Cheap Plastic Hides Big Ambitions As China Drives Into Paris Motor Show

China's ambition to become a world-class car manufacturer went on display at the Paris Motor Show for the first time on Sept. 29, putting a chill into more established vehicle makers. The companies Landwind and Great Wall exhibited only five car models, but few inspecting them doubted that they were just the vanguard of what will be a wave of Chinese-made automobiles in the near future.

"I think we can look at the success of the Japanese brands and the Korean brands in Europe, and especially in France, and we can see the same pattern going to be applied for Chinese ones too," said Elisabeth Young, head of Asie Auto which imports the Landwind cars."We believe it is going to be much quicker, and in five years things will have changed and the Chinese manufacturers will be present in Europe," she said.

Landwind's X-Pedition four-wheel-drive (SUV) and its Fashion people-mover left the industry insiders and journalists poring over them bemused by the tatty plastic, poor finish and scrappy bolts. "It's not very impressive, the quality, is it?" observed a French distributor who declined to be named as he pulled at some poorly glued interior carpeting. "But there's no reason to believe they won't improve, and fast."

The consensus was that the Chinese, with their cheap labor pool and ability to knock out cheap copies of Western products, were hawking low-grade vehicles at low prices -- but that they were making surprising progress in a very short time and were expected to quickly narrow the gap with Western and Japanese cars.

Over at the nearby Honda stand, Japanese executives from the big car company acknowledged that China was a new entrant to the marketplace that would have to be watched, but that they still had a long way to go. "Right now, they aren't on the radar, we don't see them. All we're doing is fighting them on intellectual property rights," said one who declined to be identified. "You have to realize, we Japanese have a long history (in the car industry). We started out imitating, then we improved. But it took time."

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2006

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