East meets West in Qoros' European car market venture

GENEVA, March 6 Wed Mar 6, 2013 10:39am EST

GENEVA, March 6 (Reuters) - Have you heard the one about the Israeli billionaire, the German designer and the Chinese automaker?

For Qoros, the Chinese-Israeli carmaker making a play for Europe, its global roots are no joke. They're its calling card.

An ambitious venture between Israel's richest man and one of China's biggest carmakers, Qoros, which debuted at the Geneva Motor Show this week, is betting that Europeans will overlook the Made in China sticker and fall for its western DNA.

"This combination of western technology, western management, coupled with ... Chinese pedigree is actually a winning combination," said Idan Ofer, the Israeli tycoon who has bet $600 million of his company's cash on Qoros winning hearts in Beijing and Berlin.

The early signs from Geneva are encouraging.

Renault Nissan chief executive officer Carlos Ghosn, former Tata Motors chairman Ratan Tata and Jaguar Land Rover chief executive officer Ralf Speth jostled with industry officials and journalists to admire Qoros' 3 Sedan, one of the show's most popular attractions.

"Mr Tata spent half an hour here yesterday," said Ofer, whose Israel Corporation and state-owned Chinese automaker Chery Automobile each own half of the company. "He was quite amazed. He loved the car."

The 3 Sedan, designed by Gert Hildebrand, who designed BMW's Mini, will be launched in Europe by the end of this year, and plans to leverage western success to drive sales in China, ultimately the company's biggest potential market.

"I don't think you have to be a rocket scientist to see that the Chinese car market is definitely going to grow," Ofer told Reuters in an interview at the show. "Europe for the Chinese validates the car. It gives them confidence."

The 3 Sedan, a compact sedan with a four-cylinder 1.6 litre petrol engine, is expected to be priced below 20,000 euros ($26,000).

Ofer, who inherited his father's chemicals, oil and gas and transportation empire, is Israel's richest man with a net worth of $6.5 billion according to Forbes magazine.

And he is not a stranger to the car business.

Ofer's car battery swapping business, Better Place, sought to redefine the electric vehicle industry, though it has been hampered by a slower-than-expected take-up in vehicles. The two ventures could help each other, Ofer says.

"China will eventually go electric," he said. "There's definitely synergy ... We need to establish Qoros as a company. We cannot go pure electric from day one but once we are on safe ground, we can start combining forces."

Qoros is not the first Chinese-made car brand to make a play in Europe. Previous attempts by Chinese marques have been scuppered by concerns over safety and quality standards. Convincing Europeans of Qoros' quality will be key.

"It's a big hurdle," said Volker Steinwascher, the company's vice president. "We're shooting for a five-star rating ... an international company making an international product."

($1 = 0.7677 euros) (Editing by Mark Potter)