BEIJING -- Fuel-efficient vehicles are the rage in the United States, but in China gas-guzzling SUVs are looming large.
Automakers including Ford Motor, Chrysler Group, Daimler and Land Rover are seizing on soaring popularity for the vehicles here, tailoring new models for Chinese consumers, and in some cases shifting manufacturing to China.
Chinese drivers purchased about 2.1 million SUVs last year, according to LMC Automotive, a figure that's expected to double by 2014. That would put China neck-and-neck with the U.S., the world's top SUV market, despite steep import duties and luxury taxes that can drive prices for some models well above $100,000.
"The luxury buyers cannot get enough," said Michael Dunne, the Indonesia-based head of auto consulting firm Dunne & Co. "It's ironic. Ten years ago, no one wanted to touch an SUV in China. They were considered construction or farming vehicles. They were associated with labor or hard work."
No more. High-end SUVs emerged as the stars of last month's Beijing auto show, dazzling crowds with their massive engines, spacious cockpits and frills such as heated leather seats, virtual assistants and retina displays.
Maserati showed off the crossover Kubang, the Italian brand's first SUV. Scheduled to begin production in 2013, the vehicle is expected to retail for more than $100,000. Lamborghini showcased a concept car called the Urus, its first stab at a sport utility vehicle in nearly two decades. The Italian automaker has no firm production plans for the car, much less a suggested sticker price. But that hasn't stopped some Chinese buyers from trying to purchase one.
"People are calling me already to ask when they can get it and if they can put a deposit down," said Wilson Ho, who sells Lamborghinis and Bugattis in central Beijing.
Wealthy Chinese covet SUVs for the status that their size and luxury convey. Some are also looking for safety in a nation where deadly auto accidents are soaring.
"The view of the road is better in an SUV and it's more comfortable to drive," said Beijing motorist Deng Nan, 28. A manager at a logistics company, he recently paid about $65,000 for a gray Land Rover Freelander.
Consumers' infatuation with super-sized vehicles comes despite obvious drawbacks. China's biggest cities are notoriously congested, and many streets and parking spaces are impossibly narrow. Gasoline costs $4.43 a gallon. China's one-child policy means that families are small and have less need for rolling cargo haulers. Air quality in the nation's mega cities is putrid.
"It's hard to think of a more regressive type of vehicle in a dense urban setting than a SUV," said Karl Fjellstrom, a regional director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, based in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. "They take up more space in parking and when moving demand a wider berth from other road users, consume more fuel and emit more pollution."
The world's largest automobile market, with 18 million vehicles sold last year, China has pledged billions of dollars to research development of cleaner cars and trucks. But the fruits of those efforts are still years away.
Meanwhile, SUVs, with their spacious interiors and muscular frames, have overtaken most other vehicle segments in sales growth. Sales grew 18 percent to 441,600 units in the first quarter compared with the first three months of 2011, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, even as total vehicle sales declined 3.4 percent over the same period because of the nation's sluggish economy.
"This is the only segment with double-digit growth," said Namrita Chow, a Shanghai-based analyst at IHS Automotive. She said SUVs have significantly higher profit margins than sedans, giving manufacturers every incentive to push the segment here at a time when global sales remain slow.
"Everyone wants growth, and that's why they're in China, and everyone wants volume sales, so that's why they're targeting SUVs," Chow said.
Porsche has been aggressively marketing its Cayenne luxury SUV in China while opening dealerships on a nearly monthly basis. The German carmaker sold 13,283 of the vehicles last year in China, more than anywhere else in the world; the fanciest Cayennes fetch more than $300,000.
China's SUV market started gaining traction about five years ago when Japanese automakers began marketing compact SUVs such as Toyota's RAV4 and Honda's CR-V. That whetted consumers' appetites for bigger and more expensive models such as the BMW X5 and Audi Q5. The vehicles resonated with car buyers in their 30s who shunned the stodgy black sedans favored by older businesspeople and government officials.
To sate demand more quickly, foreign automakers are looking to build more of their SUVs in China with their government-mandated local joint venture partners. Mercedes-Benz now manufactures its compact GLK sport utility vehicle in Beijing. Last month, BMW announced it would make the X1 with its Chinese partner in the northeastern city of Shenyang.
At the Beijing show, Auto China, which kicked off Monday under a dreary polluted haze, crowds flocked to see Chrysler's Jeep Wrangler Dragon concept vehicle -- a menacing-looking black-and-gold SUV with the mythical Chinese creature airbrushed along its body.
Ford, which is playing catch-up to other foreign automakers in China, continued its aggressive expansion by introducing four SUVs to its lineup here: the Edge, Explorer, EcoSport and Kuga. The latter two compact SUVs will be built in China.
"With the fastest expanding market that we have here in China, to be present with really attractive SUV models is absolutely crucial," said Martin Smith, Ford's executive director of design.