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2014-04-24 12:17

SOARING SALES: China has found a new love for SUV models of all sorts it has been revealed at the 2014 Beijing auto show. The Ford Kuga seems to be the most popular so far with leading sales. Image: Ford


BEIJING, China - Bulky, brash and wildly popular in Europe and the US, the urban 4x4 is the latest must-have for Chinese people whose conversion to the Cult of the SUV is the talking point of the 2014 Beijing auto show.

The sport utility vehicle, with a distinctive stocky frame, all-wheel drive and "rugged" image, has become either coveted and ridiculed in the West in recent years but is a recent phenomenon in China.


Ford arrived later in China than its domestic rival General Motors but has proved to be one of the biggest winners in the Chinese SUV race so far, with sales of its China-produced Kuga model soaring.

It's far from alone. The list of motoring brands angling to scratch China's itch for SUV's keeps getting longer with Audi, Mercedes, Volvo and Citroen each clamouring for business after Chinese sales of the vehicles doubled in 2013 to 2.9-million out of a 22-million cars sold in the country.

Volvo's China best-seller is also an all-wheel drive and Audi outlined its intentions with the TT Offroad at the Beijing show, a five-door conceptwith traditional Audi features such as a prominent single-frame grille and a very curved roof line in an echo of its smash-hit Q5.

In similar vein, France's PSA Peugeot Citroen showcased the DS 6WR, an SUV inspired by the Wild Rubis, a concept car unveiled in 2013.

And Mercedes-Benz presented a Coupe SUV concept, aimed at competing with (and indeed looks very similar to) BMW's X6 which was the first to combine the utility of an SUV and the attractiveness of a coupe, with great success.


Renault's Asia-Pacific chief Gilles Normand said: "Today it's a segment that is a little less competitive than the sedan, but it's the future. There is a major trend in the industry towards this type of product."

The French manufacturer would know: its bestselling model worldwide is the 4x4 Duster, and the firm is currently laying the groundwork for its first factory in China.

For John Yan, who travelled to Beijing from North America for the show, said it is hard to imagine life without a 4x4. "It's so practical. I wouldn't know how to survive without an SUV."

Chinese clients enjoy one particular aspect of a 4x4 just as much as their Western counterparts: "They love that higher seating position," said Haakan Samuelsson, chief executive of Volvo, "a feature that offers the driver a greater sense of security on the road."

SUVs, while not as ubiquitous as smaller cars, have become an increasingly common sight on China's urban roads in the past decade. They run the gamut from Chinese automakers to luxury foreign brands such as Porsche, with the more expensive modelsseen as status symbols.


As in other countries Chinese families do not necessarily buy them for off-roading, instead relying on them for urban trekking, school drop-offs and other business around town. But beyond the cliched "soccer mom" driving her children around a manicured Californian suburb in a giant SUV there is a more practical application for the range's technical prowess in some areas of China.

Chinese SUV enthusiast Wang Ping told AFP at the show: "If I'm going to the mountains, it's hard to drive when the frame is low and the roads are bad."

The growth of the SUV is not universally assured. China's car sales surged 13.9% in 2013 but that growth hit a speed bump in March, slowing to a 6.6% year-on-year rise after reaching a record 17.8% in January 2014.

China's economy has also turned in its weakest performance in 18 months, growing only  7.4% in the first quarter of 2014, but Beijing has indicated a willingness to accept weaker growth as it tries to move the economy away from investment and toward domestic consumption, which is where cars come in - partnerships with Western brands such as Citroen means more investment and more jobs to add to China's growing band of SUV fanatics.

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