In the past several years, Chinese automobile companies have risen to meet the international standards on vehicle safety and reliability. Now they just need style, which may be the most difficult component to come by.

The problem lies in design quality. It’s not uncommon for Chinese car companies to give their design teams as little as three months to produce work, whereas the international standard practice is to give designers at least twenty months.

“What does that do?” Asked Wang Bo, director of Tsinghua University’s automotive design program. He answered his own question, saying, “The first response for many Chinese designers is to go on the Internet and copy from BMW and Mercedes and hand in the work.”

Some companies are willing to accept this design strategy. It’s also safest to provide new buyers something that’s known to sell, said Silvio Pietro Angori, chief executive officer of Cambiano, Italy-based Pininfarina.

Most Chinese automakers are, however, looking to innovate rather than replicate. They are bringing in international all-star designers to whip their design divisions into shape.

Brilliance China Automative Holdings Ltd. has brought Italian Dimitri Vicedomini from Pininfarina on board. Likewise, Great Wall Motor Co. brought in a new design director last year — former Mercedes-Benz designer Andreas Deufel. Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co.’s senior VP in charge of design is now Peter Horbury, former Volvo Car chief designer. Qoros Auto Co. nabbed their chief designer Gert Hildebrand in January 2011. Qoros plans to introduce a luxury sedan to China and Europe next years.

Many insiders think this is the way forward. “In China, there are large numbers of customers who already own a car and they will change cars and look for something unique that speaks to their needs,” said Angori. “That is when the brand becomes relevant. Brand development is something that maybe you cannot appreciate immediately, but I think is a long-term investment.”

Others are not so sure the plan will work. “It would be as if Leonardo da Vinci were hired to teach a group of aspiring artists how to create art,” Greg E. Anderson, the author of Designated Drivers: How China Plans to Dominate the Global Auto Industry, said. “He could never transfer the essence of how a naturally talented artist creates something like the Mona Lisa or the Last Supper.”

According to data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, Chinese brands’ share of sedan and compact-car sales fell to 27.5 percent in this year’s first five months from 31.4 percent a year earlier. None of the top 10 passenger-vehicles of this year, ranked by number of sales, belonged to homegrown Chinese brands.

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