French automakers seek to catch up in China

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In this Nov. 21, 2013 photo, a Renault Megane Tropy race car is displayed at the company’s booth during the Guangzhou 2013 Auto Show in China’s southern city of Guangzhou. French automakers Renault and Peugeot are looking belatedly to China to revive their flagging fortunes but picked a tough time to try to expand. Europe’s auto sales slumped in 2013 to their lowest level since 1995, forcing French brands to join U.S. and European rivals in looking to China to drive revenues. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

In this Nov. 21, 2013 photo, a Renault Megane Tropy race car is displayed at the company’s booth during the Guangzhou 2013 Auto Show in China’s southern city of Guangzhou. French automakers Renault and Peugeot are looking belatedly to China to revive their flagging fortunes but picked a tough time to try to expand. Europe’s auto sales slumped in 2013 to their lowest level since 1995, forcing French brands to join U.S. and European rivals in looking to China to drive revenues. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

In this Nov. 21, 2013 photo, a model poses by a Peugeot 308 at the company’s booth during the Guangzhou 2013 Auto Show in China’s southern city of Guangzhou. French automakers Peugeot and Renault are looking belatedly to China to revive their flagging fortunes but picked a tough time to try to expand. France’s biggest auto brand, PSA Peugeot Citroen, in China since the ‘80s without carving out significant market share, said it will be more aggressive after its local partner, Dongfeng Motor Co., in the week of Feb. 16, 2014 agreed to take a 14 percent stake in PSA. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

In this Nov. 21, 2013 photo, a model poses with a Peugeot 308CC at the company’s booth during the Guangzhou 2013 Auto Show in China’s southern city of Guangzhou. French automakers Peugeot and Renault are looking belatedly to China to revive their flagging fortunes but picked a tough time to try to expand. France’s biggest auto brand, PSA Peugeot Citroen, in China since the ‘80s without carving out significant market share, said it will be more aggressive after its local partner, Dongfeng Motor Co., in the week of Feb. 16, 2014 agreed to take a 14 percent stake in PSA. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

In this Nov. 21, 2013 photo, a Renault Koleos is displayed at the company’s booth during the Guangzhou 2013 Auto Show in China’s southern city of Guangzhou. French automakers Renault and Peugeot are looking belatedly to China to revive their flagging fortunes but picked a tough time to try to expand. Europe’s auto sales slumped in 2013 to their lowest level since 1995, forcing French brands to join U.S. and European rivals in looking to China to drive revenues. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

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BEIJING (AP) — French automakers Renault and Peugeot are looking belatedly to China to revive their flagging fortunes but picked a tough time to try to expand.

Three decades after Volkswagen became the first global automaker to produce cars in China in 1984, Renault SA announced plans in December for a Chinese factory.

France’s biggest auto brand, PSA Peugeot Citroen, in China since the ’80s without carving out significant market share, says it will be more aggressive after its local partner, Dongfeng Motor Co., last week agreed to take a 14 percent stake in PSA.

Their motivation is clear: Europe’s auto sales slumped last year to their lowest level since 1995, forcing French brands to join U.S. and European rivals in looking to China to drive revenues.

“PSA is back on the attack,” said its chairman, Philippe Varin, in a video distributed by the company. “We will benefit from the support of our Chinese partner.”

But the timing is awkward. Growth in China’s crowded market has decelerated and competition is intensifying. Sales in 2013 rose 15 percent, robust by Western standards but less than half of 2009’s growth.

They face competition from market leaders including VW and General Motors Co., which have nationwide dealer networks and are neck-and-neck for the title of China’s top-selling auto brand with just under a 10 percent market share each. Toyota, Nissan and Ford have been in China for a decade. All spend heavily to create models for Chinese tastes. Despite more than two decades in China, PSA’s market share is just 3.5 percent.

“It is not an easy market to tap into now,” said industry analyst John Zeng of LMC Automotive. “The market leaders are trying very hard to protect their market share.”

Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn rejected suggestions the automaker might be too late. He pointed to the experience of Nissan, where he also is CEO under an alliance between the two automakers.

“I heard the same thing: Aren’t you coming too late to China?” he said. “Ten years later, Nissan is the top Japanese brand in China.”

“The question of arriving too early or too late is not relevant,” Ghosn said in an interview. “What is relevant is that, you know, whenever you come, just make sure you are focused on China, doing a good job, both in terms of localization and in terms of product effort and in terms of investments.”

The contrast with Europe and the urgency of ramping up business in China is stark in the French automakers’ corporate results.

Peugeot reported a 2.3 billion euro ($3.2 billion) loss last year as its sales in France and other European markets edged down to just over 2.8 million vehicles. In China, sales by its joint venture with Dongfeng rose 26.1 percent, though to a still-modest 550,000 vehicles.

The investment deal unveiled Feb. 19 calls for Dongfeng and the French government each to inject 800 million euros ($1.1 billion) in Peugeot. In exchange, the two of them and the Peugeot family each will own equal 14 percent stakes. Along with a rights issue to other shareholders, Peugeot aims to raise a total of 3 billion euros ($4.1 billion).

In China, Peugeot wants to

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