CHINESE WHISPERS | LDV UTE -Does the LDV T60 start to change perceptions of Chinese competitiveness

Does the LDV T60 start to change perceptions of Chinese competitiveness in the ute market? – Chris Mullett checks out the claims.

If your memory extends back more than a couple of decades, you might remember the hesitation of vehicle buyers to choose a Japanese product. Personal buyer preference headed the intending purchaser to local manufacturers, but in a short space of time the Japanese were wooing customers because the reliability of their products outshone the likes of Ford and Holden. Local assembly then followed for the Japanese brands, and buyer resistance faded as commonality and popularity changed the buying equation.

The early South Korean products from the brands of Daewoo, Hyundai and SsangYong similarly lacked a fit and finish standard that matched the Japanese. With cheap and sometimes nasty plastic interior trim that didn’t quite fit perfectly, in some cases there was also an unfortunate smell inside when the car was left in the hot Aussie sunlight. That’s all well passed, with the South Korean brands now maintaining standards of quality and design that certainly rank alongside, if not ahead of, the Europeans.

And what of the Europeans? No longer are BMWs and Volkswagens built solely in Germany, by people wearing white coats and carrying stainless steel screwdrivers. They can be sourced from Poland, South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, and Mexico, or wherever labour costs are low and governments provide financial incentives for setting up production plants.

In case you are wondering where these meanderings are headed, we now come to discuss the emerging opportunities of buying Chinese. In particular, whether the LDV range of products in general, and the T60 ute range specifically, are worthy of consideration and a close look. 

Delivery Magazine still has poor memories of Chinese products such as Great Wall where, thanks to a much lower entry-level pricing, the brand took off spectacularly, only to see the fruits of its labours whither on the vine, the result of poor reliability and even poorer product support, which resulted in resale values sinking faster than faith in the Abbott/Turnbull Governments.

Size does matter, but understanding the market matters more and this is where buyers have to weigh up the pros and cons of whether to migrate to Chinese brands yet, or to let other early adopters take the initial risk.

The parent company of LDV is SAIC Motor (Shanghai Auto Industry Corporation). It’s a Fortune Global 100 company, ranking number 41 on the ranking of global corporations (with revenues of US$ 113 billion) and standing tall as the 10th largest auto manufacturer in the world. In 2017, SAIC Motor will build more than seven million vehicles. It has joint venture manufacturing associations with Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, IVECO and General Motors, plus, as an aside, it owns the historic British brand of MG and Rover (sold as ROEWE).

Chinese vehicle manufacturing plants are not poorly constructed, dimly lit, old aircraft hangers filled with low paid and unskilled workers. They are state-of-the-art, modern assembly plants, filled with the same brands of robots found in the leading European factories. Spotlessly clean and highly efficient, there’s every reason to expect quality control standards to equal those found anywhere in the world.

With 40 Australian dealerships at this stage, and with the potential for a further 20 to join their ranks, distribution is controlled by the ATECO Group that handles Maserati in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in New Zealand. It is also in a joint venture to import and remanufacture RAM Trucks in right-hand-drive form through American Special Vehicles in Melbourne. Plus it provides the logistics and tactical direction for parts operations on behalf of other carmakers.

In many ways the ATECO Group provides local knowledge of the motor industry that takes years to acquire, especially if you happen to be an overseas manufacturer without previous experience of exporting into the Australian market. Also, unlike many of the recent start-up, factory-owned, distribution operations such as Foton and Haval, you can actually call someone by telephone if you have questions you want answered, rather than being able to only access an email form on a web site to an unlisted destination.

The launch of the LDV T60 ute actually positions SAIC Motor as providing a range of light commercial and recreational vehicles. The first models released in the T60 product line up are 4×4 dual-cab utes with low and high range all-wheel-drive, available with a common engine and transmission but in two distinct trim levels – the Pro for the tradie and the Luxe for the recreational family buyer.

On paper the T60 stacks up really well against all contenders, with a five-star ANCAP crash test rating, a gutsy 2.8-litre, VM Motori designed turbocharged and intercooled, four-cylinder diesel, and a six-speed Aisin designed automatic transmission. A six-speed manual SAIC gearbox is optionally available, but the importers believe the majority of sales will all be self-shifters.

The tradie version has a heavier-duty suspension, with a more supple system on the Luxe, and the towing figures are identical at 3000 kg with a downforce of 300 kg on the tow ball. Payload does alter between the Pro and the Luxe, with 1025 kg for the manual Pro reducing to 995 kg for the auto. The Luxe drops its payload figure to 875 kg and 815 kg for the manual/auto mix.

Concerns over manufacturer support should be well satisfied through a 130,000 km/five-year warranty, backed with roadside assist and a loan car programme for the same parameters, further enhanced by a ten year anti-rust perforation warranty. After an initial 5000 km service, all other service intervals are set at 15,000 km periods.

The attraction of the T60 romps ahead of many others through the standard inclusions of remote central locking, adaptive headlamps that swivel as you corner, blindspot monitoring, lane departure warning, rear parking sensors and reversing camera, rain-sensing wiper, side steps, tub liner, aircon, cruise control, two USB ports, a 10-inch touchscreen, Smartphone integration with Apple Car Play and Google Android auto, multifunction steering wheel controls and dusk-sensing headlights and tyre pressure monitoring.

All the above inclusions feature on the entry-level T60 Pro model, with the upmarket, RV-oriented Luxe adding more goodies with an electronic, on-demand Eaton locking rear diff, smart key, keyless start, heated and folding wing mirrors, sports bar in the tub, auto-dimming rear-vision mirror, leather clad steering wheel, leather seats, climate control aircon and a more supple “comfort” suspension.

LDV also has an approved accessory range designed for the T60, with a rear canopy from CarryBoy, roof racks, front nudge bar and slide-out rear cargo floor.

For the average buyer, the spec list really does give you something to spruik about, made all the more interesting by the fixed drive-away pricing on introduction of $30,516 and $32,621 for the T60 Pro (manual/auto), moving up to $34,726 and $36,831 for the Luxe equivalent (manual/auto). Those with an ABN benefit from keener pricing that drops the pricing by a further $1500-$1800.

The attraction of the T60 with its high specification is immediately obvious, and it’s going to provide a convincing argument for consideration by anyone crunching the numbers for a ute purchase.

Thanks to a variable geometry turbocharger and intercooler, the 2.8-litre diesel delivers its power and torque smoothly through the range and is well matched by the six-speed adaptive automatic. Maximum power of 110 kW is produced at 3400 rpm, and, with peak torque of 360 Nm rated through from 1600 to 2800 rpm, it’s a combination that’s well up to the mark. It keeps the T60 humming along at high speed and it handles hill climbing easily.

The choice of 3.2:1 final drive ratio with the auto transmission gives a good indication of how the torque hangs on, and it contributes to some pretty impressive fuel economy of around the high 7s and low 8s in terms of litres per 100 kilometres during part of Delivery’s drive, somewhat beating the official figures that state 8.8-9.6 l/100 km. It’s a Euro 5 emissions compliance engine with emissions levels of 233 (manual) and 254 (auto) g/km CO2.

Preferably, the wading depth of 300 mm and ground clearance of 215 mm isn’t going to promote serious off-roading, as nobody knows at this stage how the chassis and underpinnings are going to cope with those higher degrees of stress. The turning circle of 12.6 m kerb-to-kerb is also not that unusual for this category.

In terms of price, and value the buyer gets for their money, the T60 is outstanding. A day spent putting the Luxe version through its paces in regional NSW on a wide selection of road surfaces left Delivery with the impression that the first trip after purchase would be to a well-known aftermarket suspension provider to Australianise the suspension. In our view, the front is too soft and the rear is too hard, causing a wallow from the front and a tendency to step out of line from the rear when encountering a bump in mid corner.

That statement might just as well apply to the majority of imported utes in standard trim, as, without local development, the suspension and handling of standard vehicles can all benefit from attention by a suspension expert with local knowledge.

The T60 is no exception to the norm, and neither is it unique. A couple of grand spent on improving and tuning the springs and damper settings, when combined with the really high trim levels and safety features, will make the T60 substantially more attractive and significantly more of a threat to the dominance of the Japanese in this segment.

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