As China's economy slows, its role as the biggest growth engine for the global car business depends on auto makers getting reluctant customers like Yvonne Ge behind the wheel.
'It's too expensive to own a car,' said the 29-year-old Shanghai teacher, citing hefty taxes and parking costs. She once considered buying a car but felt it would be beyond her means: 'I'll feel financial pressure if I bought one.'
For years, China has been a key sales and profit region for global giants such as Volkswagen AG, General Motors Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. as demand slowed elsewhere. But Chinese consumers' interest in cars has shown signs of cooling along with broader economic growth. Meanwhile, a growing number of Chinese cities are curbing auto sales to fight traffic congestion and pollution.
Auto makers are responding with renewed efforts to convince the reluctant like Ms. Ge that they would look good in a new car. Global auto executives meeting this weekendSHY at the Beijing International Automotive Exhibition plan to offer lower-pricedSHY cars aimed at the tastes of young, professional Chinese with an eye on the high life.
Honda Motor Co., which is still recovering following an anti-Japanese backlash two years ago, aims to unveil a new Fit sedan with a price tag beginning at 70,000 yuan ($11,272). GM plans to release a sleeker Chevrolet Cruze with smaller engines to meet China's call for energy efficiency. Volkswagen, the largest car maker in China by volume, will unveil five models, including a 40th anniversary edition of its Golf tailored for Chinese consumers by its joint venture with FAW Group Corp.
The stakes are high. Volkswagen and its Chinese partners will invest EUR18.2 billion ($25.3 billion) through 2018 to increase their annual productionSHY capacity in China to more than four million vehiclesSHY from 3.3 million. GM's manufacturingSHY capacity is set to reach five million units annually by 2015. Last year 17.9 million passenger cars were sold in China, according to industry data.
Passenger-car sales here in the first quarter grew 10% compared with the year-ago period. That rate would delight car makers in the U.S. and Europe, but it pales in comparisonSHY to last year's 16% gain and several times that earlier in the decade.
Consulting firm IHS Automotive projects a 10% rise in China's passengerSHY-car sales this year and 8% in 2015. 'It's almost certain growth in car sales will slow,' said Lin Huaibin, an IHS analyst. 'When people feel the pinch of economic slowdown, they will cut spending.'
Many foreign car makers remain optimistic, pointing to the number of new buyers coming to the market. Three out of four new cars are purchased by first-time buyers, according to research firm J.D. Power and Associates.
'We see new growth coming from third- and fourth-tier cities, as well as the still strong demand for individual mobility,' Jochem HeizmannSHY, chief executive of VolkswagenSHY Group China, said earlierSHY this month, citing developingSHY cities largely in the country's interiorSHY. VW's first-quarterSHY China sales rose 14.5% from a year ago.
The China heads of GM and Ford Motor Co. also expressed optimism. 'We are looking at probably 7% to 10% growth overall,' said GM's Matt Tsien, describing the outlook as steady and sustainable. Ford's John Lawler said: 'We're looking at 2014 as being another solid year for China.' GM's first-quarter sales here rose 12.6%, and Ford's rose 45%.
Foreign car brands are gaining at the expense of local rivals that don't enjoy the same reputation for quality.
The share of Chinese brands in passenger vehicles including minivans fell to less than 39% in the first quarter from 43% a year earlier, according to the government-backed industry group the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
According to UBS Securities, China's overcapacity in the passenger-vehicle market by 2015 could total about eight million cars, most of which would be on the books of domestic auto makers. By comparison, globally Ford produced 6.3 million cars in 2013.
Combined car sales in Japan and South Korea this year are expected to be 7.7 million, according to LMC Automotive.
Excess capacity has led to lower rates of capacity utilization and eroded profit margins. Hou Yankun, head of Asia auto research at UBS Securities, said operating margins at Chinese car makers and their joint ventures with foreign companiesSHY peaked in 2011 but have fallen and will continue to fall. In China, major foreign auto makers build much of their fleet domesticallySHY through joint ventures with local companies.
More barriers to growth are emerging. The city of Beijing has said it aims to keep less than six million vehicles licensed by the end of 2017, from 5.4 million now. Beijing officials have pledged to cut one type of air pollution by at least 25% by then.
'It is extremely difficult to actually get a car in Beijing--there are license plate restrictions and people sometimes wait years just to get a plate,' said Journey Yu, 21, who doesn't own a car. 'I also haven't thought about buying a car yet because I want to pursue a master's degree and I won't have much need for a car.'
多年来，随着其他地区需求放缓，中国一直是大众汽车(Volkswagen AG)、通用汽车公司(General Motors Co.)和丰田汽车公司(Toyota Motor Co.)等全球汽车业巨头获得销售额和利润的关键市场。但随着中国整体经济增长的放缓，中国消费者对汽车的兴趣也出现了降温迹象。与此同时，越来越多的中国城市开始为解决交通拥堵和污染问题而抑制汽车销售。
对此，汽车生产商们正在采取新的应对措施，努力让像Ge女士这样还不太愿意购车的消费者相信：坐在新车里会看上去不错。本周末，全球汽车业高管将齐聚北京国际汽车工业展览会(Beijing International Automotive Exhibition)，他们计划根据那些渴望高品质生活的中国年轻专业人士的品味推出售价较低的车型。
本田汽车(Honda Motor Co.)计划推出一款起价人民币70,000元（合11,272美元）的新飞度(Fit)轿车。该公司尚未完全从两年前中国反日情绪的打击中恢复过来。通用汽车计划推出一款更具时尚感的雪佛兰科鲁兹(Chevrolet Cruze)，这款车搭载排量更小的发动机，以响应中国的节能号召。中国产量最大的汽车厂商大众汽车将推出五款新车，其中包括大众与中国第一汽车集团公司(China FAW Group co.)的合资公司为中国消费者量身定制的高尔夫(Golf) 40周年版。
考虑到进入市场的新买家数量，许多外国汽车生产商依旧感到乐观。研究公司J.D. Power & Associates称，每四辆新车中，就有三辆被首次购车者购买。
大众汽车集团（中国）(Volkswagen Group China)首席执行长海兹曼(Jochem Heizmann)本月早些时候说，公司看到新的增长点来自三、四线城市，而且私家车需求依旧强劲。三、四线城市大多位于中国内陆地区。第一季度大众汽车中国市场销量较上年同期增长了14.5%。
通用汽车和福特汽车公司(Ford Motor Co.)的中国业务负责人也表达了乐观看法。通用汽车的钱惠康(Matt Tsien)称，公司预期总体增速可能为7%-10%，同时他认为相关前景是稳定和可持续的。福特汽车的罗礼祥(John Lawler)表示，公司预计2014年中国市场将再次有强劲的表现。第一季度通用汽车在中国市场销量增长12.6%，福特汽车在中国市场销量增长45%。
21岁的Journey Yu目前没有自己的车。Journey Yu说，在北京想买车非常非常难，因为车牌限制，购车者有时需要等上好几年的时间。Journey Yu还表示，自己还没有考虑买车，因为打算读硕士，对汽车的需求并不大。