The US Hasn’t Noticed That China-Made Cars Are Taking Over the World

Source: By Tom Hancock, Bloomberg • Posted: Thursday, January 26, 2023

The country is poised to become the No. 2 exporter of passenger vehicles, surpassing the US and South Korea and risking new tensions with trading partners and rivals.

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When Andreas Tatt, a manager at a greeting card company in Canterbury, UK, was interested in buying a new car, he knew he’d go electric. But after considering a Tesla Model 3 and the Porsche Taycan, he settled on a less familiar choice: a yellow-gold, battery-powered Polestar 2 manufactured by Volvo and its Chinese parent Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co.

“It turns a lot of heads, partly due to its color, partly due to people not knowing what it is,” says Tatt, who waited four months for the vehicle to be shipped from Luqiao in eastern China. “I did have some concerns that the build quality may not be the best,” he says. “Upon test driving, any doubt of quality issues was put to rest.”

Gothenburg, Sweden - december 06 2020: Exterior of a Polestar showroom at Avenyn.

A Polestar showroom on Avenyn, the main boulevard in Gothenburg, Sweden. Photographer: Trygve Finkelsen/Alamy

As China’s auto brands woo more and more foreign customers like Tatt, the nation is poised to become the world’s No. 2 exporter of passenger vehicles, a milestone that could reshape the global auto industry and spark new tensions with trading partners and rivals.

Overseas shipments of cars made in China have tripled since 2020 to reach more than 2.5 million last year, according to data from the China Passenger Car Association. That’s only a whisker (about 60,000 units) behind Germany, whose exports have fallen in recent years. China’s numbers, behind Japan but ahead of the US and South Korea, herald the emergence of a formidable rival to the established auto giants.

Chinese brands are now market leaders in the Middle East and Latin America. In Europe, the China-made vehicles sold are mostly electric models from Tesla Inc.and Chinese-owned former European brands such as Volvo, MG and Dacia. BMW’s bestselling electric vehicle globally, the iX3, is produced exclusively in China and exported to Europe. A raft of homegrown marques like BYD Co. and Nio Inc. are ascending as well, with ambitions to dominate the world of new-energy vehicles. Backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., BYD is already charming EV buyers in developed countries such as Australia.

Tesla Plant in Shanghai as China Production Roars Back With Output Tripling

The Tesla Gigafactory in Shanghai. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

It’s just the beginning, according to Xu Haidong, deputy chief engineer at the state-backed China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. The target is to sell 8 million passenger vehicles overseas by 2030—more than twice Japan’s current shipments, he says.

The trend underscores that China has moved beyond being the “world’s factory” for low-cost consumer electronic devices, appliances and Christmas toys. By shifting to more complex and sophisticated products for competitive, highly regulated markets, Chinese companies are moving up the value chain in manufacturing—a key driver of growth that transformed the once-struggling communist economy into today’s quasi-capitalist $18 trillion juggernaut. Indeed, the Economic Complexity Index compiled by the Growth Lab at Harvard University, which analyzes the range of products a country exports, ranks China 17th in the world, a rise from 24th a decade ago.

“We have to have them on the radar screen, without counting out the usual suspects,” Mercedes-Benz Group AG Chief Executive Officer Ola Kallenius said during the Paris Motor Show in October. “The competitive intensity is increasing. It’s the most fun time to work in automotive since 1886”—the year that Carl Benz, the father of the automobile, rolled out the first car powered by a gas engine—“but it’s also the most uncertain time.”

The surge in car exports has largely gone unnoticed in the US, partly because it happened during the coronavirus pandemic and partly because Chinese carmakers are mostly focused on Europe, Asia and Latin America. General Motors Co. did sell about 40,000 of its China-made Buick Envision compact SUVs in the US in 2021, but political tensions, the continuation of Trump-era tariffs and subsidies aimed at boosting domestic EV production have diminished the appeal of that market.

Entry into Europe had long been a goal for Chinese companies, which started exhibiting at motor shows on the continent in the early 2000s. A series of failed safety tests around 2007 dashed those hopes. “Frankly, I thought that was it, forever,” says Jochen Siebert at JSC Automotive, a car consulting firm in Singapore.

100th European Motor Show

BYD’s exhibit at the 2023 Brussels Motor Show. Photographer: Sjoerd van der Wal/Getty Images

But thanks to increasing automation and resulting standardization— Goldman Sachs Group Inc. says new auto plants in China have the highest levels of robot usage in the world—those concerns are now history. As quality improved over the past decade, Chinese cars started acing European safety tests. China’s tough curbs on air pollution have also helped most of its cars meet European emissions standards.

“To fight the Chinese, we will have to have comparable cost structures,” Stellantis NV CEO Carlos Tavares said on Dec. 19, speaking to reporters at a powertrain plant in Tremery in northern France. “Alternatively, Europe will have to decide to close its borders at least partially to Chinese rivals. If Europe doesn’t want to put itself in this position, we need to work harder on the competitiveness of what we do.”

In a watershed year for China-made cars, exports to the European Union surged 156% in 2021, to 435,000 units, according to Eurostat. But the rapid rise in EV shipments from the country risks provoking a political backlash in the European Union, according to Agatha Kratz, a director at Rhodium Group. “Part of this is just Chinese companies are getting better, but some of it is overcapacity in China,” she says. “This is going to be a pain point. It could generate a really strong reaction in Europe in terms of trade protections.”

The premium-priced Polestar that Tatt purchased is an exception: China tends to export relatively cheap cars. At around $13,700, the average price of an exported China-made passenger vehicle was about one-third that of a German car in 2021, and about 30% less expensive than a Japanese make, according to data provided by UN Comtrade. That means Chinese cars are most likely to pose a threat to cheaper Japanese and South Korean models, rather than to German marques.

Domestically-manufactured cars to be exported are lined up in a terminal at the Port of Lianyungang in Lianyungang City, east China's Jiangsu Province

Domestically manufactured cars lined up for export at China’s Port of Lianyungang. Photographer: Cynthia Lee/Bloomberg

Authorities in Beijing aren’t too concerned, at least for now. “It’s been proved that the strength of one country’s auto industry will be finally tested by the international market,” says Gao Yang, a director of foreign investment at the Ministry of Commerce. She added that the government will encourage Chinese automakers to acquire foreign companies.

Having demonstrated that it’s a reliable manufacturing hub for industry majors, China has been leading the charge on the next frontier: EVs. Local carmakers have found the electric platform relatively easy to master compared with the complex internal combustion engine.

“The switch to battery means the motor is no longer a differentiator,” says Alexander Klose, executive vice president for overseas operations at Aiways Automobiles Co., a pure-Chinese EV maker, which has sold several thousand vehicles in Europe. Technologically, “it’s created a level playing field,” he says.

A global push to cut carbon emissions and save the planet has prompted Beijing to encourage EV makers and buyers with subsidies, while a robust local supply chain has made it cheaper to make an EV in China than in any other place. Tesla’s Shanghai factory produced almost 711,000 cars last year and accounted for 52% of the company’s worldwide output. The measures have also spawned dozens of domestic manufacturers like Aiways. Many have barely made a dent, but BYD, Nio and XPeng Inc. are among standouts with potential to shine on the global stage.

BYD, which also makes its own batteries and chips, is the biggest EV producer at home. It has ambitions of becoming the Toyota of EVs for the world’s budget buyer, and it’s betting its own cells and semiconductors will help it reach that goal.

• Read more: China’s BYD Aims to Rule EV World by Being Anything But Tesla

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“We’re not hiding the fact that we are Chinese and Europeans are slowly getting used to the fact that products from China are high quality,” says Alan Visser, the global head of Lynk & Co., a Geely-owned EV brand that says it has more than 180,000 registered users in Europe for its rental services. Geely said its total exports were 190,000 vehicles in 2022 and the target is 600,000 a year by 2025.

From selling just a few thousand cars in the mid-1980s, China’s carmakers have come a long way. Up until 2018, when Tesla was allowed to fully own its China plant, foreign carmakers had to form partnerships with local companies to manufacture in China. While foreign companies guarded their most advanced technology, local players became competitive by learning processes from their partners and via acquisitions of brands such as Volvo and Lotus. A rapid pace of growth in domestic demand made China the world’s biggest auto market in 2009.

In 2018 domestic sales fell for the first time in nearly three decades, just as locally made vehicles were getting competitive in international markets.

“Chinese automakers saw that and said, ‘This fast-expansion period is coming to an end,’ so many of them said, ‘let’s try other markets,’” says Stephen Dyer, managing director of consultant AlixPartners in Shanghai and a former Ford Motor Co. executive.

The growth in the supply chain in China has also kept pace with car manufacturing. Domestic companies now make almost all parts, including those they used to import until about a decade ago, such as high-strength steel and reinforced fiberglass. As a result, China ran a trade surplus in vehicles and vehicle parts for the first time in 2021. The assembly lines still depend on advanced machines from Japan and Germany, though.

“There seems to have been a step change,” Dyer says. “The long-term trend is for increasing sales of Chinese brands around the world.”

— With assistance by Chunying Zhang, Selina Xu, Craig Trudell, Albertina Torsoli and Wilfried Eckl-Dorna