If we could fast-forward into the automotive future of five to 10 years hence, what a different world we would find: hybrids left, right and centre; plug-in electrics in reasonable numbers, even on Dunedin city streets; stop-start and collision-avoidance systems on every new car sold; and last but not least, a significant number of those new cars coming from China.
It's the Chinese part of this equation that has been exercising my mind of late, for the simple reason that Drivesouth has just been supplied with its first Chinese vehicles to test. Enter the Great Wall X200 SUV and its light commercial stablemate, the V200.
Great Wall is not yet a major player in the Kiwi market, but it's not a brand to be ignored.
In the year to date, it has sold twice as many vehicles here as it did in 2011. If things carry on as they have been, by year's end Great Wall sales should near 1000. This will place it on a par with Peugeot for sales, and comfortably ahead of the likes of Mini, Land Rover, Lexus, Dodge, Jeep and Volvo.
Roughly 80% of Great Wall registrations so far have been for the V200 ute (see separate story), but the SUV is arguably the more important of the pair long-term, for it is introducing Great Wall to the passenger-car market.
The SUV and ute are closely related, sharing a common ladder-frame chassis design. Both were available in 100kW/200Nm 2.4-litre petrol form as the X240 and V240 previously, but the arrival of a 2.0-litre 105kW/310Nm turbo-diesel variant has been a key development for 2012. Pricing is keen, with the X200 listing at $34,990 in flagship five-speed automatic-transmission guise.
There's certainly no shortage of standard equipment for the price. Push-button four-wheel-drive selection "on the fly", climate air-conditioning, a touch-screen centre display screen with reversing camera, leather trim, power-operated seats, auto lights and wipers, cruise control, trip computer, fingertip controls on the steering column and Bluetooth as well as plug-in audio connectivity are all included.
Aside from being equipped with just two airbags, the X200 stacks up respectably on the safety front: it holds a four-star NCAP crash-test rating, and electronic stability programming and anti-lock brakes are standard.
Sitting on 17-inch alloys, the test car looked neat enough, with panel fit and styling that could easily have been the work of a more mainstream brand. Great Wall seems to have mastered the essentials of interior design, too.
The passenger compartment looked utterly conventional, and though the quality of some of the trim materials was at the lower end of the spectrum, the cabin was generally well assembled.
A rubbery action for some of the switchgear, a centre display touch-screen that was difficult to read in direct sunlight and seats that lack a little lateral support highlighted the need for Great Wall, having mastered the basics of fit and finish, to focus its attention on detail in the future.
Sitting as it does on a ladder-frame chassis, the X200 cannot match more mainstream SUVs that use modified car platforms for dynamic sophistication. Handling is tidy enough, but there is a fair amount of body roll under cornering and little in the way of steering feel, especially about the straight-ahead position.
Similarly, primary body control is good, but the rear-suspension damping is not as adept, so small surface imperfections jiggle their way into the cabin.
The test car's diesel engine was prone to clatter on start-up and had languid initial throttle response. On the other hand, it dispatched open-road kilometres happily enough, though a heavy load or steep hill
revealed the limitations of a motor that has modest outputs for a vehicle of the X200's size.
Thinking about points of close comparison among the mainstream brands, I came up blank when considering current new-vehicle offerings.
What the test car put me most in mind of, dynamically, was a Mitsubishi Challenger of several years back.
For all that, the X200 is a vehicle to take seriously.
This is partly because it is priced to compete with used rather than new alternatives from the established brands, but more importantly because it represents an important step on what will surely be a long, and very successful, future for the Great Wall marque.
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