China is a potential goldmine for carmakers--so long as they’re prepared to make cars that conform to the country’s individual tastes. Which is why we’ve noticed a bizarre trend for long-wheelbase versions of not-very-long cars getting ever stronger at this week’s Beijing Motor Show.
First up, Mercedes and Jaguar both unveiled long-wheelbase versions of their respective E-Class and XF sedans. Fair enough, you’re thinking, those are both reasonably big, luxury execu-boxes you could reasonably expect to be driven around in while you’re lounging out back. If you forget the S-Class and the XJ exist, anyway.
Meanwhile, Audi stretched a smaller car, adding a long-wheelbase version to its A4 sedan lineup--the A4 L. And taking it to extreme, erm, lengths entirely is BMW, which has broken the Top Gear niche-ometer by revealing a long-wheelbase X1 L.
Yes, that’s a stretched, rear legroom-focused version of a small, relatively inexpensive crossover designed to be little enough to succeed in cities. It doesn’t make any sense...or does it?
See, in Chinese car culture, to be chauffeured is the height of good taste. If you’ve got your own driver to take you from place to place (or chew the steering wheel in desperation as Beijing’s traffic grinds to a week-long halt), you’ve officially made it. You’re somebody.
Self-driving cars might be the big tech news here in the west, but for the luxury car-buying Chinese public, they already exist. Sort of. Being driven in an XF L is far grander than the effort of operating your own pedals in an XJ, it seems.
More to the point, being driven around isn’t just for crusty old bankers. The young, cosmopolitan Chinese millennials want the chauffeur-driven experience, too, without having to necessarily pay the mega-bucks for a gargantuan Bentley or Maybach. A relatively modest Audi or Jag--still wearing the critical designer-label European badge--is the logical result.
Aside from the fashion zeitgeist, there’s economics to consider as well. Imported motors are subject to monstrous tax levies in the People’s Republic, which crucify large, thirsty engine displacements. Fancy a V8 Range Rover for the Shanghai commute? That £100k (P6.8 million) car in Britain becomes a half-million quid (P34 million) once the Chinese government has done its sums.
The answer is to keep the engine capacity below three liters. It’s similar to how a single-gram-per-km of tailpipe carbon dioxide in Britain can mean massive savings on annual road tax.
So, while most of these XXL-cars offer flagship V6 versions, you can have Audi’s 2.0-liter turbo petrol in the A4 L. And an in-line-four in your Jaguar XF L. The X1 L goes a step further: You can spec the 130hp 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine from the Mini Cooper for ultimate tax-dodging points. Yup, that’s a three-pot, long-wheelbase crossover built just for China.
Makes an X4 seem logical now, doesn’t it?
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.