Cars in the United States tend to come fully equipped with stereotypes. Ford Crown Victoria: law enforcement professional. Toyota Prius: upscale yuppie environmentalist. Hummer: gas-guzzling egotist.
In China, many people think Mercedes-Benz is the domain of the retiree.
The Buick, long associated in the United States with drivers who have a soft spot for the early-bird special, is by contrast one of the hottest luxury cars in China.
But no vehicle in China has developed as ironclad a reputation as the Audi A6, the semiofficial choice of Chinese bureaucrats. From the country’s southern reaches to its northern capital, the A6’s slick frame and invariably tinted windows exude an aura of state privilege, authority and, to many ordinary citizens, a whiff of corruption.
“Audi is still the de facto car for government officials,” said Wang Zhi, a Beijing taxi driver who has been plying the capital’s gridlocked streets for 18 years. “It’s always best to yield to an Audi — you never know who you’re messing with, but chances are it’s someone self-important.”
Audi, the German automaker, gained access to the Chinese market in 1988 when its owner, Volkswagen, struck a joint venture with Yiqi, a Chinese carmaker. By contrast, BMW’s first domestic factory opened in 2003, giving Audi 15 years to establish itself as the premier vehicle for China’s elite.
Each year, the Procurement Center of the Central People’s Government releases a list of the cars and models acceptable for government purchase. While the A6 has long been a mainstay on the list, which had 38 brands in 2010, BMW made the cut only in 2009.
“When people see government officials in BMWs, they automatically suspect corruption or malfeasance — but Audis are to be expected,” said Jessica Wu, a public relations professional with almost a decade of experience in the Chinese car industry. A basic model Audi A6 costs 355,000 renminbi, or $56,000, while the BMW 5 series Li costs about 428,000 renminbi, or $67,520.
On Sina Weibo, the country’s most popular microblogging service, a recent posting tried to sum up the car clichés. “A gathering of Mercedes indicates a get-together for old folks,” the writer said. “A group of BMWs means young nouveaux riches are about to run someone over and have a party; several Audis, and you know it’s a government meeting.”
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