Industry Analysis: Chinese Brands To Watch, Part 1 – LDV

To date, no Chinese car brands have been sold in North America. Chinese-built cars sold on the continent have been limited to cars from established brands (Buick Envision) or extremely low-volume failures (Coda EV). But while the Chinese car invasion has yet to reach North American shores, automakers from the People’s Republic have been making inroads in other markets.

In Australia, for example, we’ve seen the likes of Geely, Chery, Great Wall, Foton, JMC and ZX Auto. Ute (pickup) brands like Foton and JMC have struggled to find meaningful volume, perhaps because of entrenched brand loyalty among ute buyers. Brands like Geely, Chery and ZX Auto have dwelled in obscurity and then disappeared, their products just too low-tech and frumpy to attract even the most budget-conscious buyers.

Great Wall was the first Chinese brand to find any meaningful success with its range of budget utes and SUVs, only to flame out when reliability and quality issues became impossible to ignore. That leaves three that are experiencing significant growth: MG, LDV and Haval.

Commercial vehicle brand LDV arrived here in 2013 before switching distributors and relaunching the following year. Like MG, LDV is a resurrected English name, if a less well-known one. It was formerly Leyland DAF Vans and was part of the Rover Group before it was bought by Russian GAZ in 2006. GAZ proved a poor parent for the brand and it changed hands a couple of times before SAIC Motor acquired them in 2010 and commenced Chinese production.

LDV’s first product here, the V80, is known as the Maxus in other markets such as the UK. There, it’s available in a raft of variants such as a chassis cab and a battery-electric van and, although they remain a bit player, the company is expanding. The V80 is an old design, dating back to the early 2000s, and is hardly the last word in refinement or safety. The only engine is a VM Motori-sourced 2.5 four-cylinder diesel producing 134 hp, sending power through a six-speed manual transmission to the front wheels.

More impressive is LDV’s newest van, the G10, first launched in Australia in 2015. Unlike the V80, the G10 is a clean-sheet Chinese design. It’s smaller and rear-wheel-drive and offers the choice of petrol and diesel engines. There’s a 2.0 turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine, mated to a ZF-sourced six-speed automatic and producing 221 hp and 243 ft-lbs. If you want a manual but don’t want a diesel, your only option is a naturally-aspirated 2.4 four with 140 hp and 147 ft-lbs – that’s quite a drop and the manual is only a five-speed unit.

A 1.9 turbo diesel four was introduced later, producing 140 hp and 258 ft-lbs, mated to either a six-speed manual or six-speed auto. Interestingly, G10s with automatic transmissions have a different rear suspension set-up with five-link coil springs instead of the manuals’ leaf springs. The G10 also has a people mover variant, available only with the turbo/auto powertrain.

The fresh-looking G10 undercuts venerable rivals like the Toyota HiAce and Hyundai iLoad by $1-3k. It’s a clever play, going for a segment with less competition and with buyers motivated by low pricing. Although it’s safe to assume some fleet buyers are pragmatic types and suspicious of upstart brands, logo-emblazoned G10s have started popping up on local streets with regularity.

Vans are just one small piece of the Australian pie, however. Our best-selling passenger vehicle is the Toyota HiLux and, like the US and Canada, this is the land of the crew-cab pickup (“dual-cab ute” in our parlance) – ours are a little bit smaller though, North Americans. Into this fiercely competitive segment, LDV recently lobbed the T60 pickup.

The T60 rebuffs criticisms of Chinese car safety by boasting a five-star ANCAP crash rating, the first such Chinese ute to do so. The range is split into Pro and Luxe models, the former an unpretentious work ute, the latter a chrome-laden model in the vein of up-spec Rangers and Colorados. All are powered by a VM Motori 2.8 common-rail turbodiesel four with 147 hp and 265 ft-lbs, mated to either a six-speed manual or an Aisin-sourced six-speed automatic transmission. It’s the most promising Chinese ute yet and though it hasn’t matched the HiLux or Ranger, if LDV can keep reliability and quality in check, they could eke out a comfortable niche in the pickup truck market. Plenty of people bought Great Wall pickups, after all, and they were festering garbage in comparison.

Finally, there’s the D90 SUV. It competes in a segment that’s almost completely extinct in North America: the rugged, mid-size, body-on-frame SUV segment. Although it’s down to just the Toyota 4Runner and Jeep Wrangler over there, here in Australia there’s a swag of rivals including the Holden TrailBlazer and Isuzu MU-X twins, as well as the Ford Everest, Toyota Fortuner and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport.

Ignore the big, rather Masonic logo on its grille and the D90 could pass for a Hyundai. The huge difference, however, is in sticker price: a base D90 retails for around $6k less than a base Santa Fe. Yes, they’re very different cars – one’s body-on-frame, one’s unibody – but the D90 has plenty of features to entice bargain-loving buyers. Even the base D90 comes with a 12-inch infotainment screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a whole suite of safety features such as lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, autonomous emergency braking and forward collision alert. Shifting up the range, you can get luxury mod-cons missing from some rivals like ambient lighting, a panoramic sunroof, and ventilated seats.

The D90 comes solely with a 2.0 turbocharged gas engine, producing 221 hp and 265 ft-lbs and mated to a six-speed automatic. As befitting its rugged underpinnings, the D90 has a low-range transfer case and a rear electronic locking differential. Like the T60, the D90 has received some encouraging if cautionary reviews from the automotive press. It’s been praised for its value proposition but also its rather good fit-and-finish and smooth powertrain. Journalists have been unanimous that LDV isn’t quite there yet, with some of its engines a bit underpowered and the big question mark of long-term durability and reliability hanging over the brand. Nevertheless, it’s a promising start for a Chinese brand and LDV’s products are leagues ahead of past Chinese offerings.

Buyers seem to be noticing. Australian LDV sales increased by 135% year-over-year in 2018 to 6064 units. That puts it ahead of brands like Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, MG, Mini, Peugeot, Porsche and Skoda. But Toyota’s HiAce van, the best-selling van in Australia, sold a few hundred units more than the entire LDV line. It’s early days, however: LDV has only recently launched the D90 and T60. Some markets are going to be tougher for them – for example, the punitive Chicken Tax will hinder any attempts to crack the US market – but LDV is proof the Chinese are advancing.

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