For most of the 20th century, the world's automotive landscape was dominated by one country: the United States of America.
That's quickly changing, though, as the Chinese consumer rises to prominence. In 2009, for the first time in history, car sales in China eclipsed those of the United States. Even General Motors, the maker of
all-American, apple-pie cars and trucks, sold more vehicles in China than it did in the U.S. last year.
It makes sense, then, that with 1.3 billion people and a ballooning economy, automakers around the globe are pinning their growth plans on satisfying the Chinese market.
They're opening up new factories, revising their car designs and coming up with new models to lure Chinese buyers into showrooms.
It's also clear that the Chinese car market is going to impact us Americans, too. More of our vehicles are going to be influenced by Chinese tastes.
While it's hard to predict what's going to happen to cars even in the most stable of times — much less today's time of shaky economies, shifting paradigms and Middle Eastern dictatorships crumbling — there
are a few trends in Chinese cars that are already changing how we Americans are driving.
Here's a look at four of them:
ROOMY BACK SEATS
One of the biggest trends in China is the concept of a chauffeur-driven limousine. Successful Chinese businesspeople want cars with spacious back seats that offer plenty of leg room, and the manufacturers are happy to oblige.
In particular, luxury brands are offering more long-wheelbase versions of their flagship cars. Jaguar, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW all offer extended-length models designed around the executives who are being
driven, not necessarily driving.
If this trend continues, cars will become less about the cockpit up front and more about the comfortable cocoon in back.
A few years ago, Chinese cars sold mainly in dull shades of black, gray and neutral colors that seemed fitting for a communist country.
Think of East Germany on wheels.
Today, though, more Chinese buyers are trying to make themselves stand apart with flashier, more noticeable and colorful cars. Just like in America, they're becoming status symbols designed to draw attention and make a statement as much as they are about mere transportation.
Looking forward, it's reasonable to expect cars influenced by China to have bolder, more unusual designs.
MORE ELECTRIC CARS
Another parallel to the American car industry is the pollution that is produced when car sales skyrocket.
Chinese cities aren't known for having the cleanest air right now, and it's only going to get worse as hundreds of millions of people hit the roads.
The Chinese government's answer is to subsidize the sale of electric and hybrid vehicles. They're even building a network of charging stations in five of their biggest cities, according to Reuters, which means the Chinese government thinks electricity is part of the long-term pollution solution.
China also has more lithium available than most countries, which should help it control domestic prices of batteries.
Nissan, General Motors, Toyota and other companies are already developing electric cars presumably to help the environment.
AFFORDABLE URBAN CARS
Finally, it's important to remember that China is still an emerging market. Luxury cars are selling well as China's upper and middle classes grow, but most of the growth potential is actually in the country's masses of poor residents who would love a car but can't afford one yet.
That's why small, low-cost, urban-friendly vehicles are going to be important in the future. Ford unveiled one possibility with its Start concept that debuted at the Beijing Motor Show last year.
Everything built for the Chinese market won't come to America, and much of it will be modified to sell better here. But, just like how American cars influenced transportation in far-flung corners of the
globe, we can expect the same thing to happen in the upcoming century as China replaces the United States as the world's leading car market.