CHINESE CHOICE

What’s the next step for Chinese van maker LDV – Chris Mullett reports

Get used to hearing about BRICS. No, it’s not a misspelling; this is where your next generation of automakers may be developing their products and contemplating taking a greater role in global vehicle supply.

BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and, as an acronym, it groups together countries that are all in a similar stage of newly advanced economic development. The BRIC component of the five countries account for over one quarter of the world’s land mass and 40 percent of global population, at three billion people.

The automotive industry in China has been the largest in the world in terms of production since 2008 and exceeds the total production of Europe and North America combined. Estimates suggest that the Chinese car market will grow tenfold between 2005 and 2030, exceeding 200 million cars, vans, buses and trucks on Chinese roads by 2020.

Despite all this growth, the Chinese auto industry is generally lacking in the standards of quality of final assembly and sophistication that is expected in European products. Its automakers have also not quite mastered the idea of product support, with questionable parts supply and availability on a continuing basis in sales markets overseas.

It’s now just over one year since Delivery Magazine sampled the first LDV van registered in the Australian market, and, despite lots of predictions about taking the market by storm, not much as actually happened.LDV-V80_P2

LDV is a division of SAIC (Shanghai Auto Industry Company), the largest auto manufacturer in China. What makes its van range significantly different from that of other Chinese manufacturers is that the origins of the LDV light commercial range are not actually Chinese, but date back to South Korean manufacturer Daewoo, which at that time was a subsidiary of General Motors.

Designed originally as a joint venture between Daewoo and British van maker Leyland DAF Vehicles (LDV), plans went awry when Daewoo went into receivership in 2000 before the project came to fruition. LDV subsequently acquired the exclusive rights to the van from General Motors, which had taken over Daewoo, and after purchasing the existing tooling it shipped it all to Birmingham from the Daewoo plant in Poland, the original location for its assembly.

In January 2005, LDV launched onto the British market. It was an exciting design aimed at rivalling the market leading Ford Transit and featured an engine range by VM Motori.

In July 2006, the Russian conglomerate, GAZ, made a move on LDV in the UK and acquired the van maker from the venture capital group Sun European Partners. It was the GAZ intention to market the van range into the rest of Europe and Asia. GAZ proposed to increase production in the LDV plant in England, while also commencing production in a new plant in Russia.

Owing to the worldwide recession, production was halted at LDV’s Birmingham factory in December 2008. The following year the assets of the company were sold by administrators PricewaterhouseCoopers to China Venture’s firm Eco Concept.

Now it was the turn of China to figure in the development of the van range, with the company then becoming part of China’s largest automotive maker, SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Company). SAIC also owns the British MG brand along with the rights to Rover passenger car designs, which it has re-branded as Roewe, marketing them in China and some European markets. SAIC also has joint ventures with both GM and VW in China.

To understand some of the scale of this organization, SAIC in 2011 manufactured 1.1 million Volkswagen models and 1.2 million Buick, Chevrolet and Cadillac vehicles. By comparison, the total Australian market on a good year peaks at less than half this combined figure.

Having purchased the LDV brand, SAIC has spent the intervening period updating the equipment levels and specification to improve competitiveness. Since 2009, SAIC has invested in further R&D and engineering to ensure it meets the latest European standards.

The factory is brand new and the assembly line is as clean and spotless as any European competitor, with quality control accreditation standards of TS16949. When Delivery Magazine visited the plant in 2012, the production levels were running on a one-shift basis with a capacity of 30,000 units per year and turning out 11 units per hour. This production level can be ramped up to a three-shift system with a peak capability of 75,000 units per annum.

LDV-V80_8According to SAIC, the components are brought together from a series of suppliers, most of which are divisions of SAIC. The VM Motori engines are manufactured in China by subsidiary Shanghai Diesel, and vans for our market are powered by the same 2.5-litre, four-cylinder unit.

LDV models are imported into the Australian market by WMC Industries, the same company responsible for the Higer bus range and JAC light trucks.

It’s been a rough ride for the importers as the JAC light truck business has stalled, due largely to previous management rushing the importation of a range of light trucks that were not compatible with the Australian market. A case of too fast, too soon, with products that didn’t match the existing competition. Despite this false start, JAC is currently looking at two new models of much higher specification in order to re-enter the Australian market.

The Higer Bus and Coach business is the core of WMC operations, and it is the success of this operation that is underpinning the importation of LDV into this country.

LDV’s national sales manager, Martyn Walker, told Delivery that the dealer group now totalled 25 outlets with representation in all states except South Australia.

“We are currently expanding that number with the appointment of a dealer in Brighton and Warragul, Victoria, and are looking for suitable representation in Northern and Western Victoria,” said Martyn.

Despite the origins of the current product line-up dating back a decade, alterations and upgrades to the design subsequently introduced by SAIC have refreshed the range.

Currently on offer are four LDV V80 vans, a Short Wheelbase Van (SWB) with a standard roof height, a Long Wheelbase Van (LWB) with a medium height roof and a LWB van with a high roof. These are priced at $29,990, $36,990 and $38,990 respectively. There is also a budget-priced version of the SWB van called the TradeMate, which comes to market minus a few options and priced at $27,490.

These are all drive-away prices, and it’s worth comparing the standard price of the LDV, as, compared to Ford’s new Transit Custom, you will save more than 30 for a similar outcome. When faced with a cost saving of over $10,000 on a $30,000 purchase, price can become a compelling argument, especially when a vehicle is viewed purely as a commodity.LDV-V80_7

Having recently started to notice the occasional LDV on the road prompted Delivery Magazine to renew its acquaintance with the LDV 80, heading out on the highway for freeway running and also spending time in heavily congested Sydney peak-hour traffic.

The LDV 80 we drove was a demonstrator that had done the rounds of local dealer promotions, but, nonetheless, has stood up to its duty well. There were no rattles, everything opened and shut properly and the engine showed itself to be strong and gutsy enough to keep up with the traffic flow as well as cruise the freeway.

Buyers actually get a lot for their money by way of sliding side doors on both sides, barn doors at the rear, SRS airbags, cruise control, rear parking sensors, dual front passenger seats and a height adjustable driver’s seat.

From a chassis and suspension perspective, it’s a monocoque design with MacPherson struts and coil springs on the front. The rear suspension runs with two leaf parabolic springs and an axle tube running across the rear. All LDV products are front-wheel-drive with power assisted rack and pinion steering.

Instead of placing the instrument panel in front of the driver, it’s mounted in the Maxus V80 dashboard centrally, with the speedo actually furthest away from the driver’s line of sight. It’s a bit unusual, but the driver soon becomes accustomed to its position.

The shift pattern for the manual gearbox is a standard five-speed H-style with dogleg right for 5th, and the engine match in terms of performance is good from start up. Power and torque outputs are 100 kW and 330 Nm, and at a cruise speed of 110 km/h the engine is turning over at 2,500 rpm. Our only criticism here being the brake pedal is offset slightly more to the left of the throttle pedal for ideal placement.

Ride comfort and stability is comparable to most European vans, and with disc brakes all round there’s a high level of safety, including features such as ABS, EBD and BAS (anti-lock brakes with electronic brake distribution and emergency braking assistance). SRS driver and passenger airbags are standard together with seat belt pre-tensioners. Tyre sizes are 215/75R16 with alloy rims again as standard.

So far there has not been any crash testing under ANCAP or European NCAP requirements, but the LDV 80 is claimed by the manufacturer to match a four-star rating under C-NCAP standards of China.LDV-V80_11

Wheel positioning is pretty much on the lines of a wheel near each corner of the body, and this solves the problem of excessive overhang where there are difficulties in loading a cargo between the wheelbase. No such problems exist here with the V80. Access is good, and with a GVM of 3,500 kg the estimated maximum payload is 1,430 kg.

The dashboard has dual cup holders and all the usual spaces for paperwork and pens, there are shelves above the windscreen for clipboards and docket books and big pockets in each of the front doors.

There is little doubt that, provided WMC Industries concentrates on providing the correct level of product support, the LDV van range will find a ready number of buyers. It steers well, is remarkably quiet in the cabin and offers excellent visibility through large door mirrors with convex spotters below. Lane stability on the freeway at maximum speed is good and the van behaves safely in all operating circumstances.

Whatever your view on buying Chinese, the LDV is certainly offering value for money. Resale pricing may not be satisfactory, but, as the brand becomes better known, that’s another area that can improve.

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