China's authorities publish broad measures like national sales and production numbers by model. But other important details are guarded like a state secret, and it is impossible to get comprehensive information on what kind of people are buying what kind of cars.
For foreign automakers used to minute market data, it's nerve racking. But the lure of the fast-growing China market means they are creating innovative ways to gather information and are taking a gamble.
The media plays a big role in the quest to understand China's auto market.
The folks at Jinbei GM scan Web sites, newspaper editorials and auto fan magazines to get an idea of what the Chinese consumer is looking for, Gentges says.
Staff in the Beijing office of Ogilvy & Mather, which handles BMW AG's account in China, read 10 of the country's 150 automotive publications regularly and talk to the editors, says director Frank Song. But Ogilvy could not consult a media directory to see what publications existed. Instead, staffers had to visit countless newsstands.
Even the most basic of market research information - such as how many cars are registered in each area - is closely guarded in China. Vehicle registration information is kept by each city's Public Security Bureau.
"They don't really want to share the information," says Angela Gu, a senior associate at market research firm Automotive Resources Asia Ltd. in Beijing. "Government people consider the data belong to a certain department."
Then there's the problem of regional variations. National sales and production figures aren't much use where China is concerned because income levels, geographical conditions, distribution channels and tastes vary widely by region.
In the southwest city of Chengdu, for example, only traditional sedans sell well; consumers there are not ready for the hatchback models that are the rage in Beijing, Gu says.
Beijing Jeep Corp. President Paul Alcala says: "South, north, east, west, the buying behavior has dramatic differences. You really can't focus on the typical consumer. There is no typical consumer."
Automotive Resources Asia compensates by interviewing customers and dealers in each area, but that has its problems. For example, only the dealers keep detailed information on individual buyers, but they aren't always happy to share with independent researchers.
"Our people have been kicked out of dealerships in Guangzhou many, many times," Gu says.
Mid-level managers from most of the foreign and domestic automakers in China for years have met informally at least once a year to exchange such information, but that doesn't yield detailed results.
"In-depth insight is hard to get in situations like that," says Dale Jones, vice president of marketing, sales and service for Ford Motor (China) Ltd. "You're not going to give your major insights to your competitors."