ECONOMIES OF SCALE | Review -The rise and rise of LDV light commercials

The rise and rise of LDV light commercials – Chris Mullett reports from Shanghai, China

Ten years ago, we looked at the Chinese auto industry with little enthusiasm, in much the same way as we considered the viability of Korean car manufacturing a decade earlier. Time is a great leveller, and today it is increasingly obvious that Australia can no longer disregard the Chinese manufacturers.

This approach applies with SAIC in particular, a company that manufactured no fewer than 7.05 million vehicles in the 12 months of 2018. This is roughly seven times the annual number of all vehicle sales in Australia (both passenger and commercial).

SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation) is the owner and manufacturer of several car brands now centred in China, such as MG and ROEWE (the renamed brand that once carried the Rover name). It’s also the manufacturer of LDV, the Leyland DAF Vehicle nameplate that was once part of Leyland, Morris and Austin before financial woes hit the British manufacturer.

The future looked pretty dire for LDV as its ownership bounced between the Russian GAZ group and a venture capital company. Then it was picked up by SAIC which, at that time, was largely unknown outside China.

Fast forward to 2019 and the SAIC group is now the largest automaker in China. It posted a $US 136.6 billion turnover in 2018, with a profit margin of $US 5.3 billion, and is the seventh-largest automaker in the world. SAIC holds 24.1 percent of the total Chinese domestic vehicle market, where it sold 827,900 units. In 2018 it exported its cars, vans and people movers to 46 countries and regions, while achieving a year-on-year growth rate in its exports of 60.3 percent.

You should by now have seen LDV light commercials on Australian roads, with its van models vaguely resembling a Hyundai iLoad for its one-tonner and a modified Ford Transit for its larger van line. In more recent times, these two light commercials have been joined by the LDV T60 ute, a capable competitor that’s challenging the best of the Thailand-built, Japanese-owned ute mainstays.

By the time you read this issue of Delivery, Australia will have held the 2019 Federal Election and, if the country is to survive the effects of climate change, the successful party to form government should have the bones of a policy to combat global warming.

While Australian politicians have been in the closet on addressing climate change, companies such as SAIC have been developing electric alternatives. Whether the competition is ready or not, SAIC has the product available and waiting to launch electric light commercial vehicles onto the Australian market.

This Chinese manufacturer is the accepted leader in the development of the EV (Electric Vehicle), Plug-in Hybrid (PHV) and Hydrogen Fuel Cell (HFC) in Asia, and in 2018 sold 140,000 EVs, a year-on-year increase of 120 percent over 2017. In a media discussion with Delivery on the eve of the Shanghai Auto Show, company executives revealed their plan to grow sales of EV products to 600,000 units by 2020, while creating 50,000 charging stations across China.

The EV and alternative fuel vehicle (AFV) statistic mentioned here encompasses SAIC production and sales of passenger and light commercial vehicles (PVs and LCVs); but rest assured, for users of LCVs the decision-making process will soon include whether to consider the viability of moving to electric power, especially for local deliveries.

The giant steps forward in EV acceptance by the general motoring community come as the result of the development of SAIC’s electric SUVs, which are now capable of running for 350 to 400 km, with an 80 percent recharge possible in just 40 minutes. These are no slouches when it comes to performance, either, with the flagship electrified SUV producing 298 hp (222 kW) of power and 665 Nm of torque.

Whilst the development of EV models has come off the back of the passenger car and SUV model development, this technology upgrade has unsurprisingly progressed through to the LCV range. Company executives confirmed to Delivery that by 2025, LDV will be able to bring to the Australian market an EV version of each of its light commercial vehicle models. For those looking to travel further afield, LDV will shortly release its own newly developed 2.0-litre single or bi-turbo diesel four-cylinder, complete with automatic or manual transmissions.

While upbeat about the rapid growth of the LDV product range, they expressed concern that there has been zero incentivisation from the Australian Federal or State governments. In China, the growth of EVs and PHVs (Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles) has been pushed forward by using the cancellation of registration plate fees that traditionally cost $US 25,000 as an incentive. In China, vehicle buyers are required to purchase a registration plate before being able to purchase the car or LCV to go with it. In Europe, some governments exempt parking charges, while others exempt tolls or inner-city access taxation.  At the time of writing, Australian governments of any stripe have yet to suggest any incentive.

Buying your own uniquely specified LDV product in China is not only achieved by walking into a traditional showroom. Buyers can review all options on their smartphone or tablet, select their preferences and colour, and confirm the order. If the exact specification is not available at the time the order is placed, it can be completed from scratch and the vehicle delivered to the buyer direct, within a matter of weeks.

This may well be the way of the future, effectively replacing dealerships and reducing the buying process to something similar to purchasing white goods such as refrigerators. It reduces cost, minimises delays and takes the third party out of the equation.  Don’t be surprised if Aisle 9 at your local Bunnings of the future contains an LDV ute for you to check over, with a direct order option for you to select and confirm purchase and delivery. And with the way things are heading from a technology base, your new purchase may even unload itself from the car carrier when delivered, and park itself to await your arrival.

The development of the Chinese auto industry, of which SAIC Motor is easily the largest player, has leapt forwards through previous joint ventures with established manufacturers such as Volkswagen and IVECO, culminating in the European brands being built in China at an SAIC Motor manufacturing plant.

Having joint ventures can be compared to having joint custody of children after a marriage dispute. It’s never going to be a perfect solution, but it covers the basic necessities and responsibilities. Consequently, as we look at the future of SAIC Motor and LDV, the way forward will be for LDV to establish its own brand as a stand-alone marque. The joint venture enabled the company to leapfrog development time to catch up with the best makes in the world. Now, the next step is to move forward from joint ventures and show the world how much has been learnt in the process, and how the company is now more than capable of shedding the joint venture agreement to build the brand by taking on the responsibility of a sole parent.

In 10 years, LDV has moved from copying to creating, and is now building its own product line that includes passenger cars, SUVs and people movers into the mix. Powering these models are choices that include fuel cell drivelines, full EV and hybrid plug-in EVs, as well as petrol and diesel powertrains.

Delivery was invited to visit the SAIC Motor LDV test track at Guangde to drive these different powertrain options on a wide range of road surfaces and to evaluate the ride and handling characteristics, plus experience at first-hand the driving dynamics along with noise, vibration and harshness standards.

The LDV product range available in the Australian market currently starts with the 4×4 T60 in single-cab chassis and dual-cab ute form, with power coming from a 2.8-litre turbocharged VM Motori diesel matched to six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. Maximum power is 110 kW at 3400 rpm, with peak torque of 360 Nm rated at 1600 to 2800 rpm. Pricing starts from the $26,990 (driveaway) mark for what is a very high standard specification complete with a five-star ANCAP rating.

Next up is the G10 panel van. With pricing running from $25,990 (driveaway), power comes from a 2.4-litre petrol or 1.9-litre turbo-diesel four cylinder − again with manual or auto transmission options, and featuring a payload of 1030 to 1093 kg for 5.2 cubic metres of load space. The same body and driveline powers a people mover version with seven or nine seats, with pricing from $30,990 (driveaway).

The LDV V80 panel van was the original frontrunner on the product range, with historic associations linking it with the original LDV product from Europe. Due for replacement in the near future, it’s available currently in SWB low-roof and MWB mid-roof and high-roof versions, all powered by the same 2.5-litre diesel that produces 100 kW at 3800 rpm and with peak torque of 330 Nm rated at 1800 to 2600 rpm. Pricing starts from $30,990 (driveaway) for payloads ranging from 1204 to 1389kg, and cargo volumes of 6.4 to 11.6 cu m.

These three models were developed independently with three different platforms. The next-generation models that will replace them are being developed as modular options stemming from a common platform design, which will enable a choice of drivetrain that includes petrol, diesel, hybrid, electric vehicles and fuel-cell alternatives.

Coming in at the smaller end of the cargo market as a direct competitor for the VW Caddy, Citroen Berlingo and Renault Kangoo, is the EV30. Only available as an EV, Delivery was able to drive early production vehicles through different road surface aspects of the Guangde proving ground, to establish whether it has a potential future in the Australian market.

With the current consumer focus on the environment, the prediction is that electric vehicles will now move up the “must consider” list. And why not? The average courier vehicle for the inner city travels upwards of 120 km per day. The EV30 in SWB form offers a range between charges of 200 km, a payload of 855 kg, sliding side load doors, and a rear tailgate or barn doors. There’s also a longer-wheelbase version on its way with higher levels of cargo volume and a hike in payload to the 1500 kg region.

Driving the EV30 makes for nippy progress thank to the instant torque delivery of the electric motor (40 to 85 kW) with torque rating of 1255/255 Nm. Its maximum speed runs out to 125km/h, it stops using regenerative braking assistance to the all-wheel disc brakes, it steers through electric power steering and it recharges in 45 minutes to 80 percent, or to full charge from zero in five hours.

Driving is easy. The ignition key activates the electrical circuits, and in place of a gear lever there’s a knob on the dashboard to select Drive, Park or Reverse. Click on Drive, release the conventional handbrake lever and press the right-hand pedal, and the EV30 accelerates like a little Dodgem car at the fairground, while making a noise similar to that of an electric train pulling out of a station.

Noise levels are quite muted and without any gears to select or that shift automatically, the more you press the pedal, the faster it goes. Lift off the right-hand pedal (it seems inaccurate to call it a throttle), and you can immediately feel the electric motor providing retardation. It is incredibly easy to drive and position on the road, and with conventional suspension and four-wheel disc brakes, it handles minor road bumps easily.

Sliding side-load doors and a rear tailgate or twin barn doors give easy access into the cargo area, with the driver protected from moving parcels by a full-height and full-width metal bulkhead. As the bulkhead is bolted into place, there’s obviously going to be alternative options that include half-bulkheads or grilles to suit the application.

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