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From the Mixed-Up Files of the Chinese Luxury Market Comes... the Camaro Syndrome

It's called the "Ke Mei Luo," which means nothing in Chinese, but is supposed to say "Camaro" to citizens of the Middle Kingdom willing to cough up a whopping $76,000 for China's version of Chevy's mighty American muscle car/mullet mobile. And that's just for the V6! Welcome to the wild, wild world of the Chinese luxury car market.

General Motors (GM) is bringing its revamped Camaro to the Shanghai Auto Show in April. The badder, meaner-looking ride appeared in the U.S. in 2009. Now GM has decided to market it in China, where the luxury performance scene is flourishing and expected to produce triple-digit growth in the future.

Whose luxury is this, anyway?
From GM's perspective, the Chinese luxury market is... strange. The company is well-established there, leading with its Buick brand -- considered something of an AARP choice in the U.S., but one that qualifies as posh in China. Why? Because the country's emperor was chauffeured about in one, prior to the revolution.

In China, Buick trumps Cadillac and lives in the company of Mercedes, BMW and Audi. Last year, Buick announced a new stretched model, specifically to accommodate the high-end customer.

So how does Camaro fit into all this? Can "America's hillbilly Veyron," as Wall Street Journal car critic Dan Neil recently put it, possibly go to bat in China against Porsche? Well, why not? The whole point of being in the Chinese market is to establish something of a blank slate. Tens of thousands of Chinese car buyers won't really know that the Camaro is supposed to be better suited to the backroads of eastern Kentucky than to the twists and turns of Mulholland Drive.

The limits of GM luxury
This is good for GM, because it enables the company to move nameplates not known for luxury into the upscale category. At home, GM luxury is all about Cadillac. But Cadillac is limited in terms of its luxury performance impact: it's been optimized to compete against, say, the BMW M5 when it comes to burning the tires. But while the styling is aggressive, it isn't as impact-oriented as what you'd get with Porsche.
Enter the Camaro, which after all has a global media identity for being Bumblebee in the "Transformers" films (see the video below for my visit to "Camaro Land" at the 2009 L.A. Auto Show, when my blog was housed at Slate's The Big Money). With that kind of thing going for it -- plus the Chinese name -- you can convince buyers that a V6 redneck wagon is, indeed, a legitimate example of high-performance motoring.

Redefining an American brand
GM has always been big on China precisely because it offers these kinds of opportunities to present itself to new customers as a new company. This is why it didn't kill Buick after the company entered a restructuring crisis in 2005, a crisis that culminated in the 2009 bankruptcy. Buick was the cornerstone of the GM brand in China. This is why a mere semi-luxury nameplate in the U.S., with an aging customer base, was seen as disproportionately important for the China strategy.

We can speculate on what GM will try to do next. If the Camaro in a success in China, it might be time to start telling people that the turbocharged version of the Chevy Cruze is really a BMW 3-Series competitor. When GM goes to China, it seems that everything you thought you knew about the General's cars can change into whatever the General wants you to think.

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Photo: GM Media
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