However the design-stealing issue has now reached a new level, Chinese cars are starting to resemble European cars. Chinese manufacturers have been lucky so far, many have been able to get away with their copycat designs as they have kept their cars local, but with eyes set on a European expansion, western manufacturers are taking legal action.
Fiat has gone to courts in Italy and China to block sales of the Peri, a car built by Chinese automaker Great Wall Motor which according to Fiat, is an almost direct replica of the Fiat Panda, Europe’s best-selling minicar.
BMW and Daimler (Mercedes) are also pursuing independent action against European distributors of Chinese cars to stop sales in their tracks.
Meanwhile the world's largest manufacturer has admitted it needs to do a better job of obtaining design patents for its models in worldwide markets after the Chinese made UFO, an SUV that closely resembles the second-generation RAV4, went on sale in Europe.
According to industry experts, manufacturers can save up to $315 million in development costs for a small car by cloning or reverse-engineering an existing model.
In the auto industry reverse engineering and learning from your competitors is common practise. For example, Ford Australia took a few BMW X5s apart during the design process of the Territory.
The motive behind such aggressive moves by European manufacturers is fear. Many manufacturers are afraid that the often poorly built counterfeits will hurt their brand image, and of course some consumers would happily pay 1/2 price for the same looking car from China than Germany.
Even though it's currently the premium European manufacturers that are taking the majority of the legal proceedings, BMW CEO Norbert Reithofer said in an interview last month, that Chinese copies are likely to be “more of a problem for mass manufacturers than on the premium side.”
Fiat, Toyota and other volume sellers have a lot to worry about if this trend continues. The Fiat vs Great Wall court case should set a precedence in both China and Europe as to whether or not the Chinese can get away with copying European designs.
“We expect the first court ruling in China by December and in Turin for Europe by end of January 2008,” said Monica Borgi, Fiat Group Automobiles senior legal counsel.
There is a possibility that Chinese manufacturers have already reverse engineered Australia's best selling cars, so the next few years should be interesting!
Would you buy a $15,000 Chinese built Commodore look-alike?