Luxury automakers may finally be seeing tougher times in China, as the red-hot sales figures seen since 2008-2009 start to cool, but this isn’t stopping the likes of Ferrari, Rolls-Royce and BMW from creating special “China-only” editions for what has become one of their critical markets.
As Christoph Stuermer, a Frankfurt-based analyst at IHS Automotive, recently told Bloomberg, following a 34 percent leap in 2011, growth in China’s premium-light vehicle segment is expected to slow to 24 percent, and in response, major automakers like Mercedes-Benz have kicked up their discounts to spur sales.
“ In the ultra-premium segment, localisation and pent-up demand in inland areas are expected to keep sales comparatively high in 2012 ”
Yet in the ultra-premium segment, where British marques like Bentley and Rolls reign supreme, aggressive localisation and pent-up demand in inland areas are expected to keep sales comparatively high in 2012. So far this year, Bentley sales in China have outpaced the company’s largest market, the United States, rising 66 percent year-over-year in the first two months of this year. Over the course of 2012, Bentley expects China sales to increase around 25 percent this year to around 2,000 units, over 1,839 sold there last year.
So while a run-of-the-mill Mercedes might not inflame the same passions it once did in China, exclusivity still does. Noting this aspect of the China auto market, luxury automakers will likely continue to create limited edition, customized vehicles for China that they wouldn’t dare put on sale anywhere else. Looking back at the last few years, here are eight of our favorite “Made for China” luxury cars, running the gamut from gorgeous to gaudy.
Designed to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the PRC, BMW’s 760Li 60 Anniversary Edition, limited to 60 units, kept most of its customization inside the car. Headrests featured a Chinese knot pattern, and a special iDrive knob was inlaid with a special “Chinese Dragon” seal pattern.
One of a slew of limited edition products released in the past year to commemorate 2012, the Year of the Dragon in China, Rolls-Royce debuted its localized collection last August. Though “understated” isn’t a word usually associated with Rolls-Royce, its localized Phantom and Phantom Extended Wheelbase models were just that, with one of the only features actually visible on the exterior being a set of forward-facing hand-painted dragons.
In the interior, though, dragon iconography proliferated, from hand-embroidered, four-color (tan, golden sand, black and white) accents hand-embroidered on each headrest to a hand-laid dragon inlay in the passenger panel and special tread-plates with “Year of the Dragon 2012″ illuminated by LED lighting.
In 2009, Ferrari commissioned Chinese artist Lu Hao to create a one-off edition of its 599 Fiorino for a charity auction, with the artist also asked to localize the interior for a subsequent edition of 12 customized 599 GTB Fiorino China models.
For his one-of-a-kind car, Lu employed a unique trompe-l’œil paint job incorporating the faint green hue and distinctive cracked pattern of Ge Kiln porcelain from China’s Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), while the interior featured a jade ignition button inscribed with the ancient Xiao Zhuan symbols for ‘engine start,’ along with a accelerometer marked with traditional Chinese characters.
Ultimately, Lu’s “porcelain Ferrari” sold for US$2 million at auction, with the proceeds going to fund engineering students and teachers from Bejing’s “ivy league” Tsinghua University to study in Milan and at Ferrari’s headquarters.
Set to be unveiled next month at the Beijing Auto Show, Aston Martin’s Dragon88 collection will include localized versions of the V8 Vantage S, Virage and DBS models. Heavy, like many other China-only special editions, on Chinese cultural references and iconography, only 88 Dragon88 models — the number eight is considered auspicious in China — will be available.
Paint schemes come in three versions, champagne gold, volcano red or amethyst red, meant to represent, respectively, wealth and fortune, peace and protection, and “dragon fire.” Interior embroidery includes a dragon inspired by the Nine Dragon Wall at Beihai Park in Beijing. Other features in the Dragon88 line include a Bang and Olufsen speaker system, new 10-spoke dragon edition alloy wheels and special black brake calipers.
Released last June to commemorate Porsche’s first decade in the China market, the 10th anniversary 911 proved so popular that all ten of the limited-edition cars sold out before it was even officially released. Priced at 3.48 million yuan (US$538,000), most of the China-focused alterations to the standard 911 Turbo S chassis were unsurprisingly cosmetic.
Localized features included special AlcAntara sports seats, carbon fiber trim and a new Sports Design steering wheel, but other touches like unique commemorative floormats and “China Tenth Anniversary” insignias hit the right balance of localization and flash so popular among Chinese luxury car buyers.
Produced in a very limited run of 30 units, BMW’s China-only M3 Tiger — so named because 2010 was, on the Chinese lunar calendar, the year of the tiger — was designed in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the M3’s entrance to the China market.
Something of a mixture between the BMW M3 GTS and BMW M3 Competition Package Coupé, most of the modifications in the BMW M3 Tiger were strictly superficial, from the striking orange paint job and black 19-inch wheel rims to the black leather seat covers, featuring embroidered tigers in orange stitching. Met with decidedly mixed reviews upon its unveiling in September 2010, the M3 Tiger ran between 1.08 million yuan (US$159,000) and 1.25 million yuan (US$184,000), depending on features.
Released at the 2010 Beijing Auto Show, Bentley created two special editions of its flagship Continental model, the Continental Flying Spur Speed China and the Continental GT Design Series China, both of which were developed exclusively for the Chinese market.
Although these models lacked the distinctly “Chinese” cultural or historical elements seen in models like Ferrari’s one-off Lu Hao GTB 599, certain low-key color elements and name badges were conspicuously displayed on the treadplate and center console. Additionally, the Continental GT Design Series China was the first-ever Bentley model to include the option of orange and magenta exterior color schemes.
Tank-like, patently ugly, and priced at a suitably understated $7 million, the Russian armored car/ultra-luxury SUV maker Dartz recently sought to out-bling every other “Year of the Dragon” edition on the market with its new Latvian-made “Black Dragon” Prombron.
Limited to 12 units, the Black Dragon includes all the features we’ve come to expect from Dartz, which apparently doesn’t know the meaning of the word “understated,” from bulletproof windows and chassis to a golden Dartz logo outfitted with diamonds and rubies and dragon-inlaid gold wheels.
Inside, passengers can enjoy a 42-inch television, piano-black flooring, and an electrochromic roof. Catering to China’s love of elongated wheelbase vehicles, the Dartz Prombron Black Dragon features an additional (and entirely gratuitous) two feet of leg-room.
For more in our series of Prime Listings, please see our most recent editions as follows: