LAST year, the number of cars sold in China – roughly 29 million – easily outnumbered the entire population of Australia.
That’s enough to make it the most attractive new-car market globally – succeed here where in 2017 sales accounted for one in every four new cars sold worldwide and you’ll keep the accountants on level three very happy. But it also means China’s influence over what we drive is growing; carmakers these days need to make global vehicles that appeal to the most customers, and when your biggest customer is in Asia, that’s where the cost, engineering and design priorities lie.
Western carmakers have a strong foothold in China, building both vehicles familiar to us and China market-only specials, in partnership with domestic manufacturers as mandated by Chinese law. It’s why China can get a seven-seat version of the Territory-replacing Ford Endura, while we’re expecting to get the global five-seat version.
It doesn’t end there, with Chinese investment potentially ready to help cash-strapped Western carmakers get back on their feet; just look at what Geely has done with Swedish brand Volvo, and what it can potentially achieve with its latest acquisition, the struggling English sports car maker Lotus.
In Beijing, the sleeping dragons of the car industry awaken. Here’s what we can expect.
It’s remarkable to think that BMW’s envelope-pushing iDrive system was introduced to the world 17 years ago. The German luxury car brand will use Beijing to introduce version seven-point-oh of iDrive that ditches the traditional analogue instrument cluster for a LED screen-based ones-and-zeroes version.
The overhaul of iDrive – which will create a much more distinct split between “information” (read “driver”) and “control” (read “multimedia screen”) – will include some nifty new tricks, including the car displaying your name as you jump behind the wheel. It also hints that BMW is anticipating a day where ride-swapping owners will buy into the brand rather than just a car.
It's no secret that BMW wants an electric SUV in its armoury, and Beijing is expected to be the venue for its arrival. The German luxury car brand has teased the front of a strange-looking vehicle that has done the unthinkable: co-joined the traditionally separate and signature kidney grilles into a single entity – it's even more remarkable when you consider an electric car only has batteries to cool and cabin air to flush, ruling out the need for a car-like grille.
When it arrives, the iX3 will be the first electric car from the German luxury brand since the i3.
Rip the pulsing heart out of the BMW M3/M4 and shove it under the bonnet of an M2. That’s the basic formula for the eminently rear-wheel steerable M2 Competition – if the accompanying press images showing it sideways and smoking up the rears are anything to judge it by.
We grabbed an early look at the extremely desirable, monstered M2 when BMW Australia let words and images slip online weeks ahead of the official reveal.
BMW X2 iPERFORMANCE
It’s only a rumour at this stage, but the German luxury car brand could use the Beijing show to add a new member to its suite of electric and plug-in hybrid models. The fastback-styled X2 is an ideal candidate for the PHEV treatment.
This China-only SUV concept from GM’s luxury car sub-brand hints at technology that could one day trickle back to the West. It features an “eMotion” battery-fuelled propulsion system that generates up to 410kW and can travel up to 600km on a single charge – outstripping the range of the current crop of EVs.
It hints at GM’s wider future products, including innovations such as a digital dashboard, the use of more natural materials – the centre console and armrest feature wood, not plastics – and a much more clever use of interior space yielded via the compact electric drivetrain.
The next-gen Ford Focus that will sell in the US will be made in China – a huge gamble for the US carmaker, which will be keen to change Trump-era buyers’ perceptions of vehicles built outside its borders. Australia’s version of the Holden Astra fighter is expected to come from Ford’s European production line.
The new-look Focus is a little derivative, adopting the wider Ford family grille and will ride on the carmaker’s new scalable front-wheel-drive platform that is expected to one day spread to other models including the Fiesta – which was confirmed this week to come only as a three-door ST-badged variant – the EcoSport and even the Escape.
HYBRID KINETIC GROUP
This Hong Kong-based carmaker has tapped the now Indian-owned Pininfarina to design two vehicles; one is believed to be a long-wheelbase advance on the HK GT unveiled at Geneva, while the other is expected to be an SUV.
READ MORE: 2018 Geneva Motor Show: Fresh faces
China is expected to have a huge influence on the world’s adoption of electric vehicles as it moves to crack down hard on emissions by 2035. This week the government announced it would consider allowing Western carmakers to own up to 100 percent of a factory that makes plug-in hybrid or electric vehicles, and not the traditional 50:50 partnership.
The all-new “Camry with Leather” – okay, that’s more of a cruel reference to the thinly disguised first-gen ES than this smick-looking new one – shifts to the Toyota New Global Architecture that so far has given everything wearing a Toyota badge to adopt it a huge lift in the way it drives.
Few details are out there on how the new-gen ES will stack up, and even what technology it will debut, but we can already note that it gets a LED headlight array framing what appears to be the proportionally biggest version of the sluice-like spindle grille we’ve seen on a production Lexus yet. Only the concept cars go bigger and cheesier.
MERCEDES-BENZ A-CLASS SEDAN
The babiest Benz has already been revealed in hatchback form, but now we're expecting to see it as a sedan, leaked images ahead of the Beijing show reveal. The sedan was allegedly sprung after workers dropped the cover on a banner down the back of the German brand's show stand – a complete surprise to everyone.
The four-door A-Class looks very similar to the Concept A sedan unveiled at the nearby Shanghai motor show a year ago. The sedan is likely to be built in China, drawing questions over whether the booted form will make it into other world markets. For us, the CLA-Class may be enough ...
High-riding SUVs make up half of China’s new-car market. Mercedes-Benz is making a tilt at the nation’s rising number of high net worth individuals by launching a comfort-laden land barge wearing the badge of its uber-luxury Maybach offshoot. The question is, how far will Mercedes-Maybach push the “uber”.
We can only speculate, but we have seen landaulet versions of the S-Class limousine – optimised for presidential cavalcades the world over – and even the boxy, House of Saud special built on top of a G-Class off-roader. A stretched Merc-Maybach version of the GLS-Class makes sense, particularly for the Chinese market where even stretched versions of the Audi A4 are possible.
TOYOTA COROLLA PHEV
The Japanese car maker has hinted it's keen to green up the next generation of its small hatchback, although Beijing is expected to mark the arrival of something we've never seen in Australia – a plug-in hybrid. The Corolla PHEV is expected to use a similar drivetrain to the Prius, but with the added bonus of being able to drive for extended, and by that we probably mean only a couple of kays, periods on electric power alone.
Toyota has built plug-in versions of the Prius before, but never brought them here in a sign that the petrol-electric hybrid Corolla will also likely be off the cards here.
VOLVO POLESTAR 1
Technically it's the Polestar 1, as Volvo has spun the former performance sub-brand off as a standalone entity for a new line of ultraluxury hybrid rocketships. A near production-ready form of the Polestar 1 is wending its way to Beijing in a proof of concept that the 2.0-litre turbocharged and supercharged plug-in petrol-electric drivetrain that will power the China-built 2+2 coupe is up to the task.
It could be the vehicle to draw attention to our first look at the Polestar 2, an electric sedan-slash-SUV that is expected on the market midway through next year. We've not seen that yet, and the clock is ticking ...
The Beijing Motor Show starts on April 25.