Concept cars at the Shanghai Auto Show in China. Agence France-Presse
Electric vehicle (EV) concepts shown in Shanghai this week, such as the Audi AI:me and Infiniti QX Inspiration, point to a future of living-room-like comfort in cars with flat floors and ample space for sofa-like bench seats.
In the design studies, automakers have taken advantage of the space freed up by the electric motor, which takes less room than the bulky internal combustion engine, cooling apparatus and complex transmission gears needed for gasoline cars.
As most batteries in an EV are laid out flat under the floor, the EVs shown in the Shanghai Auto Show also have more height and, in fact, many are sport-utility vehicles (SUVs). The show started on April 16 and will close on April 25.
Both the AI:me urban car and Infiniti’s QX Inspiration SUV have flat floors, interiors large enough to accommodate what looks like a sofa in the back and more leg room and storage.
Because there is no tunnel, which often houses the drive shaft and exhaust apparatus in a gasoline car, running through the length of the EV cabin, the centre of the rear seat “can become just as valuable” as the space on its sides, design chief for Nissan’s premium brand Infiniti, Karim Habib, said.
That in turn points to the possibility of “a return of the bench seat” in the front and the rear – a throwback to American cars of a bygone era, Habib told Reuters.
The EV’s flat and slightly elevated floor allows passengers to slide into it, Habib said. “You can kind of comfortably sit into it. You can cross your legs, stretch your legs out,” he added, referring to the QX Inspiration concept car.
Audi’s AI:me offers what the company’s China operations chief, Thomas Owsianski, described as “maximum space comfort” despite its smallish urban car profile.
“We are fundamentally changing the perception of a (urban) car, particularly car experience,” Owsianski said in Shanghai. “The AI:me has very compact dimensions but … it shows the urban mobility, especially premium mobility, doesn’t need to feel small. Cars are becoming a living room space.”
China’s car market will return to growth in the second half of this year due to government support although the days of high single or double-digit growth are over and consolidation is likely, senior automotive executives said on Tuesday.
The predictions from executives including the head of Mitsubishi Motors on the first day of the Shanghai Auto Show point to a vehicle market that is heading for more balanced growth, especially if the trade war with the US is resolved.
Automotive sales in China contracted for the first time last year since the 1990s as a slowing economy and the trade friction between Beijing and Washington affected consumer sentiment.
Recent moves by the Chinese government to cut taxes, carmakers’ plans for new model launches as well as the hopes that the US-China trade spat will soon be resolved could start to turn things around, the executives said.
“We predict there will be negative growth in the first half this year, even double digit,” said Guangzhou Automobile Group’s (GAC) general manager Feng Xingya.
“But due to government subsidies, carmakers’ discounts and better macroeconomic conditions, sales will turn to positive in the second half,” he said.
The decline in Chinese automotive sales has already started to slow. They fell by 5.2 percent in March, the smallest decline since August 2018.
“It’s only natural for the China market to transition to slower growth,” Mitsubishi Motors’ Chief Executive Osamu Masuko told Reuters in an interview, saying that the market was showing some “level of maturity.” “Going forward the market still has more growth left in it, but it will likely grow moderately. Growth of 5-6 percent a year on a consistent basis might not be that easy to achieve.”
The opening day of the autoshow was marked by launches of new sports utility vehicles from carmakers such as General Motors Co and Daimler, aimed at rejuvenating customer interest with fresh designs in the fast-growing market segment.
Some firms were more optimistic with luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce Motor Cars saying that it would likely achieve double digit sales-growth in China again this year, although below 2018 levels.
But others predicted that more pressure is to come as Beijing institutes tough rules to transform the industry, which could kick off a round of consolidation or prompt some to leave the Chinese market. “That’s more likely to happen to small, non state-owned players who really don’t have a whole lot to offer,” said GM’s China President Matt Tsien, adding that it could extend to some foreign players.
The government has this year tightened the screw on makers’ ability to add manufacturing capacity and is instituting electric car production quotas for automakers to combat pollution.