It's a whole new ball game, isn't it? Chinese cars are here.
It's got to be said that the ones we've seen so far are not up the standards of Japanese or Korean models. They look a bit funny, they're crude in some respects and they don't drive that well. But everybody accepts that. Even the people who sell them.
In five years, I reckon it will be a different story. But that's speculation. At the moment, we're dealing with cars that aren't quite there, competing for your purchasing dollars.
So how to evaluate something like the Great Wall Motors (GWM) X200 TDI? I think it's fair to say that it doesn't really compete with new cars. It has the design and dynamic qualities of a five-year-old vehicle, but comes with a comprehensive three-year, 100,000km new-car warranty. And, I would imagine, a dealer that's very keen to please. Future-proofing.
The X200 TDI looks pretty good on paper. It has a 2.0-litre turbo diesel powerplant with 105kW/310Nm, five-speed automatic gearbox and shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive system. It actually feels pretty tough, probably because there are bits of superceded Toyota Hilux platform under there somewhere. Or so I am told. Although somebody else also told me that the X200 is closely related to an Isuzu ute of some kind.
One thing's for sure: the X200 TDI is based on bits of other people's vehicles. While none of it is cutting-edge, it's no bad thing to have a bit of proven hardware underneath. It worked for the Koreans in the early days, and look at them now.
The X200 TDI is tragically slow off the line, but maintains good momentum once you're up and running. The steering is slow but the chassis corners with solid assurance for a ladder-frame-chassis machine. It's ute-like, but competent.
The steering is slow, but that's okay. The brakes are hopeless, and that's not. The stoppers are the one aspect of the X200 that really aren't acceptable at any price. It's a relatively big vehicle and you need to have confidence that it will stop when you want it to.
The seats are appalling and the cabin mouldings in our test car had a strange toxic smell that gave me a headache (as did the GWM V-series ute I drove). However, disturbing smells that conform to a corporate template are not unique to the Chinese: I have had the same with some Hyundais and Peugeots.
The X200 TDI has leather upholstery and a touch-screen in the centre console that houses the Bluetooth cellphone controls. So there is equipment that has genuine showroom appeal. Very impressed with the build quality of the cabin: hard plastics everywhere, but hard to fault consistency or the solid way it is screwed together.
I deliberately didn't ask about price when I took the X200 TDI away. I thought it would be instructive to try and guess. I was rather impressed with it in some ways, thinking it a vehicle that would sell in the high-$20k bracket. I was wrong, for the TDI version is $34,990. That's too close to likes of the latest Honda CR-V, which starts at just $39,990. The gulf between the two is a lot bigger than $5k.
But the entry-level X240, with a 2.4-litre petrol engine, is just $28,990 and that seems more like it. It's manual-only which limits its appeal, but it feels right at that money. Trying to go upmarket with turbo diesel power and ask so much more might be over-reaching at this stage. There's a case for this GWM sports-utility, but only at a bargain price.