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China's first five-star safety car just months away

Great Wall Motors is the biggest Chinese-branded car maker globally.

-- Next Great Wall SUV engineered for top safety score
-- New models will go up in price but still cost less than $25,000
-- Great Wall Motors to establish research division in Melbourne
-- New Thailand factory will help keep up with global demand

They won’t be quite as affordable as before. The first-ever Chinese car expected to be awarded five stars for safety is due on sale in Australia by the end of the year – at least three years earlier than industry pundits had predicted.

The next generation Great Wall Motors compact SUV -- similar in size to a Subaru Forester – is expected to come fully equipped with six airbags, stability control and a greatly improved body structure that has been designed to meet Australian ANCAP crash safety standards, among the most stringent in the world.

The boss of Great Wall Motors, Madam Wang, told News Limited at last weekend’s Shanghai motor show that the next two all-new SUVs -- one due on sale this year, the other in 2014 -- were engineered to earn a five-star safety score.

“We must wait for ANCAP to test the cars [but] our internal testing has shown we have made the necessary improvements to earn a five-star rating,” she said, speaking through an interpreter. Chinese cars have long had a cloud over their quality, safety and reliability since the first one went on sale locally in 2009.

The first Chinese-made vehicles crash-tested in Australia scored just two stars out of five for safety. Last year, more than 23,000 Chinese vehicles were recalled because their engines were assembled with gaskets which contained the banned substance asbestos.

The company says it has learned from its harsh lessons and future models will be built to global standards. However prices are likely to rise, which will diminish some of the appeal to cost-conscious car buyers in Australia.

The current Great Wall SUV range starts at $21,990 and tops out at $28,990, but the new model will creep up in price. “In the past we have sold old models with a low price. In the future we will have more new models. The quality will be better and accordingly the price will be a bit higher. But the competitiveness will be maintained,” Madam Wang said.

The Great Wall Motors boss acknowledged that Australia is an important test market for the company and, as a result, will establish by the end of this year a marketing and research division in Melbourne, with about 12 staff. This is in addition to the operations of the independent distributor, Ateco Automotive, which handles Great Wall Motors in Australia.

“The Australian market has provided us a lot of experience,” Madam Wang said. “There have been many problems [but] we hope in the future, when we enter mature markets, we won’t have problems such as the asbestos.”

Great Wall Motors is the biggest Chinese-branded car maker globally, ranking eighth among all international car manufacturers in its domestic market. It sold 620,000 cars in China and abroad last year. In Australia, the company sold about 11,000 vehicles, ranking it ahead of established brands such as Land Rover, Lexus, Peugeot, Volvo and ute maker Isuzu.

Meanwhile, Great Wall Motors is expected to be one of the first Chinese car makers to join its Japanese rivals with a car factory in Thailand. It will produce two new vehicles designed for export, including to Australia.

The Great Wall factory in Thailand is expected to be operational in 2015. The company is yet to announce which vehicles it will build there, but a small car and a pick-up are the most likely candidates given they are among two of the three most popular vehicle types in the region.