Former Daimler and BMW engineers leading China brand's charge

Great Wall Motor (GWM) — parent of the eponymous ute brand, plus Haval, Wey and Ora — has lured engineers from big European OEMs and invested billions into R&D, with the ambitious goal of being a world-leading drivetrain producer and supplier.

Clearly not lacking ambition, GWM this week showed us its new, billion-dollar development centre near Baoding — a sprawling complex with 7000 staff, dominated by a 24 storey skyscraper — and its 800,000 annual-capacity factory with high speed test track and 24/7 automated line.

Car companies love to show media their factories and tech centres, so we’ve seen a few. This one is up there.

Much like other rising Chinese behemoths SAIC (owner of MG, Roewe and Maxus/LDV) and Geely (Volvo, Lotus and Lynk & Co), GWM is bored with ‘just’ selling a million-plus vehicles per year at home.

Exports won’t just add volume, but internal prestige. It’s national pride, and global emission and safety demands will force it to improve.

As Korea’s Hyundai/Kia company did before them, one GWM tactic is to throw opportunities at senior experts from established brands, letting them loose in a less rigid business dynamic. GWM is still run largely by its founder, Wei Jianjun, and his CEO, Wang Fengying, China’s only woman in such an auto role. A small executive team to convince…

We spent time in the unfortunately coal-fire-polluted city of Baoding with the senior-most pair of hires: Gerhard Henning, GWM’s transmission development chief who was once a senior engineer with Daimler on 9ATs and pre-DSG Volkswagen; and GWM head powertrain engineer, Koen Kramer, former turbo engineer at Daimler and BMW.

While GWM’s rough-but-usually-reliable early cars, SUVs and utes have used components from reputable suppliers like Getrag, ZF, Borg Warner, Bosch and Delphi, more and more of its powertrains – be they downsized petrol, plug-in hybrid (like the Wey P8 crossover), or electric like its Ora EV brand — are being developed and made in-house.

This keeps purchasing costs down, and bolsters intellectual property stores. But if all goes to plan, it also sets GWM up to sell its components to smaller Chinese brands in the country’s staggering domestic market, where 28-plus million new cars are sold each year at the current run rate.

That’d be an image-booster and potential cash cow, all in one.

Pictured: From left, Henning and Kramer

First cab off the proverbial rank is the company’s new drivetrain as premiered in the Haval H4 crossover and H6 SUV (China’s #2 vehicle, with more than 500,000 annual sales) as premiered at the Beijing motor show this week, plus DCT gearbox in the Wey VV5 and VV7 premium crossovers, designed to match Lexus.

It’s a reworked 1.5-litre turbo petrol engine called the 4B15, making 124kW of power and an unusually high 285Nm of peak torque from a low 1400rpm. It’s matched with a new seven-speed dual-clutch auto (DCT) to replace the former Getrag ‘box it used, which in turn replaced torque converter autos that it once bought off the shelf from Hyundai.

We never liked the laggy 1.5T still used in the Haval H2 in Australia, nor the poorly calibrated DCT (not Getrag’s fault, we’d guess), but a quick loop with the new drivetrain left us convinced that some outside help has GWM on a better path.

It’s way, way better, albeit off a low, low base. Chinese brands tend to learn, and learn quickly.

The old gearbox options “were just bridging solutions”, Henning said. “I think we can get a better package [than ZF or Getrag, etc].”

“The DCT from the beginning was a strategic project. First we wanted very good suppliers, like a Borg Warner clutch and Conti software/hardware at first — work with experienced suppliers.

"But we’re doing calibration and software by ourself now, and will do clutches and control units by ourself as well. You develop by ourself to save money and be flexible.”

Henning reckons GWM now has better production machinery for die casting and machining than his former employers, VW and Daimler — mostly Swiss and German machines that cost huge money — and superior software logic, including programs to control noise suppression.

“Our benchmarks are the German OEMs. We always compare and we have benchmark vehicles,” he said.

The current wet-clutch DCT can handle up to 450Nm, “because we have to consider the future belt starter generator (48V) and hybrid…. like the Wey P8 PHEV’s 120kW electric rear axle,” Henning says.

GWM claims to have road-tested the clutch for 300,000km, and points to its oil cooling system (usually keeps oil to 60-70 degrees) and hydraulic/electric pump system with variable cooling flow, depending on drivetrain stress, as helping reliability.

“I put all my experience in testing — fatigue component testing and bench testing. We made a new building with 13 test benches running automatically around the clock. No other Chinese OEM has such a centre,” Henning claimed.

“Additionally we are testing on the high-speed proving ground. We did 50,000km at 240km/h… plus constant speed and maximum torque for 400 hours straight, for each transmission design. This is very severe and strong testing but we must have long term durability and quality.”

On the engine side Kramer, who developed turbo-diesels and petrols for both BMW and Daimler, is now involved in two GWM engine generations coming. The current 4B15 serves as baseline, but he’s looking five-plus years out.

“The new 4B15 engine has maximum torque at a much earlier engine speed, 285Nm at 1400rpm. The turbo is much smaller and lighter, spins must faster,” he said. It also has a BMW-style CVVL system – VANOS, in Munich parlance.

“The next generation will have higher injection pressure to improve efficiency, and a gen-two CVVL. We also want to introduce a mixed-flow turbine in the turbo, reducing turbine wheel inertia, improving dynamic response."

The next generation will also be with a belt starter generator, mild-hybrid 48V, he said, while he’s also considering running a Miller cycle at a higher compression, or an e-booster to plug a torque hole and allow a bigger gas turbo.

“I think the biggest challenge is always time. We develop much faster here, we make easier decisions, we are more flexible. What I’m used to with German OEMs, there are more people to decide things. It’s a lot more dynamic here,” he said.

Oh, and there's also this. Don't underestimate this company, it means business... If you believe competition drives innovation, then you'll be rapt. If you don't trust Chinese-engineered product, then Great Wall might just tell you to build a bridge and get over it. We're watching and waiting.