Global car makers Saturday showed off hundreds of gleaming models in glitzy demonstrations ahead of the Shanghai auto show, as they compete for attention from the world’s largest market—China.

The rapidly growing Asian giant is crucial for foreign car makers, which now account for over half the Chinese market, as Europe battles a debt crisis and the United States struggles to put its economic recovery on a firmer footing. “China is by far now the world’s largest market and a driving force behind global industry growth,” said General Motors Vice President for Global Manufacturing Tim Lee, ahead of the show’s official opening Sunday.

GM sold 2.84 million vehicles in China last year, a record for the company, and will launch 17 new or updated models in the country this year. The Shanghai auto show is expected to attract more than 800,000 visitors over the course of nine days and car manufacturers displayed their wares to hundreds of journalists on Saturday. A six-foot blonde model in a silver jumpsuit on the stand of German chassis technology company ZF competed for attention with a promotional team dressed as traditional Chinese soldiers at the sprawling venue in China’s premier Pudong development zone.

China became the world’s largest auto market in 2009. Last year, its auto sales reached 19.31 million vehicles, a 4.3 per cent rise from 2011, according to a Chinese industry group.

Sales growth has moderated since 2010 as China’s economy slowed and as some Chinese cities put limits on car numbers because of concerns over congestion and pollution, but the country still offers better prospects than most parts of the world.

“Certainly, we have seen more dynamic times in China,” said Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of management for Germany’s Daimler and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars.

“But, on the other, hand there are still many reasons to believe in decent growth (in China),” he told journalists.

Japanese car makers’ sales in China have suffered since last year amid a political row over disputed islands that sparked street protests across the country and calls for boycotts.

Japan’s Nissan Motor Co, which unveiled a sporty “concept car” flanked by models in white dresses, said China remained its largest market with annual sales of around 1.2 million vehicles.

“We are confident about our prospects here and we will grow with China,” Andy Palmer, executive vice president of Nissan, told a news conference.

The rapidly growing SUV (sport utility vehicle) and premium car segments were on full display in Shanghai, as Chinese consumers look for more space and more luxury, executives said.

Mercedes-Benz launched a premium compact, the GLA, as it seeks to make it luxury cars more affordable to Chinese buyers.

And Ford Motor Co., which lags its US rival GM in China, said it planned more offerings for its luxury Lincoln brand in China.

“China will be the largest luxury car market in the world, bigger than Western Europe, bigger than the US,” said James Farley, executive vice president of global marketing for Ford. “So it’s important.”

Chinese auto companies were seeking to build brand recognition in a country where the modern auto industry dates back only three decades.

“It seems such a shame not to... find the inspiration to create something that is little different from the German cars, the Japanese cars, the American cars,” said Peter Horbury, vice president of design for China’s Geely group which launched a locally-developed “concept car”.