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Future models - Higer - P1 van

China's Higer set to roll out van and ute for Oz

Van demand: Higer's 5.4-metre P1 van prototype should rival Toyota's HiAce in Australia next year.

Importer WMC confirms expansion into light commercial vehicles from China

Higer logo16 Nov 2010

By RON HAMMERTON

FLEDGLING Chinese bus and truck importer White Motor Corporation (WMC) has announced plans to expand into light-duty commercial vehicles within 12 months, starting with a Toyota HiAce van competitor and probably a dual-cab ute in the mould of Great Wall's V240.

The Sydney-based company – owned by a well-heeled Sydney doctor and funded by one of Australia's biggest motor vehicle dealer groups – is also one of two importers vying for the car, ute and SUV import rights of Chinese motor vehicle manufacturer JAC (Jianguai Automobile Company).

WMC already has a deal to import JAC trucks, which will arrive in 2011 to join Higer buses and vans in the WMC network. Now it would like to complete the set with the small vehicle range.

However, GoAuto understands rival importer Ateco Automotive is also in the running for the rights to the smaller JAC vehicles, with the ambition of adding them to its current stable of Chinese brands, Great Wall Motors and Chery.

WMC already imports a range of Higer buses and coaches, which will be expanded from January with a 27-seat, seven-metre model called the Munro – named after Dr Don Munro, who owns 90 per cent of WMCBut WMC and Higer yesterday announced at Higer's headquarters and factory in Suzhou, near Shanghai, that plans were afoot to import a van modelled on the Toyota HiAce.

The 5.4-metre-long van, which is still at prototype stage in China, was shown to Australian journalists in 15-seat people-mover and 10-seat executive express layouts. The range is also expected to include a stripped out delivery model that is almost certain to set a new low-price benchmark for full-sized work vans in Australia.

Toyota's similar-sized HiAce starts at $34,540 for the 2.7-litre petrol model, although smaller vehicles such as Mitsubishi's ageing Express can be had for as little as $24,590.

Final driveline and specification levels for the Higer van, codenamed P1, will be announced closer to launch in Australia, but a trio of engines – two petrol and one diesel – will be offered when the van goes on sale in China in a matter of weeks.

130 center imageLeft: Higer P1 van. Middle WMC general manager Shannon Taylor.The 2.4-litre four-cylinder engines use either Toyota or Mitsubishi technology and are made in China by the same engine manufacturer that supplies Great Wall for its utes. The top petrol engine will have 102kW and 217Nm, while the diesel produces 85kW and 260Nm.

An automatic transmission is said to be 12 months away, which means the van could be launched Down Under with this option.

The van is one of four 'light duty vehicles' on the launching pad at Higer, which is the world's third biggest bus manufacturer, turning out about 20,000 buses and coaches this year – more than Volvo, Scania and MAN combined.

Others include the P3 pick-up – which looks similar to Holden's current Colorado and the Isuzu D-Max – as well as a mid-sized multi-purpose van called P2 and a larger Mercedes-Benz Sprinter competitor codenamed P4.

Twelve-year-old Higer, whose major shareholder is the Chinese government, expects to have the P3 pick-up on the Chinese market by the second quarter of 2011.

WMC general manager Shannon Taylor told GoAuto the vehicle might well line up in Australian showrooms by late 2011 – about the same time as the P1 van.

Both vehicles will be renamed by the time they go on sale here, probably with an alpha-numeric moniker.

Mr Taylor said WMC had been working with Higer for about 12 months on the van project to refine requirements for Australia and New Zealand.

He said Higer put a first-generation van in production with a joint-venture partner in China 12 months ago to come to grips with the product, but was now bringing it in-house with a newly expanded factory and redesigned vehicle for imminent launch.

“So, we are now looking forward to getting our hands on the prototypes and doing the R&D and final testing and getting out to the market,” he said.

“We will have product in Australia in four to six months for final testing and for R&D and hopefully we will be on the market by this time next year.”

Mr Taylor said the engine line-up for Australia was “up for debate”, saying the choice was between Chinese-made engines or alternatives imported from Japan or elsewhere.

Higer already uses a wide range of OEM (original equipment manufacturer) components, including Cummins engines and Allison transmissions for its buses and coaches, which it makes under both Higer and Scania badges.

WMC envisages selling “a couple of thousand” of the P1 vans in Australia, where the van market is expected to net 30,000 sales this year.

Mr Taylor said the P2 ute was not confirmed for Australia, but “would be nice”.

“We have seen the success Great Wall has had,” he said. “We have seen that the market in Australia is now well into six figures in terms of demand, and if we can get a product like that that is the right spec, the right build and the right price, the market is ready for it.”

Mr Taylor – a former Subaru and Nissan UD executive – said WMC did not see any conflict between Higer light commercial vehicles and potential vehicles from JAC, even though JAC also offers a pick-up in China.

He said JAC's multi-purpose van was smaller – Kia Carnival size – than Higer's van.

“The JAC products, especially on the car side, are 18 to 24 months away from being ready to market and sell in Australia, whereas Higer is going to be a lot faster to market than that,” he said.

“I think at this stage our focus is just on getting the JAC (heavy truck) business on to the market, launched and successful.

“Our focus is on the commercial vehicle market and to get that out there as quickly as we can, but they (JAC) have a very good passenger car range and there are opportunities for both of us to succeed with that, and that's what we are looking at.”

Mr Taylor said the new 27-seat Munro bus would effectively double Higer's sales volume in Australia in 2011 by attracting about 125 sales for the 12 months after launch in January – about the same as the rest of the Higer bus range combined.

WMC sells its Higer products though a national network of 11 dealers in all states except Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

The dealers are members of either Automotive Holding Group (AHG), AdTrans or its new owner AP Eagers. Between them, these dealer groups own more than 150 dealerships across Australia and New Zealand.

Some of the same dealerships will take the JAC truck range. WMC said more than 20 dealers had signed on to take JAC, which will begin its truckroll out Down Under from the second quarter of 2011.

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