortable for a passenger to select a DVD or plug in a computer or MP3 to the UBS ports below the screen. RIGHT: The clear cover and multiple bulb styling is popular in China. GM went a step further and designed the lights of the Buick LaCrosse in the shape of the number 8, which sounds like the word for wealth in Chinese.







Dignified Chrome

"The majority of Chinese consumers like to see a dignified look" in their car's interior, says Shizuki Kajiyama, design studio manager for Yanfeng Visteon Automotive Trim Systems Co. in Shanghai. For Chinese, "dignified" translates as plenty of chrome and plastic wood.

Yanfeng Visteon worked on the LaCrosse interior with the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center, a 50-50 design and engineering joint venture between GM and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. Traditionally, dark redwood furniture is expensive and luxurious in China, says Yang Jie, executive director of EDI Automotive Technology Co., a local design firm founded by Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center alumni.

EDI redesigned the original European interior design of a car for a local automaker, adding more chrome and wood, says Yang. He declined to name the company.

Back seat diversions

Chrome typically surrounds electronic controls and other options that come standard on many Chinese cars. The options are especially abundant in the rear seat of larger models, to entertain China's large number of chauffeur-driven passengers.

The gadgets also help China's growing number of private business owners impress clients. The LaCrosse offers a DVD player, and MP3 and computer hookups in the rear seat.

There's a massage function, too. "You want to make sure you have some toys" in the rear seat, says James Shyr, chief designer for GM China Group. Getting to those toys with ease is also important. Shyr proudly shows off the size 9 shoe space between the entertainment center and the back seat. That allows a passenger to more comfortably access the various options by putting one foot in front of the DVD screen.

A chauffeur's needs figured into the design the GL-8 First Land van, a Shanghai General Motors model based on the Pontiac Montana but reworked for China by Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center. The van has a special space to hold the container of tea that drivers nearly always carry in China.

There also is a spot for a box of tissue and a small box to hold a pen, both ubiquitous items that often clutter a van's front seat. "In China, this is an executive transporter, not a soccer mom van," says Shyr. "You don't want stuff sitting on the floor."

Lan Xing, a 41-year-old private businesswoman, is looking at a Volkswagen Sagitar sedan in a showroom in Shanghai. The Sagitar is built on the same platform as the European Jetta, but was designed in China for Chinese customers.

Craftsmanship counts

Lan is especially concerned with the finish in the car's console, closely examining the gaps and eyeing how smoothly the audio equipment fits with the surrounding plastic. "I don't care that much how many options the car has," she says, "but the craftsmanship level has to be very high on whatever is there."

Such close attention to the decorative trim and door gaps is a change from just a few years ago, says Visteon's Shizuki. But as Chinese consumers see more cars, they are becoming more sophisticated.

Automakers are now more mindful of those small details, he says. GM's Shyr says he fought with the engineers to make the decorative trim gaps as small as possible in the LaCrosse.

He proudly shows off the gap, or lack thereof, between the console and the front seat air conditioner vent. Says Shyr: "We spent a lot of time on the vent design. Consistency in the gap is seen as added value."

You may e-mail Alysha Webb at

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