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Great Wall builds buzz with budget EVs at Bangkok Motor Show

Chinese automakers carve out niche in Japan-dominated market with green technology

Great Wall Motor's Ora is a budget electric car that costs less than $10,000 with subsidies in China. (Photo by Yohei Muramatsu)

BANGKOK -- China's Great Wall Motors showed off its electric offerings at the Bangkok International Motor Show that kicked off Wednesday, highlighting the inroads made by Chinese automakers in the Thai market, long Japan's turf.

Held in the capital's suburbs and running until April 4, the event is among Southeast Asia's largest auto shows. Last year's event was postponed until July due to the coronavirus outbreak.

On the show's press day Tuesday, Great Wall said it would begin selling imported Chinese-made Ora electric compacts here in the second half of 2021. Ora models carry a price tag of less than $10,000 after subsidies in China.

While the price here has yet to be set, Narong Sritalayon, managing director of Great Wall's Thai arm, expressed confidence that customers would be "satisfied."

The Chinese automaker also plans to produce vehicles in Thailand, starting with hybrids. The company will invest 22.6 billion baht ($729 million) to remodel a plant acquired from General Motors last year. It will begin taking orders next quarter, with production slated to start in 2023.

Great Wall and its compatriots face an uphill battle. Japanese companies have built a firm grip on the Thai auto market -- one of Southeast Asia's largest -- since they began entering the country in the 1960s. They accounted for 88% of the roughly 790,000 vehicles sold here last year, occupying the top six spots.

But Chinese rivals are gaining a foothold. SAIC Motor, China's largest automaker, has partnered with Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group to build cars under the venerable British MG brand. Sales of MG vehicles in Thailand grew 7% last year to 28,316 units even as the overall market shrank 21%, and the brand's market share rose 1 percentage point to 3.6%.

SAIC imported about 800 electric vehicles into Thailand from China last year, accounting for about 60% of the year's new electric-vehicle registrations. It now produces plug-in hybrids here and plans local production of electrics as well.

Meanwhile, the big Japanese players that dominate the market offer only a limited set of electric options, such as Nissan Motor's Leaf and models under Toyota Motor's Lexus luxury brand, which are imported. Last year electric cars, including hybrids, made up just 4% of all new-vehicle sales in Thailand. Japanese automakers think the time is not yet ripe to make them a priority here.

But the Thai government aims to have electrified vehicles comprise 30% of all new-vehicle output by 2030, and Japanese automakers' hold on the market could weaken if they fail to keep up with the shift.

"They need to speed up the introduction of new technology [such as electric vehicles] into the market in line with young people's preferences," said Hajime Yamamoto, senior manager at Nomura Research Institute's Thai arm.

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