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Clone wars start in Europe

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Western automakers are fighting to stop sales of China-built cars that resemble their models.

Fiat has gone to courts in Italy and China to block sales of the Peri, a car built by Chinese automaker Great Wall Motor. The Peri is almost an exact replica of the Panda, Europe’s best-selling minicar, Fiat says.

BMW and Daimler are suing European distributors to stop sales of China-built cars that appear to be clones of their cars.

Meanwhile, Toyota has promised to do a better job obtaining design patents for its models in worldwide markets after the UFO, an SUV that closely resembles the second-generation RAV4, went on sale in Europe.

Ready to fight

Chinese carmakers have been copying Western designs for years. Industry experts estimate that a carmaker can save up to €200 million in development costs for a small car by cloning or reverse-engineering an existing model.

The issue is gaining in importance as some of these copies start to arrive in Europe.

Automakers want to stop sales of the clones because they fear the often poorly built counterfeits will hurt their brand images. They also fear losing market share to the lower-cost look-alikes.

“[The legal proceedings are] sending a message to the Chinese authorities that Western automakers are prepared to defend themselves,” said Colin Couchman, a senior market analyst at Global Insight in London.

BMW confirmed that it has started legal proceedings to stop the market launch of the Shuanghuan CEO, an SUV that looks like the first-generation BMW X5. But 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, which has regained market share in its core small-car market, is one volume carmaker that is taking the Chinese advances seriously.

“Potentially, Fiat has a lot to lose because if people move to buy [Chinese cars] in significant numbers then their market share will decline,” Couchman said.

Courts will decide

Paul Nieuwenhuis, director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University in Wales, said Fiat also doesn’t want its brand value diminished by poor-quality look-alikes. “Fiat obviously sees an opportunity in the growing Chinese market for small cars,” he said.

Fiat has asked courts in China and Italy to block Great Wall from selling the Peri, which it says is the same as the Panda except for its headlights and bumpers.

“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.

Federico Daffi, managing director at Eurasia Motor, the Italian importer for Great Wall, says it will not import the Peri into Europe before the court case with Fiat is settled. “When everything is cleared, we are ready to begin selling the Peri,” he said.

The Peri is Great Wall’s first passenger car. Fiat started investigating the car’s strong resemblance to the Panda after the Peri was unveiled at the Beijing auto show in November 2006.

Great Wall plans to start Peri sales in China this month. Export to Europe was originally planned to start next summer. Fiat patented the Panda’s design in Europe in December 2002 and in China seven months later. Fiat’s Borgi said in Europe a court bases its judgment on whether design rights have been infringed after court-appointed technical experts have checked a car’s patent and drawings of the alleged copy. In China, Fiat must submit its technical analysis proving that its design has been copied.

Link: http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/arti...mailweeklyANE02

Edited by Pontiac Custom-S

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