BEIJING -- Western automakers including General Motors Co., Daimler, BMW, Audi and PSA/Peugeot-Citroen are counting on China to maintain growth for their premium offerings, although they expect luxury car sales to rise at a slower pace amid higher fuel costs and a decelerating economy.
Forecasts have China's automobile market surging to 30 million vehicles a year by 2020 from last year's 18 million. Some industry watchers think volume could even reach 40 million.
Audi sales chief Peter Schwarzenbauer said China should surpass the United States to become the world's largest luxury car market by 2015. "We expect the premium segment to grow much more strongly than the overall market," Schwarzenbauer said.
"China has 304 cities with at least 1 million population and we have so far only add dealers in 187 of them. The premium market still has extremely good growth prospects. We're all still scratching the surface in China," Schwarzenbauer told Reuters on the sidelines of the Beijing auto show.
BMW and Daimler expect double-digit growth in China's premium car market this year, but at a slower rate than in 2011.
Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said the premium car market should grow 15-20 percent this year and Daimler's sales should at least match that rate.
BMW expects sales growth in China to climb by a double-digit percentage in 2012, said sales and marketing chief Ian Robertson.
"I expect the (Chinese premium) market to ease somewhat from the 30 or so percent last year, but there's still a degree of upside in the market," Robertson said. "Forecasters say that premium segment in China could double over the next 4-5 years. We have about 290 BMW dealers now and will open about 50 more in the next 12 months. That also includes third-tier and fourth-tier cities."