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Cruisin’ Around Shanghai

Chris Barbieri [ April 2004 ]

Living in Shanghai is simply a hoot! This city can best be described as a combination of Adventureland, Saturday Night Live, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It's the fastest growing city in the world, and playing "catch up" in all the products, services, and lifestyle creature comforts that we as Americans have taken for granted for many years. With all the neat things about Shanghai, what it lacks for a car collector is collector cars, and all the spinoffs that go with our hobby.

Yet, there is still some interesting "car stuff" going on here and we'll explore some of it in this periodic column. The only way to explain China's current automobile industry is the word "explosive". Chinese auto production was up 81% in 2003 from the previous year, and is expected to grow by "only" 52% this year. As Chinese incomes increase, rather dramatically in some cases, the demand for cars has mushroomed. Shanghai is now a city of contrasts, with bicycles as the major mode of transportation now sharing the road with motor scooters, motorcycles, and numerous Chinese and foreign built vehicles. There are many auto assembly plants in China, building both domestic branded as well as foreign brand cars and other vehicles.

In the Shanghai region, both Volkswagen and GM operate facilities. A quick glance at the car scene here, and one immediately notices that probably half the vehicles on the road are VW Santanas, a model I don't recall seeing in the US. It's a "tight" 5-passenger vehicle, and compact by American standards. Why so many on the road? Well, first of all when VW was considering a China plant the city of Shanghai went all out to land the plant. "All out" in this case meant the City fathers promising top VW officials that if they chose Shanghai, every taxi in the city would be required to be a Santana! There are 42,500 taxicabs in Shanghai; there are 42,500 Santana taxi's in Shanghai... well almost. [More on that later.] Added to that is the fact that the Santana is a reasonably well-built vehicle, right sized for a big city like Shanghai, competitively priced and they have become a popular choice for many car buyers as well.

Two models are seen... a 4 door sedan, by far the most popular choice, and a nifty 4 door wagon. Now, why almost all the cabs being Santanas instead of all of them? Well, for years it was a Santana cab, or no cab. But last fall, the Shanghai City Fathers responded to a growing number of Westerners visiting the city, people who, like this writer are rather cramped in the rear cabin of a Santana. As a test, the city is permitting a limited number of small model Mercedes and a few Buick [made by Shanghai GM] taxis to hit the road. To date, I've seen two of the cute Mercedes, and one of the Buick cabs. In one of the city's many efforts to ease the air pollution problem in Shanghai, every single cab in this city is fueled by lp gas... as well as many busses. That's it for this installment... until next time, keep Crusin' Shanghai!

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