"A couple of years ago at the Beijing Auto Show, the (Chinese brands) were like children," said Malcolm Bricklin, a U.S. businessman looking to partner with a Chinese company to make cars for export to North America by the end of 2009.
"Now they are road class, big time. Two years from now, forget about it."
Sleek Chinese high-end sedans, hybrids, roomy SUVs, and convertibles in rainbow colors competed cheek by jowl with their foreign counterparts and in many cases drew the larger crowds.
"You see some good ones, and you see some that make you scratch your head and wonder," said Philip Murtaugh, executive vice president of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., or SAIC.
The most remarkable thing, Murtaugh said, is that the knock-offs of U.S. and European vehicles that dominated the Chinese car industry five years ago are gone, replaced by original designs.
That brought a nod of agreement from Bricklin, whose flamboyant history as an auto entrepreneur includes importing the ultra-cheap Yugo into the United States in the 1980s and a failed bid to build the Bricklin sports car.
"The Japanese took a long time to get into being original," he said, standing outside the SAIC display, showcasing the company's highly anticipated Roewe high-end sedan, as well as a hybrid prototype and their new Ssangyong-branded Kyron SUV.
Chinese brands now account for about one-fifth of mainland sales but the government has said it wants to see homegrown cars take 60 percent of the market share by 2010.
The companies are rising to the challenge, churning out cars that are unique and cheaper than their foreign-made competitors. The next major step will be to export the cars to Europe and the United States — industry experts expect that will happen in three to five years.
Chinese carmaker Geely Automobile has said it wants to be selling cars in the United States by the end of 2008, but Bricklin and others said that safety requirements and regulatory issues will make it hard for any Chinese car to enter the U.S. market before 2009.
Bricklin said his company, Visionary Vehicles, is considering a number of partners, including Chinese industry leaders SAIC and First Auto Works as well as the country's fifth-largest automaker, Chery Automobile.
"Two years ago when I went to see Chery, they were a nice young company selling 7,000 cars a month," Bricklin said. "Last month I think they sold 35,000 and they are talking to Chrysler, and talking to Fiat and talking to Alfa. I mean they are moving faster than I can think."
DaimlerChrysler AG executives confirmed on Friday that the company was in talks with Chery to produce a sub-compact car for the Dodge brand.
Bill Fisher, a Florida-based entrepreneur was also touring the Beijing Auto Show looking for Chinese cars to bring to the United States.
Fisher, executive vice president of Sarasota-based AmAsia International, said he and his partners have raised US$500 million through a private equity fund and now need to find the right Chinese partner.
He said he was impressed by Chery, SAIC, as well as Great Wall and Brilliance. Originally from Detroit, Fisher said he has faced a lot of criticism from friends and family for his plan to bring Chinese cars into the United States.
"A lot of people say I am taking jobs from Americans by doing this, but I feel commerce builds peace and Chinese also need to work," he said. "It's a world economy and we're in a global race."