Ute sector giant unfazed by minnow’s claim

Provocative comment from a one-tonne newcomer hasn’t dented the brand that ‘made’ this category.

BOMBAST about the ute sector kingpins from a confident category newcomer has been shrugged off by the brand that trailblazed this territory.

Toyota New Zealand has suggested Chinese new boy LDV, whose T60 has just arrived, would be better off proving itself as a brand that can be trusted than taking potshots at sector favourites with good credibility and heritage.

The Palmerston North-domiciled distributor was speaking after a second successive month of big success for their Hilux, which until Ford’s Ranger came along was year-on-year for almost three decades the country’s favourite one-tonner.

In August the Toyota model retained monthly category leadership also won in July, but only just - the 791 sales represented a slender 10 unit advantage over the Ranger. The Ford still maintains the lead year-to- date with 7098 sales compared to Hilux's 6285 sales.

Those trucks seem set to keep up another tradition in 2017; of capturing more than half the total annual volume in a category that continues to be so popular with Kiwis that the Ranger was the top-selling new vehicle for 2016. At the moment, five of the 10 top-selling vehicles nationally are utes.

That climate is appealing to LDV parent SAIC Motor Corporation Ltd, which has relocated the former British commercial vehicle brand to China, and its New Zealand distributor, Great Lake Motors.

At a conference in Auckland last week, LDV’s local sales and marketing manager Warren Willmot suggested that the T60 will achieve sales growth in New Zealand because it is being offered at prices that make a mockery of the recommended retail prices of other utes currently on sale here.

He was also reported as saying that for too long “New Zealanders have been paying too much for over-priced, over-hyped utes.”

This specific comment is believed to have riled the big names of the sector though, out of the top three, only Toyota has felt compelled to respond publically.

Holden, the category number three, declined to provide comment when approached while Ford’s usual spokesman was unavailable.

Steve Prangnell, general manager sales and dealer operations, told MotoringNetwork that it’s not normally TNZ’s practice to speak out about other competitors’ views.

However, the quote attributed to Willmot was too “interesting” to ignore.

Prangnell agreed the sector is a good place to be, but also argued that there were good reasons why Hilux was a favourite now and would remain so going forward. The model has just undergone a mid-life refresh which is set to become available here soon.

“The facts are that the combined four-by-two and four-by-four light truck segment is now the second largest in the overall market.

“There are five utes in the top 10 selling models year-to-date, with a combined volume of 22,410 (vehicles) this year already, including Hilux which is the second best-selling vehicle overall in 2017 with sales of 6287 (units).”

Competitive pricing does come into, TNZ agrees, but of equal importance was perceived value. Achieving that required more than simply an alluring sticker.

“ … it's obvious that actually, our customers do appreciate the value that Hilux delivers them, including five-star safety, a comprehensive range, offering great versatility for work and the family, impressive road manners and perhaps, most importantly, a strong reputation with our customers of outstanding reliability and exceptional resale value.”

He said Toyota was delivering a long heritage of a low total cost of ownership.

These, he added, were “attributes which our customers recognise and something LDV obviously has yet to prove."

The T60 has arrived in a doublecab turbodiesel format, in five-speed manual and six-speed automatic, starting from $33,338 to $40,238 with goods and services tax included. GLM breaks with usual convention by advertising GST-exclusive pricing. With the tax, the models price-align closely with the cheapest of the Japanese utes, the Mitsubishi Triton.

LDV says it will add single cab models to the T60 line up in December, followed by rear-drive units in 2018. That’s also when the rebodied seven-seater SUV variant known as the D90 will come. Prices for those editions have yet to be announced.

Last week’s event was a big gala outing, seemingly mainly for the benefit of large contingent of Chinese guests – company high-ups and a big group of journalists – than for the NZ media and other local special invitees.

There was no opportunity to drive the model, though it has now come to dealerships, which is where MotoringNetwork viewed both the base and flagship grades.

Both versions seem well-equipped, but on the evidence of a quick walkaround, buyers should also expect a lower standard of finish; on the base example, the cloth seat trim was ill-fitting, for instance, on both the quality of plastics within the cabin was less appealing than in even budget Japanese fare.

Safety has become increasingly important to sector buyers, not least in respect to the doublecab models that are often bought as sports utility substitutes for family and recreational use.

All the top-selling double cabs here come with optimal five star scores from the ANCAP crash testing regime, which the NZ Government funds and also, with NCAP, the only safety scores with official recognition here.

To date, just one Chinese-made vehicle, the MG6, has a five star rating.

The T60 has yet to be tested by ANCAP, though this is expected to happen soon, and LDV and GLM are confident it will get a five-star result, regardless that past LDV vehicles have been especially battered by the test. Likewise prior Chinese-made utes – the Great Wall Steed and Foton Tunland managed only two- and three-star ratings respectively.

The T60 is strongly provisioned with safety aides. Standard equipment includes six airbags, blind spot monitoring, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, electronic stability programme, hill-start assist, reversing camera, rear parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring, automatic windscreen wipers and cruise control.

SAIC Motor vice president Lan Qingsong, who came to New Zealand last week, said both the T60 ute and its related D90 large SUV can compete against the best vehicles in the world in regards to safety specification.

“In terms of the safety, we’re very confident,” he told Australian media this week.

“The active passenger protections as well as the passive safety protections – and we also will be equipping assistive intelligence solutions onto those two products – we’re very confident that these two products will be compete with the world-class competitors in every way.”