The M Class from Mercedes-Benz is among the imported SUVs that are handling the rugged market with ease. [China Daily]
While the overall auto market languished in the first two months of the year, sales of imported vehicles increased sharply, mostly due to robust growth in foreign-made luxury SUVs, said Zeng Zhiling, director of industry consulting firm LMC Automotive Asia Pacific.
Imports into China totaled 181,600 vehicles in the first two months of 2012, a 25.3 percent rise over the same period in 2011.
According to statistics from the China Automobile Trading Co, 98,900 vehicles were imported in February alone, an increase of 62 percent year on year.
Its statistics show that February SUV imports accounted for 45.4 percent of the monthly total as their sales surged 74.1 percent over the same month last year. SUVs surpassed sedans to become the most imported vehicle in the country.
The country's annual SUV sales have grown 10 times over the number in 2004 to become the fastest-growing auto segment, according to an article in the Chinese-language Wall Street Journal last October.
A Chinese buyer will often even pay a 100,000 to 150,000 yuan surcharge to a dealer just to buy a desirable Land Rover. The practice is also common with other imported luxury SUVs, the article said.
Four SUV options available from Mercedes-Benz in China together contribute 30 percent of the luxury carmaker's total sales in the country.
In addition to SUVs, luxury car imports are also fueling the surge. BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus were the top three passenger vehicle brands imported in the first two months of the year, according to China Automobile Trading Co figures.
"Both demand and production drove luxury car import growth," said Zeng from LMC.
In the nation's most prosperous cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and others along the coast, a boom is underway in replacement car sales, he said. Many consumers prefer luxury models as they trade up for their second car purchase.
Some 60 percent of luxury cars are sold in those cities, he added.
Several luxury brands also have models tailored to Chinese customers, including local versions of the BMW 3 Series, 5 Series and X1, and the Mercedes-Benz E Class sedan and the GLK SUV.
Luxury models that were before prohibitively priced have become increasingly affordable to middle-class buyers.
Zeng said some locally made luxury cars even have prices close to domestic brands.
Even super luxury cars Lamborghini, Ferrari and Bentley - all of them imports - are selling well in China.
In 2011, Lamborghini sold 342 cars in China, more than one-fifth of its global sales.
As well, China became the biggest market for the Porsche Cayenne and Panamera in 2011, executives from the carmaker recently told reporters.