SU Mythbusters: Chinese Partnerships

This is the start of a series I plan on doing from time to time that will debunk common perceptions about a particular topic of interest to Saab. I’m sure you all have had to counter someone’s claim that Saab is bankrupt, was killed off by GM, or maybe that it’s part of a communist scheme to take over the auto industry (I kid you not, I’ve heard that now twice). We at SaabsUnited aim to give you the tools to shoot down those crackpot theories with real data, backed up by research and facts to prove that Saab is not only in a great position to capitalize on years of development, but already succeeding on their turn-around as an independent automaker.

This inaugural article intends to show that Chinese partnerships, joint-ventures, and even part ownership is not only common in the auto industry, but a necessity if a brand intends to compete in the global market. In the wake of Sweden’s Chinese Ambassador’s Lars Fredén’s initial report on Hawtai, I feel it’s more important than ever to explain the hard facts about China’s auto industry (stay tuned for a post tomorrow that goes more in depth into Hawtai in a much more holistic fair way than you’ll see from Mr. Fredén’s letter home). In January 2009 for the first time ever, China became the number one consumer of cars in the world, and went on to take the title for the entire year. Can you guess what the number one automaker in China in 2010 was? Some domestic automaker you say? In fact, the Volkswagen Auto Group had the highest sales in 2010, when one combines VW, Audi, and Skoda sales, a staggering 1,886,902 cars were moved on Chinese soil. Hot on their heels is General Motors, who between Buick, Chevrolet, and Cadillac sold 1,052,434 units. To that end, nearly every single automaker in the US has representation in China through a joint-venture. The last two exceptions have been Jaguar/Land Rover and of course, Saab. To their credit, JLR have been in talks with Great Wall Motors and expect China to be their third largest market in the next few years. What this all means is that you can’t be a player in the global auto market without a Chinese partner. Saab’s deal with Hawtai motors shows that it takes the changing landscape very seriously.

A person familiar with Saab, Nick Reilly, who is head of GM’s International Operations in Shanghai, told just how up to speed China is in terms of auto production.

Many Chinese plants are more modern than U.S. plants, where modernization clashes with unions. Reilly agrees:

“Their rate of progress in terms of technology, innovation and quality improvements is really remarkable, and we are totally underestimating the technological advances they are making. The gap has completely shrunk. It is a tenth of what it was and a quarter of what we expected it to be. I think everybody thought we had 10 or 15 years before China became competitive, and that is just not true.”

Here’s a quick snapshot of each major automaker and their Chinese partner, by sales in 2010. For those who knew little about the Chinese auto market before this week, let these statistics be your wake up call.

Volkswagen Auto Group (SAIC-SVG/FAW): 1,886,902

General Motors (SAIC): 1,052,434

Hyundai-Kia (Beijing Hyundai Motor Company-BAIC): 1,036,036

Toyota (Guangzhou Automobile Industry Group – Guangqi Toyota Automobile): 775,245

Nissan (Dongfeng-Nissan): 681,360

Honda (Guangzhou Automobile Industry Group – Guangqi Honda Automobile): 646,355

Peugeot-Citroën (Dongfeng, but soon to be Chang’an): 373,366

Ford (Chang’an): 304,103

Suzuki (Chang’an): 275,672

Mazda (Chang’an)225.378

BMW (Brilliance): 62.550

Mercedes-Benz (BAIC, BYD 2013+): 58,382

Jaguar/Landrover (in talks with Great Wall Motors): 26,114

Volvo (owned wholly by Geely): 17,090

For skeptics looking for a background on each automaker’s connection to their Chinese partner and additional analysis and insight on the Chinese market, find out after the break.

This post may be as long as the Great Wall, but it hammers home the point that every automaker has employed the same strategy Saab is using to gain traction in China, a joint-venture with a Chinese domestic company to produce vehicles locally for China’s growing automarket. Further, many European and American car companies are part or now wholly owned by these same companies or Chinese investment groups. Sorry to the Wikipedia haters out there, but I’ve sourced much of this from their site. It’s fact checked, but if that’s not good enough for you, I’ve gone further in many instances with research directly to the manufacturers themselves or articles from various news organizations around the world.

In essence what this article does is establish a definitive argument that what Saab is doing is par for the course in the auto industry. This is one of the most comprehensive pieces about how intertwined Western and Eastern companies are within China’s market on the internet, and it’s written through a Saab lens.


Volkswagen Group China SAIC (SVW)/FAW): 1,886,902

Since 1984, Volkswagen has been heavily invested in a joint-venturship China. Their base of production is in Anting, a district in Shanghai, which for all intents and purposes serves as a sort of mini-Detroit for VW (seriously, they call it Auto City) in China. Those familiar with the China Grand Prix will know that the Shanghai track is located here. SAIC is headquartered there, remember their name, they have their hands in a few other manufacturers too; SAIC is owned by the City of Shanghai’s government. Through their joint-venture with VW called SVW (Shanghai Volkswagen), they currently produce:

In 2010, SVW produced a staggering 1,031,666 vehicles. As a quick reminder, VW sold only 257,000 in the US in 2010. SVW is owned 50% by SAIC, 40% by Volkswagen AG, and 10% by Volkswagen (China) Investment Company (a Chinese company).

VW’s second partner in China is FAW, or First Automobile Works, a state owned Chinese company. Their first partnership with VW started in February, 1991 and in 1996 they began producing the first Audis in China. Among the models they produce:

  • Volkswagen Jetta
  • New Bora
  • Golf
  • Sagitar
  • Magotan
  • Volkswagen CC
  • Audi A6L
  • Audi A4L (this one made me laugh- be prepared to see a 9-3L)
  • Audi Q5

FAW produced 881,888 Volkswagen Group cars in 2010. Realize that all these cars are produced for Chinese consumption only. Because demand in China is so high, it’s not like there’s any chance they might be exported to begin with. Keep that in mind as you ponder if Hawtai might be building Saabs for export around the world– they won’t.


General Motors (SAIC): 1,052,434

Remember when I told you to remember the name SAIC? Well, that’s because they’re a big player in GM, too. If you clicked the link above to SAIC, you might get a kick out of the fact that Saab is still listed as part of GM. If you click on that Saab link, you’ll be forwarded to, which further redirects you to the generic global portal as they haven’t really had much of a presence in China up until this point. Hopefully it won’t be long until Saab has a strong Chinese website– something I can honestly say isn’t too common as I’ve researched this article among any of the global brands. Hope comes in the form of their Taiwanese site, where I’m happy to report Saab sold 390 units in 2010.

Back to GM’s involvement with SAIC, a relationship started in 1997 as a 50-50 arrangement between the two parties in an arrangement called Shanghai General Motors Company Limited. Last year, SAIC threw an additional $85 million at the deal to purchase an extra 1% of the company, and now owns 51%. In 2010, Buick sold 543,377 cars, making it their number 1 market in the world. To the Chinese, Buick is right up there with Mercedes-Benz in terms of reputation (perhaps even higher actually). To its credit, GM recognized this fairly early last decade and made a strong push to cater to the Chinese market. They established a new design studio, invested heavily in marketing and promotions, and are now reaping enormous rewards. So much so that earlier this week, they announced selling their 3 millionth Buick in China. We owe some (not a ton mind you, but some) of the work done in China to the production of the Epsilon II platform which underpins the excellent Saab 9-5. And we surely owe GM’s continued existence and perhaps some of Ed Whitaker’s indifference towards the Saab sale to Spyker as part of the stability the Chinese market brought to GM during its bankruptcy.

During its IPO, several Chinese groups made large stock purchases of the new GM shares, some of which went to SAIC in a deal similar to what we’re seeing with Saab and Hawtai. The most American of auto companies is indeed part owned by the government of the city of Shanghai. Beyond SAIC, two major Chinese banks were involved in GM’s IPO. From AP:

Americans uncomfortable with U.S. government ownership of General Motors may want to hear more: One of those banks is the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, one of China’s four big central government banks. The other, China International Capital Corp., is a joint venture run primarily by Central Huijin Investment Ltd., an arm of the state, and Morgan Stanley.

This is the first time Chinese government banks have participated in a major U.S.-issued IPO, according to IPO tracking firm Dealogic. The banks are listed as co-managers in the offering, meaning they will sell a portion of the new shares.

That same most American of all car companies sponsored a communist party movie (The Birth of a Party) to try to get in good graces with China’s government last year. The whole thing is quite interesting, really.


Hyundai-Kia (Beijing Hyundai Motor Company): 1,036,036

This equally-owned joint venture and subsidiary of BAIC and Hyundai Motor Company, Beijing Hyundai Motor Company (BHMC) began in 2002. It’s base of production is in a satellite city of Beijing. There’s nothing really interesting to say about these guys except for the fact that Hyundai used to have a deal with Hawtai also started in 2002 that allowed them to build Chinese-market versions under the Hawtai name of the Hyundai Matrix, the Hyundai Santa Fe and the Hyundai Terracan. That deal expired last year, and as you’ll read below when I get to Hawtai, they’ve since diversified their lineup. Last year BHMC made the third most-purchased model in 2010 in China, the Elantra.

Oh and the fact that they sold over a million cars in China in 2010 is sort of a big deal too, I guess.


Toyota (Guangzhou Automobile Industry Group – Guangqi Toyota Automobile): 775,245

This one is sort of interesting because it’s associated with the Guangzhou Automobile Group which is owned by a holding company (similar to the way Saab is part of Spyker) which owns a bunch of joint-ventures with Japanese companies, Guanqi-Toyota (founded in 2004), Guanqi-Honda which I’ll get to soon (founded in 1998), a new joint-venture with Mitsubishi, and soon a joint-venture with Fiat. Guangqi Toyota Automobile is located in you guessed it, Guangzhou, China. In fact, most Chinese people know Toyota not simply as Toyota but as Guangzhou Toyota (though their corporate name is Guanqi Toyota). You’ll often see Guangzhou Automotive Group referred to as GAC.

Nissan (Dongfeng-Nissan): 681,360

Another relatively straightforward partnership, Dongfeng Motor and Nissan established their joint-venture in 2003 with production in Guangzhou, China. Among their models are the Teana, Sylphy, Sunny, X-trail, Qashqai, Tiida, Livina, and March. Interestingly, they’re one of a few automakers including GM and VW who are launching spinoff brands for the Chinese market called Venucia, similar in strategy to what Toyota did with Scion in the US. Bascially, they’re cheaper, more accessible cars for the average consumer (and their symbol incorporates the stars from the Chinese flag, you figure out who they’re trying to please). Their first model isn’t actually all that bad looking to me, and was unveiled 2 weeks ago in Shanghai. You won’t be seeing this with Hawtai and Saab anytime soon as they cater more to the luxury segment to begin with, and you could in fact say that Hawtai might now be marketed as Saab’s bargain counterpart in China.


Honda (Guangzhou Automobile Group): 646,355

Pretty much the same deal as Toyota with GAC, but they were first to China with reliable Japanese cars, thus cementing themselves as a value in the Chinese market. Nothing too exciting here either, except for the fact that like Nissan, they’re launching their own entry-level sub-brand called Everus, aimed at Inland China.


Peugeot-Citroën (Dongfeng, but soon to be Chang’an): 373,366

They had a rocky start in China and actually partnered with GAC for a bit, though that venture failed. Showing that China is able to give second chances, their second partnership with Dongfeng (who also shows Nissan some love as we just read), has been more successful. Amazingly they have over 300 dealerships in 200 cities in China and nearly all the cars they sell are produced in Wuhan, China. You can tell I don’t care too much about these guys, huh? 😛


Ford (Chang’an): 304,103

Suzuki (Chang’an): 275,672

Mazda (Chang’an): 225.378

I’m combining these three because up until last year, Mazda was pretty much controlled by Ford. Also, Suzuki is lumped in because I basically couldn’t care less about them (truth) and they’ve also partnered with Chang’an who is the 4th largest automaker in China. Chang’an is state owned, belonging to the ominous sounding China Weaponry Equipment. Yes, Ford is tied up with a company called China Weaponry Equipment, I kid you not.

You could say that Ford hasn’t exactly enjoyed as much success as their rival GM has in the market, perhaps because of their name or maybe it’s because of their product. In any event, the new Fiesta is turning out to be a huge hit there, and their joint-venture with Chang’an is starting to take off. Ford is also talking about starting their own discount sub-brand, again for Inland Chinese consumption and possibly even export to India. They obviously won’t be importing any to the US, I can only imagine how the average consumer here would react to such an arrangement– it would basically destroy any goodwill Ford has enjoyed over the last 2 years instantly. Saab understands this effect too, which is why so many of us are confident they’ll prevent Chinese built Saabs from leaving the country.

Interestingly enough, Chang’an produces the Volvo S40 and S80, and will continue doing so until 2015 and 2018 respectively as part of a deal with Geely.


BMW (BMW-Brilliance): 62.550

Here’s where it starts getting fun, kiddies. This is more what we’re talking about when we think of what the Saab-Hawtai deal could mean in China. While most of the companies we’ve just toured are state owned, Brilliance is a publicly-traded company listed in Frankfurt and Hong Kong. They started as a mini-bus company in the early 90s until their founder got in some deep water and fled the country in 2002. Seizing the opportunity, BMW formed a joint venture with Brilliance (BMW-Brilliance) in 2003 and has since gone on to produce the 3-series, 5-series, and soon the X1 in their Shenyang factory. Similar to Saab, they see a goal of up to 200,000 cars (they say by 2012, but that would mean a more than 200% increase this year and so far sales aren’t up nearly that much).

As I teased before with Audi’s A4L, the Chinese market likes extended wheelbase versions of our typical small and mid-sized sedans. As such, BMW-Brilliance has made a Chinese market only LWB 5-series which is a huge seller for big shots in China, mainly because labor is so cheap that young executives who spend so much time in traffic congested Chinese roads can afford their own chauffeurs for the bargain basement price of  $250 a month (less than a garage spot in Manhattan, FYI). BMW takes the Chinese market so seriously that they’ve debuted many concepts at Shanghai, and recently unveiled the plug-in hybrid version of the 5-series. China is extremely serious about green technology, as they want to become a world leader in the production of next generation energy tech. This is yet another reason why Hawtai and a dozen others were so interested in partnering with Saab to gain access to eXWD and eDrive.


Mercedes-Benz (BAIC – Beijing Benz, BYD 2013+): 58,382

Yes, that BAIC, the same one that bought the rights to Saab’s old 9-3 and 9-5 technology for their own cars. Mercedes-Benz has had a joint venture with them since 2006 (after the DaimlerChrysler separation), and only recently have profits begun to flow in. Interestingly enough Beijing Benz started out as Beijing Jeep and through the merger with DaimlerChrysler wound up producing Benzes. Jeeps will now be built by none other than, GAC, through their new joint-venture with Fiat.

Beijing Benz like BMW-Brilliance has high hopes for much higher production numbers, in the range of 300,000 per year. The company started Mercedes-Benz E-Class and C-Class production in 2005 from knock-down kits, soon a full 70% of parts will originate in China. The GLK-Class crossover will start production this year on the same model line. Interestingly, S-Class models are not slated to join production anytime soon, and are a huge import to China from Germany (and are very popular along with the Audi A8L among government leaders).

Next year Mercedes-Benz and BYD (short for Build Your Dreams and heavily owned by Warren Buffett) will produce an EV for the growing Chinese market. As if one partner in China weren’t good enough for Mercedes, they need two.


Jaguar/Landrover (in talks with Great Wall Motors): 26,114

This is a case where you just have an anomaly making it solely on reputation, prestige, and a good name. Jaguar sold 820 units in the first quarter of this year alone while Land Rover sold a staggering 7,745 units. If those numbers continue, they’re looking at more cars sold in China than Saab sold worldwide last year combined, and that’s going it alone in the Chinese market with an importer.

But they’re not one to rest on their laurels, and they’re working to partner with Great Wall Auto (as GWA has confirmed). This will allow them to escape the tough import duties and produce their cars for a much lower price just like everyone else I mentioned, reaping greater profits off each model sold.


Volvo (owned wholly by Geely): 17,090

This one kind of pains me. One of my best friends is a huge Volvo fan (and I have a soft spot for them as well). Volvo as you know was sold by Ford last year to Geely, and they are now a 100% Chinese owned company. Zhejiang Geely Holding Group now owns them, alongside their other brands Emgrand, Englon, and Gleagle who produce the Jingang (translates to King Kong :\). As crazy as it sounds, this new structure just might work, and from all indications consumers don’t seem to care one way or another who is raking in their money. Volvo’s sales for the year have actually increased, and their YTD figures for 2010 were up 11% to 373, 525 vehicles. So far they’ve shown no sign of stopping and so far their sales for 2011 in the US alone are up 17.7% through April. For all the naysayers who say that a Chinese partner, let alone minority ownership, is going to kill Saab’s Swedish identity, please feel free to explain that statistic to me.

It isn’t all bad for Volvo either. Recently they announced that they’re on a hiring spree, looking for an extra 1,200 engineers in Europe, 900 for the R&D center Sweden alone. I hope for Volvo’s sake that Geely recognizes just how crucial Volvo’s Scandinavian identity is for its continued survival and credibility. Not taking anything away from China, Sweden has built a reputation based on years of history of producing safe and reliable cars, China can’t yet claim that heritage just yet. Perhaps with the help of Volvo Geely will go on to learn from their example, but for now they need to nurture the legacy they’ve purchased.


Saab (Hawtai)

Which brings us back to good old Hawtai, who I couldn’t be more happy to have gotten to know in the past few days. Having researched my ass off for this article, I can honestly say that of all the partners you might want in China, Hawtai is the one I’d most want to be with. They made most of their money on mines in Inner Mongolia, and like any startup, they’ve had their share of CEOs. Those initial growing pains have allowed them to focus on a growth strategy that means refocusing on one of the strongest markets on earth, the Chinese auto industry. Anyone can tell you (but apparently Lars Fredén didn’t get the memo) that China is trying to focus its efforts on Green technology and limit their carbon emissions. They understand that they will soon be on par with the United States in terms of energy consumption, and unless they deal with the problem head on, there will be major negative consequences. Hawtai wants to be a part of that market, and they know that Saab can help them get there. Saab wants to be part of the Chinese market, and they know Hawtai can help provide stability in an otherwise unpredictable car sales landscape.

When you think about it, Hawtai and Spyker have been on very similar paths. They’re both about a decade old, they’re both are run by extremely entrepreneurial teams, and they both have built a strategy of leveraging partnerships to produce a car greater than the sum of its parts. It’s almost the perfect match, as Hawtai has even worked with the same suppliers as Saab like ZF. Interestingly, they both fill each others weak spots in terms of engine technology, Saab has invested heavily in electric propulsion technology and research while Hawtai has done the same for diesel technology. Their joint-venture means tremendous cost savings for both and removes obstacles towards broadening their powertrain choices.

Perhaps best of all and one of the hidden gems in the deal it was set up. By becoming a minority owner in Saab, Hawtai has a genuine interest in their success. Whereas many of these joint-ventures I’ve mentioned are set up mainly with only the Chinese market in mind, this deal gives Hawtai incentive to work with Saab in a broader sense. It’s something GM learned with Buick that is now spilling over into success in the US, a synergistic effect of trying that capitalizes on joint development projects. It means Saab effectively can double their research, focus on new areas that might not have been available to them, and leverage their best strengths at home in Sweden while their Hawtai partners focus on their own. It’s a win-win, and I for one am extremely excited about what it means for Saab.

For those of you who made it to the end, congratulations! The next time someone asks you if Saab is now owned by the Chinese, send them to this article. And if they’re really pissing you off by making up accusations, you might want to just say, “You must be thinking of Volvo, they’re owned 100% by Geely.” 😉

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Very very good read. Thanks Jeff, that’s what we needed. A solid background that puts things in the right perspective.


+1, thank you Jeff! 🙂


Wow! This is awesome stuff Jeff, puts everything in a perspective.


Jeff Up!!

That was one heck of a piece. Very well done. Hawtai and Saab are a great partnership IMHO.


i dont think its a particularly wise thing to be linking Saab and China together at this moment in time as there are so many false rumours/stories circulating around the net. SU seems to reporting a lot of negative stories being brought up by the Swedish media which people outside of Sweden read about here.

ivo 71

I think it is actually very wise. People will read the media, SU or no SU. But SU can provide some informed perspective to those negatively slanted (non-)stories by others so that the latter are not the only source of information for the general public out there. Not offering such a corrective influence would be even more damaging for Saab imho. Moreover, Saab is going to co-operate with Hawtai and enter the Chinese market anyway, whatever whoever wherever writes about it.


ivo 71

This may well be the best researched and documented article ever published on NG SU. Jeff, if you get bored wih your day job, you could easily become a professional investigative journalist. Very well done! This piece is sure to become a source and quote classic for many pro writers for a long period of time. No-one has so far published a similarly thorough perspective story as this one. Be sure to check that the source is named if others use this article for quoting.



A very well written fantastic news article. I am extremely happy for SAAB and VM is a genius. I have even warmed up to the VOLVO deall. Who would have thought that automobiles might actually bring the world together? Seems to me, as a U.S.A. guy, that the Chinese are now more Capitalistic then we are. When you shop in WALMART here in the U.S.A. all of the products are of Chinese origin.


That is just an excellent article!
I have my quality scale on articles at SU, they are measured in the unit “Swade”. 1 Swade is the best that can be achieved. I must say this is actually 1.01 Swade and that is not possible. This means that I must have a new unit for my quality scale. I think I might name it “Jeff”…


Wow, that was one well written article, that really puts things in the right perspective! I´m really looking forward to future “SU Mythbusters” articles.



I love this piece, very good job Jeff!
This will give the naysayers the hickups, and wreck their whole world order 🙂


Just wow, Jeff. The effort you put in this piece is there for everyone to see. Well done, a truly fantastic one!


I also believe that of all the necessary Chinese partnerships Hawtai seems to be a good choice, for the reasons Jeff mentioned. I like the fact that they manufactured for Hyundai which means they know how to produce a certain quality standard. They need to mondernize their logo, though.. heheh. As mentioned before, it would be great to get insight on how big their dealership network is in China and if the company is known by the Chinese and what impressions. Sorry SU, asking you guys to do investigative journalism for free and in your free time. We SU readers… Read more »

mike saunders

A very nice research job, Jeff. Ties together a lot of the disparate stories in the business press over the past few years about Chinese partnerships and opens a lot of eyes. What you don’t discuss is WHY those partnerships exist, mainly the Chinese government’s tariff structure and other trade rules that make it extremely prohibitive for foreign automakers to sell within China. (Yes, the US exerted some arm-twisting like that in the early 90s to get BMW, Toyota and Hyundai plants into the Southern US, but that was more in the form of tax credits than high import duties.)… Read more »

mike saunders

…and I’m reply to my own post to add something about the GM info posted above. “During its IPO, several Chinese groups made large stock purchases of the new GM shares, some of which went to SAIC in a deal similar to what we’re seeing with Saab and Hawtai. The most American of auto companies is indeed part owned by the government of the city of Shanghai. Beyond SAIC, two major Chinese banks were involved in GM’s IPO. ” SAIC bought just 1 percent of GM. The two Chinese banks were two of 35 international investment banks that participated in… Read more »


Thanks Jeff, awesome article. Should clear up a lot of negative comments about Saab hooking up with Chinese.


Thanks Jeff, much obliged.
I usually don’t like really long articles, but this was so informative that I read it in one go.

Although I dislike the way that China is dealing with human right, labor laws (or the lack thereof), the environment and safety of their products, I’m also a realist and the pragmatic view is that Saabs partnership with a Chinese player has been unavoidable. Your article makes this crystal clear.
Maybe you should consider sending this as an editorial to the New York Times?

Sven van Dijkman

Heck Jeff, this is a perfect example that the move that SU made from a bloggers blog to a team work publication outlet (group blog?) was a superb move. It allows, amongst others, individual team members to do such a great piece as this! As a reader I am delighted!

More mythbusting to come I guess.


Well done and very enjoyable read! Thanks Jeff!


Wow, very impressive Jeff! Thanks for taking your time for researching and writing this not so small piece of information. 😉

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