Seeing is believing: Auto Shanghai 2021 preview (updated)

Auto Shanghai 2021 is being held at the National Exhibition & Convention Center

The pre-Auto Shanghai 2021 “debut” week reached a climax on April 18, the eve of the first press day, when Mercedes-Benz, BMW Group, Audi and Buick all held separate “Brand Night” style events to unveil their latest concepts or production vehicles globally for the first time with specifically the Chinese market in mind. Evergrande Auto’s controversial Hengchi brand held its own event reiterating Chairman Hui Ka-Yan’s goal of becoming the biggest NEV manufacturer in the world with annual NEV sales of 1 million units in 2025 and 5 million units in 2035.

The events culminated a week of blockbuster online and off-line debuts (some have more global significance than others but all have China significance) starting with the Citroën C5X on April 12, the made-in-China Ford Mustang Mach-E on April 13, the Xpeng P5 and Audi Q4 e-tron on April 14, Geely’s ZEEKR 001 and the Mercedes EQS on April 15, WM Motor’s W6 on April 16 and Volkswagen’s China-only ID.6 X/CROZZ and the much-talked about ARCFOX αS from BAIC Motor jointly developed with Huawei’s smart connectivity and autonomous driving solutions. Dongfeng Motor Corp. announced a new strategy of selling 1 million commercial vehicles, 1 million independent brand passenger vehicles and 1 million NEVs annually by 2025 on April 17, while FAW Group’s Hongqi (Red Flag), China’s fastest growing brand, held its own brand night the same day.

These brands will be among the more than 80 Chinese and foreign brands (see my previous story on Medium: Here are all the brands at Auto Shanghai 2021) that will jostle for spotlight and attention when the first press conferences kick off at 9am on April 19 at the National Exhibition & Convention Center. By early afternoon, the show will be over for most of the media professionals who have already been treated to star and information filled events of the previous week as well as nearly 140 press conferences to be held on the first and second press days.

As I always like to say based on my own experiences covering the show in the past, at least for the media, the show is usually half over by the time the press day comes around and pretty much over by mid-day of the first press day. All the new products and launches will have been announced by then. The pre-show “debut” week filled with “brand night” style events is a tactic employed by automakers to avoid their messages and announcements getting lost in what will be a sea of news on press day, at least for those that have the extra money and capacity to do it.

So what should we be looking forward to at Auto Shanghai 2021? What are some of the major themes for this year’s only A-level global auto show held in person?

I believe the overarching theme of this year’s show is “Seeing is Believing.” Quite a few brands are launching their first production models equipped with automotive-grade LiDARs. Chinese traditional automakers are debuting new brands and models with designs that will rival their foreign counterparts, with some designs that will be outrageous. Hengchi will be showing a total of nine models from the Hengchi 1 to Hengchi 9 covering sedans, SUVs and MPVs. Foreign brands especially the Japanese brands are stepping up their pace in their BEV rollout plans. For the Chinese smart EV startups, there is actually not that many new product debuts with the exception of maybe the Xpeng P5 and the aforementioned Hengchi models, but look for major new announcements in other areas of their businesses covering operations, service and new business models.

Electric race among luxury trio ABB heats up

I don’t remember ever seeing Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW Group (known as “ABB” in China), the three leading luxury brands in China, all holding brand nights on the same evening prior to a major auto show in China. The front runners in the luxury segment in China each has sold well over 200,000 vehicles in the Chinese market in the first quarter of this year, pulling themselves away from the rest of the competition (maybe except Tesla if you count Tesla as a luxury brand) and could be on their way to selling close to 1 million units each for the year.

BMW Group, believe it or not, actually held its first ever Group brand night in China in all these years that it has been in the market. The company showcased the iX to a public audience globally for the first time as well as rest of their product lineup from the BMW, MINI and BMW Motorad brands. The company has sold more than 100,000 NEVs in China to date and leads the luxury sales race by just a few thousand units over Mercedes-Benz, but has stumbled out of the gate with the iX3 electric SUV exclusively produced in China, having to cut its prices by RMB70,000 (more than $10,000) earlier this year to drive demand. It’s the least aggressive among ABB as far as NEV product rollout plans but does benefit from one of the bestselling plug-in hybrids sold in China: the BMW 5 Series Li PHEV.

Mercedes-Benz is a close-second in the luxury sales race behind BMW Group but is the most aggressive as far as NEV product rollout is concerned. At its Mercedes-EQ Night, it unveiled the recently globally premiered EQS to a live audience for the time, the EQB for the first time globally, and the EQA and Vision AVTR Concept. By the end of this year, the EQE will add to the locally-produced BEV lineup of the EQC, EQB and EQA. Though like the BMW iX3, the EQC has also underperformed.

Audi is ushering a new era with SAIC Audi, a new entity formed within SAIC-Volkswagen and Chinese partner SAIC Motor that will be responsible for the local production of Audi in addition to the FAW-Volkswagen JV. The all-new Audi A7L and Concept Shanghai BEV were unveiled at the SAIC-Audi brand night and will officially hit the market in Q1 2022.

All three luxury brands have announced plans to launch numerous BEV models in China by mid-decade. They will face as much competition from each other if not more than that from the Chinese smart EV startups like NIO. The Audi e-tron, which recently became available as a locally-produced model, is also facing some headwinds.

LiDARs, LiDARs & more LiDARs

That’s right. This show and this year will be all about LiDARs: they are no longer concepts and expensive propositions, but rather something that will be standard in several models launching over the next 12–18 months and making city-level autonomous driving a reality: the Xpeng P5 equipped LiDAR from Livox, a spinoff of drone-maker DJI; the ARCFOX αS HI versions equipped with Huawei’s first LiDAR; the NIO ET7 equipped with LiDAR from Innovusion, a California-startup invested by NIO Capital; the ES33 concept from SAIC Motor’s high-end R-Auto brand equipped with Luminar LiDAR. Both DJI and Robosense, another Chinese LiDAR startup, will be showcasing the latest automotive grade LiDARs at the show.

It is interesting that these different brands are all teaming up with LiDAR startups rather than traditional LiDAR suppliers like Velodyne, and the relationships behind these partnerships are as significant as these LiDARs becoming cheaper, more available and part of USPs of smart EVs. The only thing left to see is whether some of these new LiDAR-equipped models are just talking the talk or walking the walking when it comes to city-level autonomous driving. Huawei’s video of its Autonomous Driving Solution (ADS) and LiDAR-enabled αS successfully navigating city streets went viral, but Baidu soon came out with its own videos of Apollo Navigation Pilot (ANP) enabled-WM Motor W6 successfully navigating city streets using vision-based solutions only. The Xpeng P5 is supposed to have that capability when its Xpilot 3.5 OTA is updated later this year.

The race is certainly on for more commercialization of advanced levels of autonomous driving capabilities especially in city level environments and the local players are definitely leading the way.

Huawei

Huawei is worth a special mention because how it has suddenly come onto the scene by beating many traditional tier-1 suppliers to the punch when it comes to connectivity and autonomous driving capabilities. Just two years ago, it had announced its intention of officially entering the auto industry as a “value-added” supplier and the goal of NOT making cars but helping OEMs to make better cars.

Everything from its HarmonyOS, hardware, software and vertical integration into various facets of the supply chain has surprised many people in the industry.

It has reiterated again recently that it will NOT make cars itself but rather be a partner to help its customers make better cars. Case in point: ARCFOX, and soon Chang’an and GAC Group, through a closer and deeper collaboration, different from its myriad relationships with other OEMs.

Huawei Inside, or HI, will be the sub-brand appearing in numerous new models that will arrive over the coming months. So Huawei is really blurring the lines of being an OEM or a supplier and it’s going to make a lot of the traditional tier-1 giants like Bosch, Conti and Denso sweat.

Chinese smart EV startups.

There will be at least one Chinese smart EV startup brand in each of the key halls except Hall H.81 which is dedicated to luxury and super luxury brands like Porsche, Lamborghni, Bentley, Maserati, etc.

Like I said in my previous article, if you are crunched for time and have only time to go to one hall, then it’s gotta be 7.1H. BMW Group and BYD will be surrounded by several Chinese smart EV startups and tech brands: NIO, Xpeng, Zeekr, Hengchi (Evergrande Auto), and in particular ARCFOX & Huawei.

Hengchi is going to unveil all nine of their models. Are they going to be clay models only or will they have more substance?

Foreign brands accelerating pace on BEV rollout

Toyota is unveiling its first global model under the e-TNGA platform, a mid-size SUV called bZ4X under the new electric series bZ which means Beyond Zero.

Toyota already sells the locally-produced C-HR EV & IZOA EV, both positioned in the A0 segment, as well as the imported UX300e BEV. And sells the PHEV versions of the RAV4, Levin & Corolla.

Honda, on the other hand, will show entirely NEVs at the show, including the near production version of the locally-developed SUV e: Concept.

Nissan will be showing the Ariya again and also introduce its second-generation e-POWER electrified powertrain technology to China. These will help open the next chapter of electrification for Nissan in the market.

Volkswagen just revealed the China-exclusive ID6. X/CROZZ 7-seat family electric SUVs in addition to the recently launched ID.4 X/CROZZ models as it accelerates its NEV offensive as the leading foreign brand.

GM will be showing the Cadillac LYRIQ to a public audience for the first time and its joint venture recently announced a new tech strategy focused on new BEVs based on the Ultium powertrain platform. The leading U.S. automaker has benefited more from the success of the Wuling Hongguang MINIEV than those that come from its traditional brand trio of Buick, Chevrolet and Cadillac.

Ford is making a huge bet with the locally-produced Mustang Mach-E, going even as far as using BYD batteries and NIO’s super charging stations to drive down cost and offer better service. It’s really trying to be prudent.

Hyundai & Kia just announced a new strategy for China focused also on launching more EV models based on their E-GMP platform including the IONIQ 5 and Kia EV6, which will be launched in the Chinese market in due course and spearhead a NEV product portfolio that will total 21 by 2030.

New brands and outrageous designs

Four years ago, Shanghai was the venue for the auto-show debut of numerous Chinese smart EV startup brands like NIO.

Fast forward to today, we are still seeing new brands emerge: Geely’s ZEEKR that was officially launched on April 15, Hengchi, HiPhi from Human Horizons, what I call “state-owned” startup brands like Dongfeng’s VOYAH and SAIC Motor’s IM Motors, as well as Great Wall Motor’s Tank brand that “spun off” from WEY.

Whatever the case, Chinese brands like Geely, Great Wall Motor, Chang’an, BYD, GAC and Chery have come a long way. Their design evolution has been nothing short of phenomenal and we are going to see their new production models and concepts steal spotlight away from those of the established foreign brands.

Having said that, there are some outrageously designed new vehicles that have been teased so far, quite a few of them coming from Great Wall Motor’s Ora brand, like the Ora Lightning Cat that combines the Model 3, Porsche and Beetle design cues, as well as a retro-looking vehicle that is basically a Beetle. Oh well, take a look yourself.

Ora Lightning Cat

Tier-1 Suppliers/Tech companies

Valeo Booth

And definitely don’t forget the tier-1 suppliers like Bosch, Conti, ZF, Valeo, Hella, etc. as well as the tech companies, including Baidu & Huawei as well as even DJI. This is the best part about Shanghai Auto Show, because the product and technologies they are showing IMO are much more exciting than cars from the OEMs. And they usually do not participate at the Beijing Auto Show so it’s a biennial thing.

Below is a list of new models that debuted, started pre-sale or launched at Auto Shanghai 2021 on April 19:

Former Chief Editor @ChinaAutoReview, China auto/EV/AV/mobility expert. Co-host of the China EVs & More Podcast