BEIJING — America’s best-selling vehicle for more than 35 years, Ford’s thundering F-150, is officially hitting the streets of China. And drivers in the world’s largest car market aren’t quite sure what to think.
He Zongyuan, the manager of Chinese car club Being Rich AAA Auto Beauty Center, says the bulging pickups are “masculine,” even “macho.” But trucks here are regarded as country vehicles for country people — a lifestyle hundreds of millions want to leave behind.
The Detroit automaker is nevertheless betting that the allure of gas-guzzling Americana will outweigh China’s many roadblocks — choked highways, soaring taxes and social stigmas, not to mention pickup bans on city streets.
And Ford is doing it in an intriguing way: Shipping the made-in-America trucks around the world from a country where imports and exports have quickly become a political battleground.
Ford’s Chinese expansion highlights an awkward reality for President Trump’s “America First” agenda. As his administration pushes to retrench behind the walls of protectionist policy, it is likely to clash with corporate America’s lucrative embrace of global trade.
“After 100-plus years of the auto industry, the U.S. is just not the big dog anymore. It certainly doesn’t have the growth potential that China does,” said Karl Brauer, the executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book.
For the auto industry, Brauer added, the sentiment is “we have to be a global participant in the economy and in commerce, or we’ll suffer.”
Many U.S. automakers have refocused from traditional domestic sales to the potential gold mine of China — the world’s most populous country, with fast-growing wealth and a burgeoning middle class.
The country is a ripe market for Ford, which last month saw its U.S. sales of new cars slump even as sales of F-series trucks climbed. Volkswagen, although battered in the United States by its emissions-cheating scandal, has nevertheless become the world’s largest automaker, partly due to its roaring Chinese success.
Ford does offer a smattering of compact and luxury cars to Chinese buyers, built in Chinese factories. But it has no such Chinese production lines capable of building its big pickups, meaning the first Ford trucks to officially land in the nominally socialist superpower will be American-made.
Ford’s first made-for-China batch, announced last spring, was built in the automaker’s plant in Dearborn, Mich., and shipped from Portland, Ore. The first trucks left U.S. shores last weekend, headed for a port near Beijing.
It will be an odd fit. Ford’s F-150 is, in the auto world, about as American as apple pie. Decades ago, the blue-collar workhorse was first sold in three editions: Contractor, Heavy Duty and Farm & Ranch.
The model Ford will offer in China, the F-150 Raptor, is the truck at its most supersized: A burly, high-performance pickup designed more for desert racetracks than the crowded streets of Beijing.
The F-150 already has carved out a niche in some Chinese dealerships, imported unofficially (and sometimes illegally) through gray-market trading routes. Mo Fei, a salesperson at a trading company in Tianjin, said her company sells the truck for between 450,000 and 580,000 yuan, or about $65,000 to $84,000, shipped from Canada. “The most popular colors are red and blue,” she said.
Truck sellers often have met stiff resistance in the Chinese market. Pickups cannot enter Chinese cities without a special license, which can be tough to get, and state regulators have offered tax benefits to encourage the sale of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.
The question for Ford is whether enough Chinese drivers will think the hassle is worth it to buy the beastly American ride. Zhao Yan, who sells F-150s at a car dealership in Dalian, a city in northeast China, said the car probably would not appeal to most Chinese urbanites.
“The problem with selling this car in China is that F-150 does not show status,” he said. “It does not make you look rich, so it may not be popular among business people.”
Then there is the question of parking. Zhao recalled one woman who thought the F-150 was “cool” but decided against it because it did not seem practical to park on her way to work each day.
Those who try Ford vehicles tend to become fans, Zhao said. “When they like the car, they really like it and they come back to order more, because this car is very good quality.”
He, the car club manager, said the F-150 could have “niche” appeal among the growing number of city slickers with an interest in road trips. It could be popular with “people interested in driving through towns with muddy roads, through mountains and on country roads in China,” he said. “But not highways.”
At present, he said, that is not a large group. “The interest here is just starting, but there will definitely be appreciation for this car, there is no doubt.”
Ford will have competition, including from U.S. automakers General Motors and Chrysler, which are planning to start selling trucks across China this year. Chevrolet, which will soon offer its Silverado and Colorado in the Middle Kingdom, said in a statement that the “classic American trucks . . . embody the charm of freedom while providing an off-road capability.”
U.S. imports into China also are hit with steep fees and taxes, including a 25 percent tariff on all cars and light trucks, meaning the F-150s probably will hit Chinese car lots bearing luxury price tags. The truck, which sells at a premium over other full-size models, starts at about $50,000 in the United States.
Ford also could face a rocky road back home. The F-150, as exported to China, would not be directly covered under an import tax supported by the Trump White House. But the auto industry as a whole depends heavily on a complex global web of parts and components whose costs could rise.
Lingering questions over Trump’s trade policy have left some industry leaders on edge regarding the possibility of new U.S. tariffs — or trade retaliation from other countries — that could send costly shock waves through the supply chain.
Industry groups, including the American International Automobile Dealers Association, have pushed members to call their lawmakers and oppose any import taxes. The Japanese automaker Toyota has urged its U.S. dealers to tell elected officials that an import tax would jack up prices and potentially threaten American jobs.
“This is very much a global industry, and the supply base is very global,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at Autotrader. “This market is not just the easy, ‘Here, take this car — we built it all in Ohio’ anymore.”
Harwell reported from Washington. Congcong Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.