BEIJING, October 24 (TMTPost) – "The delivery cycle of a SAIC Maxus pickup truck is two to four weeks, while that of its competitors is up to 11 months. Many Australians choose SAIC Maxus because of this factor,” explained Jai Patial, the manager of an SAIC Maxus car dealership in Parramatta, Sydney.
SAIC Motor, headquartered in Shanghai, is China’s largest automaker by sales volume. SAIC Maxus is a commercial vehicle brand launched after the Chinese automaker acquired British commercial vehicle producer LDV’s Maxus brand in 2009.
In the first quarter of 2023, a total of 53,811 new pickup trucks were sold in the Australian market, a year-on-year decrease of 4.11%. However, the SAIC Maxus T60 performed impressively, with a year-on-year growth rate of 178%.
Jai’s comments came as a surprise to me.
More than a decade ago, when working for IT Manager World, I sent two teams abroad. One team was to report on Huawei's challenging start and gradual expansion in Europe. The other team went to Syria during a brief window of peace to report on the performance of Chinese cars in the Middle East.
At that time, the feedback from my colleagues was that the main competitive advantage of Chinese cars in overseas markets was their price; the first thing everyone talked about was their unbelievably low price. On the other hand, Huawei's advantage abroad was already multifaceted. It not only had a price advantage but also began to pull ahead of its competitors in terms of technology, performance, and market responsiveness. At that time, Huawei demonstrated strength and potential that put unprecedented pressure on all its competitors.
After over a decade, standing in an SAIC Maxus 4S store in Sydney, I suddenly realized that, just like other Chinese products, including appliances, PCs, communication equipment, and mobile phones, Chinese cars have also reached a position similar to Huawei's early days and are embarking on a similar overseas journey.
In retrospect, the process of Chinese cars going global can be roughly divided into the following stages:
- 2002 to 2012: This was the initial stage of Chinese cars going global. During these ten years, Chinese car exports increased from just 20,000 units in 2002 to over a million units in 2012.
- 2012 to 2021: Entering a period of fluctuation. After surpassing a million exports in 2012, exports declined steadily until gradually rebounding in 2016. From 2018 to 2020, exports hovered around the million-vehicle mark. In 2021, Chinese car exports exceeded the two-million-unit mark for the first time, surpassing South Korea and ranking behind only Japan and Germany.
- 2021 to the present: Chinese car exports have been experiencing explosive growth. In 2022, China exported 3.11 million vehicles throughout the year, surpassing Germany and becoming the world's second-largest car exporter after Japan. The characteristics of this stage include the comprehensive display of China's automotive industry strength, including technological advancements, brand enhancement, service optimization, and more.
Behind these ups and downs is the continuous evolution and transformation of the industry. From emphasizing price-competitiveness to building factories overseas, making foreign investments, mergers and acquisitions, the industry has shifted from purely exporting products to exporting value chains and capabilities. Furthermore, the main exports have transitioned from conventional gasoline vehicles to electric vehicles.
In fact, China has become the world's largest exporter of electric vehicles. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) data, around 35% of electric cars exported globally in 2022 came from China, a remarkable increase from the 25% proportion in 2021. This trend continues in 2023, with China's new energy vehicle exports reaching 727,000 units in the first eight months of this year, a year-on-year increase of 10%, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.
Superior Products and Capability
In comparison to the performance of pickup trucks, the SAIC Maxus V90, marketed as LDV Deliver 9 in Australia, ended Mercedes-Benz Sprinter's 23-year winning streak in the Australian large commercial vehicle market in 2022, achieving a market share of 27.1% and becoming the best-selling light commercial vehicle in Australia for 2022.
SAIC Group Vice President Lan Qingsong attributes SAIC Maxus's overseas success to its products and customization capability. He said: "The most crucial factor in overseas competition is the product. A quality product is the key. The investment made to our technology center over the years has proved valuable, and the products we have created have gained recognition in the market."
Roger Zagorski, the manager of a SAIC Maxus dealership in Australia, corroborates Lan’s statement. “Simply put, this confidence comes from the quality of the product itself. It is an excellent product, well-manufactured and fit for its intended use. Models like the G10 have secured top positions in niche markets because of their high quality,” said Zagorski.
In 2017, SAIC Maxus's T60 pickup truck made to the ANCAP list and achieved a five-star safety certification with an outstanding score of 35.46 out of 37. ANCAP is Australia's strictest vehicle safety assessment standard, which can be considered a global benchmark for vehicle safety. This can be seen as a significant milestone for the T60's entry into the Australian market.
"Safety," said Jai when answering the question about the factors influencing Australian customers' car choices. Price ranks relatively lower. "Ten years ago, there was a Chinese automaker that entered the Australian market with a focus on low prices, but that kind of Chinese automaker can hardly be seen now," Jai added.
A notable feature of Chinese cars in the overseas market nowadays is that their prices are generally higher than their prices in China. For instance, the Maxus MIFA 9, recently launched in Australia, is priced between 130,000 to 150,000 Australian dollars, which is roughly equivalent to 600,000 to 700,000 yuan, whereas its prices in China range from 269,900 to 419,900 yuan.
"Customization is also an important factor," explained Lan. This is why SAIC Maxus can price their products this way. "Behind outstanding customization capability is the requirement for us to respond quickly to user and market demands. For major European and American manufacturers, the process of change is often slow, taking two to three years from proposing an idea to making a decision and finally implementing it. However, after understanding the user's needs, we can quickly respond and make decisions, which is a significant advantage for us, both in and outside China,” said Lan.
The customer-to-business (C2B) customization model, introduced by SAIC Maxus in 2016, has become one of its most distinctive features.
"Some people say we need to be inclusive, but what we need more is to forge ahead," said Lan in an interview in 2018 when discussing the exploratory stage of the C2B model. The customization that caused SAIC Maxus some headaches in the early days has now borne fruit.
SAIC Maxus Deputy General Manager Xie Jiayue said: "When we first implemented the C2B model, we provided many configurations for users to choose. We knew the choices of different customers and markets. For example, Australians are particularly concerned about power, safety, and electronic configurations, much more so than in other countries. After the first round of product iterations, we had a clear understanding of these local users' needs."
When the vehicle models were just starting to have design concepts, SAIC Maxus would invite some local customers to evaluate them. This way, they could receive direct feedback. For example, Australian customers prefer the front of the pickup trucks to be black, while Chinese users prefer brighter colors. SAIC Maxus conducted a lot of detailed market research for local markets. For example, a typical delivery driver in Australia get in and out of the LDV Deliver 9 about 150 times a day. Therefore, SAIC Maxus took extra efforts to thicken floor mats and adjust the seats accordingly to make it easier for users to get in and out.
"Australians like powerful vehicles, and the T60 MAX we deliver is one of the most powerful vehicles in the market. This is the direct result of our dialogue with users and a great performance in the Australian market," added Zagorski.
Technological Leadership and Brand Recognition
The international expansion of home appliance and PC industries was facilitated by the global trend of manufacturing upgrading, but that of mobile phone and cars involves entering a highly competitive and mature market. However, China seized the rare opportunities for technological upgrades in these two markets—smartphones in the case of mobile phones and new energy vehicles in the case of automobiles.
The technological upgrading changes the rules of the game and consumer perceptions. It has also shaken the foundations of many established brands and opened a window of opportunity, particularly in overseas markets. But this window of opportunity is only for those who are prepared.
SAIC Maxus has been present in the Australian market for ten years. "The initial change in this market was slow. When we introduced the latest technology here, there was some resistance because the European, American, Japanese, and South Korean giants had a long-standing presence in this market. Their products had traditional features. Our advanced smart technology was initially perceived as having low demand by local consumers. In this market, we have been gradually making the market and users see that Maxus's vehicles can bring real benefits and a great experience," said Xie.
In 2017, SAIC Maxus introduced its first SUV product, the D90, in Australia. This vehicle came with a large screen, but because at the time, the car connectivity and overall network in the automobile market were not well developed, some dealership employees pointed out that the large screen in the car was not very useful. They thought equipping the car with a radio was more important. "But after five years of development, users now have a high level of acceptance for smart technology, and smart technology has become one of the most fundamental product features for a car," Xie said.
"This is the 'product comes first' concept. We must introduce the latest technology to global markets, including Australia. Now that electrification and smart technology are on an equal footing, the global market has changed significantly. In 2017, when the D90 was launched in Australia, our main products in Australia were the V80 and G10. When the D90 arrived, the locals were surprised that a Chinese automaker could create car connectivity with strong technology and a high performance-cost ratio. Now, the D90 can sell 500 units in Australia in a month. This reflects the fact that we are making good products in overseas markets, employing the latest technology. We impact the market with electrification and smart technology, and the chances of success are relatively high," said Lan.
SAIC Maxus has already recognized the long-term driving effect of technological advancement on the brand. In Sydney Airport, one can see advertisements for Maxus. Roger also mentioned that although electric vehicle sales are not very high in Australia, everyone knows that electrification is the future direction. SAIC Maxus has already established a leading position in several type of electric vehicles in the Australian automobile market, including light commercial vehicles, pickup trucks, and MPVs. In the Australian automotive market, SAIC Maxus has already been seen as "Leading the Charge."
These effects are beginning to have a positive impact on SAIC Maxus's products. "Since last year, our Australian dealers have been saying that the products launched in Australia are not as advanced as those launched in China. For example, the large screen in the D90 is a triple screen in China, but here, it's a single screen," Lan said.
Just as the Chinese smartphone industry, the road for Chinese cars to go global is not without challenges. On September 13, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the initiation of an anti-subsidy investigation into battery-powered cars with less than nine seats. According to the Official Journal of the European Union published on October 4, the investigation has officially begun. It stated that the investigation "will follow strict legal steps in line with EU and World Trade Organization rules," allowing the Chinese government and related companies to provide defenses and evidence.
This seems to be the destiny of the Chinese manufacturing industry. As it becomes increasingly powerful, the challenges it faces become more complex and formidable. However, it is precisely these challenges and opportunities that have allowed the Chinese automotive industry to continue to grow and progress. Chinese car companies need to work harder on research and innovation and focus on user experience and service to drive their own development and that of the global automotive industry. The future of Chinese cars is something to look forward to and work towards.