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Chinese automakers' export plans suffer two new setbacks

Andrew Strieber From MotorTrend Magazine| July 01,2008

It seems like a forgone conclusion -- on its way to becoming the largest exporter in the world, making everything from high-end electronics to toothpaste, it's just a matter of time before the might of Chinese manufacturing takes over the automotive industry. Many experts have predicted that Chinese brand cars will be sold in American showrooms soon, and yet time and again these prognosticators are proven wrong. So far not a single Chinese company has sold its cars in the U.S., and now the industry has suffered another double blow -- just as one Chinese automaker cut ties with a company trying to import its vehicles Stateside, another has been banned from selling its BMW X5 clone in Germany by a local court.

Though many look at the Chinese automotive industry and see vast potential, presently many of its cars are known more for their questionable safety and strangely familiar designs. Despite this, both major automakers and small entrepreneurs alike have tried (and failed) to shepherd vehicles to the American market. One of these groups has been Parsippany, New Jersey-based Chamco, founded by E. Michael Daspin two years ago. With help from industry figures such as Steve Saleen and former Fiat executive Mario Ferla, Chamco planned was to import homologated pickups and SUVs made by the small Chinese company Hebei Zhongxing Automobile. Thirty-seven dealers then paid Chamco franchise fees of up to $300,000 for the right to sell the new vehicles -- and that's when things went sour.

Soon after this Daspin, who has previously been convicted of fraud, was accused of stealing money by other members of the company. Ferla, Saleen, and others then sued Daspin, who in turn counter-sued with a group of loyal employees, and temporary control of the venture was given to a court-appointed trustee. Despite these problems Hebei Zhongxing continued to stick with its American partner, but now that Chamco's importing arm, ZX Automobile, has been forced into involuntary bankruptcy, it looks like the Chinese automaker has finally had enough. In a letter to the struggling company Zhongxing declared it was backing out of their agreement because Chamco could no longer operate normally. Though the automaker still hopes to one day sell its wares in the States, it has no plans to do so anytime soon.

Chinese brand vehicles may be having trouble reaching the U.S., but several automakers are already selling cars successfully in Europe. However this has raised another issue that plagues some of the nation's companies -- intellectual property rights. A trip around this year's Beijing Auto Show revealed several double take-worthy designs, and now in the case of Chinese automaker Shuanghuan's S-CEO SUV, which resembles the BMW X5, the original designer is fighting back. After car importer China Automobile Deutschland brought the S-CEO to the Frankfurt Auto Show and announced plans to sell it in Germany, the Munich automaker sued to keep the vehicle out of its home territory. Nearly 10 months later the court has finally ruled, banning sales of the S-CEO on German soil.

China Automobile Deutschland's Managing Director Karl Schloessl plans to appeal the ruling, saying that when it comes to automotive design "even when you look at some BMWs and some Audis, there are similarities." Shuanghuan isn't commenting on the matter as of yet. If history is any judge, Chinese automakers will bring their vehicles stateside eventually, and most likely succeed just like Japanese and Korean companies did before them. That said given this latest round of setbacks, that day still looks to be a few years off at best.

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