Auto Designers Cater To China, the New Giant

Western automakers have started designing cars specifically for the huge Chinese market, and we don’t mean just meeting tighter pollution and fuel-efficiency standards.

The new cars and concepts have exterior contours that comport to Chinese ideas of balance, with interior colors and fabrics designed to signify status and evoke respect. The controls for entertainment and climate systems might even be moving to the back seat, because truly wealthy people don’t drive, they have drivers.

Thirty years ago, the People’s Republic of China was an automotive backwater. Today it’s the biggest market in the world, having just eclipsed the United States. So, its consumers are demanding the best from automotive designers.

The explosive growth of the Chinese market, where consumers bought 17 million new cars last year compared to about 10 million in the United States, has been a bright light in an otherwise dark time for the auto industry. As the traditional markets of North America, Europe and Japan stagnate or decline, automakers have seen their sales in China double and double again.

“This is clearly the market of the future,” says Freidhelm Engler, General Motors director of design in China. “It’s not going to slow down.”

That has automakers taking a fresh look at how they design cars for the Chinese market. Although Western designs have proven immensely popular in China, global car companies were slow to account for Chinese tastes and preferences. More often than not, automakers made a few small tweaks to the cars they sold in the West and shipped them over.

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