It's Camaro vs. Mustang…even in China
Now the quintessential American rivalry is taking root in China.
A growing cadre of hot-rodders here are enthralled with the U.S. cars, and Ford and Chevrolet are playing up their performance and iconic designs as the brands seek better traction in the world’s biggest market.
Chevrolet upped the stakes last month by launching its sixth-generation Camaro. It goes up against the Mustang, which arrived here in 2015. Both cars were partly remade for overseas tastes as parent companies Ford Motor Co. and General Motors look to widen their international appeal.
But it is the no-apologies Americana aura exuded by both cars that is hooking their fans.
“We’re seeing the beginning of a muscle car culture here,” said James Chao, a China market auto analyst with IHS Markit. “Something that is uniquely American appeals to the Chinese consumer. The image that it relays to the automotive public is very positive.”
Volumes are still tiny. But they are part of a broader trend of Detroit carmakers slowly testing their fuller American lineups in the Middle Kingdom, where consumer tastes are surprisingly aligned with those of Americans and where many customers see American brands as aspirational.
The Ford-GM showdown in China soon could even extend to that mother of all U.S. rivalries: pickups.
Chevrolet announced late last year that it will bring the Silverado full-size and Colorado midsize pickups to China in 2017. And both vehicles were centerpieces of Chevy’s Shanghai show stand last week.
Alan Batey, Chevrolet’s global brand chief, put the new opportunities into perspective in a conversation with Automotive News during the show.
“I don’t believe the muscle car segment is going to be a leading segment in China, nor do I believe full-sized pickups are going to be a huge segment,” he said. “What they’re doing is telling the story of the brands.
“Chevrolet’s got an amazing history, a 100-year-old brand that’s been here for only a decade, that people don’t even know about. But they are fascinated by it.”
Enthusiasm for Motown metal was on full display as Ford celebrated the Mustang’s 53rd anniversary here at an April 17 fan event alongside Shanghai’s Huangpu River.
Amid a splay of Mustangs past and present, the sounds of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” mingled with the growl of 5.0-liter V-8 engines as proud owners showed off their babies. The dress code: leather jacket and jeans.
Aficionados here flock to clubs such as the American Muscle Club of China, which boasts some 8,000 members, according to club officer Michael Mu, 30, who runs a line of English-language schools. He owns a black modified 2015 Mustang that he affectionately dubbed “Dark Knight.”
“Plenty of pretty ladies drive these cars, too, because they want to show off their vibrant personality,” said Mu, vice president of the club’s east region, which includes Shanghai.
Tapping a wider audience was exactly the game plan when Ford overhauled the pony car in 2014 to launch it in some two dozen markets, including China. Until then, China had been essentially off-limits. Tweaks included the first right-hand-drive Mustang for places such as Australia.
“There’s 50 years of pent-up demand here we’ve never officially exploited,” said Dave Schoch, president of Ford Asia Pacific. “The Mustang is an American icon. They respect it for what it is.”
Yet it was archrival Camaro that stole the early lead in China. It landed in 2011 riding the popular Transformers movie franchise, which was a big hit in China. The film features a robot named Bumblebee that disguises itself as a bright yellow Camaro.
“The most important thing for me was the movie Transformers,” says Andy Huang of his decision to buy a 3.6-liter V-6 2012 Camaro — in yellow, no less.
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Donning mirrored aviator sunglasses, a tie-dyed American flag T-shirt and a manicured hipster beard, the 30-year-old photographer adds, “It looks pretty cool, too.”
Chevrolet looks to extend that momentum with the arrival of the sixth-generation Camaro, which went on sale here last month. Unlike the Mustang, which options a 2.3-liter or 5.0-liter powerplant in China, the Camaro is offered only as a 2.0-liter turbo here.
Analysts agree with Ford and GM planners that introducing these cars, even at low volumes, draws people to the brands. Mustang owner Jason Wong, 34, says he’s more loyal to Ford now.
“Ford is a car for the masses, but the quality is good and reliable,” he said. “I trust it.”
Sometimes, having the cars in the lineup leads to unexpected benefits.
Car shoppers are often lured into a showroom by the eye candy, only to drive away in something decidedly more domesticated. But for Wong, it was just the opposite.
“I really wanted to buy the Mondeo,” Wong said of the pedestrian four-door family car. “But when I saw the Mustang, it was love at first sight. I had to buy it. And I will drive it forever.”
Paying the price
Chevy says it has sold just 2,000 Camaros since introducing the car in 2011. Sales dropped to a measly 18 vehicles in the first quarter of this year, as it cleared inventory for the sixth generation.
Ford says it has sold more than 6,200 Mustangs since 2015. Sales jumped 90 percent to 963 vehicles in the first quarter. But that still represents less than 3 percent of its global volume.
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Chinese drivers typically splurge on top-trim packages, whereas the U.S. casts a wider net with a bigger range of entry offerings, says Trevor Worthington, vice president for product development at Ford Asia Pacific. That helps prop up sticker prices.
In China, the new Camaro starts at about 399,900 yuan, around $58,000 — more than double the U.S. entry-level price of $26,900, including shipping. The Mustang starts at about $15 cheaper.
The prices are inflated by a 25 percent import tariff on the U.S.-made cars, shipping fees and homologation costs. But the manufacturers may also be able to charge more simply because they can.
“These kind of people love American culture,” Mustang owner Mu says of his kindred spirits. “If you want this car, you’re going to have to pay the price.”