Breaking from his scripted talking points, BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer delivered the most candid warning yet by a German automaker on China.
"We were really spoiled the last few years by the growth rates," he said in March. "But we saw in 2014 that they were increasingly on the decline and above all, it was no longer possible to achieve the kind of contribution margins we had three or four years ago."
Weeks later Audi, China's premium market leader, said its March sales there rose just 1.5 percent. And Volkswagen brand failed to increase volumes in China for the fifth month out of the past six.
China is no longer a tide lifting all boats. German automakers are most at risk from a slowdown in the world's largest auto market, but all major global auto companies will be hit.
Experts say that the era of effortless double-digit volume gains and fat profit margins in China is over. Sales slowed to a historically tepid 9.9 percent gain to 19.7 million passenger cars in 2014, as China's economy recorded its slowest expansion in almost a quarter century. Much of the rise was due to a surge in cheap SUVs and minivans sold by Chinese brands. In 2015, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers expects passenger vehicle sales to rise 8 percent to 21.3 million units.
Automakers say that these changes are the typical growing pains experienced in a maturing market. Lower percentage gains from a higher base still translate into large overall increases in car sales, they note.