(Reuters) - China could overtake Germany and Italy to become the biggest market for Daimler AG's mini car brand Smart in a few years, Smart chief executive Annette Winkler said on Saturday.
"When we started, many people doubted that Smart could be a success here, because normally, luxury, premium cars in China is about big cars," Winkler told reporters in Shanghai, where Smart is celebrating the fifth anniversary of its China launch.
But during some months of this year, China has already been the top world market for Smart, she said.
China's premium car market, currently dominated by German brands Audi, BMW and Daimler's Mercedes-Benz, have shown signs of slowing, but sales of compact models in this segment are still growing fast.
Smart, which competes with BMW's Mini, sold about 17,500 cars in China last year, and sales will hit a record this year with slight growth, Smart's China head Daniel Lescow said in the same interview, attributing the slowdown partly to model changes.
He expects sales will pick up after next year's launch of the new Smart two-seater and Smart four-seater in China, the world's biggest auto market.
"Starting from 2016, we will see double-digit growth again," Lescow said, adding that an increasing number of Chinese young people are becoming rich enough to buy a Smart car, which sells at a starting price of 115,000 yuan ($18,589).
Separately, Daimler plans to bring its car-sharing service, car2go, to China. At the end of 2013, car2go had entered 25 cities in Europe and North America, and was operating a fleet of more than 10,000 Smart Fortwo cars.
Lescow said that the company is talking with city governments about car2go, and evaluating the business model in China, but didn't give a timetable.