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Shanghai show: Lifan goes Mini

Minor mimic: The Lifan LF320 micro-hatch is expected to join Lifan's LF520 in Australia.

China’s Lifan 320 emerges as Mini-busting light hatch that could arrive here in 2010

21 Apr 2009

By MARTON PETTENDY in SHANGHAI

A DEAD ringer for Mini’s Cooper hatchback has been revealed by China’s emerging Lifan brand and it could go on sale here next year – as part of a Lifan model range that appears back on track to become Australia’s first Chinese brand on sale this year.

Dubbed the LF320 and featuring a Mini-esque two-tone paint scheme with black upper half, the five-door micro-hatch emerged as the smaller sibling to Lifan’s LF520 light-car range at this week’s Shanghai motor show.

As we’ve reported, the latter is the first Chinese-branded passenger car to receive official Australian Design Rule (ADR) approval and was to have been released here in early 2009 before the collapse of the Australian dollar.

However, Lifan Motors spokesman Steven Xu and local Lifan importer China Motor Franchise (Australia) say the LF520 Yaris rival is back on track for a 2009 launch given the stronger Aussie dollar.

Furthermore, the LF520 should be joined in 2010 by the new LF320 city-hatch and the Corolla-sized 620 sedan, which are the two newest export-ready models to be launched by Lifan, China’s third-largest vehicle exporter.

While Chery is China’s largest passenger vehicle exporter, Lifan says it is on target to overtake Geely as the nation’s second largest exporter this year.

If Lifan succeeds in its plan to export the LF520 to Australia as early as September, it will be first Chinese-branded passenger car to be sold here.

Ateco Automotive has confirmed it will release two twin-cab utilities from the Great Wall Motors (GWM) brand here in June, but the first passenger cars from GWM and Ateco’s other Chinese partner, Chery, are yet to be ADR-certified.

179 center image Left: Lifan 520 and, below, 620.

“The 520 will be the first model to be launched (in Australia), with 320 and 620 to follow in early 2010,” said Mr Xu.

“(Right-hand drive versions of) Our 320 and 630 right-hand drive models will not enter for production for two to three months, but in the meantime we can arrange all of the documentation. They will both be global cars, of course.

“Both the 320 and 620 will be easy to homologate because we know they don’t have any issues with Australian homologation,” he said.

“We have rescheduled (the 520) for September, but this has to be rechecked against the economic situation.” Mr Xu and CMF(A) CEO Shaun Lane cautioned the Lifan export plan was dependent on improved economic conditions in Australia, including a continued improvement in the value of the Australian dollar and a reduction of the price discounting that is currently occurring.

“Currency was one of the problems in Australia, but also because of the crisis most of the global passenger vehicle manufacturers are down and the major ones like GM and Chrysler are dumping their inventories in many countries.

“Also the Korean currency is slowing down against the US dollar so they have advantages for exportation. That’s why we have problems with lower volumes at the moment, as well as some logistical issues. But both these issues are improving,” said Mr Xu.

Unlike Ateco’s Great Wall business case, which was based on the Australian dollar being worth at least 70 US cents, CMF(A)’s based its model on an Aussie dollar in the high 80s to 90 US cents.

Lifan says its price advantage over its most direct Korean rivals had eroded from about 20 to about 10 per cent.

“The major problem in Australia is with currency. We would have launched in Australia already but we postponed because the currency and the market was going down,” said Mr Xu.

“We are having a very serious currency competition with Korea because their currency is going down, but before the (price) advantage was around 20 per cent,” said Mr Xu.

But Mr Lane said any Lifan vehicle sold in Australia would need to more like 30 per cent less expensive than its cheapest rivals, as well as offering more equipment.

He suggested Lifan’s original target base price of about $12,500 for the LF520 could no longer be achieved without reducing the level of standard equipment.

“It’s got to be a great value proposition,” he said. “It needs to have more features at a lower price, but we’re looking at a few things like de-speccing the car.

“We could launch now but we want to make a big statement. We’re hoping like hell the market improves, because there are a lot of conditions we have to fulfil. The dollar has played in our favour but a lot of guys are dumping stock.

“I’d love to be (Australia’s first Chinese passenger car brand on sale), and if it doesn’t happen this year I’ll be very disappointed,” said Mr Lane.

As previous reported, the Corolla-sized LF620 is a sedan-only proposition, but the LF520 is now understood to be available in both sedan and hatch body styles. Both models are powered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, and while the 520’s most direct rivals are the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio, the 620’s is the Kia Cerato.

The Mini-style LF320, meantime, rides on a 2340mm wheelbase and measures 3755mm long, 1624mm wide and 1435mm high. It is powered by a 65kW/110Nm Lifan-designed, Euro IV emissions-compliant 1.3-litre 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder that returns fuel consumption of 4.8L/100km at a constant 90km/h – a Chinese fuel economy test norm.

The new LF320 has a top speed of 155km/h and comes standard with twin front airbags, an anti-lock braking system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), four three-point seatbelts, power steering and 14-inch wheels.

The first Lifan model to feature electronic stability control will be the Camry-sized LF720 sedan, which enters left-hand drive production in 12 months and right-hand drive production in 18 months. GoAuto understands Lifan also has an SUV under development.

The LF520 scored 3.5 stars in a European NCAP crash test conducted in Russia – this highest NCAP score to be achieved by a Chinese-designed vehicle.

Mr Xu said the company’s global export ambitions had been significantly impacted by the global economic downturn.

“We will export 22,000 cars this year with the 520 only and between 25,000 and 30,000 (next year) with the 320 and 620.

“The original proposal was to export 40,000-60,000 cars but that has reduced due to the very big impact of the crisis, especially in places like Russia, Ukraine, South America and South Africa.

“Many countries are greatly affected by the crisis, which is why export volume has been reduced,” said Mr Xu.

Current right-hand drive Lifan export markets include South Africa, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, but Mr Xu said raw export numbers was less important than establishing the Lifan brand.

“We are not looking at numbers – we are looking at establishing the brand. As a Chinese brand that’s what we’re concerned with,” he said.

“Some markets have trouble with Chinese brands because of servicing and spare parts issues and we don’t want to have those problems. We need to ensure all of our systems are ready for Australia.

“If you’re launching two or three models at a time, it creates problems for servicing and spare parts.” Mr Xu said Lifan did not expect the LF320’s likeness to BMW’s Mini to cause problems.

“We have registered all of our own copyrights in terms of appearance and in terms of specific items on the vehicle. That’s why for Mini I know you have some concerns because it looks very similar but we don’t have any problems,” he said.

“Some of our copyrights are international so we don’t think we will have any problem. The Mini’s wheelbase is 2.6 metres and ours is 2.3, so it’s a different vehicle segment anyway,” he said.

Read more:

Chinese off the menu – for now

Exclusive: China’s Lifan 520 now ADR-certified


The Road to Recovery podcast series


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