Shanghai Auto Show to highlight fuel-efficient cars

Major automakers are pulling out all the stops to show off dozens of vehicles at the Shanghai Auto Show starting this weekend, highlighting China's rapid evolution from "bicycle kingdom" into the world's second-biggest, fastest-growing vehicle market.

The show, which opens Sunday, comes five months after General Motors, Volkswagen AG, Toyota and other companies showcased new vehicles at a packed Beijing convention center. Their willingness to spend so heavily on two auto shows just months apart clearly signals China's growing importance.

"Automakers are more and more considering the shows in China as A-level shows, alongside New York, Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt and Geneva," said Trevor Hale, a spokesman for DaimlerChrysler AG.

Sunday is also Earth Day, and growing public concern about pollution is reflected in automakers' plans to show an array of electric and hybrid models.

But even before the biennial event officially kicks off, there will be dozens of press events Friday and Saturday, when up-and-coming Chinese competitors hope they can grab some of the limelight.

China's Shanghai Automotive Industries Corp. says it will display a fuel-cell sedan that can reach speeds of 93 mph (148 kph).

General Motors Corp., the market leader in China, says it will display the newest version of its Chevrolet Volt, a long-distance electric car, among 40 models at its 4,500-square-meter (45,000-square-foot) stand.

Ford Motor Co.'s 52 models at the show will include a hybrid SUV, the Ford Escape.

DaimlerChrysler plans to show 50 vehicles from its Mercedes, Chrysler and Dodge divisions. Japan's Nissan Motor Co. will showcase a half-dozen models that it manufactures with a Chinese partner, plus its imported 350Z. Reports by the automotive press say Germany's BMW AG will unveil its new Z9 concept sports car.

Chinese automakers that are trying to ramp up exports hope the show will give them a global audience. They sold 325,000 vehicles abroad last year, mostly low-cost trucks and buses.

"We want to promote our brand in international markets, since our cars have already been exported to Africa, the Middle East and South America," said Zhang Xiaodong of Geely Group Ltd.

Geely will show 14 vehicles in Shanghai, double the number at the 2005 show, said Zhang.

The biggest Chinese producer, Chery Automobile Co., will be spotlighting 30 models ranging from a subcompact to an SUV, up from six in 2005, said company spokesman Zhang Dayong.

Nanjing Automobile Group Ltd. says it will display its Chinese-made MG sports cars. The company bought the iconic British brand in 2005 and began production in March.

Last year, China surged past Japan to become the world's No. 2 vehicle market after the United States. Vehicle sales, including trucks and buses, rose 25.1 percent to 7.2 million units, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers says. Passenger car sales were up 37 percent at 3.8 million.

That was up from 3.3 million vehicles sold in 2002 and just 1.6 million in 1997. U.S. car and truck sales fell slightly last year to 16.5 million units.

China's government-endorsed car craze has radically remade its landscape. Highways crisscross the country, and ancient city centers have been bulldozed to make way for car-friendly avenues.

But the car culture has left major cities choked by smog rush-hour traffic jams. It has boosted dependence on imported oil, which worried communist leaders see as a strategic weakness.

Strong Chinese sales have brought relief to U.S. automakers, which are seeing weak demand at home. European and Japanese automakers report similar surges. Luxury producers such as Rolls-Royce, owned by BMW, say sales to China's new rich are soaring.

Auto shows are so expensive that they typically are held in one market only once every two or three years. In Europe, the major shows in Paris and Frankfurt are held in alternate years. The Tokyo Auto Show takes place every other year.

With other cities also planning competing auto shows of their own, China may be hurting itself by splitting public attention by having the Beijing and Shanghai events so close together, said Ashvin Chotai, who follows the Chinese industry for consulting firm Global Insight.

China leaders will have to focus on one and downgrade or eliminate the others if they want to be a premier auto industry site, he said.

"Beijing has to decide," Chotai said, "which location will be the showcase for the world."

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Author`s name Angela Antonova