The words "Chinese" and "quality" aren't often used in the same sentence in the automotive world.
But that could change with the Foton Tunland one-tonne ute arriving in Australia in October. Rod James, spokesman for the importer, Foton Automotive Australia (FAA), says the high-quality international components and low price will attract strong interest.
Explore the 2012 Foton Tunland Range
They are powered by a American Cummins turbo-diesel engine married to a German Getrag five-speed short-shift manual gearbox and American Borg-Warner transfer box with German Bosch and Continental electrics, American Dana rear axles, a "proper" box chassis and leather interior.
"It's the first vehicle out of China that is truly a world car with a brand new platform and quality componentry, plus it's a good-looking vehicle," he says. "What's come in from China so far are vehicles that are being sold domestically in China on price alone.
"This vehicle comes with an expensive Cummins engine tested to 1m kilometres with a minimum failure rate."
The Foton Tunland will initially arrive in basic five-seater dual-cab layout at $29,995 on the road for the two-wheel-drive model up to $36,990 for the luxury model with four-wheel drive. Optional cloth upholstery will cost about $1000 less.
That compares with the Chinese Great Wall ute which starts at $17,990 for the V240 single cab. James says future Tunland models will include cheaper single cab and extra cab with a 1.8 tonne extended tray.
"We can't reveal our sales targets at the moment, but they are reasonably modest at first," James says. "On early indications, with the componentry and price, we believe there will be a reasonable market share there."
FAA, which is a joint venture between management company NGI and bus importers the Phelan family, has 15 dealer outlets with a target of 60 sites over the next three years. They will have a three-year 100,000km warranty with a five-year paint and corrosion warranty and 10,000km service intervals.
While the first models will arrive with the Cummins ISF 2.8-litre turbo diesel engine and five-seed manual short-shift gearbox, they will be followed by a 100kW 2.4-litre petrol engine and six-speed ZF automatic transmission.
There are push-button controls to switch between four and two-wheel drive on the fly and high and low ratios when stopped. It sits on a ladder-frame chassis with a live Dana rear axle and leaf springs and double-wishbone front suspension, with wide Chinese Savero tyres (245/70 R16) and 17 and 18-inch options available.
It's missing Bluetooth, aux input and USB inputs but it does have four auto windows with the driver's window also auto up.
James expects a four-star safety rating. It comes with reverse sensors and braking is assisted by anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic brake distribution (EBD) and as yet doesn't have stability control.
"They've been tested by (Euro) NCAP at four stars and we are expecting the same," James says. "The only thing it lacks is five airbags. There are only two at this stage, but we have no fears that it will get to five stars reasonably quickly." It doesn't have reach-adjustable steering, but does have rear parking sensors.
It looks very American with an imposing chrome grille and some nice cosmetic touches. The bodywork gaps are small and consistent, the door seals are generous, there are extended mudflaps, side steps, fog lamps, big back doors, truck-size mirrors and the rear tray was sprayed with a liner which is an option.
However, there is some unfinished bodywork around the back window and rear bumper and the wheel arches are uncovered which means a lot of noise over gravel. Inside is leather upholstery, wood trim highlights, basic switchgear and plastic trim that is hard, but reasonable quality with matching colours.
The front bucket seats are flat with little support and you tend to slide around on them. James points out that the Tunland is "longer, wider and higher" than the Toyota HiLux which has become Australia's top-selling car in the past few months.
Towing capacity is currently listed at 2.5 tonne, but James says that could be uprated. "It has the capacity to tow a lot more. Our engineers have tested it and they are all sure it is at least three tonnes," he says. It has a healthy 210mm of ground clearance, but a wide 13.5m minimum turning circle.
There are only two cars in the country doing the rounds of dealers and we had a chance to drive one a short distance around town. When it fires up the Cummins engine has the usual diesel rattle but it's not invasive, especially when the revs pick up.
The engine pulls firmly from 1800 revs and feels smooth and powerful. All the pedals feel mushy which is a contrast to the heavy and notchy gearshift. Steering is also on the heavy and numb side.