SHANGHAI – Ford showed off its new Taurus and Nissan unveiled a midsize sedan and a SUV designed for China on Monday at a Shanghai Auto Show that highlighted rising competition from lower-priced Chinese auto brands.
Competition in China is intensifying as economic growth slows and more manufacturers pile into the world's biggest auto market by number of vehicles sold. Global automakers are spending heavily to appeal to Chinese tastes and local brands are rolling out lower-cost version of SUVs and other popular vehicles.
Ford Motor Co. used the Shanghai show for the global debut of its latest Taurus, reflecting the event's rapid rise to become one of the global industry's most important showcases. General Motors Co., Mercedes Benz and other global brands also unveiled new models or versions modified for China.
Features on the Taurus include massage units in the back seat. That is aimed at buyers who have drivers and ride in back — a market niche that increasingly is driving automakers to design bigger, more comfortable rear seats.
"This new car represents everything you can expect in the growing portfolio of Ford vehicles in China," said Marin Burela, a vice president of Ford's joint venture with Chinese brand Chang'an.
The show highlighted the resurgence of Chinese automakers following two tough years spent losing market share to foreign rivals. Local competitors have spent heavily to roll out new models that are drawing buyers with lower prices at a time when China's economic growth is slowing.
Brands including SUV producer Great Wall Motor and Geely Holding, owner of Sweden's Volvo Cars, reported first-quarter sales gains of up to 70 percent. That helped to boost their market share so far this year to 43 percent from last year's 38 percent, according to LMC Automotive.
For global brands including Volkswagen AG, sales were flat or even declined due to their emphasis on higher-priced brands for which growth was in low to mid-single digits. That was a sobering development for automakers that are counting on China to drive future revenue.
"Market growth has come to a halt for international brands," said Bernstein Research in a report.
On Monday, Great Wall debuted its H6 Coupe and showed its H8, the latest in a series of SUVs that have helped to transform the company into one of China's most successful auto brands. The company has said it hopes to sell 10,000 units of each of the two new vehicles per month.
SUVs, popular with Chinese drivers who value their image of safety in the country's chaotic traffic, accounted for 26 percent of all passenger vehicles sold in the first quarter, the highest proportion of any major market.
"We predict that this year will be an SUV feeding frenzy," said Ola Kallenius, head of marketing for Mercedes Benz, which unveiled an SUV Coupe concept on Sunday.
The abrupt deceleration in China's economic growth has dragged down auto sales growth and prompted buyers to shift to lower-priced models.
Economic growth slowed to 7 percent in the first three months of this year, its lowest quarterly expansion since the aftermath of the 2008 global crisis. That still is higher than the low single-digit growth forecast for the United States and Europe this year, but well below China's peak of 14.2 percent in 2007.
The deceleration to what Chinese leaders term the "new normal" of slower but more sustainable growth has cooled corporate profits and the real estate industry. The ruling Communist Party is pressing companies to boost wages in an effort to promote growth driven by consumer spending instead of trade and investment.
"This is driving sales growth in this (lower-priced) segment," said Dietmar Voggenreiter, president of Audi China.
Nissan Motor Co. unveiled the Lannia, a midsize sedan designed for Chinese buyers. The company, which has made China a pillar of its global turnaround strategy, calls the Lannia its first offering for the country's "youth generation."
For the SUV market, Nissan unveiled its Murano hybrid. GM, Ford, BMW, Ford's Lincoln luxury brand and other automakers also displayed SUVs, many of them offering hybrid-electric versions.
Also Monday, Geely displayed its Borui sedan, its first model developed using Volvo technology following the company's acquisition of the Swedish brand in2010.