Chinese carmaker Great Wall Motors is making a brave play to re-establish itself in the Australian market, this time as a factory operation, more than a year after disputes with the local distributor left a network of 90 dealers with nothing to sell and more than 40,000 customers without support.
Great Wall will assume control of Australian and New Zealand operations from July 1, armed with an aggressively priced dual-cab ute it hopes will steal sales from other entry-level players in the light commercial market.
Great Wall says the booming utility market in Australia signals the right time for the brand to re-enter, and that it will “deliver solutions” for the many existing Great Wall owners who have been burnt by after-sales care that was lacking.
Ateco, the soon-to-be-former distributor of Great Wall, managed a successful strategy of undercutting competitor pricing to build Great Wall into Australia’s best-selling Chinese car manufacturer.
But after a couple of years, Ateco came under pressure from the factory to raise prices and position its utes as more upmarket but it is understood that the dealerships pushed back.
It seems the attitude at Great Wall head office has changed since then and the manufacturer will look to make the Great Wall Utility (known as ‘Wingle’ in other markets) the go-to, cut-price ute in Australia again, when it lands Down Under towards the end of this year.
Local Great Wall spokesman Andrew Ellis stopped short of saying the new ute will be the cheapest on the market, instead stating:
“Price is one of the critical elements. It’s got to be sharp. Since Great Wall launched you’ve got LDV, Foton, Geely, Mahindra, a lot of players in the entry-level end of the utility market.
“That’s who shoppers will compare us with. We think it’s the natural positioning here. That’s who we compete against and we’ve got to be competitive with them.
“We think it’s a very good product,” Ellis said. “We also know the choice of utes in Australia is incredible. Our ute, first and foremost, is meant to be a tough, reliable workhorse.”
Sales success of Great Wall utes in Australia the first time around was built almost solely on its cheap prices. The V240 cab chassis ute started at $17,990 drive away.
Great Wall sold 37,159 vehicles in Australia and 4,350 in New Zealand despite suffering setbacks including poor ANCAP results and recalls relating to safety and the use of asbestos components in engines.
Ellis would not make any predictions when asked whether the new car would earn the five-star safety rating expected of new cars in Australia. “It’s hard to tell. It hasn’t been crash tested externally yet,” he said.
“We will work with ANCAP to get the new ute tested. It’s physically bigger, and it’ll be packaged with all the safety features that we can. We’ll be one of the only ones in that end of the market with six airbags and ESP.”
Great Wall says it will look after buyers differently this time around, having damaged buyer confidence locally by leaving many customers in the lurch.
“Customer service will be a focus going forward,” Ellis stressed. “We know it’s an issue and it will be at the forefront. This time you’re dealing with the factory. The full resources of the Great Wall empire are at our disposal.”
Dealerships have been starving for product to sell with only residual vehicles left in showrooms since the feud between Great Wall and Ateco began.
It is understood a legal battle between the two parties has been settled after 18 months of negotiations. In that time the number of dealerships dwindled from 90 to 72.
Discussions are underway with the remaining dealers about resuming supply of Great Wall vehicles, as well as adding SUVs to showroom floors from Great Wall’s subsidiary Haval.
Haval launched in Australia last year and has set up six dealerships with a seventh opening soon in South Australia.
Ellis represents both brands and said Haval has sold “around 60” vehicles so far. Expanding into existing Great Wall dealerships would provide an immediate boost in exposure for China’s biggest manufacturer of SUVs.
Great Wall claims the Australian market is regarded as “crucial” by its management, despite its relatively small size, as it is the first mature market the vehicles have been sold in. “It’s a real learning curve for them,” Ellis said.
No local testing of Great Wall products has been carried out so far. Ellis said the local arm has made it a priority to do so, but could not say for sure that it would happen.
“We need more of the engineers to come out and experience Australian conditions. We keep asking for it. With another line of product we increase our opportunity for that to happen.”