Great Wall Steed has generic-90s look to it

Great Wall Steed has generic-90s look to it

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Great Wall's quiet entry into the UK market reminds me a little of the arrival of Japanese light commercials in the Antipodes back in the 50s and 60s. Softly-softly, word of mouth.

Toyota in Australia. Really got a start when someone who had seen a Landcruiser overseas brought a few in to try on a hydro project that ate the British rival of the time for breakfast. Bloke called Thiess picked up the franchise for commercial Toyotas - cars were distributed separately for decades - and the brand never looked back.

Pickups in New Zealand. Someone got a bit of import licence for a few Mazda B1500s. Someone else thought they'd be just the thing for a government fleet need he had. Local assembly starts. Now there isn't a brand, cab style, loadbed length, engine or transmission you can't have.

A few hiccups along the way: I recall a burly electrician who liked the Toyota Hilux on paper in '75. I brought him home one from the dealership where I worked. Put it this way, it was either remove the steering column or him. He bought a Falcon 'ute' instead. Today, the one-tonne truck being way larger than of yore, he'd fit.

In intervening years, the Japanese - Isuzu/Chevrolet, Mitsubishi, Nissan are all in there as well - constantly improved and widened their ranges and now all are made offshore, largely in Thailand. The Koreans have passed the niche by but VW belatedly recently piled in with the Amarok. And now we have the Chinese.

Great Wall arrives in the UK with form. The automaker goes back 35 years, is now China's largest SUV maker and sells 120,000 pickups to domestic customers a year. It recently expanded capacity to 800,000 units  year with a new plant at the coastal port of Tianjin, 60 miles from Beijing. The goal for 2015 is to be able to build 1.5m.

End of February, it opened an SKD plant in Bulgaria to build 4,000 pickup trucks a year for eastern Europe. Capacity is 50,000, three more models, including the H6 Hover SUV, are planned and it is likely to switch to CKD kits when volume rises enough to justify the welding and painting shops required for that.

The pickup is called Steed overseas and 40,000 will be exported this year. Established right hand drive markets include Australia and South Africa and the brand overall is now in 120 markets including Italy.

Local distributor IM Group also has form. Of the seven new brands launched here in the UK in the last 35 years, it has introduced four - Subaru in 1977, Hyundai in 1981, Isuzu in 1986 and Ssangyong in 1995. Subaru and Isuzu are both still in da house and pickup experience with specialist Isuzu, not to mention 16 years of operations in China, places IM well to launch the country's first Chinese brand.

It also has links with its Australian independent-distributor equivalent, Ateco, which launched Great Wall pickups in 2009. Great Wall UK managing director Paul Hagarty noted the differences in the UK and 'down under' markets. Australia, with new car sales a year in the 1m ballpark, is good for 100,000 pickup sales a year; UK, near enough 2m cars a year, sees 20,000 sales.

While Australia launched with petrol engines, and two- or four-wheel drive, the UK is keeping it as simple as possible to start. Double cab, two-litre diesel, six-speed manual, electrically switched four-wheel drive, generous or very generous equipment. GBP13,998 and up. Plus the VAT (20% UK sales tax which small businesses can claim back) and metallic paint. Anything else, the dealer installs.

Standard on all new UK Steeds are 16-inch alloy wheels, daytime running lights, remote central locking, a Thatcham-approved Category 1 alarm, electric front and rear windows, a four-speaker Alpine CD/radio with USB/MP3 and Bluetooth connectivity, steering wheel mounted audio controls, manual air-conditioning, individually heated front seats and a full leather interior. That gets bundled as 'S' trim.

GBP2,000 more (GBP15,998) adds a nice body coloured hard top load canopy, body coloured spoiler, chrome trim for the daytime running lights, chrome side bars, black roof rails, load bay liner and rear parking sensors.

IM is pitching value for money and dealer service. The S undercuts its nearest rival by GBP3,000 or so (and has more equipment). It's also pitched as 4WD diesel double-cab for the price of their base, 2WD single cab.

Dealers have signed up the 'The Great Wall Promise' - test drives and service pickups within 20 miles of site, fixed-price monthly service payments, minimum downtime, no service bill surprises, you get the idea.

Initially, there's 40 outlets and there were 400 trucks on the first ship. Hegarty said lead time from China is less than for IM's other brands but cheerfully says "no idea" if you prod him to predict sales volumes or buyer profiles. Initial marketing will be direct - targeted mail, specialist shows, promotions aimed at targeted audiences, and then they'll see. So far, the Steed has gone down a treat at farm shows and "a few" are already in buyers' hands.

Unlike some Chinese products, the Steed doesn't look too much like a knock-off of something western. It looks 90s generic Japanese truck to me both on the road and inside, where some of the plastics are about the standard of 80s American cars. You can nit-pick, the heat control works back to front (anti-clockwise for warm), the bum heaters are on or off only, the front seats are shapeless and unsupportive, the speedo lacks the UK-critical 30, 50 and 70mph numerals and what graphics there are are too small, the brakes are spongy and the steering is too light and devoid of feel. And the off-road ride, along potholed, rutted tracks within the MIRA complex, was bone-jarringly hard, especially for the passenger. Hard to evaluate that objectively as neither self nor co-driver had any experience of the current Ford Ranger of Isuzu D-Max, say.

But the two-litre turbodiesel pulls like a train, the six-speed 'box is light and smooth and the clutch is light and progressive and there's always the thought that you get All That Stuff and some decent off-road ability (tried at the MIRA proving ground) for several grand less than the established rivals charge.

Great Wall insiders swear the truck is all the automaker's own work, especially the engine which has help from Delphi in the form of third generation, high pressure injection and a variable geometry turbocharger. BorgWarner supplies the dual-range transmission which switches seemlessly using dash-mounted buttons and defauts back to 2WD (to save fuel) when the ignition is switched off.

Like Japanese forebears decades ago, this new Chinese truck won't appeal to everyone. There's always a bit of suspicion of a new brand from a country not previously known for autos. But that was the case with Japan and Korea and look where their brands are now. Two things would kill the Steed stone dead - unreliability and poor dealers. IM is too experienced a player to opt for a brand known for unreliabilty and, by now, if they were inherently weak, Australian buyers would have found that out. Secondly, IM has recruited only dealers willing to meet some pretty strict criteria so sales and aftersales standards should be high.

In this business, word will soon spread if they're not. I reckon a small but willing band of punters will see the value in these trucks and that the price is right, and Great Wall will grow from there. Low insurance categories and fixed-price servicing will sweeten the deal and realistic expectations both at UK distributor and head office levels will help.

In any event, Great Wall is not stopping with trucks. Waiting in the wings is a Qashqai-sized H6 Haval/Hover SUV which will have the same turbodiesel as the Steed and probably arrive mid-2013. I've had a peep and, if that has the same price advantage as the Steed, some established players may be in for a shock.

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