Sadly, dear reader, the motoring observations don't stop with the end of the rally. Indeed, after 32 hours on the slow train from UB down to Beijing, I was desperate for any fix of car geekery. Thankfully (for me at least - I can't say the same for my travelling companions) China provided a surfeit of same. In both of my guises - to whit, a British car nerd and an experienced navigator of the Central Asian vehicular peculiarities - China was an odd one. Not necessarily worse or indeed better; but odd.
The first thing to mention is the road quality, which was superb, even by European standards. Granted, my visit encompassed just two wealthy cities, but I daresay investment there will eventually be matched in all the big cities. Mongolian, Kazakh or (particularly) Tajik drivers would have thought they’d landed on Planet Smooth, had they swallowed the (ruinous) import taxes and put-putted their motorbikes eastward. Yet it seems that this is a relatively recent development, as the vast majority of the traffic bounces around on comedy 70-section balloon tyres; a surefire sign of a populace weary of losing rim after rim to man-eating potholes. A certain city beginning with U and rhyming with Goolan Hataar comes to mind.
Speaking of traffic, it falls into two main categories – those with four wheels, and those with more, or less. The cars, which mostly fall into the former category, were on the whole pretty well behaved, but we quickly learned to treat the cyclists and moped-ists as big, unwieldy pedestrians. Not only were they to the traffic as a toddler’s fingers are to the sweety jar (i.e. everywhere, all at once) but they were also seemingly ungoverned by either traffic laws or common sense. No alleyway was too small, no pavement too congested, and no shrubbery too dense for these two-stroke death-traps: perhaps they didn’t quite rival Iranian motorcyclists for sheer lunacy, but they ran them close.
The reason for this dichotomy can, I feel, be found in the prestige attached to the motor car out there, even when the car in question was a vaguely-facelifted version of the 1980s Audi 100 – a Daudi, if you will. Allow me to put it this way: traffic outside our hostel was still gridlocked at 2am, at which point your average mopedist would have been at home for six hours. The fact that an increasing number of Shanghainese choose to pay through the nose for a car just to sit in such jams, rather than spend just 2000RMB (about £200) on an infinitely more convenient scoot, demonstrates that the Chinese are coming more and more to see the car as a status symbol, rather than a tool to enhance mobility. Reminds me of some other countries that I can’t quite put my finger on...
Anyway, this being the case, and given the well-documented taste the Chinese have for aping Western products, you’d expect Roewe (née Rover) and MG products to be selling like hot steamed buns. The old Rover 75 was about as British as a mid-range saloon gets – surely a Sino-spec example would be as appealing to local tastes as an English slogan t-shirt? Well, SAIC shifted about 13,000 750s in 2008, according to official figures, which is about 185,000 fewer sales than VW enjoyed with its ancient Santana, so you’d hardly call it a runaway sales success...*
The simple fact of the matter is this: in Beijing I saw just one MG – one of the Streetwise things – and a smattering of 550s, which look like up-spec Corollas and come on little piddly biscuit wheels. In Shanghai – the home of SAIC, remember – I counted five Roewe 750s, but as three were black and I can’t decode Chinese number plates, they may well have been the same car. It’s a shame, because the mildly facelifted Longbridge relic looked rather good among the restaurants and posh shops of the French Concession. But it seems these cars are being bought for their exclusivity rather than on merit, and in a marketplace dominated by the mid-size saloon this is both puzzling and troubling. True, a big posh bruiser like the 750 will never compete with the sales of, say, the Santana: but to be out-sold three to one by the more expensive Mondeo is a serious cockup. And if they can’t even establish a presence on their home turf – where, by the way, I failed to spot a dealership despite a brief sally into the relevant district – then where can they do so?
I’ve been to China for only a short period of time, and I’m not pretending to be an expert on the industry: for that, you need to head to China Car Times. But my suggestion for SAIC and NAC would be as follows: take Peugeots lead from the Champs Elysees and establish a ‘lifestyle’ showroom on the Nanjing road, between the Rolex shop and... erm... the other Rolex shop. Play on being a lifestyle Western brand until the story becomes so paper thin that you can see through it with a torch; and then play on it some more. Only by gaining a foothold in the ‘aspirational brand’ section of the Chinese motoring conscience are you going to make inroads into a market dominated by a mixture of cheap cars and desirable cars, when you are currently peddling neither of the above. Perhaps the launch of the upcoming MG6, based on the 550, might help.
If, however, SAIC/NAC do not gain a foothold in a market expanding faster than Kevin Howe’s waistline, then a) they’re just not trying hard enough and b) they would have to rely more on export. Which means they’d need MG’s UK arm to build up the brand, and the benevolence of the press corps to reinforce it. In other words, they’d be dead in the water.
* I couldn’t find figures on the sales of the MG7. I’m not actually convinced it even exists outside the pages of car magazines and mg-rover.org.