China plans to work with foreign partners to build a car tailored to the needs of its more than 300 million families when a ban on new assembly projects is lifted in 1996.
Twenty of the world's most powerful carmakers will gather in Beijing in mid-November to present designs for the "Family Car Project," an official said.Production is due to start before the end of the century.
The State Statistics Bureau estimates the average Chinese family should be able to afford a car by the year 2010. Passenger car production is targeted to increase from 230,000 last year to 3 million a year at that time.
"We want to cooperate with a foreign partner in the design process to develop a new vehicle that Chinese people can afford," an official at the vehicle department of the Ministry of Machine Building told The Journal of Commerce.
He said the project would be "a significant break from old methods," but he would not comment on whether it will adapt an existing model or be a completely new design.
He also gave no details about specifications.
Bernard Vernoux, chief Beijing representative of France's Renault SA, described the move as "a clever way to get the world's major producers to pay to give ideas to China.
"They want a car retailing for under US$8,000 with air conditioning and an engine large enough to perform on highways. It seems a bit of a dream."
Renault, which set up a joint-venture minibus project to gain a foothold in China, is preparing extensively for the seminar, he said.
China has joint ventures producing cars at six main plants with Chrysler Corp., Volkswagen AG and PSA Peugeot Citroen. Each started by assembling often outdated models from kits, then gradually localizing parts.
A seven-year automobile industry blueprint released in mid-June broke that mode by banning all new car assembly projects until 1996 and insisting that all projects started after that have 40 percent local content and involve Chinese designers.
The family car project was a hot topic at China's largest auto show, which ended June 29. Carmakers shut out by the ban were vying to catch the eye of the 250,000 or so visitors with hydrogen-driven cars, a vertical crash test installation and, inevitably, miniskirted models.
"1996 is not all that far away," said Terry Emrick, director of Asian sales and marketing for Ford Motor Co., which only recently formed its first parts venture in China. "You can't be big in the world if you're not big in China, and that means assembling cars here."
Executives at the fair from Germany's Mercedes-Benz, Japan's Honda Motor Co., Volkswagen and Citroen also said they were interested in the project. The larger of China's 100-odd vehicle firms will also attend the seminar, no doubt jostling for the domestic side of the project.
Auto executives agree Beijing has found itself in a powerful negotiating position to attract the latest technology.
Porsche's chairman Wendelin Wiedeking presented his company's design concept to Zhu Rongji, executive vice premier and economic czar, during a visit in mid-April.
"I think our proposal got adequate attention," said Porsche Asia director Volker Gempt. "China wants state-of-the-art technology so its auto industry can stand on its own two feet, and we're not in a position to hand over anything else."