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It doesn’t seem all that long ago now that the Chinese car brands simply weren’t considered a threat to the established marques in Australia.
They were too far behind, had too much catching up to do, to be seen as true challengers to the bigger auto makers.
But those days are gone now, of course, and a quick glance at Australia’s sales charts show the Chinese brands making up for lost time with some serious growth.
Take MG, for example, who is reporting a year-to-date sales boost of more than 250 per cent so far this year, shifting some 4420 units to August. Or LDV, who has moved 3646 vehicles this year, up almost 10 per cent on last year's totals, with its locally tuned LDV T60 Trailrider leading the way. Or Great Wall, for that matter, with the Chinese ute brand selling 788 vehicles this year, up more than 100 per cent on 2018's YTD totals.
It's no secret that Australia’s booming ute market is a serious lure to car makers, and the Chinese brands will soon have no shortage of new entrants, with brands like Great Wall especially making no secret of the fact it is benchmarking its future product against both the Ford Ranger and Toyota HiLux.
Great Wall is convinced it can produce vehicles that meet or exceed the quality and capability of our best-selling utes, and what's more, that it can do it for a fraction of the price.
“It’s a move to reposition the brand into where Australians and New Zelanders are using their vehicles today, not yesterday,” a spokesperson told CarsGuide. “It will make a lot of people think 'why I am paying this amount of money for ute, when someone like Great Wall can build something to this level of comfort and capability?'.
The rewards are massive, of course; our ute market accounts for more than 210,000 sales every year. And so naturally the Chinese brands want a slice of that lucrative pie.
Here’s how they’re planning to do it.
Great Wall is under no illusion about just who is leading the dual-cab charge in Australia, and so in developing its all-new ute, the Chinese brand looked to the sales-leading Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger for its engineering benchmarking process.
"They've done a lot benchmarking work on different models, and taken the best queues from them, but it's also consistent with that American big-ute look that's taking the world by storm," a brand spokesperson told CarsGuide. "It was benchmarked against HiLux and Ranger for its off-road capability.”
The Great Wall ute - which is yet to receive a model name for our market - will also stack-up on carrying and towing capacity, with Great Wall promising a "one-tonne payload and a minimum three-tonne towing capacity".
What's more, the Great Wall will undergo a suspension tuning process that, while not specific to Australia, has been designed with Australia in mind.
"We have had a number of our engineers over here testing on a whole range of different surfaces, and that information has been fed back to head office to get the right suspension settings for our market," says our GWM spokesperson.
"Especially things like our corrugations, which they’re not familiar with, and so we continue to work with head office on that. While it’s not a specific tune for Australia, it’s tuned with Australia in mind."
But that vehicle acts as a mere stepping stone, with the brand conceding it needs to overhaul its warranty and safety features for a planned all-new model, expected to arrive around 2021.
It's actually that car, rather than the current face-lifted model, that will spearhead the brand's real push into our dual-cab market, with Foton planning on increasing its dealership footprint to get in front of more customers, and suggesting the ute's pricing will be offset by its successful truck business, meaning sharp pricing.
We don't know yet what will power the new ute, but we'd expect a version of the current powertrain (a turbocharged 2.8-litre Cummins diesel which produces 130kW and 365Nm) to appear in the all-new truck, and like the MG, Foton will be targeting a one-tonne payload and three-tonne towing capacity.
Currently, that engine is paired with a ZF automatic transmission, while other big-name items include a Borg Warner transfer case and a Dana limited-slip rear differential, all of which shows a willingness from Foton to lean on the experts where required.
You might recall JMC, which left Australia with its tail between its legs in 2018 after staggeringly slow sales of its Vigus 5 ute.
Well, it turns out JMC is plotting a comeback, this time leaving the old 5 at home and arriving with the new Vigus 9, which addresses one of the glaring problems with the brand’s older ute, which only arrived with a manual transmission.
Not so the Vigus 9, which is powered (in China) by a turbocharged 2.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine borrowed from Ford, and which sends 153kW and 325Nm through a six-speed auto or six-speed manual gearbox.
There is no confirmed arrival time yet, and it is currently only offered in left-hand drive, but the brand is said to be studying the move closely.