Daimler AG unveiled its new ultra-luxury Maybach sedan Thursday as automakers began a flurry of new vehicle launches at the Beijing auto show in a scramble for China's fast-growing market amid slack sales elsewhere.
The show, in a country with almost no private cars 15 years ago, has risen to the top ranks of global auto industry events as China's explosive sales growth drove this market past the United States in 2009 to become the world's biggest.
Foreign automakers are pushing to expand sales in China while young but ambitious local brands such as Volvo buyer Geely want to raise their profile. The auto show opens Friday to the press and Tuesday to the general public.
Daimler debuted the blue and silver Maybach at a lavish event amid the 19th century mansions of Beijing's old embassy district, with entertainment by pop singer Leona Lewis.
"Nowhere is the potential and the possibility of the future more apparent than in China today," said Ulrich Walker, chairman and CEO of Daimler Northeast Asia.
The new Maybach, which features optional Swarovski crystal decorations on the seats, perfume atomizers and wireless Internet routers, is one of 14 new vehicles to be shown by global automakers in a reflection of China's new importance.
Sales elsewhere are so weak that China accounts for most or all the global profits for such major producers as General Motors Co., Volkswagen AG and Daimler, said John Zeng, an auto industry analyst for IHS Global Insight.
"The real profit is coming from China," Zeng said. "China is very important for global automakers both for profits and sales volume."
China's auto market shrugged off the global crisis and sales soared by an eye-popping 45 percent last year to 13.6 million vehicles, well ahead of the 10.5 million units sold in the United States. Sales have been boosted by China's economic rebound, which saw growth accelerate to 11.9 percent in the first quarter of this year.
Analysts expect more double-digit sales growth this year, though they say it should slow from 2009's breakneck pace as Beijing winds down its stimulus and cools bank lending to head off an upsurge in inflation.
Foreign brands are more aggressive than ever this year in Beijing, where organizers say a total of 990 vehicles are to be displayed, from motorcycles to minivans to fire trucks to futuristic concept cars.
GM is premiering its all-electric Volt MPV5 concept car and a Chinese-made minivan and a compact sedan. Ford's latest Focus sedan gets an Asian debut and the company is unveiling a new concept car.
Daimler's new vehicles include an E-Class sedan designed for China with a bigger backseat to attract businesspeople who have drivers. Volkswagen also is debuting its own ultra-luxury Phaeton sedan.
GM says its China sales jumped 68 percent in March from a year earlier and 2010 sales could top 2 million vehicles. That would nearly equal last year's sales of 2.1 million in the United States, though GM has to split China revenues with local partners.
Toyota says it will display 50 vehicles including its latest gas-electric Prius hybrid and an electric concept car. Toyota's image has taken a beating abroad over safety complaints but sales in China, where only a few thousand vehicles were recalled, have suffered little impact.
"By participating at this level, Toyota is expressing its highest degree of attention to this auto show and the Chinese market," said a company statement.
Chinese automakers also are promoting themselves more aggressively than ever.
They plan to unveil a total of 75 new sedans, SUVs, experimental "green" cars and other vehicles, according to the show's organizers.
Geely Holding Group, a 13-year-old brand barely known abroad before it agreed in March to buy Sweden's Volvo Cars from Ford Motor Co. for $1.8 billion, is showing 55 of its own models, including 11 new vehicles.
Geely says it hopes to boost sales this year by 22 percent over 2009 to 400,000 units.
"We will highlight our technical edges in driving safe, green performance as well as energy efficiency," the company said in a statement.
Chery Automobile Co., China's biggest domestic auto brand, plans to show 29 vehicles including four alternative fuel models.
Chery is bringing in 200 sales agents from foreign markets to see its latest models, said company spokesman Jin Yibo. Chery exports to some 70 developing countries in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
Chery's sales target for this year is 700,000 vehicles, with exports doubling to 100,000, according to Jin.
A key theme this year is clean transportation, including cars and buses driven by fuel cells, natural gas and other alternative sources.
Beijing sees alternative vehicles as the industry's future and is pushing its products to develop the technology, though industry analysts say gasoline will dominate the Chinese market for the foreseeable future.
BYD Co., with backing from American investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which owns a 9.9 percent stake, says it plans to show its all-electric e6, which it says it plans to sell this year in North America.
BYD says it plans to double sales this year to 800,000 vehicles and expand to Europe in 2011.
Auto analysts expect China's auto sales to continue to grow despite the country's arrival as the top market.
Zeng noted China's car ownership level of 48 vehicles per 1,000 people even in prosperous markets such as Beijing is far below the U.S. or European level of 400 to 500 per 1,000 people. He said even developing Asian economies such as Malaysia or Thailand have 200 to 300 cars per 1,000 people.
"That means there is significant scope for the market to grow," he said. "We think the Chinese market will play a more and more important role for the global auto industry."