At the 2016 Beijing Motor Show, everything changed.

Chinese design is no longer behind the West, and may even be pushing ahead.

Geely Year of the Monkey mask
Geely's menacing (and massive) celebration of the Year of the Monkey and sign of China's pride in its own rich cultural heritage

For Western journalists and designers, the annual April auto shows in China have frequently fallen somewhere between a necessary evil and a complete joke. Witness whining on social media about Visa delays, crowded flights and consistent features about copycat cars. Which is why the alternating shows of Beijing and Shanghai have always failed to have the global news impact of Detroit, Geneva or Frankfurt. This was not helped by the over-zealous security guards on show stands who failed to let even the best concepts and production unveilings get the press coverage they deserved. In Beijing 2016, all of these things changed — except the Western media coverage.

Following big auto shows on social media and the web has, in recent years, become an easier way to see them compared to walking miles on the show floor itself. Exclusive access for journalists, pushy camera crews and VIPs with baby buggies have consistently made it harder to see the important cars and technologies in person, and easier to digest them from afar. In Beijing, the Chinese internet restrictions have inverted this equation — and everyone in the auto industry should be applying for their visas for Shanghai 2017 already to be sure they see what's happening there. CDR's Joe Simpson was on the floor in Beijing, and as we compiled our Trend Reports from the show we realised that this year everything really has changed.

Citroen C6The new Chinese-market only Citroën C6 looks outdated and dull before it's even gone on sale

It's easy to dismiss what you can't see, but that would be a huge mistake for anyone in the auto industry. What wasn't seen in Beijing a few weeks ago (for more than a small contingent of designers and journalists) was an industry that has largely caught up to Europe — both in design and quality — and has arguably already passed the US domestic market in those things. Impressive enough as that statement is, it's even more impressive considering how far they have come in such a short time. Some of the brands that are now making cars (or more likely, crossovers) that would have widespread appeal around the world, had laughable products just 3-5 years ago. Brands such as Chery, Geely and Haval are now producing interesting and well-designed production vehicles that wouldn't look out of place on any Western road. While the Chinese brands are increasingly accelerating their development time and hiring top notch talent from around the world, some Europeans seem to be stuck in 2013 China, the result of plodding development cycles and risk-averse management decision-making.

Perhaps even more impressive however, are the exceptionally well-designed concepts from these same companies. 

Havel H7
Haval's HB-02 concept is a sign of where former BMW designer Pierre Leclercq intends to take the brand

While production-car development for the Chinese market is fast by Western standards, the development of concepts — complete with interiors and functional HMI — is mind blowing. Designed and built in as few as 4 months from first sketch to show floor, the concepts in Beijing this year showed the full force of the Western talent invasion and prowess of the Chinese companies. Every bit as competent as anything we've seen in Detroit, Geneva or New York, concepts such as Haval's premium large crossover HB-02 and the Chery FV 2030 would have stolen the show elsewhere, and may just go on to steal the market out from under the Western brands noses if they're not careful. In fact, some designers we spoke to said they could never go back to working for a Western brand. The rapid pace of development and fearlessness of management working from clean sheets of paper is the perfect antidote to the slow and bureaucratic process that's largely the norm in Europe and America, and the recent exodus of frustrated designers from top positions in German brands is likely just the beginning as word starts to spread. 

Even more worrying to the Western brands should be the rapid rise of the Chinese start-up. While we hear endless chatter in the news about Tesla's Model 3 and Apple's Project Titan, Chinese brands such as Faraday Future, LeEco, and still-mysterious Future Mobility are already looking to move into their territory with electric and autonomous vehicles with real credibility. Their design teams are strong, their ambition is fierce, and their backing seemingly limitless. It's a true shift. A sea change in the auto industry. It's something that everyone in the Western automotive industry should be not only aware of, but working to understand and compete with. The time to be concerned is already passed. It's time to act.

If you're interested in purchasing CDR's Trend Report from Beijing, please send us a mail or fill out the form here.

By Drew Meehan


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