Which automakers are best placed to explore China's fast-growing market for electric vehicles? One would be tempted to say the Chinese brands, which sold more than 331,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids last year.
But after attending the Paris auto show this year, I concluded that German automakers are preparing to dominate China's market for premium EVs. And they plan to do so in two major steps.
The first step is to roll out more plug-in hybrids. Audi, BMW and Mercedes each dedicated more than a third of their exhibit areas to showcase plug-in versions of virtually all their gasoline models.
To eliminate all doubt, BMW and Mercedes painted the words "plug-in hybrid" on one side of the vehicles, while Audi used the word "e-tron", its own coinage for plug-in hybrids.
Moreover, all of the plug-in hybrids were production models. Some of them -- such as the BMW i8 and the electrified Audi A3 and Q7 -- already are on sale in Europe. The rest will debut in the near future.
But that's not all. After the Germans introduce a raft of plug-in hybrids, they plan to launch long-range battery-electric cars.
At the show, both Volkswagen and Mercedes introduced new brands specifically for EVs. For its new I.D. brand, Volkswagen displayed an electric hatchback, while Mercedes' EQ marque featured a crossover concept.
The two cars had one thing in common: long ranges. Volkswagen's I.D. concept can drive for up to 600 kilometers (360 miles) on one charge, while the Mercedes has a maximum range of 500 kilometers.
The companies will quickly expand their EV lineups over the next ten years. By 2025, VW plans to build more than 30 new electric models under its various brands, while Mercedes expects EVs will account for 15 to 25 percent of its global sales.
BMW did not update its EV product plans at the show, but it is believed to be developing an aggressive strategy.
Obviously, the German EVs on display in Paris are intended for the European market. But there is good reason to believe the vehicles will migrate to China.
China is the largest global market for Mercedes, BMW, VW and its Audi luxury brand. Their EV product plans fit perfectly with China's regulations and market conditions.
Like Europe, China is aggressively pushing carmakers to improve fuel economy and produce more EVs and plug-in hybrids.
By 2020, automakers operating in China must cut their average fleet fuel consumption to 5 liters per 100 km, down from 6.9 liters as of last year. That would equate to an average fuel economy of 47 mpg, up from 34 mpg.
On top of that, Beijing plans to introduce a California-style carbon credit trading scheme in 2018 that will goad automakers to produce EVs locally.
It is true that German automakers and their global peers have been reluctant to build EVs in China. But that's because they are skeptical that consumers actually want these models.
They were right to be prudent. To date, China's EV boom has been fueled by government subsidies, not consumer demand.
Untroubled by such distinctions, Chinese automakers rushed their electric cars to market, whether or not they were ready.
The Germans have been more circumspect. First, they will introduce plug-in hybrids, to be followed by long-range battery-electric models.
For example, Audi has rolled out a plug-in hybrid A3 Sportback. Later this year, it will follow up with plug-in hybrid versions of the A6 sedan and Q7 crossover.
Meanwhile, BMW soon will introduce a locally built plug-in hybrid version of the X1 small crossover.
German carmakers will aim the models at China's luxury and near-luxury markets, while Chinese brands will target more affordable segments.
But VW, the largest carmaker in China, is prepared to penetrate the market for affordable EVs.
The German auto giant will build low-priced electric cars at a joint venture it plans to establish with China's Jianghuai Automobile Co., VW China chief Jochem Heizmann told Chinese media at the Paris auto show.
The vehicles will be marketed under a new brand. They will debut before the Volkswagen-badged EVs to be built at VW's existing partnerships with China FAW Group Corp. and SAIC Motor Corp., Heizmann noted.
In the coming battle for market share, VW and other German automakers will enjoy a major technology advantage over Chinese rivals.
Beijing's investigation of EV subsidies this year revealed that a significant number of Chinese EVs are substandard.
Chinese automakers sold the vehicles to inflate sales and collect subsidies, rather than win over customers. There will be a payback for such a shortsighted policy.
When Beijing phases out EV subsidies, Chinese automakers will have to slash prices to prop up sales. By contrast, German automakers will likely win customers by showcasing cutting-edge technology.
Which automakers will make money in such a market? The answer should be obvious.
In the first nine months of this year, sales of EVs and plug-in hybrids in China more than doubled to 290,000 vehicles. The Chinese brands sold virtually all of those vehicles. Now that's going to change.
Judging by the German brands' strong product lineup in Paris, it won't be long before they build a formidable presence in China's fast-growing market for 'green' vehicles.