BEIJING, April 22 (Xinhuanet) -- Car-obsessed Chinese know who drives what. As the former "bicycle kingdom" witnesses the biggest boom in automotive history, the car has become more than a means of transport. A driver's make and model are now a source of status and stereotypes.
According to a list that has circulated on China's blogsphere, the BMW 5 Series is for the nouveau riche, the Audi A6 is a must-have for senior officials and the Chevrolet Cruze is the darling of the post-80s generation.
These are among the brand perceptions that confront the world's auto executives as they gather in the Chinese capital for the 13th Beijing Auto Show, which kicked off April 20 and runs through April 29.
Auto industry leaders have come to showcase their latest models and technologies in the world's largest car market, where 22 million vehicles were sold last year, easily surpassing the United States. To grab a piece of the world's fastest-growing market, automakers must play up, or transform, Chinese consumers' perceptions of their brands.
No other company has been as successful in marketing its image in China as Germany's Audi AG, the first premium manufacturer to work with a local partner, state-owned First Automotive Works (FAW), to produce vehicles locally.
A supplier to the government for decades, Audi linked its A6 sedan to the political elite and watched its Chinese sales overtake the field. Half the world's A6s are sold in China. In Beijing, it is easy to spot government ministers on the road: they sit behind the tinted windows of gleaming black long-wheelbase A6s bearing special license plates.
When China removed foreign car brands from the official vehicle purchase list in 2012 to promote local industry and frugality, Audi adjusted its strategy, expanding its locally produced lineup to lure a growing class of affluent private car buyers.
Despite complaints about high engine oil consumption, the brand with the four-ring logo is such a hit in China, its largest market, that people say "men love Audi like women love Dior."
Audi claimed top spot in the luxury car segment in China last year, with nearly 492,000 vehicles sold, up 21 percent from a year earlier. Its main rival, BMW AG, came in second with last year's China sales surging 20 percent to 390,700 deliveries, about one-fifth of the group's global sales.
However, a series of negative news reports about BMW drivers involving fatal hit-and-runs and verbal or physical abuse have given Chinese BMW owners a reputation for arrogance among some.
In March in Wangjing, a Beijing commercial district, a man was killed after being knocked to the ground by a BMW and then run over by a bus. The BMW fled the scene. During the same month in the southern city of Shenzhen, a BMW struck and killed a woman, but didn't stop until it hit another car 80 meters down the road.
Despite unflattering reports about the brand's drivers, the German luxury cars appeal to many in China because of superior engineering, and most importantly, their moneyed image.
Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz has lagged behind Audi and BMW in China, where the Stuttgart-based automaker sold 228,000 vehicles last year, an increase of 11 percent on the previous year.
"BMW is better to drive, Benz better to ride in," goes a saying in China, implying that the BMW handles well, while Mercedes-Benz should be a chauffeur-driven sedan for transporting passengers in style and comfort.
Even without the cost of a chauffeur, Mercedes-Benz owners in China need fat wallets to pay for maintenance and repairs. Replacing all the parts of a locally produced C-Class compact sedan costs 12 times the price of the same new model, according to a recent report by the Insurance Association of China and China Automotive Maintenance and Repair Trade Association.
"Big Mercedes-Benz sedans are undoubtedly for business tycoons. If I hadn't had a 25-percent discount on my little C260, my Benz dream wouldn't have come true. But when I need to repair it, I'm afraid the dealer will try to get back the money they helped me save," said Tony Tao, a 34-year-old architect in Beijing who traded his Volkswagen Sagitar for a C-Class last year.
For the time being, the German "Big Three" dominate the luxury car market in China. Among less expensive models, however, competition is fierce with Audi parent Volkswagen AG and General Motors Co. (GM) vying for the car-seller crown, while automakers such as Japan's Nissan, Republic of Korea's Hyundai and China's Great Wall also battle for a share.
The Chinese also have definite ideas about the status of lesser brands. GM's Buick brand, for example, is known by China's older generation for its limousines for dignitaries such as Dr. Sun Yat-sen and late Premier Zhou Enlai
Capitalizing on that history, GM started to produce the Buick Regal in Shanghai in 1999, and the model soon became popular with government officials. After exiting bankruptcy in 2009, GM tried to reinvent its "damaged" brands, introducing the new Buick Regal and Excelle as well as the Chevrolet Cruze in China to attract young customers.
"Buick is an old brand, but my friends all agree that the Excelle hatchback has a handsome, sporty look," said Zhu Beicong, a 25-year-old Buick Excelle owner, who works for China Unicom, a major state-owned telecom operator.
Following up on the success of Buick and Chevrolet, the Detroit-based auto giant also aims to breathe new life into Cadillac in China, where the brand was a big status symbol like Mercedes-Benz in the 1990s.
As the market grows, China's domestic automakers are losing ground to foreign-invested joint ventures and imports. In March, sales of Chinese-brand passenger cars shrank 2.3 percent from a year earlier while the overall market grew 7.9 percent, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Their market share shrank by 4.1 percentage points to 39.3 percent.
Why do Chinese car buyers overwhelmingly prefer foreign brands to homegrown ones? The answer can be summed up in one word: image. Most Chinese brands are seen as substandard, unsafe and copycat. Foreign rivals easily outgun them as status symbols.
To fight the trend, FAW, China's oldest automaker, plans to revive the Hongqi, or "Red Flag," the country's most famous homegrown car brand, which originally built official limousines for the Communist Party elite and state guests.
In 2013, when Foreign Minister Wang Yi abandoned his Audi A6 for the latest Hongqi H7 sedan, Chinese media trumpeted a possible new dawn for Chinese brands. But only 3,000 H7s were sold last year. In comparison, it took Audi just two or three days to sell the same number of cars in China.
Jia Xinguang, an independent auto analyst in Beijing, says the foreign minister's choice of the Hongqi H7 has more political than market significance.
"FAW builds political cars," he said, "while automakers like Volkswagen and Toyota manufacture people's cars -- good cars that ordinary people can afford."
Clearly, it is going to take more than a minister to change Chinese perceptions about auto brands.