Another brick in the wall

GREAT WALL X200: Well-styled, full-frame SUV is a refreshing newcomer to the segment.
GREAT WALL X200: Well-styled, full-frame SUV is a refreshing newcomer to the segment.

When I first drove Great Wall's products about two years ago, the company produced only petrol engines and manual gearboxes, and had no experience of either diesels or automatics. The paint was grim in areas that were covered by doors and bonnet lids, and not much better anywhere else.

I mentioned this, and a clutch of notebook-wielding Great Wall acolytes took everything down.

Overall, the mechanical side of the vehicles - mainly utes and a prototype new sport utility vehicle - was not bad at all. The engines wouldn't set the world on fire, but they were easy to operate thanks to obvious attention to driving and pedal positions, along with slick, nicely set transmission levers, and steering that while rather light, was accurate.

Braking was not so good, and overall, my report card was on or below 5 out of 10.

What a difference two years make. That prototype SUV has grown into the X200. It now has the wheel on the right for export, has already had a styling facelift, and although most of the models imported into New Zealand have been petrol manuals, the car can now be optioned with a 2.0-litre 110 kilowatt turbodiesel option with manual and five-speed automatic choices.

The Great Wall mechanically out-specs every Japanese light to mid-sized SUV on the market, save for the recently launched Mazda CX-5, and that's before you count the power seating, leather trim, cruise and climate control, Bluetooth, automatic lights and wipers, tyre pressure monitoring, and reversing camera with a CD/ MP3, DVD, AM/FM radio.

Although the X200 proffers only two airbags, it does have ESP and ABS, and scores a four-star NCAP safety rating.

At 4649mm long, the car is about the size of a series II Toyota FourRunner, and the company says its demographic for the car was exactly that catchment.

Look, it isn't perfect. The seats are too flat, and unsupportive for me, but the leather's convincing, and that stereo can make your ears bleed if you let it.

The diesel engine clatters a little when cold, but once hooked up and warmed over it will maintain a surprisingly relaxed cruise-controlled 100kmh in sixth at under 2100rpm, and it can kick down to provide a brisk overtaking manoeuvre when required. With just 110kW on tap, it's no rocket ship, but its torque of 310 newton metres means it shouldn't shrug at towing jobs of up to 1700 kilograms.

The X200 tips the scales at a hefty 2550kg, but it didn't feel that heavy, and seemed quite nimble on the road. The still rather over- light steering doesn't self-centre very well, so it's best to guide the helm back into position, but the independent front, beam-axle rear suspension works quite well, and its better at coping with pock- marked surfaces than some more experienced Japanese brands.

The fixed, torque-on-demand, all-wheel-drive setup appears to cope with the light dirt work I managed to put the X200 though during my brief drive. Clearance is adequate, and although a high- low range facility would be useful, for a family weekender, it is well sorted for riverbed and gravel- road sorties.

It is also very well priced at $34,990, with a three-year 100,000km warranty. With the brilliant paintwork and vastly improved interior finishes than I remember in China, I would feel comfortable with the X200 as a family prospect.

For those concerned about resale value - a factor with all new brands - Great Wall has a useful $2000 down and $180 a week arrangement. They might be fresh to the automotive fray, but Great Wall appears to have thought of almost everything, and you get the feeling that within a few production weeks, the steering and seating will have been noted and on the way to being fixed for future production, such is the Chinese learning curve.

The X200 is a convincing new brick in the wall of the Chinese car industry.

The Press