After buying a home, the next goal for ordinary Chinese is a car. For the elite, the villa is followed by an exotic sports car, with perhaps even a diamond necklace draped on the steering wheel. When it comes to conspicuous consumption for China’s nouveaux riches, there are few limits.
Discreet dealers won’t divulge the names of their well-heeled customers. But these people all know each other – they are members of the same clubs and gather on the race track.
Han Qimeng, a partner at a prominent international law firm in Shanghai, is one such owner. He caught the sports car bug just over a year ago after a long period as an SUV driver.
“I bought the first Porsche 911 GT3 in China last year,” he said. “Now, three or four people in the country have one.”
Han’s vehicle is a souped-up high-performance coupe, complete with a Formula One level engine and all the works.
Top global brands like Ferrari, Maserati, Jaguar and Porsche see huge market potential and fast-growing consumer power in China, so they’re revving up to race for the wallets of country’s richest people.
Porsche has plans to double the number of its sales centers, while Korea’s Hyundai has a more down-market sports coupe which is said to be a top-selling sports car in China in terms of volume. Even the brand-new BMW Z4 convertible (Z4 Roadster) has been released on the mainland.
There are three categories of sports cars, according to an executive with Chinese car manufacturer and importer Geely Automobile:
1. Expensive premium sports cars. Superior speed and performance cars like Porsche and Ferrari reach into the millions. Obviously, few can afford them.
2. Mid- to high-end models. These vehicles, selling for between US$80,000 and US$190,000, provide speed, comfort and status. Examples include the Mercedes-Benz SEL and the BMW Z series.
3. Mid- to low-end sports cars. Examples include the Hyundai Coupe and the Geely Mybo, priced from US$12,987 to US$25,974. These domestic brands are expected to retain their stranglehold on the low-end sports car market for quite some time.
Geely Automobile boss Li Shufu, who is 54th on one list of China’s richest people, initiated the fervor for domestic sports when he created the country’s first independent domestic auto brands. Suddenly snazzy looking vehicles, led by the Mybo, came with an affordable price tag. Rival domestic carmakers Chery, Lifan, BYD and Brilliance have since followed suit.
Speeding in style
Like many other upwardly mobile Chinese, Han got his first taste for fast cars at the Shanghai Formula One Grand Prix, held for the fifth time last fall. Now, he satisfies his need for speed with fellow members of Shanghai’s Porsche Club. This is an informal and remarkably unpretentious society that targets not only Porsche owners and aspiring buyers, but also people who are simply wild about sleek German sports cars (33 of the 77 people who attended the first meeting were non-owners).
The club, established by a group of friends last September, and blessed by Porsche itself, charges no dues – at least, not yet. There are over 500 Porsche clubs worldwide in some 50 countries, and the number of regional clubs around China is set to expand, according to Mark Bishop, Porsche’s Greater China managing director. Activities have ranged from laps around Shanghai’s Formula One racetrack to soccer matches.
Han’s favorite recent event was a weekend excursion with nine fellow owners to Yongzhou, 240 kilometers away. Driving on sparkling new highway, he made the trip in an hour and change – at one point reaching 240 kilometers per hour – but some fellow travelers weren’t so lucky.
“Two people driving Cayennes (Porsche’s sport utility model) were stopped for speeding,” said Han. “They were doing 200 kilometers an hour.”