Mondial de l’Auto – promised little, yet delivered lots

Look beyond the extremely diluted exhibitor list at only the second European Auto Show to take place since COVID struck in 2020, and the number of manufacturers is thinning out faster than a middle-aged man trying to comb over a receding hairline. Glancing over the attendees at this week's Paris show, one could have been forgiven for avoiding the struggle of travelling to a country of strikes and picket lines to reach the exhibition grounds in central Paris this week.

However look beyond the lack of glitz and glamour – penny pinching meant the usual caffeinated refreshments found on OEM stands for tired journalists were missing – and those attending could have expected a sobering awakening on the opening day of the show at the Porte de Versailles show grounds, on a rainy Monday morning.

West versus East

In what was set to be a bout of West versus East or French versus Chinese, it was the French president, Emanuel Macron, that got the first punches in before the show had even started with France’s Les Echos business paper, publishing a hard-hitting interview with Macron on the morning of the event, that set the narrative for the show.

Calling for European solidarity and effectively for Europeans to buy European products, the show was a defensive home show from France’s domestic OEMs, while the offensive was supplied by an equal amount of Chinese manufacturers attending.

Renault even had two Chinese-manufactured models on its show stands represented by the all-electric Dacia Spring and their Mobilize Limo, part of their new mobility operations. 

During Mr Macron’s walk around at the event, while drawing almost a larger crowd than any passenger car model being unveiled, it was notable that when he walked past the BYD stand located almost directly opposite the multi-brand Stellantis booths, he didn’t flinch in delicately avoiding even taking the briefest of glance at the Chinese stand, possibly the greatest of all the challengers to France’s incumbents. 

With Chinese manufacturers, from BYD to Great Wall Motors (WEY/ORA) on show under the bright lights, debuting their European product offensives, it was the first opportunity to attend a European show and see these manufacturers in their primetime positions, rather than accommodating a dark corner of the exhibition grounds, or at worst being side-lined to a different hall.

In terms of these new European market launches, one couldn’t help but notice the high-quality feel of the entry-level all-electric Sino-vehicles which paradoxically made the incumbents’ new offerings such as the new Jeep Avenger, receiving its world debut, appear like a Chinese model from shows of past – judging by the interiors.

The baby all-electric Stellantis model, was packed full of hard, dark plastic with a slight paradoxical scent of the oil-based material looming in the air, that was more associated with Chinese models of yesteryear when they tried, and ultimately failed, to break the European market with their ICE product offerings.

However, this time they are back with a vengeance with plug-in-only models in a market that is likely to see almost every new fourth model fitted with a plug sold in Western Europe this year, according to Schmidt Automotive Research.

In a push to achieve anything close to a profit from its volume BEV models, European OEMs are cutting corners to reach CO2 compliance targets while offering a product that can still be sold at a relatively affordable price point after local subsidies.

The problem is the corners being cut are just at a time when Chinese OEMs that have already passed the initial and critical scaling phase in their domestic market – on track to achieve 5 million new BEV passenger car units this year (Sep YTD 3.5 million) – appear able to offer a more reassuring quality feel to their interiors, in this mid-price segment, judging by the BYD Atto 3 and Ora Funky Cat on their respective show stands.

Exterior styling is near or on par with European manufacturers, with many European designers having fled to China during the past few years in a similar fashion to those upping sticks and heading to Korea just a few years earlier.

However, the limits to Sino-manufacturers’ growth in Europe could be from the premium segments, with the potential exception of Polestar, which is already off and running (15,400 West European deliveries January – August, according to the European Electric Car Study’s latest report).

From a premium perspective, the interior feel and materials on offer from BYD aren’t anywhere close to breaching the gap to the likes of Germany’s premium manufacturers such as BMW, Mercedes, Audi or Porsche but were more equal to the models from DS (Stellantis) on show directly opposite.

Rotating interior screens, which can be set to landscape or portrait positions seen in many new Chinese models (as well as the new Fisker model), aren’t enough to narrow this gap to the Germans, while the pitch angle of the rear seats in the BYD Tang SUV appeared to be set at a ridiculous angle just to occupy the third row of seats in the boot/trunk.

BYD aim to launch two premium products, the Tang and Han saloon (both priced at €72,000 in Germany after tax), in the same price category as Mercedes’s EQE.

While Germans are better positioned to absorb costs and push these onto the consumers as they move to more electrified models, the likes of Stellantis (Peugeot/Citroën/Fiat etc) and Renault are in an inferior position in passing those costs on and are therefore more exposed to cost-cutting, resulting in the tangible lower feel to the interiors.

The BYD Atto 3 compact SUV (€38,000 price), on the other hand, in terms of the sector it is in, felt superior to the new baby BEV Jeep stood opposite.

Mainly French OEMs should be worried going forward, with a worried-looking Renault CEO Luca de Meo seen in deep discussions with Macron on the fringes of the show.

According to Schmidt Automotive Research data, during the opening 9-months of 2022, 127,900 new cars from Chinese OEMs entered West European roads, with the likes of BYD, Great Wall Motors, Nio, XPeng, MG (SAIC), Aiways and FAW (Hongqi) only testing the waters in some limited markets up to this point, and with that number to increase significantly during 2023, making the most of tractional OEMs remaining on the BEV brakes before new CO2 fleet targets are increased in 2025 once again.

Logistical hell

With Elon Musk suggesting Shanghai to Europe logistic problems are becoming problematic due to a lack of capacity, are we about to see the beginning of logistical hell for Tesla turn into competition hell for European volume OEMs?

Don’t be surprised to hear more protectionism rhetoric ring around Europe going forward.

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