A market in motion: how China will shape the next generation of luxury vehicles

As trends in sustainability, technology and customer demands evolve, the question remains: what will the next generation of luxury vehicles be like? Mirko Bordiga, Managing Director of Maserati Greater China and Julie Laulusa, Member of the Group Executive Board & Managing Partner, Mazars in China, discuss the latest innovations in personal mobility and the luxury automotive sector and share insights on how stand-out trends in China, are shaping the next generation of vehicles.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

China as a laboratory for innovation

Julie Laulusa, Mazars: The automotive sector has been steering towards sustainability in recent years, and as pressure increases to fight climate change and protect our natural resources, many car manufacturers and suppliers are looking for green growth opportunities, including through electrification.

Although it may come as a surprise to some, one of the most important places to look for innovation is in racing. In particular, the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, an event that showcases the world’s most advanced e-mobility technologies and is helping drive progress towards a more sustainable future through the innovations that it has inspired. In fact, many of the technological leaps we take for granted in today’s cars, like ABS and traction control have their roots in racing. This race also holds a great deal of significance to China in particular, as Beijing is where the race originally premiered in 2014, planting the seeds for China to become the laboratory for innovation that it is recognized as today.

Maserati, which already has a positive reputation for R&D and innovation, announced in January 2022 that it will compete in the 2023 Championship. Can you share the journey to Maserati’s involvement and tell us about what sort of technologies you expect to find their way into next generation production-vehicle operations in the next decade?

Mirko Bordiga, Maserati: Maserati was born out of audacity. The merger between the unprecedented Maserati racing heritage, the brand’s distinctive performance and its innovative attitude towards electrification perfectly align with the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship values, which is why we decided to join Formula E.

As the world’s first purely electric racing series, Formula E is the only carbon-neutral sports championship, which is an impressive title to have considering it features very powerful and exciting cars. This event has encouraged many cutting-edge innovations, including the development of electric cars to go further on every charge by increasing energy efficiency, enhancing battery range and advancing powertrain development.

In the next decade, I am confident that electrification will remain the dazzling development trend in the automotive industry. Formula E has a key role in this, as it serves as a pioneering technological laboratory that accelerates the development of high efficiency electrified powertrains and intelligent software for sport road cars. We expect these to be critical aspects in the next-generation production-vehicle operations.

Julie Laulusa: Many players in the mobility sector look towards China, which is often seen as a laboratory for mobility innovation and has a track record of success in developments around green energy, government incentives and micro-electric vehicles, as well as connectivity technologies. As it paves the way for new sustainable technologies, brands and manufacturers learn from its successes and shortcomings and use them as guidance for their own ventures.

Much of China’s success in the electrification of cars has been attributed to the large subsidies provided by the government at both the central and regional level. Now that the technology has been adopted at mass scale, these subsidies are beginning to phase out, but there is still much growth expected in this area. Do you think electrification will remain a stand-out trend in China and the Asia Pacific region as a whole? What other trends are emerging?

Mirko Bordiga: The electrification transition will remain on its path to go mainstream, and looking ahead, electric vehicles will continue to play a vital role in the years to come by offering freedom of movement with low or zero emissions. China is already the world’s largest NEV (neighborhood electric vehicle) market, having already achieved a 157.5% explosive YoY growth to over 3.52 million units in 2021. And according to the China Society of Automotive Engineers, by 2035, NEV sales share in China will be over 50%. China is certainly paving the way for the electrification revolution and is home to the most technologically advanced customer market in the world. We also see a new force of carmakers (NIO, Xpeng, Li Auto, etc.) thriving with a focus on new energy in China. Their success is yet another demonstration of the limitless development vitality of the new energy market here and its influence goes beyond these borders.

At Maserati, we are also embracing electrification through our ambitious ‘Folgore’ strategy all while making no compromises to Maserati's driving performance and iconic features. We regard innovation as audacity, a core characteristic of our brand that is deeply rooted in our history and heritage. The strategy began with the Ghibli GT Hybrid, and was followed by the Levante GT Hybrid in 2021 at the Chengdu Motor Show. Soon, we will launch our first 100% electric cars, GranTurismo and GranCabrio, with future plans to have all Maserati models adopting electric solutions.

Looking ahead, digitalization will be the next leading trend, and China will undoubtedly remain influential in this realm, as it is home one to the most technologically advanced customer markets in the world, providing brands with opportunities to reinvent their businesses to meet customers’ diversified demands. For Maserati, digitalization means reconsidering the big picture: new ways to cooperate - strategic alliances, reorganizations and adjusted business models. Deep-rooted digitalization across all levels will be vital in today’s business development.

Julie Laulusa: From electrification to digitalization and connectivity, China has been one of the main leaders in luxury automotive trends, with many innovations in its repertoire. How do these trends in China influence global mobility and what role does China play in setting standards for brands that operate across multiple markets?

Mirko Bordiga: China is on track to become the biggest luxury car market globally and this has not gone unnoticed by the biggest players in the industry, regardless of their origins. Nearly all luxury car brands have prioritized China as their key market, meaning that every time they introduce a new product or service within their brand, they must consider the real needs of the customers here in China.

While Covid-19 has had an impact on every industry in at least some way- big or small, the luxury car segment in China’s automotive industry has shown strong resilience in its ability to recover rather quickly, despite the pandemic’s significant impact on the global economy. This resilience bears testament to the great vitality and momentum in China as a leader in the industry – a role that continues to grow in importance when it comes to international mobility development.

Taking a holistic view of the global automotive market is also important as every regional market is different and has unique considerations that must been accounted for when running a business. Naturally, different markets will influence each other to facilitate the progress of the whole industry, especially when it comes to an inevitable trend. But unsurprisingly, China remains the core leader in the mobility revolution, whether in electrification, digitalization, or any other trend.

The new luxury in mobility: connecting to Chinese customers on an individual level

Julie Laulusa: The relationship between luxury brands and customers is becoming more important than ever. Customers are looking beyond products and towards experience and long-term customer relations and services.

Brands are experimenting with new ways of connecting with customers, including through intelligent connected vehicles, which could make mobility safer, more sustainable and enjoyable for passengers – and China also remains among the frontrunners in this domain. As the definition of luxury is changing to shed the ideals of mere status and embrace these innovations alongside customer values and experience, how can automotive brands keep up with these shifting priorities and connect to their customers on an individual level?

Mirko Bordiga: The most important thing for brands is to stay true to their core value while also paying closer attention to market changes. As a century-old brand, Maserati has always resonated with different market needs. As China is a key market priority for us, we pay close attention to the emerging trends there and know that Chinese customers want their vehicles to be more intelligent and connected. In response, we have developed the interface and connected services with Tencent, one of the biggest technology companies in the country, to ensure the whole environment is user friendly for all. The new generation MIA (Maserati Intelligent Assistant) multimedia system also features technology upgrades over time.

As we mentioned earlier, trends in China often spill over to other markets around the world and we are seeing that connected services are no different, and are growing in importance to all the markets we operate in, which is why in March 2022, we launched the Maserati Grecale, which enriches connected services with new functions like service scheduling, as well as upgraded new features for existing functions, like remote vehicle monitoring and control (boot/bonnet opening, A/C controls, etc.). Equipped with our most advanced technology, Grecale is the new beacon of our brand DNA.

Looking to the future, with the spirit of ripping up the rulebook and breaking the old world, Maserati will stick to the goal of further integrating the actual needs of customers into all products and services.

Julie Laulusa: In the old world, the luxury experience was predominately focused on the sale, but today brands are offering services that go far beyond the sale. Maserati launched its ‘VIP Club’ in China, where owners and potential customers can benefit from a range of special services, including mobility and maintenance. In addition to customer experience and client services, which have become key differentiators, what other demands are luxury car customers voicing in China?

Mirko Bordiga: Customer experience now applies to every aspect of car ownership. Customers are seeking individuality throughout the whole process – and while this is true for every cohort of Chinese customers, the young generation’s demand for a unique expression of luxury identity is developing rapidly and it is critical that brands keep up with customer demands and expectations.

After listening to the demands from our own customers, in 2021 we began a journey in breaking down cultural and disciplinary boundaries, seeking inspiration from booming urban pop culture worldwide. This audacious spirit spurred collaborations with CANOTWAIT_ and Fragment, in the spirit of our century-old tradition of customization and brand philosophy. The success of these large-scale collaborations speaks to the merits of the Maserati FUORISERIE programme, which aims to serve as a blank sheet of paper upon which customers can write their own stories.

The development of China’s automotive industry –especially the luxury car segment, is evolving day by day (and this also true for the industry on a global scale). Speaking to my own experience, I’ve been in China for around 18 years and have witnessed massive changes here. And while no one knows what the future holds in terms of new trends, I am confident that with Maserati’s unique style, we will consistently satisfy clients’ unique personalities in the future and continue to drive the brand forward to expand what is possible in auto customization.

A century of mixing innovation, design and passion has driven Maserati to create iconic vehicles, which have changed the way the world thinks about motoring forever. Holding tightly to these brand core values - innovative by nature, powered by passion, unique by design, we respect and embrace every big trend in the auto industry and will make every effort to respond to these trends and customer demands in China and beyond through the unique style of Maserati without compromising any of the aspects that make a good car.