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China reinvents European 'favourites'. Image by BAIC.

China reinvents European 'favourites'
BAIC Senova D won't frighten European brands in a hurry.


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Pictured here is the BAIC Senova D, the latest four-door saloon from China's best-known car maker, Beijing Auto Industrial Holdings Co. It will shortly be going on sale in China and Hong Kong and is being seen as a significant new model as it comes just ahead of BAIC's proposed listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Those of you thinking that there's something oddly familiar about the shape of the C-pillar aren't wrong. This is, essentially, a last-generation Saab 9-5, the one that went on sale in 1997 and limped on for almost 15 years, finally being replaced by an all-new model just before Saab's financial world collapsed and the company was closed down.

Part of that closing down involved the selling off of some of Saab's assets, and BAIC swooped in and picked up the machinery and rights to build the old 9-5, and after much facelifting and work to redevelop the platform, this is the result.

That broad, sharply-angled C-pillar aside, there aren't many visual giveaways that this is an old Saab. The lovely, comfy interior has been binned and replaced by something that looks much more generic and plasticky. The exterior styling is now rather Subaru-ish at the front and a bit Lexus-esque at the rear. Underneath though, the basic chassis is more or less unchanged and the 1.8-, 2.0- and 2.3-litre turbocharged petrol engines are carried over more or less unchanged. BAIC has also developed a battery-electric version (a move mandated by the Chinese government, keen to improve - or at least be seen to improve - its environmental performance) and there is talk of a hot version of the 2.3 turbo, in the mould of Saab's old Aero model.

"Adding the Senova to our product line-up will boost investors' confidence," said Han Yonggui, president of BAIC Motor, speaking to Bloomberg News. "It will help our efforts to sell shares in Hong Kong in line with our schedule."

It's not the only car that BAIC makes that's based on an old Saab. There's also the ancient 9-3 based C50 saloon.

While it may seem a touch humorous for us to be pointing and laughing at Chinese car makers serving up warmed-over European leftovers (MG, how are you?) there is a more serious aspect to all of this. While many headlines have preached the unshakeable gospel of the oncoming horde of Chinese car makers ("in five years' time we'll all be driving Chinese cars...") those makers are not doing themselves any favours by re-hashing forlorn western product. The 9-5 was never a great seller when it was a Saab, and while BAIC won't be worried about that in terms of the Chinese market, it's certainly not going to do it any favours in terms of its global sales ambitions. Combine that with the fact that the Chinese-owned MG sold just 13 cars in April in the UK (and this despite a hefty marketing campaign that includes a successful run in the British Touring Car Championship) and the knowledge that Chinese car makers enjoy less than one third market share in their own country, and you have a picture of a motor industry in something of a tough corner.

China is already the world's largest market for new cars, and it's expected that demand will outstrip supply for some time to come. But European, US, Korean and Japanese car makers are hungry to sate that appetite and Chinese car makers, according to analysts such as Bernstein & Co, are too reliant on Western and other Asian companies for automotive expertise. In other words, China is allowing others to build its car industry. True, that happened in both Japan and Korea long ago. The first Japanese cars were copies of Austins and Fords; the first Hyundai was a defunct Ford Cortina. But will we all be driving Chinese cars in five years? Possibly, but if we are, some of them may be part-Swedish.

Neil Briscoe - 15 May 2013

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