CHRISTIAAN HETZNER

Porsche wants Chinese buyers to love the 911

Porsche has opened its first Experience Center in Asia based outside Shanghai's Formula One circuit.
Christiaan Hetzner is Automotive News Europe's Germany correspondent.
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China may be Porsche's biggest market but there is one core weakness that executives say is a concern: poor 911 sales. The sports coupe is coveted by fans across the world, except China where it is brand's least popular model by far.

Porsche sold 1,674 units of the 911 in China last year, just 2.3 percent of its Chinese volume. In its German home market Porsche sold 7,500 examples of the 911 for a 25 percent share of its sales.

The 911 couldn't be any more ill-suited for the Chinese market. Prestige is expressed through a car's dimensions, not its horsepower.

Wealthy consumers in China still prefer not to be behind the wheel themselves - they might like to be driven in a four-cylinder version of a Mercedes S-class long-wheelbase sedan, for example. China's high-performance, two-door luxury sports car segment is tiny.

Porsche executives blame in part the high level of taxation that can more than double the car's price. "Your entry 911 starts at a price here that is roughly the equivalent of a Turbo S for western buyers," one executive said on the sidelines of the Beijing auto show last month.

Another handicap is the 911's compact proportions. "It's seen as a women's car in China," said a former Porsche manager. "There are some wealthy customers internally called 'Top Guns' that also buy 911s but then you're talking the most expensive versions like the GT3 — they would never buy your standard Carrera."

Porsche needs to boost its appeal in the world's biggest car market. Its vehicle sales edged up 3 percent in the first quarter in China after gaining 10 percent last year. The biggest upcoming launch for Porsche is its next-generation 911, internally referred to as the 992, which will debut later this year.

Greater demand for high-end sports cars like the 911 would give Porsche's business in China a broader base. For the brand itself it's also important. For Porsche to be successful, the 911 has to be successful for image reasons. It's the halo product at the top of the pyramid and every model below is built around the coupe. When the Panamera four-door sedan was relaunched, the second-generation looked like a stretched 911. All models in general share a design philosophy that stems from the 911.

There is some improvement. For example, more and more Panamera sedans are now being sold in their short-wheelbase version, a sign that more owners are developing an appreciation for the act of driving itself.

Race a 911

To help cultivate its image, Porsche has opened its first Experience Center in Asia just outside Shanghai's Formula One circuit. The center has its own race track with a kick plate, water slicks and even low-friction paint to simulate the slippery conditions of driving on ice. For 3,500 renminbi, or 460 euros, a visitor can get 90 minutes of one-on-one coaching on how to properly handle a sports car by a Porsche instructor in one of the center's 911s.

The Shanghai center has its own race track.

Photo credit: Christiaan Hetzner

The Shanghai center is Porsche's sixth, joining others in Los Angeles and Atlanta in the U.S.; Leipzig, Germany; Silverstone, England; and Le Mans, France.

Porsche sales chief, Detlev von Platen, said the company believes the Shanghai center will have a strong impact on the development of the two-door sports car segment in China. "I expect to see a double-digit growth in this segment in the future. We are still talking about small volumes for the moment but we’re also seeing some Chinese manufacturers are coming in this segment, which is a good thing since it brings some momentum."

Said von Platen: "If you draw a circle around the areas within a three-hour drive from here Shanghai, you can potentially reach more than 300 million people."

China's government could also help boost Porsche sales. Beijing recently discussed dropping its import tax for fully-built cars with some reports suggesting it could be halved from its current 25 percent level.

What that could bring can be seen in last year's sudden surge in sales of Porsche's entry-level sports car, the 718. When the car was relaunched in 2016 with a smaller four-cylinder engine, its lower displacement qualified it for a reduced consumption tax in China. This helped reduce the price below a key threshold of 600,000 renminbi, or roughly 80,000 euros. Now China has become the biggest market for the 718 more than doubling to nearly 6,000 units last year.

So maybe there's hope the 911 might become the most sought-after Porsche in China.

You can reach Christiaan Hetzner at christiaan.hetzner@gmail.com.

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