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Europeans win big from China's appetite for high-end cars

China's rich are more likely to splurge on premium and superluxury cars than anyone else in the world.

That finding comes from a recent report by Bernstein Research. London-based Bernstein analyst Max Warburton identified a premium car buyer as someone from a household with more than $100,000 (78,500 euros) of annual disposable income.

In China, 231 out of every 1,000 car buyers who met that criterion in 2009 bought premium cars. Germany was No. 2 at 176 out of every 1,000 followed by the UK at 165. Spain ranked fourth (81) followed by Canada (59) and the United States (52) last year.

China's lead is likely to grow. Warburton expects that 3.5 million people in China will have the financial means to buy a premium car by 2015, up from about 1.8 million today.

Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche accounted for roughly 80 percent of premium sales in China last year. Those numbers look great on a sales chart and even better on the balance sheet.

“German premium automakers are probably already making over half of their profits in China,” Warburton said in the report, noting that the Germans already have beaten their full-year operating profit forecasts with their first-half results.

Warburton predicts that China's premium car market will grow from about 400,000 units last year to 800,000 by 2015 and to 1.4 million by 2020.

It's not just the premium carmakers that stand to benefit from China's booming wealth.

Ferrari, Aston Martin, Bentley and others in that class also have the potential to make big gains from China's growing number of superluxury buyers, who Warburton classifies as people with liquid assets worth more than $1 million (785,000 euros).

In China, there were 477,000 millionaires in 2009. By comparison, there were 2.90 million millionaires in the United States, 1.65 million in Japan and 862,000 in Germany.

However, 206 out of every 1,000 millionaires in China bought a superluxury car in 2009, well ahead of the 157 in Germany, 120 in the UK, 99 in Spain, 93 in Canada and 78 in the United States.

By 2015, China is forecast to have twice as many millionaires as now.

Executives at Europe's top-end automakers are probably smiling just thinking about that.

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