SHANGHAI -- To learn just how different the Chinese Ford Kuga compact crossover is from its North American sibling, the Ford Escape, step into the back seat.
Most American car owners rarely ride there. But to many Chinese customers, the back seat might be the most important space in the vehicle. Chinese businesspeople, particularly in thriving coastal cities, frequently have chauffeurs. They transact business with clients while shuttling from place to place in the congested, often heart-stopping traffic. The rear seat is a subtle but important signifier of the owner's status.
Now that China has passed the United States as the world's largest car market, automakers are designing vehicles to suit the tastes of Chinese customers. In some cases, major vehicle launches are happening in China. In others, vehicles are significantly revamped for sale there.
The Kuga is a prime example. It shares the same sheet metal and Ford's global compact platform with the Escape. Closer inspection reveals a myriad of fascinating differences, some of them major -- including a more spacious and luxurious back seat. And there's an ash cup for smokers because many Chinese smoke.
Raj Nair, Ford's group vice president of global product development, says despite different tastes in some areas, Chinese customers generally want the same technology and features as other leading markets.
"The global customer is converging," says Nair, formerly head of Ford's Asia Pacific product development office. "The global convergence is happening fastest in China."
That allows automakers to shrink the number of platforms and use more common parts to achieve economies of scale.
"If you have the core product and its components pretty much standardized and are making them in flexible, agile, lean factories, that means you have the ability to customize much more effectively than 20 or 30 years ago," says Dave Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Ford's rivals also are rushing to satisfy Chinese buyers. For instance, Buick showed its Riviera concept at the recent Shanghai auto show rather than at a major U.S. show.
And when Mercedes-Benz introduced the next generation of its flagship S-class sedan last month, CEO Dieter Zetsche said the needs of China's customers topped the list of priorities because one of two S classes is now sold there. China will soon be the world's top luxury market, a place from which vehicle innovations increasingly will migrate to other parts of the world.
General Motors, the No. 2 carmaker in China, has been successful in adapting Western platforms to Chinese tastes. GM studied the market carefully before introducing the Buick Regal into China in 1999 two years after its North American debut in 1997, says Rudy Schlais, former president of General Motors China.