Great Wall is back, but is the market for cheap light commercials as full of potential as it was when the company first appeared here in 2009?
That is the question the company’s new factory-backed distributor — which took the reins from independent importer Ateco Automotive in July — must ask itself with the local re-launch this week.
The model with which the Chinese company is spearheading its return is the Great Wall Steed, in place of the V-Series ute sold previously.
The mission is to lure buyers who can’t, or won’t, stretch to a new Mitsubishi Triton or Isuzu D-Max at the bottom of the market, and to spank the Cummins-engined Foton Tunland — Ateco’s current Chinese entrant.
But the new Great Wall importer acknowledges its mission to win over buyers isn’t purely based on product. It also must overhaul its customer experience, making sure services are available and that support for its 50-plus nationwide dealers is more thorough this time.
Sorting parts availability, warranty claims, roadside assist and general customer queries are at the forefront of Great Wall Australia’s mission to re-establish itself. The reliability of its product is somewhat established, but the rest not so much.
Consider, with 45,000 units out there in the market sold between 2009 and 2015, the company has both a brand profile and some goodwill with which to recreate itself — something sister brand Haval lacks entirely (read our Haval H6 medium SUV review here).
So what does the Great Wall Steed offer? The price is certainly right, kicking off at $24,990 drive-way for the petrol 4x2 dual-cab, up to $26,990 for the 4x2 diesel dual-cab and $29,990 for the 4x4 diesel.
For context, this latter price is a little more than the little-known Chinese JMC Vigus ($27,990 drive-away), Mahindra Pik-Up ($24,490 drive-away) and the Tunland ($27,990 drive-away), but tens of thousands cheaper than the established players.
Not that the Great Wall Steed quite stacks up to the big players on paper. Its Euro 5 engines (a 110kW/310Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel, and a 100kW/205kW 2.4-litre petrol) aren’t huge, nor is the two-tonne braked towing limit.
The oil-burner on our test car only had 1200kms on it and still felt tight, but it’s quite tractable (peak torque comes on from 1800rpm) and refined. Our fuel use of 8.7 litres per 100km on the test route was decent.
What it lacks is the potent mid-range of, say, the D-Max’s 3.0-litre, given we had to drop a few cogs on the standard six-speed manual gearbox up hills. At least the shift action and clutch feel are both good, even on a car as new as ours.
The range-topping 4x4 diesel gets a part-time system with BorgWarner transfer case. The shifts from 2H to 4H and 4L (low-range) are done via buttons on the dash. We look forward to taking one into the bush soon and testing its 200mm of clearance.
The petrol engine (only available on the 4x2) is raspy but actually has sufficient poke for urban-based tight-arse tradies, though at freeway speeds the five-speed 'box could use an extra ratio.
The payload on all dual-cab versions offered exceeds one-tonne, and all come standard with a factory plastic tub-liner and tie-down points. The quality of the rear step, tailgate hinges and standard sports bar feel okay, though built to a price.
At the front is a double-wishbone suspension setup, while at the rear is a five-leaf setup with a solid axle. Note that the Great Wall has rear disc brakes, too. Under the tray is a full-size steel spare wheel.
The ride is actually pretty good when unladen, with good body control stemming from a well-sorted rear that recovers and settles quickly after undulations, while at the front, the setup rounds off harsh inputs well.
As a dodgy back-road eater, we’ve driven utes that are more lively and difficult. It’ll surprise you. It’s also pretty quiet, with the engine note well hidden from occupants and the road-noise suppression good, thanks in part to the fat 235/70 Giti Savero tyres (on 16-inch alloy wheels).
One weak point is the steering, which is completely dead from centre for about 15-degrees and so light that you never really have any sense of the front wheels. Around town it doesn’t need Popeye arms like some utes, so there’s your positive corollary.
What about the cabin? It’s a good, honest workspace for the most part, certainly no worse in terms of quality or layout than some rivals. The plastics used are a mixed bag, but the leather wheel (sans telescopic adjustment) and gear shifter certainly add ambience.
The equipment list is pretty long. Great Wall may be pitching the Steed at the workhorse market, but its equipment is targeting lifestyle buyers to some degree.
All versions get quite nice fake leather seats (not cheap and nasty, actually) with heating, cruise control, auto wipers and headlights, six-speaker audio with Bluetooth/USB, parking sensors, carpet and LED tail-lights. You can also get a touchscreen with sat-nav and a camera for only $1000, though it feels a bit aftermarket.
All Steed also variants come standard with a chrome grille, daytime running lights, side steps, a stainless steel sports bar, 16-inch alloy rims and a protective tub-liner. Read all about the pricing and spec here.
Great Wall says it will launch a stripper model with vinyl floors and fewer creature comforts in early 2017. A stripped-back 4x4 diesel for a bit over $25,000 seems like an appealing offering, and more on-brand. We wait with interest.
The new Great Wall Steed is a sizeable 305mm longer than the old model, and the tub is 155mm longer. This doesn’t really translate to the back seats, though there’s still decent room for two averaged-sized people back there, and three lap-dash belts.
All Steeds get six airbags including full-length side curtains, a Bosch V9.0 ESP system and Hill-Start Assist Control. We hope ANCAP crash tests the Great Wall soon, because safety should be at the very forefront of modern ute design.
From an ownership perspective there’s a three-year/100,000km warranty and free roadside assistance available 24/7. The company acknowledges the servicing issues inherent under the old model and has pledged to win back alienated owners.
The warranty term is odd, though, considering Haval gets five years. Of note also is the fact that Great Wall UK offers a six-year/125,000 mile warranty, which would give more reassurance to Australian buyers were it offered here.
Worth remembering also is the fact that the ute market isn’t what it was in 2009. One-in-six vehicles sold in Australia is a pick-up now, most being dual-cabs and 4x4.
This fierce competition, and favourable trading conditions with Thailand (where all bar the Volkswagen Amarok are produced) means prices are better than ever. Getting deals on the 4x4 Triton, D-Max or Colorado in the mid-$30,000-range is achievable. Two-year old versions of the Mitsubishi or Isuzu, with three years of warranty left, are also rivals.
While Great Wall has a decent reputation for reliability, achieving its annual sales target of 5000 units will be tougher today than ever. Once it has the two-door cab-chassis and the stripped dual-cab available next year it’ll be easier, but the bar has been set higher.
Still, there’s no doubt the Great Wall Steed is a respectable work truck. It’s decent honest transport that is nothing to be ashamed of. Write off the Chinese brand with bottomless pockets at your peril.
If it can get the aftersales side sorted, and the Steed proves to be reliable, it'll establish a place in the market again.