SHANGHAI -- Global car makers Saturday showed off hundreds of gleaming models ahead of the opening of the Shanghai auto show, vying for attention with glitzy shows as they target the crucial Chinese market, the world's largest.
The growing Asian giant is key for foreign car makers -- which now account for over half the Chinese market -- as Europe battles a debt crisis and the United States struggles to put its economic recovery on a firmer footing.
"China is by far now the world's largest market and a driving force behind global industry growth," said General Motors Vice President for Global Manufacturing Tim Lee ahead of the show's opening Sunday.
GM sold 2.84 million vehicles in China last year, a record for the company, and will launch 17 new or updated models in the country this year.
The Shanghai auto show is expected to attract more than 800,000 visitors over the course of nine days but car manufacturers displayed their wares to hundreds of journalists on Saturday.
China became the world's largest auto market in 2009. Last year, its auto sales reached 19.31 million vehicles, a 4.3% rise from 2011, according to a Chinese industry group.
Sales growth has moderated since 2010 as China's economy slowed and as some Chinese cities put limits on car numbers because of concerns over congestion and pollution, but the country still offers better prospects than most parts of the world.
"China is our largest market. Of all the Nissan vehicles sold worldwide, one-quarter are sold in China," said Andy Palmer, executive vice president of Japan's Nissan Motor Co, which unveiled a sporty "concept car" flanked by models in white dresses.
Japanese car makers' sales in China have suffered since last year amid a political row over disputed islands that sparked street protests across the country and calls for boycotts.
"We are confident about our prospects here and we will grow with China," Palmer told reporters.
Chinese auto companies were also out in force, as they seek to build brand recognition in a country where the modern auto industry dates back only three decades.
"It's always a benefit to a brand to reflect somehow your country of origin," said Peter Horbury, vice president of design for China's Geely group which launched a locally-developed "concept car" on Friday.
"It seems such a shame not to tap into that and find the inspiration to create something that is little different from the German cars, the Japanese cars, the American cars," he said.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013