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Maxus vans and minibuses on sale October

New Maxus V80 vans and mini buses have a strong European heritage.

For several years there has been an expectation that there will be a flood of imported vehicles entering Australia from the booming Chinese automotive industry.

To date only three brands have arrived -- Chery, Great Wall and Geely (the last of those only in WA). But they will be joined by a fourth later this year when the Maxus V80 light commercial van and mini bus range are released.

Maxus has had something of a turbulent history. Originally developed by the Leyland DAF Vehicle (LDV) Group in partnership with Korean carmaker, Daewoo, the first models were built at the Daewoo plant in Lublin, Poland and sold as the LDV Maxus.

Maxus is a subsidiary of China's largest automobile manufacturer, SAIC, and was purchased from Leyland DAF Vehicles (LDV) following that company's bankruptcy during the Global Financial Crisis. A large proportion of the LDV plant and equipment was shipped from Birmingham, England to SAIC’s factory at Wuxi, about 170 km west of Shanghai where production of the Maxus V80 range began in September 2011.

We were able to tour the Maxus factory and came away impressed by the modern facility and the apparent efficiency of operations, albeit still running well short of its maximum capacity of 150,000 vehicles a year. The majority of vehicles are light commercial vans, many of which are converted within the factory into special purpose vehicles such as school buses, ambulances, police vans and VIP transport.

Maxus V80 is produced with two wheelbase options (short and long), three roof heights (low, mid and high) and as either a van or mini bus ranging from nine to 16 seats. Of these we can expect to see the SWB low roof, LWB low roof and LWB high roof variant come to Australia with around 80 percent in van format and 20 percent as mini buses.

Cab chassis variants are being developed and are due late in 2012. They are also expected to be sold in Australia. All Maxus V80 models are powered by a 2.5-litre VM Motori common-rail turbo-diesel engine with maximum power of either 80 or 100 kW, and 330 Nm of torque – Australia will get the 100 kW version.

The Italian-designed engines, which meet Euro4 emission standards, are built in China under licence. An upgraded engine, to meet Euro5, is being developed. Fuel consumption will vary according to model but SAIC provided a “comprehensive fuel consumption” figure of around 9.2 litres per 100 km. More precise numbers will be provided when the V80 arrives in Australia.

Only five- or six-speed manual transmissions are offered to the Chinese domestic market, however the Australian importer, Sydney-based White Motor Company is currently in negotiations with Aisin-Warner for the supply of automatic transmissions, a must for the Australian market.

We were able to get hold of a right-hand drive version of the Maxus V80 and take it for a short, tightly-supervised drive within the confines of the factory. With eight occupants on board it pulled strongly and the dash-mounted manual gear lever was light and smooth in its actions.

Legroom from the driver’s seat was tight and the centrally-mounted instrument panel won’t be to everyone’s taste. Fit and finish could not be faulted. Of more value were a couple of transfers, one in a 15-seat standard mini bus, the other a 180 km motorway trip in the 9-seat Deluxe model. Most of the latter trip, with seven on board, was spent cruising at the sensible motorway speed limit of 120 km/h (Australian authorities please note).

Although Maxus V80 is effectively European it will be viewed by potential Australian buyers as being Chinese and so it will need to be priced as such to have any chance of gaining a significant market share. We were hoping to get some indicative pricing from WMC but to date all we’ve been able to glean is that prices will be “below the Europeans but above the Asians".

Given that two of the latter category of vans, Hyundai iLoad and Toyota HiAce, share around 60 percent of the market between them it’s a risky strategy to ask buyers to pay more than them for what will largely be an unknown brand. Certainly at the SWB/low roof level where the models align.

WMC also plan to import a second range of Chinese light commercial vans and mini buses, this time from JAC whose first load of light-duty trucks are due in Australia very soon. The JAC range, including the Refine and Sunray models, is due to arrive in Australia early in 2013 and will be priced significantly lower than those from Maxus.

As part of the GFC series of fire sales, SAIC also acquired the iconic British marques, MG and Rover, new models from both of which were displayed at the recent 2012 Beijing Motor Show. Apart from the name they bear no resemblance to the cars that we’re familiar with but, if they do come to Australia, those badges may be enough to attract buyers. The new Maxus V80 is due to arrive in Australia around October this year.