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Exclusive: China’s ZX Auto targets Oz

Great Wall rival: ZX Auto will be the next Chinese manufacturer to join the Australian motor market when it brings its GrandTiger ute here later this year.

ZX Auto’s Chinese GrandTiger ute to put the bite on Great Wall in Oz this year

7 Jun 2011

CHINA’S ZX Auto is set to become the seventh brand from the world’s biggest motor market to set up shop in Australia, where it plans to roll out its SUV and ute range from the last quarter of this year.

Imported by Perth-based wholesaler Chinese Automotive Distributors (CAD), ZX Auto vehicles will sit beside the same importer’s Chinese-made Geely passenger cars in a new national dealer network now being established.

The opening salvo will be fired by the ZX Auto GrandTiger ute, which will go head to head with rival Great Wall Motors’ V240, which is made in the same Chinese province of Hebei, north-east of Beijing.

The GrandTiger – powered by the same 2.4-litre Mitsubishi-sourced four-cylinder engine as the Great Wall range – already has received Australian Design Rule (ADR) certification ahead of its scheduled last-quarter launch in single-cab, dual-cab and cab-chassis layouts with 4x4 and 4x2 powertrains.

British-owned Prodrive – the automotive engineering and motor racing organisation with branches in both Australia and China – has been engaged by ZX Auto to advise on the chassis tune for Australian conditions.

The ute will get a diesel variant in early 2012, and is expected to be followed on to the market by an SUV, the Landmark – a ladder-chassis all-wheel-drive wagon built on the same platform as the tray-backed GrandTiger.

160 center imageLeft: ZX Auto GrandTiger interior. Middle: ZX Landmark. Bottom: Geely CE.

Although the GrandTiger ute is expected to be on sale by the end of the year, prospective Geely-ZX Auto dealers on the east coast of Australia will have to wait until the first quarter of 2012 for their first Geely models, as the national launch of the Geely LC – called the Panda in China – and Geely CE light-sized five-door hatchbacks that were scheduled for a 2011 debut have been delayed.

As well, neither of the Geely hatches will come with electronic stability control (ESC) from launch, meaning they will have to be homologated before the November 2011 deadline for compulsory fitment of ESC under federal regulations.

Even then, they will not be allowed to be registered in Victoria, where the safety device has been compulsory for passenger cars and SUVs registered since January 1 this year.

So far, the only Geely model available in Australia is the $11,990 drive-away 1.5-litre MK sedan, which has been on sale only in Western Australia through CAD owner John Hughes’ Perth dealership since January this year.

Mr Hughes – one of Western Australia’s biggest multi-franchised motor dealers – told GoAuto that rather than proceed with the national launch of the LC – “or whatever we are going to call it” – close to Christmas, he had elected to opt for an early 2012 debut with 2012-plated stock.

He said that consequently, the proposed unveiling of Geely’s local range at next month’s Australian International Motor Show in Melbourne had been cancelled, with the company now setting its sights on the 2012 event in Sydney as the first major show for the Geely-ZX Auto line-up.

“As I have been telling the dealers, this is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “It will take two to three years to be up and running.”

Mr Hughes said he had just returned to Perth after interviewing almost 40 potential dealers in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, and about 20 of those would receive letters approving their applications by the end of June.

He said the enthusiasm for dealers to get on board with the Chinese brands had been in stark contrast with the reception he received when he tried to recruit dealers for Hyundai back in the 1980s.

“In those days, nobody wanted to know me, but now, our dealers are very, very keen,” he said.

“There are a lot of stand-alone, single-franchise dealers around Australia who are doing it a bit tough at the moment, some more than others.

“They are looking for bolt-on franchises that will given them economies of scale – more volume through the place – and they can all see the enormous potential that is coming out of China.

“Not one expressed any concern about vehicles from China. They know the wave is coming and they know if they don’t join in they will get taken over.”

Mr Hughes said that in making his dealer appointments, his focus had been on the dealers themselves, more than their location.

However, he said he still had open points, and would seek more applicants over the next few weeks.

Mr Hughes revealed to GoAuto last year that he was set to sign a deal with a second Chinese company to supply utes and SUVs to complement the Geely passenger car range.

The new brand is ZX Auto, which claims to be one of China’s biggest exporters of pick-ups to 40 markets such as Russia, the Middle East, South-East Asia, Central America and Africa.

With roots in manufacturing going back to 1949, ZX Auto – full name Heibi Zhongxing Automobile Company Limited – was founded in 1999 as a joint-venture of Taiwan Unite Leading Co and Hebei Tianye Automobile Group.

The company’s website says it has an annual production capacity of 110,000 units, but is building a new plant in Yichang City that, when it opens in 2012, will add capacity for an extra 200,000 vehicles, up to half of which will be passenger cars – a first for the company.

According to ADR documents, ZX Auto’s GrandTiger ute is powered by a 93kW/193Nm four-cylinder engine mated with a five-speed manual transmission. No auto is available.

Body derivatives include a styleside ute with two-door single-cab and four-door dual-cab body styles, plus a single-cab cab-chassis in two variants.

Standard equipment includes air-conditioning, ABS brakes, power windows, power mirrors, a driver’s airbag and central locking. A passenger-side airbag is an option, but no side or curtain airbags or ESC are indicated.

In China, the GrandTiger comes with four engine choices – two petrol and two diesel. Apart from the 2.4-litre petrol engine, there’s a 76kW 2.2-litre petrol powerplant.

The two four-cylinder diesels are a direct-injection 2.8-litre developing 75kW and 235Nm, and a turbocharged 3.2-litre turning out 81kW and 221Nm.

Great Wall is also expected to offer a diesel in its ute range, the V200, later this year.

Mr Hughes said a team of nine ZX Auto officials, including engineers, traveled to Perth recently, attending a specially organised track day to do back-to-back testing of ZX Auto’s GrandTiger against rival utes from all main Japanese brands and Great Wall.

“They even got Prodrive to come over and critique the cars,” he said. “So you are going to get Australian input into the chassis and the suspension and the steering and the handling, which is very important.”

In Australia, Prodrive not only produces Ford Performance Vehicles at its Melbourne factory but also runs the factory-backed Ford Performance Racing team in V8 Supercars.

ZX Auto joins Chinese brands Great Wall, Chery, Geely, Higer, JAC and Foton in announcing export plans to Australia, with several others such as BYD, Roewe, Hawtai and Lifan among other possibilities.

So far, only Great Wall and Chery – both imported by Sydney-based distributor Ateco Automotive – have had an impact on the Australian market, with Great Wall selling 3108 vehicles this year (up almost 30 per cent on the first five months of 2010) and Chery selling a total of 584 J1 light cars and J11 compact SUVs in its first year on the market.

As GoAuto reported exclusively recently, WMC Group – which already imports Higer buses and is about to launch JAC trucks – has also secured the rights to JAC light vehicles with both passenger cars and light commercials to start rolling into the country from late 2011.

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