BEIJING, Jan. 11 -- Bigger is better say drivers who want more leg room in their autos.
China's luxury sedan market has some peculiarities all its own in one respect.
Customers like a long wheelbase on their cars, indicated by the letter "L" in the name of the model.
"If the car body has not been extended to provide enough inside space, it's almost impossible for a luxury sedan to survive in China's high-end vehicle market, especially the official car market," said Jia Xinguang, an independent auto analyst based in Beijing.
"If someone is spending half a million yuan to buy a car, why choose a smaller one?" asked An Li, a 53-year-old civil servant who is considering buying a BMW 530Li. "A big car not only brings me comfort, but also indicates my taste and wealth."
German luxury car brand Audi has been the biggest winner with its long wheelbase strategy in China.
Its flagship model Audi A6L, the first luxury car tailored for the Chinese market since 2000, has helped Audi maintain its dominant position in the sector, with around a 40 percent market share. Its major rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz lag far behind with a market share of no more than 25 percent each.
The 10-centimeter longer Audi A6L harvested extraordinary sales of 25,368 units in 2005. In 2006, sales more than doubled to 57,350 units.
In 2007, no more than two years after the first extended version hit the market, the 100,000th Audi A6L rolled off the production line.
In 2008, the A6L model became the first luxury car to break the 200,000 sales barrier.
"The success of the A6L is a typical example of the automaker having to consider the demands of local consumers," said Jia.
"The key to winning in China's official and high-end limousine market for automakers is to provide what is required of an official car. It's something that reflects Chinese consumers' philosophy when purchasing vehicles," agreed Xiang Hansong, an auto marketing expert.
Bigger is better
"In China, bigger is better. It reflects prestige. In particular, when buying a luxury car, affluent Chinese and officials like to show off their wealth and social status by having a bigger car. For them, a big car indicates luxury and displays their difference from ordinary men in the street. The extended version brings them more psychological satisfaction than any requirement for comfort."
Because most official cars and those owned by businessmen are chauffeur-driven in China, the space and comfort for rear-seat passengers is a top priority when purchasing luxury sedans.
The longer wheelbase lends the model an especially roomy feel and makes getting into the rear seats easier. In addition, the longer wheelbase is of particular benefit to rear-seat passengers, who can enjoy more leg room.
"Most Chinese are on their first car and it's for the use of all the family. Space and comfort for their family members are more important than the pleasure of driving, something that western people attach more weight to," added Jia.
China is the most important luxury sedan market in the world for global automakers. Last year, when the financial crisis hit the high-end limousine market heavily in western countries, China's luxury car market, in contrast, increased dramatically by 20 percent on average.
Many luxury carmakers, such as Mercedes-Benz, enjoyed a more than 50 percent sales jump in rural China.
Analysts believe that the growth will continue over the coming years. They see huge potential for the fastest-developing country.
"Then, nobody will be able to ignore the requirements of Chinese consumers, no matter how unique they are," said Jia. "The market response has proved that the long wheelbase strategy is necessary for luxury car producers."
In 2006, BMW launched its elongated 5 Series in China, with a wheelbase 14 centimeters longer. The extended version increased the 5 Series' sales by 50 percent that year.
Last year, Audi launched the lengthened A4L, with high hopes of replicating the success of the A6L.
"The long-wheelbase version of the Audi A4 is being produced exclusively in China for the Chinese market. With this premium product, we chose to go even further than elsewhere in the world to meet the requirements of our Chinese customers," said Peter Schwarzenbauer, a member of the board of management for marketing and sales at Audi AG.
"With the customized Chinese A4L, which we subjected to rigorous testing in China, we are impressively demonstrating our market leadership in China's premium segment. The extension will definitely increase the competitiveness of our A4L model."
According to Audi, many years of feedback and customer surveys found more than 70 percent of luxury auto users hope to obtain a medium-sized luxury car combining sportiness and comfort with ample rear space.
Developed by more than 2,000 Chinese and German technicians over three years, Audi found that for a luxury medium-level model like the A4L, 60mm strikes a perfect balance between sportiness and comfort.
Following the trend after seeing the huge success of other carmakers in building unique limos for the country, Volvo launched the long wheelbase version S80L sedan last year, only for the China market. It demonstrated the importance of the Chinese market to global carmakers as well as the unique forces and demands within that market.
Even the conservative and prudent German premium car brand Mercedes-Benz cannot ignore the special demands of Chinese consumers. It will locally produce the extended version of the New E Class this year in Beijing.
(Source: China Daily)