SHANGHAI — China’s leading automaker SAIC Motor Corporation has launched its first self-operated car-shipping route to Europe as exports expanded in European markets.

A “ro-ro” (roll-on/roll-off) ship named “SAIC Anji Phoenix” carrying some 1,800 SAIC new energy vehicles (NEVs) set off on its maiden voyage Tuesday night from East China’s Shanghai port to Europe.

The vessel is expected to stop at Bristol in the United Kingdom, before heading to Zeebrugge in Belgium, its final destination.

It is the first direct China-Europe sea route for shipping cars for the Chinese auto industry.

Before the route was launched, Chinese vehicles exported to Europe had to stop at multiple ports before arriving at the continent. The new route would shorten shipping time by about one week.

Yu De, head of SAIC’s international business, said despite the impact of COVID-19, the company’s sales in NEV-friendly European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway have soared, boosting confidence in further exploring the continent’s market.

“In the past, our export volume to Europe was relatively small. As our sales continued to increase, we decided to launch self-operated shipping service to enhance the competitiveness of our cars in the local market,” said Yu.

In the first nine months of the year, Shanghai-based SAIC Motor sold 221,000 vehicles overseas, accounting for one-third of the total overseas sales of Chinese automakers. Out of this, sales of SAIC’s indigenously developed brands reached 140,000 units, an increase of 24.7 percent over the same period last year.

“In highly mature markets like Europe, electric vehicles serve as the entry point that gives us more competitiveness. In emerging markets, we focus on intelligent connected vehicles,” said Yu.

By 2025, SAIC plans to achieve the goal of selling 1 million vehicles overseas annually, including 100,000 own-brand vehicles in European market, Yu added.

Wang Zemin, general manager of SAIC Anji Logistics Co Ltd, said self-operated routes can provide quality and time-efficient options for Chinese auto companies to export NEVs to Europe, while carrying high-end European cars into China on the return journey.

Currently, SAIC’s own brands MG and MAXUS are present in more than 10 European countries, including the United Kingdom and France.

From January to July, a total of 120,000 automobiles worth 14.04 billion yuan (about $2.1 billion) had been exported through the Shanghai port, up 24.5 percent and 18.6 percent year-on-year respectively, according to Shanghai Customs.

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