Chinese Cars Hit European Market Opel on the Outside, Mao on the Inside

A Dutch car dealer is about to bring the first Chinese-built cars to Europe. It's not the prettiest car ever, but it is cheap. Most importantly, it's a powerful symbol of a globalization process that has seen European companies transferring technology to the Chinese for years. Now, with their know-how, they want to tackle the European market.

If Peter Bijvelds were a normal car dealer, you would be right to question his sanity. "This here," he says as he runs his finger nails over the dashboard, "is pretty cheap plastic."

Then he pokes his finger at another cheaply made part of the car. "The work is really pretty bad." If that wasn't already enough to keep one from buying the car, he then adds: "The motor is also a little bit weak."

But Bijvelds is beaming on this rainy summer morning. He then jumps into his real sales pitch: the price of the new 5-door sports utility vehicle is only €17,000. "You can't get as much car as this for that amount anywhere." And the 27-year-old Dutchman doesn't need to worry about advertising the car. He's getting tons of free publicity. Surrounded by camera teams, he proudly shows off three long rows of Landwind cars, a Chinese brand most European automobile industry insiders have never even heard of.

The cars are located on the quay at the port in Antwerp, Belgium, and they are creating a small chapter of business history. They are the first cars produced by the Chinese to reach European shores. D-Day brought American automobiles to Europe in 1944 and the Japanese arrived in the 1960s. Now, a new wave is invading Europe: "Made in China."

"The car is 40 percent cheaper than a comparable Western model," says Bijvelds, who clearly enjoys the shockwaves he is sending through established automobile manufacturers in Europe. "All 200 of the cars here have already been sold."

But the Landwind is much more than a Chinese "Yugo" -- it's a tinny symbol of globalization. It's being produced by Chinese workers who, according to Bijvelds, receive a monthly salary of 40 to 50 euros (that's not even a fraction of the average monthly wage of €2,800 at Opel's plant in Bochum, Germany). The engine comes from Japan's Mitsubishi and the body closely resembles the Opel Frontera, which used to cost €30,000 until General Motors suspended its production a year ago. Thirty percent of Landwind's manufacturer, the Nanchang-based Jiangling Motors Company, is owned by American car-maker Ford. And General Motors gave the Chinese permission to use the Frontera's design. Indeed, the connections to the west can be seen everywhere in the project.

The irony of bringing Chinese cars to Europe doesn't escape Bijvelds, either. He says the way western car manufacturers deal with China is a bit schizophrenic. Everyone from Volkswagen to BMW wants their autos to be represented on the Chinese car market, one of the world's biggest. To do so, they've built modern factories in the Middle Kingdom, they've handed over the expensive technologies  they've developed through licensing agreements and now they can only look on defenselessly as their own markets are attacked using weapons of their own creation.

But experts apparently think the Chinese tigers could present a real business opportunity for European car wholesalers like Bijvelds. And for his part, the Dutch importer is also negotiating with other Chinese firms to distribute their cars on the European market. This year alone, Bijvelds intends to sell 4,000 Landwind sport-utility vehicles.

So what do his customers get? Well, a car that's a lot like one of the fake Rolexes that are made in small, make-shift factories in Shanghai. The watches work for a few years, then the battery dies. You just replace the battery and the solid quartz clock mechanism starts ticking again.

Viewed from its exterior, the Landwind looks like a perfect copy of the Frontera. You can only see the sloppiness after you open the door. The buttons are cheaply attached and the floor is covered with poorly applied fake leather. But it's the fumes from the factory fresh cars that really get you -- they're so strong that they'll likely be giving new owners headaches for months to come. The seats are made of matching leather, but they don't have good footing when the car turns, which it does easily, with only the slightest turn of the steering wheel. Of course, there's also the clutch and the transmission, which are reminiscent of those in a delivery truck. Then again, Bijvelds isn't promising his customers any more than that.

For his part, Bijveld defends the car's durability. For at the heart of this car, like the Rolex with the solid quartz mechanism, the guts of the Landwind is a Mitsubishi motor. In fact, it's the same exact motor used in Mitsubishi's own Outlander SUV. It may not be perfect, but the engine does have a proven track record.

In fact, Bijveld believes the car has been too solidly built for the nuances of the western car market. "The Chinese engineers have put in a chassis and tires that are intended for the sand and other off-road driving," he says. After conducting test drives, Bijveld asked the Chinese to make modifications. "How are they supposed to know that people here prefer to drive their SUVs in the city?" he asks. For the Chinese, the first foray into the European automobile market is the start of a steep learning curve.

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