BEIJING -- His smile is hidden behind a face mask and he's nervous about shaking hands in the middle of the SARS epidemic, but that doesn't seem to have hurt business for Tian Wei, a Buick salesman in Beijing.
Despite fears the epidemic would put the brakes on a booming market that saw sales rise 56 percent last year to 1.13 million vehicles, Tian was upbeat.
"You could say sales have been pretty good," Tian said after showing off a white Sail station wagon.
There is reason to believe his enthusiasm is more than just another sales pitch.
Preliminary buying data, combined with anecdotes from car companies and analysts, suggests people have been driving off sales lots in record numbers as they scramble to avoid public buses and subways for fear of infection.
"SARS has changed people's consumption thinking. They think private cars are safer and more reliable," said Su Hui, general manager of Beijing Asian Games Village Auto Market.
The market, one of the biggest in the Chinese capital, sold more than 4,300 cars in April, a rise of nearly 25 percent over a year earlier, Su said.
"Many people brought forward their purchase plans and those who did not plan to buy a car changed their minds," Su said.
CANNIBALISING FUTURE SALES?
In April, when China admitted it had covered up the extent of the epidemic that has now infected more than 5,000 people and killed more than 260, car sales in Beijing rose 21 percent to 34,000, state media said.
Among the rosy figures reported by some car makers, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp said April nationwide sales jumped 33 percent year on year to 46,800. Guangzhou Honda Automotive Co. said it sold 17,250 cars, more than double a year ago.
The strength has surprised and delighted those who had braced for a downturn.
It could help bolster industrial production, which is being watched by analysts for signs that SARS is hitting the factories stoking the fires of China's roaring economy.
Industrial output climbed 16.9 percent year on year in March thanks to fast-growing sectors like cars and mobile phones.
But the sudden sales surge could be a "danger ahead" sign for the auto industry, analysts warned.
"A lot of potential buyers have already spent money on car sales. That might eat a lot of the potential market for the next few months," said Automotive Resources Asia analyst Ted Wan.
If SARS isn't controlled soon, jittery Chinese may opt to save more instead of buying big-ticket items, analysts said.
A drawn-out epidemic could also throw sand in the gears of plans to raise car output and roll out new models.
Major manufacturers like First Auto Works and Shanghai Auto have teamed with foreign giants such as Germany's Volkswagen AG, General Motors of the United States, and Japan's Toyota.
"The problem is that if SARS lasts a few months, the overseas technical people will not be able to visit China to facilitate the technical upgrades," Wan said.
"We may see in the next few months that China's carmaking capabilities will stay at current levels, not expand as promised early this year."