Sci/Tech

Super-sized cars head East

With gas mileage ever more important, America’s big-body heritage is getting a tune-up. But in China, extended wheelbase models are becoming larger than life.

Everything’s bigger in Texas, or so the saying goes. The expression could almost pass for a state motto, proudly displayed on the bumpers of jacked-up pick-ups cruising the Lone Star State. In the rest of the US, though, the fascination with big cars and gas-guzzling SUVs may be on its way to join the fallen Republic of Texas in the tombs of American history.

Overall, 2011 has been a good year for the auto industry, with more than 11 million vehicles sold in the US so far, according to Motor Intelligence. Many Americans who held off on purchasing a new car in hopes the economy would improve are finding they can’t pinch pennies any longer. In November alone, nationwide sales increased 14% compared to last year. “We are seeing a broad spectrum of customers return to the market,” Don Johnson, G.M.’s vice president of US sales operations, said in a statement. “Truck sales showed a very solid increase, as we expected, but the momentum building behind our most fuel-efficient vehicles was even stronger.”

For years in the automotive world, and in society in general, bigger was better. In the time of Elivs, a big-body Cadillac was as American as apple pie. But nowadays, America no longer holds the title for the longest Cadillac on the market; China has taken the lead, by a little more than three inches. “We strive to maintain the same kind of product portfolio in most every market or country for Cadillac,” says Communications Manager David Caldwell. “China does have a piece of their marketplace in which extended-wheelbase luxury sedans are important, so we do offer one specific car – the Cadillac SLS.” Mechanically almost the same as the STS, its American counterpart, the SLS is slightly longer, to allow for more rear legroom.

On average, men in China are a few inches shorter than American males, but businessmen in particular prefer to be chauffeured in the back seat, and they’re willing to pay for the extra legroom. Even though import taxes can inflate the selling cost upwards of 200%, wealthy Chinese are purchasing so many of the longer models that manufacturers like BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes and Rolls Royce offer special options for the Chinese market.

Audi, a market leader in China, only offers extended wheelbases for particular models: the A4L, A6L and A8L. By November of this year, the “L” models had combined sales of about 170,000, says Martin Kuehl, head of corporate communication for Audi in China. “China is the biggest market worldwide for the A8,” he adds, accounting for around 10,000 sales. China has made quite the name for itself. Hopefully, the businessmen there won’t get too big for their britches.  

By mail.com Editor Will Cade

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