Great Wall Motors has returned to Australia after a long hiatus with a new cut-price workhorse ute called the Steed, designed to compete against used HiLuxes, Rangers and Tritons in the booming light commercial market.
The company is a name familiar to many Australians, given it blazed a trail. With more than 45,000 utes and SUVs sold here over about six years, Great Wall is easily the most successful Chinese brand here to date.
The business case this time around is similar but different. Great Wall has parted ways with private distributor Ateco — acrimoniously, it turns out — and opted for an in-house importer model like other major players. More than 50 previous franchise dealers have re-signed, and the company is promising an all-round better service experience. We’ll see…
It shares headquarters with sister brand Haval, which now takes care of the SUV part of the sales equation. As such, the Great Wall Steed is the company’s sole offering here. Silly name, you say? Well, in China it’s called the Wingle, so don’t be too hasty…
The elephant in the room is the budget ute market is a little different to what it was in 2009. The demand is higher, but the prices of the mainstream players are also lower. There are also Chinese rivals such as Foton — Ateco’s new client — and the properly agricultural Mahindra Pik-Up out of India.
So the question is whether a new Great Wall still makes sense in this climate. And if so, to whom? Here we test the current price leader of a price-driven range, the 4x2 petrol dual cab that retails for $24,990 drive-away. That’s many thousands below Japanese rivals.
Under the bonnet of our tester is an aged but proven 2.4-litre petrol engine with a fairly measly 100kW at 5250rpm and 205Nm at 2500rpm, matched exclusively to a five-speed manual gearbox sending torque to the rear axle.
Clearly, this iteration of the Steed is aimed at urban tradies, or farmers with carved tracks on their property. Buyers after a more conventional offering can get the Steed in either 4x2 ($26,990) or 4x4 guise ($29,990) with a 110kW/310Nm Euro 5 turbo-diesel engine.
There’s no beating around the bush about the 2.4 engine, which is raspy and weak, lacking low-end torque and therefore requiring regular downshifts with the fairly imprecise gearbox (with, or sans, loads) up hills. Fuel use is hurt by this, with our combined-cycle use of 13L/100km not even close to the factory claim.
In its defence, the engine is happy cruising at 100km/h at around 2500rpm thanks to a relatively tall fifth. Furthermore, experience with this engine in the old Great Wall V240 tells us it’s fairly bulletproof. We used to drive the wheels off one on a neighbouring stud.
Driving gently around town, or doing the feeds on a farm with the odd run into town for fuel, is right in the Steed’s wheelhouse. Towing near the 2000kg braked trailer ceiling, or carrying near the one-tonne payload, really isn’t.
Like most utes (bar the Ford Ranger), the Steed has power steering with hydraulic rather than electric assistance. Uncommonly, it’s extremely light, meaning it’s a doddle around town, though the deadness well off-centre takes some acclimatisation. Don’t expect telescopic steering column adjustment either.
Dynamically, the Steed will surprise you. Great Wall’s army of engineers genuinely know how to do suspension tuning properly. Laden, or with a few hundred kilos aboard, the body control from the rear leaf springs is fantastic. The Steed rounds off big hits well, and settles quickly after them. We’ve driven many utes from ‘name brands’ that are much more jittery.
The cabin is also well isolated from road noise, with cruising actually quite pleasurable and refined. Colour us shocked.
What lets the team down are the Giti Savero tyres (235/70 on16-inch alloy wheels). We struggled to clamber up a grass slope with a 15 degree gradient. At least the all-round disc brakes (uncommon for the class) help them stop quickly enough.
From a safety perspective, the Great Wall Steed is quite well covered. ANCAP hasn’t rated it yet, but you get the requisite stability and traction control systems, hill-start assist, six airbags (including full-length curtains that are superior to the Volkswagen Amarok) and reverse sensors. This easily beats budget rivals, and matches major players. Kudos.
Standard features are pretty strong for $25k (before haggling). You get alloy wheels with a full-size steel spare, a steel roll bar, side steps, cargo bed liner (of middling quality), multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, heated faux leather seats, Aux/USB/Bluetooth connectivity, power windows, air conditioning, and auto-off headlights with DRLs.
You can also get a touchscreen with sat nav and a rear-view camera for a reasonable $1000, though it feels a bit aftermarket. Our tester offered this feature, though we’re not sure whether loading up a cheapo ute with options makes much sense.
The cabin is a mixed bag in terms of fit-and-finish. Some parts have good material quality and are well made, while others (such as the fascia surround and the cowl over the instruments) are very poorly constructed. Will the Steed’s cabin age well? Unlikely.
That said, I covered about 600km in relative comfort, stepping out of the car feeling fresh enough and finding no major issues. The Bluetooth phone quality isn’t brilliant, but is far from the worst we’ve driven, and it re-pairs rapidly.
At present, Great wall only offers a dual-cab Steed, which is a sizeable 305mm longer than the old model, while 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.
However, real budget buyers will be waiting for the two-door cab-chassis models due in early 2017, which need to have vinyl floors and a sub-$20k price to make any sense. We hope Great Wall is listening.
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. Honestly, we need this in Australia. It would set many wavering minds at ease.
Does the Steed make any sense? Well, fierce competition and favourable trading conditions with Thailand (where all bar the Volkswagen Amarok are produced) means prices are better than ever.
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 much higher. We thought this on the launch and our mind hasn’t changed.
Is the Great Wall Steed a bad ute? It actually isn’t. It rides well and offers a lot of spec for the price, while on the safety front it appears respectable. As a farm ute or budget tradie special it’s worth considering, though a cheaper ‘stripper’ model with the same safety gear makes infinitely more sense, as does the $2000 pricier diesel engine.
Nobody in the know will laugh at you for buying a Great Wall Steed, and you have 50 dealers to support you. But in truth, I’d buy a 2014 base Triton with 60,000km on the clock. The Chinese brand has its work cut out.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss the Great Wall Steed below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.