Car manufacturers are targeting the Chinese appetite for "crossover" vehicles, 4x4s suitable for urban terrain being snapped up by status-conscious consumers as automakers fight for sales in an otherwise slowing market.
China's premier auto show, which opened in Shanghai this week, is all about sports utility vehicles (SUVs) -- sales of which soared 49 percent on year in the first quarter while growth in the rest of the Chinese market was cooling.
More than four million vehicles out of the more than 20 million produced in China in 2014 were SUVs, a number expected to rise to seven million in 2018 and continue to grow, according to analyst group IHS.
Now ubiquitous in Shanghai, these cars -- which are raised higher off the ground than sedans but lack the all-terrain pretensions of real adventure vehicles -- can be found on the stands of both big Western manufacturers and local brands.
Seen as a sign of elevated social status, they are challenging the prevalence of the sedan.
"In Europe, crossovers are trying to muscle in on the market share taken by family minivans, while in China they're doing the same with sedans," said Flavien Neuvy, head of Paris' Observatoire Cetelem, a market analyst group.
Statistics from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers show that local carmakers' SUV sales doubled in the first quarter from the same period the year before, but their market share only went up by 16 percentage points, suggesting vast room for growth.
Francois Jaumain, an automobile consultant with PwC, said the popularity of the vehicles can be gauged by the fact that this year "we see no fewer than 20 compact SUVs launched on the market by Chinese manufacturers, excluding joint ventures".
"This shows the preference of consumers in the large cities, and also consumers in the newer cities, which are the real source of growth for the automobile market in the country," he said.
- Distinguish yourself -
The most popular Chinese-brand SUV in the first quarter was the JAC Refine S3, with prices starting at about 66,000 yuan ($10,650), according to trade websites, much cheaper than foreign models.
The new version of Volkswagen's Tiguan, meanwhile, starts in China at just under 200,000 yuan, according to the automaker's website.
Still, Western manufacturers, hungrier than ever for a slice of the Chinese market, which is already the biggest in the world overall and expected to surpass the United States in SUV sales too.
"By 2018, China is expected to be the biggest market in the world for SUVs," John Lawler, chairman and CEO of Ford Motor China, told a news conference.
Compact SUVs have also been growing in popularity in the United States, where their market share rose to a record 12.8 percent so far in 2015, according to Edmunds.com data.
Volkswagen, the biggest foreign manufacturer in China, is equally positive.
"We will as well come in the near future with additional (SUV) models," said Jochem Heizmann, Volkswagen Group China's president and CEO.
"We're not only talking about the budget SUV segment, we're talking about different sizes. Smaller SUVs, bigger SUVS, premium SUVs."
On the French side, Citroen saved the unveiling of its "Aircross" concept car, which has a raised, rounded shape, for the Shanghai show.
The dynamic market for urban 4x4s in China was one of the reasons Citroen -- which has a quarter of its sales in the country -- chose to unveil the model in Shanghai, Citroen CEO Linda Jackson told AFP.
"In December, we launched a little SUV, the C3-XR. Three months later, we had already sold more than 14,000 models. The SUV market adapts very quickly here," she said.
Just next door, Renault showed off its small crossover Captur and its big brother, the Qajar. It plans to open its first Chinese manufacturing plant by the end of the year and is hoping that sale of its crossovers will account for 3.5 percent of the market in the medium term -- or 700,000 models a year.
SUVs are popular in China for the same reasons as in the US and Europe: "higher-seating, the feeling of security, the car's flexibility, and its adaptation to difficult conditions," according to Volkswagen's Heizmann.
And there is another element, Neuvy of the Observatoire Cetelem, contends -- buyers' desire to distinguish themselves from the masses.
"The Chinese fleet is less than five years old, and we are now beginning to see first-time buyers who change their car, and who want a model more in line with their tastes."