Automakers are trying to gauge how SARS will affect sales, the Chinese economy and Chinese consumer confidence. One concern is that even a small ripple could blunt the pace of growth in car sales, which rose 53 percent last year.
"I don't think there's a threat to China's potential growth, but I think the acceleration of the Chinese economy that we have seen risks (falling) to a lower level," Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn says. Automakers are taking precautions. Ford Motor Co. closed offices in China for two weeks until at least Tuesday, May 6. Others evacuated foreign employees and their families. Some also report delayed projects.
"When someone comes back from China, we have to put him in quarantine because his colleagues don't want to work with him," Ghosn says.
Last week, the mood was one of panic in Beijing and other hot spots of SARS infection. Other parts of China are going about business, though not as usual. Retail sales in general are plummeting in cities like Beijing, which is reporting new cases daily. Showroom traffic at dealerships has virtually disappeared.
Qi Jinmei, an economist with China's State Information Center, predicts retail sales growth for the year would drop by 2 points to 8.2 percent if the SARS outbreak is not controlled.
Analysts have revised downward forecasts of China's economic growth this year by 1 percent to 2 percent. They see gross domestic product growth of 6 percent to 7 percent for the year, down from 8 percent in 2002. That would be China's slowest growth rate since 1990.
Tom Doctoroff, China CEO of advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, flew last week from Shanghai to Chongqing, China, the home of Changan Ford. Though airline employees took his temperature six times during the trip, Doctoroff says the mood in Chongqing, and at Changan Ford, is quiet.
"My sense is it is definitely calm. I didn't feel any anxiety at all," he says.