A Rumble from the East
GWM is a relatively young brand. It was founded in 1984 when other, established brands were already fighting it out for sale supremacy with oftentimes questionable advertising techniques and motorsport to instil awareness – be it on the tracks or trails.
Naturally, it had to play catch-up. And it did for a while. It was only relatively recently that it finally found its stride. It's not just a brand perceived as a cheaper alternative anymore. Instead, it has positioned itself as a brand that offers an alternative to the mainstream German, Japanese, American and Korean catalogues and offers unrivalled value at an affordable price point.
But it's not resting on its laurels. Taking a leaf from its SUV branch, Haval, GWM is further expanding its local portfolio by introducing new-to-SA brands like Ora, Tank and Shanhai, each fulfilling an essential role in the GWM Group's stable. We recently travelled to the Shanghai Motor Show as a guest of GWM and Haval to see what the carmaker's future, especially in South Africa, is all about.
It's unapologetically rugged with just enough funkiness to make it tremendously cool. It's a formula that's worked for several other carmakers, especially in SA, and the Tank 300 confirmed for the local market will surely give the segment it's looking to compete in an overdue shake-up.
On the face of it, the off-roading specs are impressive, with a stated 33-degree approach angle, 34 degrees for departure and ground clearance that's rated for 224 mm of obstacle clearance. Furthermore, it has what GWM calls the "Intelligent Four Wheel-Drive System" with seven built-in driving modes, including Economy, Sport, Mud and 4-low.
The power, though, or rather its delivery, is where things get really interesting on the Tank front. Exact details are sparse for now, but if all goes according to plan, the Tank 300 will launch locally with two separate powertrains; a run-of-the-mill 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine paired to an 8-speed auto box and a 2.0-litre turbo-hybrid mated to a 9-speed Hybrid Auto Transmission. In all likelihood, SA will get a similar configuration to what's already available in Australia, with outputs rated at 162kW and 387Nm from the 300 ICE, while the TANK HEV delivers a combined output of 258kW and 615 Nm. Eagle-eyed readers may notice a difference in stated outputs from what we initially published in the magazine. The reason is simple: Since publishing, GWM has officially announced all the nits and grits related to official figures we can expect in SA.
Only time will reveal the specifics and derivatives, but for now, the Tank 300 makes a unique case for itself, what with its hybrid credentials. The TANK 300 is expected to ship with a price tag of R685,900 to R851,900.
If we're honest, the Tank 500 is imposing. Its styling is audacious and looks to make its mark where the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado reigns. It's also the biggest and most luxurious TANK on offer.
And it's not just a perceivable level of luxury relative to other GWM-owned brands… It's an oasis of opulence with glossy surfaces, textured surfaces, a crystal gear lever, enough tech to make a spaceship blush with its all-digital information readouts and a plethora of comfort features like front and rear massage seats.
Then again, to compete where its aim is set, it must be willing to get its wheels dirty. From what we've gleaned at the motor show, it shouldn't be a tall order for the aptly named Tank with a part-time all-wheel-drive system, automated crawl mode that regulates both throttle and brake inputs and a voice-control feature for shifting between drive modes… Can't say we've seen that…
And power? In other markets, it's powered by a 3.0-litre V6 twin-turbo engine producing 260 kW and 500 Nm, while it's likely that SA will get it with a 2.0-litre turbo-hybrid and 9-speed HAT (Hybrid Automatic Transmission) similar to the Tank 300. No exact trim and specification have been confirmed for the local market at the time of publishing, though, but we are hopeful that at least the voice control function will find its way here.
ORA 300, 400 & 400GT
Ora is GWM's dedicated electric brand. With the imminent arrival of what is known as the Ora' Funky Cat' in other markets, this retro-inspired car may change not only the South African EV market space in terms of market share but also how EVs are perceived. It's already expected, and rightly so, that it will be SA's most affordable electric car once it touches down, with its closest rivals being the Mini Cooper SE and BYD Atto 3.
It embodies Ora's somewhat left-field take on the idea of electric mobility with its blend of vintage styling and modern tech, but it also brings a fresh perspective to the local EV market that's currently dominated by mainstream, and rather pricey offerings. It's also no slouch, with the Ora producing 126kW and 250Nm from its electric motor.
Will the batteries last as long as the corner store AA special? No. The names are derived from the expected range of the different models, with Ora claiming the 300 will do 310km while the 400 can do 420km. While we didn't get to sample these specific models, we did get the opportunity to drive with one of GWM's test drivers in the 300kW Ora Lighting Cat that's also coming to SA at some point, albeit wearing a different badge. Besides the incredible fit and finish and surprisingly low levels of wind noise, the slow rate at which the battery depleted after several laps at 187km/h around the 7-kilometre test track gives me enough reason to believe that these numbers are conservatively stated.
Recharging should also be a relatively painless exercise with purchasable at-home wall chargers, increasingly easy access to public fast chargers, and fast charging availability at selected dealerships.
So, will Ora be the spark necessary to grow the local EV market? There are a lot of variables at play, but if the brand can nail its pricing, it's a definite step in the right direction.
GWM Shanhai P-Series
While it may wear several badges globally, the P-Series as we know it has largely changed the game for the local GWM arm. In three years, it's already garnered respect and admiration from its owners as a value-first alternative to the usual roost of bakkies.
GWM has taken the learnings and lessons from the current P-Series and applied them to the inbound model, designated as the Shanhai P-Series, offering a more luxury-forward bakkie experience. If that 2.0-litre turbodiesel was a bit small for your liking, you'd be happy to hear that GWM plans to ship the new model with a 2.4-litre turbodiesel and a 9-speed automatic gearbox, producing in the region of 135kW, an increase from the current model that's good for 120kW. If you'd like a more future-forward, cleaner alternative, it will also be available in a similar 2.0-litre turbo-hybrid petrol engine with a 9-speed HAT gearbox that can be found in the Tank models. The exact power figures aren't clear, but they'll likely produce similar outputs.
It's also seen a significant rise in luxury and refinement levels, as suggested by the Shanhai nameplate, with an interior resembling the space in a premium SUV.
Driving with an in-house test driver around the test track, the 2.4-litre P-Series was well-composed and comfortable at a steady 160 km/h. At the same time, the power delivery and gearbox movement also felt well-adapted to carry the weight of the new, marginally bigger GWM P-Series. At this stage, we don't have an exact release date for the Shanhai nameplate.
From Bakkie Maker to Mobility Innovator
Gone are the days when GWM was merely the maker of modest, often lagging-behind-the-field bakkies. Haval, with its popular Jolion and H6 models… all fall under the wide-reaching GWM umbrella. Take the runaway success story of the GWM P-Series; well, that pretty much speaks for itself…
On a recent factory tour of the GWM Group's mega-factory in Baoding, China, that coincided with the Shanghai Motor Show, I caught a glimpse into the heart of where the brand's magic happens. It's here, starting at the hulking and somewhat secretive R&D section, where engineers and designers turn ideas into reality. It's a hive of activity where, I imagine, everything from hydraulic piping diameters to the weighting of upholstery is discussed to justify costs, improve upon its quality and ultimately make the process, from inception to final product, more efficient.
The operation reminds me of a central nervous system where one element can't function without the other. The wind tunnel is where aerodynamicists geek out on numbers relating to drag coefficients. Here, design ideas and concepts are validated in a simulated representation of what components will be subjected to. And when it's all assembled, it gets another gale force treatment to see if and where the finished product can be improved upon.
Similarly, what I call the quiet room optimises the noise levels of pre-production cars in a clinical area that looks and sounds like a recording room on mechanical steroids. Using sound-absorbing walls and a dyno to do simulations, technicians pinpoint and address unwanted noises before mass production begins.
Ideas to Product
All this data is logged, recorded, and probably subjected to another series of validations, and when all is set and done, the process of creating a tangible product finally gets underway.
It's here, during the production process, where every dataset and idea comes together as a cohesive, recognisable model.
It starts in the metal press shop, where metal sheets are pressed and moulded into workable components that make up the vehicle's build. The precision and coordination in this stage are crucial, as these components form the foundation of the final product. During our tour, a series of Haval H6 models were brought to life on a conveyor of efficiency where skilled technicians, aided by advanced robotics looking like something lifted straight from a 2080 sci-fi flick, harmoniously assembled each piece to ensure they meet the strictest quality standards. The centre tunnel took shape; the dashboard came together bit by bit, the centre infotainment screen, followed by the digital instrument cluster, the doors, and electronic harnesses until finally, it looked like the interior of the H6 we know.
Finished and pre-production models are subjected to strenuous testing conditions at the group's High-Performance Proving Ground to verify everything works. A herculean investment of 1 billion Yuan (R2.6 billion) was poured into constructing this state-of-the-art testing facility, sprawling across 1.14 million square metres. The site, divided into 11 different testing modules, includes a high-speed circuit, incline test simulations, and a city square. The highlight, and also one I got to sample in the passenger seat, is undoubtedly the high-speed circuit, stretching 7 km; it features a maximum 47-degree inclination for centrifugal road-holding enabling the car to safely stick to the road surface, with the outermost lane designed to allow 240 km/h under test conditions.
The Future of Mobility
For the most part, South Africans are well aware of the sustainability challenges we face, what with Eskom and the ridiculous duty tax on EVs, making it a near-unattainable mobility option. To us, then, mainstream EV adoption still seems like the far-away future, while in the rest of the world, including China, it's already commonplace. The fact then that GWM has its own Hydrogen Technology Centre – the probable and sizable next step towards future mobility – shows that this company, which South Africans are only just starting to take seriously, is effectively blurring the lines between what we perceive as the present and the far, far-away future.
Construction of the Hydrogen Technology Centre started in 2016, with the project seeing completion in 2018. The centre was built with a 570-million Yuan (R1.5 billion) investment and sees an area stretching 20,000 square metres, 20,000 squares that are hard to make sense of as a hydrogen layperson. The Tech Center comprises a physics and chemistry lab, an area dedicated to hydrogen storage, a fuel cell test laboratory, and a vehicle test laboratory.
In addition, the centre is gearing up to install a liquid hydrogen storage station.
What does this mean? Well, in short, GWM is looking to provide comprehensive solutions in this field, be it automotive or possibly power generation. Especially considering that hydrogen storage (and accompanying costs) is currently cited as the biggest challenge in this area since it has to be pressurised or liquefied to be of any real value for powering cars. And yet, the carmaker is actively seeking solutions to creating and shaping the future of mobility.
Yes, EVs and hybrids are only emerging locally now, but who knows, maybe the future of SA's mobility, and possibly power infrastructure, is of a water-powered nature…
One thing's for sure, though, instead of just preparing for the future, they are helping to shape it. It's a stark contrast to some perceptions that remain, especially relating to how Chinese carmakers got their start locally. It's a transformation and evolution that warrants attention and respect – a testament to the power of innovation, ever-improving quality, and the promise of a sustainable future.
Originally published in TopGear SA, Edition 115 | Images by GWM Group