Made in China: the new normal?

As European customers have widely grown accustomed to imported electronics and clothes from the region, shopping for cars made in China is much less common for them. But a different tide is underway, as Chinese car brands ramp up their quality, lead in technology while cutting costs. Europe’s electric shock wave is a window of opportunity for those manufacturers.

In 2022, the Chinese-based firms accounted for 152,400 registrations in Europe on a total market of more than 11 million cars. But behind what seems to be a drop in the ocean lies a relentless and strong strategy for a decisive portion of the market share soon. Last year’s sales represent a leap of 130%, the strongest gain of any car group selling in the EU. The big names from China are hungry and target ten percent of the European EV market. There’s much more than cheap prices to back that ambition.

Our CEO visited the Shanghai Car Show 2023 and came back with some interesting insight. Watch the full interview.

Not like Japan

It’s tempting to think that the European dream of these brands is very akin to the one cherished by Japanese and South Korean brands, which despite some success in the broader market place never stook out their spot in the premium class and failed to disrupt the business case for the legacy carmakers. But as Europe is gearing up to ban the combustion engine in 2035, Asia’s cell specialist is in much better shape. It’s no coincidence that these brands, with few exceptions, barely export their cars outside of Europe.

And their strategy is clever in its cautiousness. They stack up their presence, launching themselves in electric car countries first, like Scandinavia and the Netherlands, from where they gradually conquer more marketplaces depending on previous success. Different than other Asian brands, the Chinese investors behind those groups have bought themselves a way into Europe, by takeovers of hereditary brands or the acquisition of major stakes. An infiltration that is almost impossible to unravel. European politicians may erect protectionist barriers for imports, but they can’t change ownership.

Actually, also considering western cars made in China in the sales mix, the three best sold EVs in Europe are already all Chinese. Auditors have calculated that the western car makes, ruling the car business for decades because of their unrivalled combustion-engine technology, face the loss of a value of 7 billion euros by 2030 because of this shift. It translated into many worrying faces of European managers at the latest Shanghai Auto Show: they saw the vanishing of poor quality, swapped for a technological advantage in battery development at an unbeatable price.

Once upon a time

Rewinding to the beginning of the century, the People’s Republic was a gold mine for car makers from the west. As the market opened up, it starved for classy brands with a long history and rose to grow into one of the biggest profit regions in the world. The trade-off for every brand reaching out to Chinese customers was an obligatory joint venture with a domestic car maker. The latter, churning out pathetic copycats at first, learned from the best. And managed to pull alongside their masters.

These brands embraced battery-electric cars at an earlier stage, seeking a solution for smog-rich urbanisation, eventually pushing the western makes into today’s catch-up race. In absolute numbers, the biggest EV market in the world is China. It was a writing on the - obviously, Chinese - wall that, for the first time since the genesis of the mixed economy, a western car brand was dethroned by a domestic one as the countries’ top-seller this year. It had never happened before.

An umbilical cord to Beijing

With direct access to rare-earth metals - China is the world’s biggest refiner of lithium -, those start-ups have grown into the world’s most important battery manufacturers. As the raw materials programs from foreign nations like Europe at least need a decade to gear up and return on results, there’s no urgency for them to worry about this dominance. The benefit has also morphed these companies into tech leaders. They provide cheaper, new chemistry batteries, as well as the novelty packing technology that makes batteries safer and more efficient. As the west won’t be capable of cutting its supply ties, the charging cable is almost an umbilical cord leading all the way to Beijing for a decent time to come.

On top of that, the electrification of our mobility is bringing along a new business model with, in its slipstream, a further windfall for the outsiders. As online sales are surging, the newcomers can skip the necessity of building up an extensive - and expensive - dealer network. Instead, they prefer strategically located and posh studios in metropolitan areas, backed by internet sales platforms.

Trimmed-down EVs

Of further help is the simplified configuration of electric cars accompanied by connected high tech. Gone is the myriad of colouring schemes for the bodywork, or the bible filled with lush options, today’s electric cars are trimmed-down offers. An easy fit for China’s less costly stock production - in contrast to Europe’s famed but complex order manufacturing. Boosting the evolution are the low wages and government subsidies, a playbook the EU doesn’t follow.

Lastly, as cars are poised to become smartphones on wheels, China benefits as a tech nation. Their experience in electronics manufacturing, indispensable for the further evolution of interior displays, artificially intelligent personal assistants or internet compatibility, will provide them with one more edge. As such, the new normal arising is a severe headache for the heavyweights of the European automotive industry.


If anything, the latest auto show in Shanghai demonstrated that the Chinese automotive industry is growing from David into Goliath. Gone are the copy-cats, the poor quality and the unsafe reputation. But the inevitable success of the Chinese manufacturers is not only atrtibuted to their advantages in battery and connectivity technology, they also have the business mindset to tread where no other Asian brand went before.

Geoffrey Heyninck,

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