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China's Qoros takes European path to sell cars at home

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Independent Chinese automaker Qoros wants to seduce European drivers in a bid to bolster sales back home, it said Wednesday at the Geneva Motor Show.

"It's always helpful if you have some connection with Europe," to attract buyers in China, Qoros Vice-Chairman Volker Steinwascher told AFP.

Christiano Carlutti, who heads Qoros' sales team in Europe and the Middle East, agreed.

"Chinese clients really like European brands, so it is important to be successful in the European market when it comes to credibility," he said.

Founded in 2007 by the Chinese giant Chery and venture capitalist Israel Corporation, the automaker is presenting its Qoros 3 compact sedan for the first time at the Geneva show, which kicked off on Tuesday for the media and will open to the public on Thursday.

With a leather interior, sun roof, metallic paint and touch-screen dashboard, it was clearly inspired by high-end German autos.

On the showroom floor, the Qoros 3 was also flanked by two concept cars to show how it is expected to evolve, with a new model due every six to eight months.

The sedan is set to go on sale in the second half of the year in China and in a small test market in Eastern Europe, and should reach dealerships in Western Europe in 2014 or 2015, with prices circling around the 18,000-euro ($23,500) mark.

Despite the downturn in Europe, Carlutti insisted this was the perfect time to start making a name for Qoros on the continent.

"European customers are searching for value and content" at a competitive price, he said.

The brand joins a long list of Chinese carmakers that have their eyes on Europe.

Starting in 2006 and 2007, Chinese companies began presenting models at car shows in Geneva, Paris and Frankfurt, but neither the media nor the public were convinced at first by the quality on offer.

Since then, the situation has evolved.

Great Wall Motor bought a Bulgarian plant, Chery has set up shop in Italy through a local unit, and Geely, which acquired Volvo a few years back, has also taken over the maker of London's famous black taxis.

Now, Chinese companies are taken more seriously, according to Matthias Wissmann, head of the German automobile federation VDA.

"The Chinese learn at an amazing rate," he told AFP, while adding that the companies "aren't going to conquer the market overnight."

In its quest for success, Qoros has recruited a number of former heads of its European competitors.

Steinwascher used to be a Volkswagen man, Qoros' design chief came from BMW and other executives have migrated from Saab, Opel and Jaguar Land Rover.

"This has allowed us to develop a product with an attention to detail, an attention to quality that is typically European," Carlutti said.

Qoros is using large, Western suppliers like the Canadian Magna and German companies Bosch and Continental, and has production sites in Munich in Germany and Graz in Austria.

It is also in the process of acquiring a factory near Shanghai, where it plans to start turning out 150,000 units and gradually expand that number to 450,000.

In all, it has invested $1.5 billion.

Juergen Pieper, a Germany-based analyst with the Metzler bank, is nonetheless skeptical.

Although the design is satisfying, he said: "I don't think the quality is up to snuff.

"The have absolutely no chance of making a place for themselves on the European market over the next three to four years, but in the long-term, they do," he noted.

Qoros, for its part, has remained vague in terms of its ambitions.

It has not identified the European countries in which it plans to market its sedan and has stayed mum on sales goals and the segment of customers it is targeting.

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