TURIN – Two of Italy’s elite auto makers plan to sell vehicles in China as early as this year.

Automobili Lamborghini SpA says it will build on parent Volkswagen AG’s market-leading presence in China and begin importing its Murcielago and Gallardo to three Chinese cities in 2004.

Lamborghini will sell its Murcielago in China this year.

It first will open Lamborghini Beijing and follow with dealerships in Shanghai and Guangzhou. All three stores will be open by year’s end, and Lamborghini anticipates selling 20 units in 2004.

Lamborghini CEO Werner Mischke says the company is setting up its own Chinese distribution network much like it has in 20 other countries, including Japan and Saudi Arabia.

“Following the experience gained in other countries, Automobili Lamborghini is creating a distribution network of its own in China, thus ensuring a direct link between the Sant’Agata (Italy) headquarters and the dealers in the field,” he says. “The new structure will take advantage of the roots and respect that the local Audi (and) Volkswagen representatives have gained in China.”

Although China will play a small role in Lamborghini’s 2004 performance, it may help the company reach its record goal of 1,800 deliveries worldwide. Last year, the auto maker sold 1,305 cars.

Lamborghini’s chief competitor, Ferrari Maserati SpA, says it has struck a deal with two partners in China: Hong Kong industrial conglomerate Wo Kee Hong Holdings Ltd. and Beijing missile producer Poly Technologies.

Ferrari reportedly owns a 40% stake in the joint venture, with the remaining 60% split evenly between its partners. The partnership is aimed at importing and distributing Ferrari’s new 575M Maranello and other Ferrari and Maserati vehicles. The auto maker currently has no plans to build Ferrari or Maserati vehicles in China, but will rely on the partnership for technical assistance and spare parts once it begins sales operations.

In June, Ferrari showed the 575M Maranello in China at the Beijing auto show.