Exclusive: China's Lifan 520 now ADR-certified
Lifan 520 becomes the first Chinese car to be homologated for sale in Australia
THE first Chinese designed and built vehicle to be certified for sale in Australia is a reality, and it does not wear badges from Chery, Great Wall Motors (GWM) or even Geely.
Established importer Ateco Automotive has made public its plans to distribute a GWM dual-cab utility and a range of small Chery cars in 2009, while Geely is also believed to be preparing for an Australian brand launch next year.
The GWM ute is in the final stages of Australian Design Rule (ADR) certification ahead of its widely-publicised release as Australia’s first Chinese vehicle from early next year, but a light-sized passenger sedan produced by a little-known automotive brand called Lifan has in the meantime become the first Chinese car to achieve ADR certification – and could even beat GWM on sale here.
To be imported and distributed from early next year by newly registered Sydney company China Motor Franchise (Australia) Pty Ltd, the Lifan 520 received ADR approval on August 21 following almost 12 months of preparation and an undisclosed financial investment.
CEO Shaun Lane, who has played consultative roles in the establishment of various Chinese commercial vehicle brands in South Africa, said his company had deliberately taken a low-profile during the ADR process, but was now ready to begin marketing China’s fledgling Lifan brand via its first export product, the 520.
Mr Lane said Lifan was destined to become one of just five major vehicle exports following its recent push to produce a range of small vehicles, led by the export-ready 520 small sedan, which will be followed by export versions of the “520i” hatchback and the smaller 320 wagon and Camry-sized 620 medium sedan – all of which were launched in left-hand drive in China earlier this year.
Founded in 1992, Chongqing Lifan Industry (Group) Co Ltd is a relatively new car-maker, even by Chinese standards. Having established itself as a maker of reputable on and off-road motorcycles, it received Chinese government approval to begin exporting in 1998 and manufactures and exports a range of small stationary engines, commercial vehicles, motorcycles and, since the 520 was launched in 2006, cars.
In its first year, the Lifan Group produced 50,000 examples, exported 2.54 million engines and earned $US311.74 million in exports to become one of China’s largest privately-owned enterprises. It now employs 12,000 staff, has more than 200 domestic dealers and exports to more than 100 countries and regions, including the US, Japan, the Asia-Pacific, South America and Eastern Europe.
After just two years, Lifan expects to sell 80,000 vehicles including exports in 2008, and recently announced plans to build a new factory to produce all-new SUV and people-mover models by middle of 2009, after which it expects to sell 150,000 vehicles annually.
“Lifan to me makes one of the best motor cars to come out of China,” Mr Lane told GoAuto, adding that a delegation of Lifan executives will visit Australia in November to finalise the brand’s initial sales and marketing strategy here.
“A lot of the cars look Chinese and are simply assembled using a lot of components and body panels. They are not, I would say, proper start-to-end cars, whereas Lifan has its own engines, body panels, etc. It is going to be an international player.”
The first car Lifan has made available for export to Australia is the four-door 520, which was launched at the 2006 Beijing show and rides on a 2540mm wheelbase - 60mm shorter than a Toyota Corolla’s.
But at 4370mm long, as well as 1700mm wide and 1473mm high, it is closer in length to the Toyota Yaris sedan (4300mm) than the Corolla sedan (4540mm).
Meantime, Chery’s small A5 sedan, which is due to be launched here by mid-2009, is also larger at a Corolla sedan-sized 4552mm long, and will be available with a 2.0-litre engine. It will be joined by the A1 light hatch here.
The Lifan 520 has 1423mm wheel tracks, a ground clearance of 143mm, a massive 630-litre boot and its hydraulic power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system returns an 11.0-metre turning circle. Brakes comprise 240x20mm ventilated front discs and 203x40mm rear drums, with 14x5.5-inch wheels and 185/60-section tyres.
Two Lifan-designed and built Euro III emissions-compliant fuel-injected four-cylinder 16-valve DOHC engines will be available from launch, both mated to a five-speed manual transmission. An automatic transmission will not be available from launch but should arrive later in 2009. No Australian Lifans will be powered by the former BMW-sourced 1.6 “Tritec” engine.
Mr Lane said the 520 model’s ADR paperwork was submitted before Australia’s Euro 4 emission standard came into effect on July 1, but that both engines will eventually be replaced by upgraded Euro 5-compliant engines. Lifan is also believed to be developing a 1.8-litre engine.
Powered by a 1.342-litre engine codenamed LF479Q3, the entry-level 520 EX five-seat sedan produces 65kW at 6000rpm and 115Nm of torque at 4800rpm. Claimed top speed is 155km/h, Chinese-market fuel consumption is quoted at around 6.0L/100km and kerb weight is listed at 1170kg.
Lifan is expected to set a new low watermark for pricing in Australia’s already-crowded light-car segment, with the 520 starting from around $12,500.
That’s about $1500 less than the least expensive light car currently available (Hyundai’s $13,990 Getz 1.4 three-door) and $4500 less than the cheapest small car – Proton’s Malaysian-built 1.6-litre Persona four-door and Gen.2 five-door (both $16,990).
All Lifan 520s will come as standard with twin front airbags, air-conditioning, power front and rear windows, power mirrors, central locking, front and rear fog lights, a CD sound system and a tilt-adjustable steering wheel.
An anti-lock braking system (ABS) will not be available on the base EX, and no 520 variants will be equipped with traction/stability control from launch.
The Lifan 520 was this year awarded a three-star crash test result by Euro NCAP with a score of 21.5 – the highest ever score achieved by a Chinese-made vehicle and better than the two-star ANCAP result earned by the Daewoo-built Chevrolet Aveo.
The latter is sold here as the Holden Barina, which scored a recent facelift including standard side airbags and will be one of the Lifan 520's direct rivals, as will Honda's new Jazz-based City sedan next February.
Powered by a 78kW 1.587-litre inline four, the flagship 520 EX adds ABS, semi-automatic air-conditioning, leather seat inserts, a six-CD sound system, rear parking sensors and alloy wheels. It is expected to be priced at $14,990 – similar to many entry-level Japanese light cars.
Mr Lane said his company had originally targeted a $10,000 starting price for the 520, but that the increased value of the Australian dollar against the US currency, in which most Chinese car-makers price their products, had blown that out significantly.
“The state of the motor industry worldwide is quite tough,” he said. “When we first looked at this project the economic situation was a bit better and we were looking to be far more aggressive on our pricing, but the Aussie dollar slipping against the US dollar has made it a little bit tighter for us.
“We had an entry-level objective of $10,000, but that’s not going to happen with the exchange rates the way they are.
“The cars are pretty reasonably specified and the entry-level 1.3 will have twin airbags and air-conditioning. At the moment it will retail around $12,500, but we would like to be a bit under that. We’re still in talks to sharpen our pencil a bit further from launch, but that’s about the price we’re looking at.
“They (Lifan) are not as competitive as they would like to be, but we are still cautiously optimistic,” said Mr Lane.
Given the higher than expected pricing and the lack of an automatic transmission, China Motor Franchise Australia (CMFA), which has a staff of just four and will out-source functions like vehicle pre-delivery to Pre-Car, has forecast an initial sales target of just 1200 vehicles in the first year of 520 sales.
“Because we’ve only got the one model, if we can get to a minimum of 100 units per month that would be a good start,” said Mr Lane. “For us, we want a feasible business and if you look at the basic infrastructure the margins aren’t huge in motor cars.
“You’ve got to have a level of sales to make it worthwhile and because of the low volumes and low margins we have to have a small team. It’s very competitive at that end of the market.”
Mr Lane said that unlike his Chinese brand rivals, CMFA had signed up a “handful” of dealers because it did not actively canvas them before it received ADR certification just over a month ago.
He said his company planned to have a dealer network comprising between just 20 and 30 retail outlets within 18 months, concentrating initially only on the eastern states.
“We’re doing it a little bit different to everyone else. Rather than bombard the market with as many dealers as we can, we want to do it the other way round. We know our limitations. We want to select our dealers carefully, build it up slowly.
“What the other guys have done is that they’ve gone and signed up dealers. No-one has seen a product or anything so I don’t know how they can do that.
“We’re saying we want to get the product here, we don’t want to force it into the market, but if there are interested people, we are not going to give it to all and sundry, we’ve got to look at their support services, etc. We are slowly going to develop a network, not to have 200 from day one – that’s not the objective.
“Signing up dealers is absolutely the next priority, but to be honest I’ve been putting the brakes on it because I want them to come and see the car. I don’t want to sign up a dealer for the sake of it and have a dealership without cars in it. We want active dealers and dealers that are going to work with us on it.
“We have signed up a few dealers, but at this stage we’ve been holding back. It’s only recently that we had the final okay on selling the car here. We didn’t want to go out there and saying it’s all coming, then have to delay it because of some technical issue. It’s the first one and we thought we’d take it really cautiously.
“It’s hard for guys to say well they must have a Lifan-specific dealership and just sell one motor car. So we are looking at the long-term and will be building up Lifan as a brand, then investing for the future products as they come up. It’s a long-tern investment,” he said.
“If you have a look at Victoria and NSW you have a big chunk of the market just between those two states. West Australia will come later. It’s just too big a task at this stage, but if we had a couple of very keen dealers we’d have a look at it.”
Asked if Mr Lane would have sufficient volumes of 520 models to launch the Lifan brand in Australia before the Melbourne International Motor Show (MIMS) in March, Mr Lane said: “That’s the plan,” adding that a brand launch at the Melbourne show depended on the availability of right-hand drive versions of Lifan’s 320 and 620, which were recently released in China.
“We’d love to (be at MIMS) but we really need the support of Lifan. We don’t want to sell just one car there – it’s a waste of time. You’ve got to bring the other cars in and they’ve got to be in right-hand drive.
“We don’t want to show left-hand drive, so it all depends what the range is doing by that time. So I’ll discuss it with them, but we’d need to have the right products in time.
“We will get volumes of cars early next year. It’s too tight for (a market launch) this year and there are too many other aspects we are still tidying up. We’d like to have it sooner, but I’m being conservative and by early next year you should see some volumes coming in.
“The next immediate step is that we’ve got a couple of dealers that want to start testing the market. We’ve got to get all the structures like spares in place, which we’ve been working on for a long time, but it’s been really frustrating because we haven’t been able to push the button.”
Mr Lane said he chose to launch the Euro III-compliant 520 before it was no longer eligible for import approval, even if it was the only model in the Lifan range. But he stressed that the 520 hatch, which as part of the “5 Series” model family would not require new ADR certification and will also go on sale here next year, will “definitely” be joined here by the 320 and 620 models.
Lifan’s first hatchback, known as the 520i, was launched at this year’s Beijing motor show and is powered by Euro 4-compliant 1.3 and 1.6-litre engines. It has a 500-litre boot and, at 4040mm long, is 330mm shorter than the 520 sedan, making it narrowly closer in length to a Corolla hatch than a Yaris hatch.
“Lifan is a new company and they are playing catch-up, so they don’t have the product range. But because we had to move now with the 520 we’ve had to launch it a bit prematurely in a way. At least it’s in and now we can start building it up over the next six months while we see what happens with the other models.
“What they do is launch in the local market then catch up with all the homologation requirements around the world, which takes at least a year or so before they’re ready for the export side. The whole thing about Lifan is that they are developing a range of vehicles for export markets.
“They will definitely have them (the 320 and 620) available, because Lifan believes that the export market is the way to go, which is what they did with motorcycles. They’ve got to provide a range for all their export markets. I’ve been going to China for three years and it’s unbelievable how quickly they move,” he said.
Mr Lane said price was one of the best marketing tools for vehicles at the small end of the car market, but vowed that customer satisfaction would also be part of his business model.
“We are obviously not bringing in high-end vehicles, and we see that at this end of the market price is a big factor. When you look at the value of cars relative to a basket of goods, like lounge suits or TVs, it’s very similar, so cars at this end of the market are no longer the second-biggest purchase after the family home. It’s a commodity.
“The people we sell to want value-for-money motoring to get from A to B at the most affordable price. They don’t want to pay for the brand.
“(But) People have to be happy. We want repeat customers, so we have to keep them happy. Customer satisfaction is what it’s all about.”