1493156770137 - First drive: We try out what’s soon to arrive from Chinese brand LDV

First drive: We try out what’s soon to arrive from Chinese brand LDV

As our busload of journalists trundled along a plain that is part of the delta of China’s 6300km-long Yangzte River, we spotted a very large coathanger-shaped bridge looming in the distance. We figured it must be just another bridge forming part of the country’s rapidly-growing highway network.

But it wasn’t. We soon discovered that the pure white structure wasn’t a bridge at all – but an integral part of a very big vehicle testing facility.

This was the Guangde Proving Ground (GPG) in China’s Anhui province, a giant facility that covers 5.67 square kilometres and has 60km of roading that features more than 70 kinds of pavements.

Surrounding the entire facility is a four-lane oval that is 10km long and with sufficient banking to allow vehicles to smoke along the top lane at speeds of up to 280kmh. And the so-called bridge? It’s actually an artificial hill, there to test the powertrains of vehicles going up, and the brakes of vehicles going down.

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Built at a cost of NZ$360 million and opened three years ago, the GPG is a joint venture between China’s biggest car company SAIC Motors and Detroit-headquartered General Motors. One of the largest such facilities in the world, it is so big that at any one time up to 140 vehicles can be undergoing testing.

And we were there to try out a ute and a van.

SAIC is dominant in China. Last year it sold 6.49 million cars domestically for a 22.5 per cent market share. And sales growth in the rest of the world is also spectacular; while full statistics for the whole of last year aren’t available, in the first half of 2016 SAIC exported 118,000 vehicles which was up 48 per cent on the year before.

New Zealand is an important part of that export growth – not so much in terms of numbers of sales, but in terms of market acceptance of this Chinese brand. Last year 1033 of SAIC’s G10 and larger V80 vans (they’re sold as LDVs here, whereas they are branded Maxus over there) were sold to Kiwi customers, which gave the importer Great Lake Motor Distributors sufficient market share to be named SAIC’s World Distributor of the Year.

This strong sales growth is poised to continue, because three new LDV models are to be launched in New Zealand next month. The first will be the brand’s first ute, the T60 which will be publicly revealed at the National Fieldays in Hamilton. This will be followed by an electric version of the V80 van, and then there will be LDV’s first full-sized SUV, the D90.

The T60 is a Ford Ranger-sized ute powered by a 2.8-litre VM Motori common rail turbo-diesel engine that offers 110kW of power and 360Nm of torque, mated to a choice of six-speed manual and automatic transmissions. Initially it’s going to be offered only as a 4WD double cab, but 2WD models and space-cab and single-cab versions will also arrive later this year.

Compared to the opposition it will face up against in New Zealand, this T60 isn’t particularly powerful – although we’re told the engine will be upgraded next year – but it has plenty of size and comfort. The standard double-cab model has a wellside that is the equal of anything else on the market, and during our visit we also discovered an extended-length model, with an extra 300mm in the wellside, is also being built.

And when it comes to value for the money, this T60 will prove attractive.

A base model Comfort, which will feature heavier-duty suspension settings, manual seat adjustment and cloth seating material, will enter the Kiwi market from $29,990 for the manual model. The top Luxury version which will have softer suspension settings, push-button start, electric seat adjustment, leather upholstery, a stainless steel roll bar and side steps, will cost $36,990 for the manual model.

The T60 feels pretty good, too. At the GPG there was the opportunity to give the ute a fair old thrashing around a handling course, to test everything from acceleration and braking, to ride and handling. We also tried it out on another course called the Tai Chi Pile designed to test how things went during high-speed cornering.

There wasn’t any off-roading to be done at the proving ground – that will have to wait until the T60’s New Zealand launch. But immediate impression was that this LDV rides and handles like a good ute should, is well built, and very well specified for the money.

Just like its LDV van siblings that are already garnering a strong reputation for their efficiency and value, the T60 will prove to be a welcome addition to the Kiwi ute market.

And talking of LDV vans, a special new model we drove at the proving ground was an electric version of the V80 – called EV80 – which will arrive in NZ around September. This van offers 100kW of power and 320Nm of torque in its totally silent, zero emissions way, and has a range of close to 200km.

No pricing yet, but Great Lake Distributors says the EV80 will cost around the same as the much smaller Renault Kangoo ZE electric van, which retails for $74,990. The company says it is already receiving a considerable amount of email query about the vehicle.

During the media tour of the GPG there were a large number of highly camouflaged vehicles undergoing testing – including many examples of LDV’s first-ever SUV, the D90. We didn’t get to drive the vehicle, but it was on full display at the Shanghai auto show a day later.

This vehicle is essentially built off the T60 ute, just like the Ford Everest is built off the Ranger, and the Isuzu MU-X is built off the D-Max ute. It is also destined for NZ, and will probably arrive before the end of the year.

The SUV will be powered by a 2-litre turbocharged petrol engine that produces 165kW of power and 360Nm of torque and drives a part-time four-wheel drive system via a six-speed automatic transmission. No prices have been confirmed.

It all adds up to exciting times in markets such as NZ for the LDV brand. And if what the media spotted – but could not photograph – at the brand’s Chinese proving ground is any indication, there’s a lot more to come.