In many automotive circles, whether at the mamak or in boardrooms, China is still the butt of jokes. However, underestimating Chinese carmakers may not be that wise, if one remembers that Japanese and Korean cars were once in the same position. Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is warning against that.

“If anyone deludes themselves that they can ignore China, they will pay a huge price. China’s auto industry has grown tremendously, and they have some of the most updated current technology. They should not be underestimated. We cannot afford to be unprepared for the ascent of China, reassuring ourselves of our invincibility,” Marchionne told an auto industry seminar in Michigan.

“The excuse that we did not understand or that we underestimated the scale will serve no purpose. Rather we need to continue to work to make our industrial base more competitive, because the day of reckoning is inevitably coming.”

The Italian pointed out that at present, Chinese carmakers produce almost entirely for domestic consumption, but “even assuming China were to export only 10% of what it produces, the risk we face in our home markets is enormous.”

He has reason to worry. Fiat is fighting for market leadership in fast growing Brazil, the world’s fourth largest car market and a target for the Chinese. Chery has started construction of its first factory outside of Sao Paulo and expects to churn out 50,000 vehicles a year there by end 2013. Meanwhile, Jianghuai Automobile (JAC Motors) is to invest between $600 and $900-million for its maiden Brazilian assembly plant that will start operating in 2014.