I recall a story I read on the internet about a young woman’s thrifty mother. She had found a packet of cheese at the store for 25 cents and bought it, bragging to her daughter about how much money she was going to save switching to this new brand. Only, when she tried to make a grilled cheese sandwich, she found this “dairy” product wouldn’t melt—heat just sort of discoloured it and it got negligibly softer. The X240 and X200, like other Great Walls, were the automotive equivalent of that dime-store cheese. A temptingly low price betrayed some glaring flaws.
On paper, the X looked great. Despite a price $2k lower than even the cheapest Korean crossovers, the X came with a good amount of standard kit: leather trim, power accessories and rear parking sensors. Ah, but there were some conspicuous omissions—no cruise control or automatic transmission and, much more importantly, no side airbags, traction control or stability control. Fortunately, the X achieved a 4-star ANCAP crash test rating, which was more than could be said for Great Wall’s pickup trucks. Or the infamous Jiangling Landwind.
In the metal, the X looked good too. Oh, sure, the styling was mostly cribbed from the Isuzu Axiom but that was an excellent design to rip off and one unfamiliar to Aussies. The front was a bit overwrought with all its chrome trim, but the 2011 facelift (pictured) brought a more modern, Mazda-esque front end.
Like its pickup stablemates but unlike most of its rivals, the X employed body-on-frame construction and shift-on-the-fly 4WD. However, it used coil springs and disc brakes at the rear instead of the pickups’ leaf springs and drums. The engine was an old Mitsubishi 2.4 four-cylinder, producing 134 hp and 147 ft-lbs and mated to a five-speed manual. The X could reach 60 mph in approximately 20 seconds, an abysmally slow time for a new car in 2009.
Blame that – and poor fuel economy – on a curb weight of 4000 pounds. A much more competitive 2.0 turbo diesel model arrived in 2011 – badged as the X200 – and produced 140 hp and 228 ft-lbs; a six-speed manual was standard, but a five-speed automatic finally arrived in 2012. With the diesel, the Great Wall more significantly undercut rivals’ prices.
In just under two years, Great Wall managed to make its way into the top 20 best-selling brands in a very saturated and competitive market. Then the recall happened.
It wasn’t the first recall of Great Wall vehicles but it involved something Aussies had come to fear: asbestos. While asbestos had historically been used in various car parts, importation of the substance had been banned in Australia since 2004. It came to light that the X200 and X240 – among 25,000 Great Wall, Chery and Geely vehicles – contained asbestos in their exhaust systems. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission was satisfied there was no health risk to Great Wall owners, however they advised against doing any DIY maintenance. There was no mandatory recall, however owners could take their vehicles to a dealership for replacement gaskets.
Despite the all-clear from the ACCC, new car buyers were reluctant to purchase a car that had asbestos in it. By 2014, sales had halved despite heftier incentives. Plans for a model range expansion were put on hold, with executives citing concerns about the exchange rate. Great Wall was also impacted by a change in legislation mandating electronic stability control.
Some people have claimed to have good experiences with their Great Walls. It’s unclear whether quality control was hugely inconsistent or if those Great Wall champions are pleasantly surprised as a result of low expectations. The market, however, sees these cars as worthless. Remember how I mentioned a base Kia Sportage was only $2k more than an X240? Well, that $AUD25k Kia is worth about $14k now. The Great Wall? It’s worth about $6k. Yikes.
Quite simply, these were slow and soggy to drive thanks to their dated mechanicals. They also lacked the build quality and safety features of their rivals. Like Great Walls’ pickups, they tempted with their prices but ultimately ended up being a worse deal than simply going to a Mitsubishi or Nissan dealer and getting a dealer demonstrator or run-out model.
But did Great Wall give up? No. They’ve re-launched the Great Wall name here with the new Steed pickup, although they are selling their latest-generation SUVs under the Haval name. Early exports from Japan and South Korea were pretty rubbish too but look at where they are today. With time, the Chinese brands that export will continue to purchase or partner with established brands from other countries – like Geely has with Volvo, and Brilliance with BMW – and their cars will get better and better and consumer acceptance will follow. Then, the Chinese automakers will eventually be able to step upmarket, leaving another developing country to supply the world with bargain-basement cars.
Everything else is Made in China and we buy it, so why not cars?