After much ado both here and in China, JAC trucks are now on the brink of entering the Australian light-duty truck market, marking what many believe will be the first determined assault on the local league by a Chinese brand. Keen for an early assessment of the newcomers, STEVE BROOKS tripped across the Tasman for a quick steer of a couple of Kiwi prototypes.   

JAC attack … step one!

(First published in DIESEL July/Aug ’11)

It might seem an odd thing to fly to New Zealand to drive Chinese trucks bound for the Australian market but hey, in this day and age it’s neither the issue nor the initiative it may have once appeared.

The world is just so much smaller these days and in an industry where it’s not unknown for a journalist to fly to some far flung factory on the other side of Earth for a quick drive of a new model, then fly straight back again, it’s certainly no great feat to jump across ‘the ditch’ for a day or so.

In this case, the trip across the Tasman came in the wake of a media excursion late last year to JAC headquarters in China where everything was on show except the actual trucks bound for Australian and New Zealand markets. As for the need to travel to Auckland for a steer of two prototype versions prior to the launch of Australian models, well, the simple truth is that New Zealand is offering JAC trucks a few months before Australia by virtue of the fact that our Kiwi counterparts are currently still operating under a Euro 4 emissions regulation. Australia, on the other hand, has now moved to a localised version (ADR 80/03) of the more stringent Euro 5 standard, subsequently pushing the Australian introduction of JAC trucks back a few months to around August or September this year.

No matter how you look at it though, it has been a blisteringly fast evolution for the outfit confusingly known as White Motor Company, or WMC, the importer and distributor of Higer buses and now JAC trucks in both Australia and New Zealand. (For the record, there is absolutely no connection between WMC and the once venerable White truck brand which in the early 1980s was bought and ultimately buried by Volvo.)

Simply explained, WMC was formed in 2005 with a goal to introduce Chinese bus product and it was from this rudimentary start that the Higer brand eventually emerged on the Australian and New Zealand markets. As Fate would decree, it was from this relationship that an introduction to JAC emanated and from initial discussions in 2008, the Chinese maker and its Down Under distributor are now poised to tackle light-duty truck markets on both sides of the Tasman.

WMC’s Jason Pecotic. Responsible for nurturing negotiations through the quirky maze of Chinese business practice.

Heading WMC are entrepreneurial business partners Don Munro and Jason Pecotic. While Munro maintains an almost phantom profile – he is, after all, a Sydney-based medical practitioner – Pecotic is increasingly emerging as the motivating force of the enterprise, responsible for nurturing negotiations through the quirky maze of Chinese business practice and on the home front, honing vital dealership arrangements with the vast Automotive Holdings Group, or AHG, and the truck-centric AdTrans company.

Indeed, it could be fairly argued that WMC’s greatest attribute is its association with two of Australia’s most formidable commercial vehicle dealer organisations which in the case of AHG, even extends to funding the importation of JAC trucks for the Australian and New Zealand markets.

For his part, Jason Pecotic certainly doesn’t hide the satisfaction of having two of Australia’s more dominant dealer bodies intrinsically involved in JAC’s assault. Yet perhaps more to the point, and seemingly at odds with its existing ties with a major Japanese brand, AHG’s substantial fiscal involvement signals both a high level of confidence in the suitability of the Chinese product and critically, its potential to carve significant inroads into a market dominated by Japan’s finest.

Time, of course, will be the ultimate judge of product suitability and market acceptance but for now it’s ‘all systems go’ and according to a recent WMC press statement, ‘JAC trucks have moved a step closer to hitting Australian roads with key engineering executives from its truck division in China meeting with Australian Department of Transport and Road Safety officials (DOTARS) to sign off on compliance for JAC trucks ahead of the (Australian) launch late in the third quarter of 2011.’

Said Jason Pecotic, “With ADR compliance now confirmed, it ensures production of Australian models can commence in June with trucks hitting our roads around September.”

Yet not so long ago, just a few months in fact, there were strong rumours that distribution rights for JAC trucks in Australia were still up for grabs. Jason Pecotic was wary when asked about the validity of these rumours but conceded there certainly was another Australian automotive importer (Ateco) interested in JAC and it wasn’t until well into February this year that the distribution agreement was formally signed by WMC and top level JAC officials. “I don’t believe there was any doubt we’d get the distribution rights but even so, it was nice to get signatures on the dotted line,” he remarked.

Dollars and sense

So now it all comes down to the trucks and how they measure up against Japanese brands, not least in dollar terms. It’s no secret that light-duty truck buyers are driven by price more than any other segment of the market and obviously aware of the need to offer a smart specification at a sharp price, several sources at WMC have indicated that retail prices of JAC trucks on both sides of the Tasman could be as much as 20 percent lower than equivalent Japanese models. What’s more, WMC general manager Shannon Taylor said in China late last year that parts costs would be “… up to 25 percent lower than Japanese brands over the first five years of ownership.”

Two JAC models will be initially offered in both Australia and New Zealand; one powered by a Cummins ISF four cylinder 2.8 litre engine and the other by a 3.8 litre ISF, with both turbocharged displacements employing SCR emissions control and electronically mastered common-rail fuel injection.

Drawing much of its design platform from Cummins’ highly durable B-series engine, the ISF range is produced in China in a 50-50 joint venture between Cummins and the massive Foton company in an entirely new, purpose-built factory said to be state-of-the-art in diesel engine production. However, JAC won’t be the first to offer trucks punched by this high-tech baby of the Cummins stable.

On the local market, for instance, the other model to employ the ISF engine is the Foton Aumark, a light-duty truck imported by Western Star Trucks Australia and sold through Western Star outlets. The Aumark made its first Australian appearance at the 2010 Melbourne truck show but in the interim has been almost invisible, with barely a unit sold since its debut. It was, however, a prominent exhibit at this year’s Brisbane truck show and there now appears a new energy in efforts to promote the model, including a super-sharp price tag.

Yet when asked if Foton’s lack of early patronage is a worrying sign for JAC’s prospects, it was a smiling Jason Pecotic who said simply, “A Western Star dealership is where people go to buy a big American truck, not a little Chinese truck. Through the AHG and AdTrans networks, we’ll obviously be doing things much differently.”

Similarly, he insists an apparent shortage of early buyer interest in Korea’s Hyundai light trucks is of little concern to JAC’s potential. “The difference is we’re serious. We’re not a car business trying to sell a few trucks,” he said sharply.

Back on specifics of the two JAC models presented in New Zealand, the 2.8 litre unit has a gross vehicle mass (GVM) rating of 4.5 tonnes and peak performance outputs of 110 kW (150 hp) at 3200 rpm and 360 Nm (266 lb ft) of torque at 1800 rpm. For both Australian and New Zealand markets, the 2.8 litre model will initially stir through a ZF ‘Ecolite’ five-speed overdrive manual transmission before an Allison automatic is added to the spec soon after.

Brakes are a typical dual circuit vacuum/hydraulic drum brake system with ABS anti-lock fitted as a standard feature. Tyres are 7.50R16 radials.

The cab on both 2.8 and 3.8 litre models is a 2.0 metre wide structure derived – or more accurately, copied – from a previous Isuzu N-series design. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power windows, a radio/CD combination, and tilt and telescopic adjustable steering. Apparently, narrow cab derivatives seen last year in China are also in future product plans.

At this stage the 2.8 litre unit rides on a 3.3 metre wheelbase although WMC’s Kiwi manager Dean Hoverd was quick to explain that plans are in place to extend wheelbase options on both models for Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, we understand WMC is also considering the viability of importing models fitted with various types of JAC bodies. 

Meantime, the 3.8 litre model carries a GVM rating of almost eight tonnes but strangely, with just 105 kW (143 hp) at 2600 rpm, the bigger engine dispenses a lower power peak than its smaller sibling. Torque, however, is considerably greater with 450 Nm (332 lb ft) on tap at a thrifty 1200 rpm. To start, a six-speed overdrive manual shifter cloned from a Nissan design will be the standard stirrer behind the 3.8 but again, the plan is for an Allison auto to become available soon after.

Mounted on a 3.815 metre wheelbase, the bigger model is fitted with full air brakes with ABS while grip on the ground is through 215/75R 17.5 inch rubber.

Fuel capacities are 90 litres on the smaller model and 125 litres on the 3.8 litre version, and both are fitted with a 14 litre AdBlue tank. Diesel and AdBlue tanks are, however, mounted on opposite sides of the chassis, wisely with the diesel tank on the passenger side.

Early information shows both models carrying a three-year, 100,000 km warranty package while service intervals are at 15,000 km.

According to WMC’s Dean Hoverd, an initial shipment of 40 JAC trucks arrived in Auckland immediately prior to our visit, following in the wake of three prototype units imported late last year for compliance procedures and initial testing. Two of these prototypes had been more recently fitted with van bodies, roof-mounted airfoils and attractive graphics, and were the trucks provided for a 100 km evaluation on a grey and gloomy Auckland day.

Externally, there wasn’t much to separate the two models other than the heavier unit carrying a slightly deeper bumper bar. Up close, however, there were a number of differences with many obviously peculiar to the prototypes in the lead-up to determining the final specification of each model. For example, even the dash layout and gauges were significantly different between the two prototypes.

Yet some things are obviously set features of both models: Like doors that open a full 90 degrees for easy access to and from the cab; a simple yet practical seating layout, although a better driver’s seat would certainly be a welcome improvement in production versions; and good vision through a deep windscreen and reasonable side mirrors.

Meanwhile, tilting the cab is easy and relatively light, and while the tilt angle isn’t as generous as most modern lightweights, it still provides ample access to the engine and surrounds. Again, however, the position of some components varied greatly between the two models and in a couple of cases, even appeared odd. Consequently, we’ll hold an opinion on the precarious placement of components such as the water separator on the lighter model until we see final production versions. In the meantime, we can at least confirm that the location of regular service items such as the coolant and power steering reservoirs, air and oil filters are sited for easy access.

As for driving, each of the trucks was partially loaded and from the outset it was obvious the baby Cummins would make light work of the exercise. In short, it’s a strong little toiler with an inherent family trait to fight deep into the rev range. Yet despite Cummins’ assertion that the ISF engine’s rear-mounted geartrain and composite oil pan and valve covers are effective features in the battle against noise, the engine installation in the two JAC prototypes was anything but quiet. In our estimation, a good deal of work needs to be done on under-cab noise insulation before the Australian launch of the models.

In most other respects, including ride and handling on leaf spring suspensions, the JAC trucks stacked up reasonably well while fuel economy of the little Cummins was undeniably impressive over a route that ranged from suburban slogs to country backroads and a couple of long, sharp hills. For the record, the 2.8 litre version sipped at the rate of 8.3 km/litre (23.5 mpg) and the bigger model at 6.6 km/litre (18.6 mpg), although it needs to be pointed out that the 3.8 unit’s fuel efficiency was unquestionably hampered by a transmission shift quality which was downright dreadful. For much of the time in this model, finding the right ‘hole’ either up or down the shift pattern was an exasperating exercise and completely unacceptable in a truck intended for a market segment where driver skill is often limited. Again, WMC will need to ensure this complaint is not carried over to production models.

Fortunately, shift quality of the five-speed ZF box in the 2.8 litre model was fine.

So overall, on the fundamental first impressions provided by the two prototype models it appears the JAC trucks are solid, practical workhorses for light-duty applications. Sure, they may appear basic in some areas and in design terms, even a tad out-dated compared to their Japanese rivals. There’s no question some fine-tuning is required before the covers come off production models.

That said though, their Chinese heritage suggests these trucks are built to withstand much hard labour and if this proves to be the case in our neck of the woods, the combination of a sharp price tag and professional dealer network will at least motivate buyers to take a close look.

Stay tuned, because the next time we drive a JAC truck it’ll be the real deal.