China is likely to overtake Japan as the world’s top car exporter this year, with industry executives predicting shipments of up to 4.5 million units, on the back of the growing manufacturing and technological heft of the nation’s electric-vehicle makers.
At the Shanghai Auto Show that started on Tuesday, more than a dozen leading domestic carmakers, including SAIC Motor, Chery Automobile, Geely, BYD and GAC Motor, were promoting their products to dealers from overseas markets. The rising exports would also help EV makers ride out slowing sales growth at home, where a bruising price war has failed to whet consumers’ buying appetite.
A top official of the China Passenger Car Association (CPCA) said car exports could top 4 million units for the first time in 2023, up nearly 30 per cent from 3.11 million units last year.
“The goal can be achieved if overall demand for vehicles abroad remains stable,” said general secretary Cui Dongshu. “Chinese automotive companies have the potential to increase their overseas sales.”
If the sales forecasts in foreign markets prove to be accurate, then China would probably surpass Japan to become the world’s top auto exporter. In 2022, Japan’s exports fell nearly 8 per cent year on year to 3.5 million units.
Some industry executives said the export target of 4 million was conservative. They said that Chinese companies could ship as many as 4.5 million units this year because their products were popular in Southeast Asia, South America and Africa.
Jack Chen, strategic development director with Jetour, an electric-vehicle (EV) subsidiary of state-owned Chery Automobile, said the export outlook for Chinese carmakers was “very bright” based on orders they have received.
“The real export figures will beat market expectations,” he told the Post in an interview on the sidelines of the Shanghai show. “Chinese vehicles are viewed as value-for-money products in several markets including Southeast Asia.”
Other car assemblers echoed the sentiment, saying they have been approached by a large number of foreign dealers over the past two days, who showed a keen interest in selling Chinese-made EVs in their markets.
Zhang Xinhao, a sales manager with Changan Automobile’s EV brand Shenlan, said the dealers appreciated the build quality and design of the company’s cars.
“Their reaction to our vehicles gives us much confidence to sell to international customers,” he said. “Chinese carmakers need to do their best to ensure cars sold abroad are safe and reliable to promote our image as a car-making powerhouse.”
China exported 301,000 vehicles in the first two months of this year, up 30.1 per cent from the same period last year, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM). While exports from Japan fell 4.9 per cent to 256,000 units in the same period, CAAM said.
On Wednesday, Zeekr, an EV brand owned by Geely, announced its overseas expansion plan, setting its sights on Europe as its first stop.
The company said it has started taking pre-orders in Europe for two of its models – the flagship Zeekr 001 sedan and the Zeekr 003 SUV – which will compete with European luxury automotive brands.
Zeekr also plans to open its first company-owned showrooms in Stockholm and Amsterdam later this year, and have a presence in most of western Europe by 2026.
“Europe, especially Germany, has a very strong history in petrol-car manufacturing,” said Wang Rong, an executive at Geely subsidiary Lynk, on Wednesday. “So I think if car brands can do well in the region, it means that they have won recognition around the world.”
Mark Zhou, executive vice-president for product and research and development at Nio, said the Shanghai-based EV start-up was working to increase personnel in Europe to better serve customers.
“The challenge we have today is how to quickly replicate our software development capabilities for Europe, and how to understand our European customers,” Zhou told the Post on Tuesday. “On the software side, the response to the users was still slow in a way.”
In December, Nio sold 420 units in Europe, an increase of 530 per cent from a year earlier, according to DataForce, a data collection platform.
Chinese carmakers have been embroiled in an intense price war spearheaded by Tesla that has hurt sales and profitability since late last year. Industry executives at the show predicted the heavy discounting would last for another two months amid weak consumer demand.
Overall sales of both petrol and battery-powered vehicles in China rose by 0.3 per cent year on year to 1.59 million units in March, the smallest increase for the month since 2020, according to the CPCA.