I am one of those very few people who have been to Egypt but have not seen a single pyramid. Over a decade ago, I travelled all the way to Mirabella in Italy and came back without driving a Ferrari. Similarly I am yet to see the Great Wall of China, despite having been to China more than once. Now I can add one more thing to the list — I have been to China and did not drive the Sunshine!
I could have impressed you further by saying that I did not drive the brand new Wuling Rongguang — it is the new version of the Sunshine which made its debut at the recent Beijing Motor Show. And pray, why is the Sunshine so important?
Because the SAIC-GM-Wuling combo managed to sell more than 6.5 lakh units of this machine last year. Yes, this is the largest-selling single-model car in the whole world and is only matched by the Ford F-150 range of pick-ups. And now comes the funny bit — it ain’t even a car. It is a people mover based on a panel van or the other way around — depending on the way you see things.
And why am I spending precious column-centimetres on this van? Because it is coming to India and it has the potential to do extremely well. To get the right picture of the car, imagine a Maruti Suzuki Eeco and blotch it up a notch and presto, you have a minivan with three proper rows of seating, reasonable fit-and-finish and er, lots of grey plastic in the interiors. Mind you, this car is not even in the Mahindra Xylo/Toyota Innova segment but it manages to haul a hell of a lot of Chinese every year.
Now, to those who are not informed, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC), a true Chinese giant, holds 50 per cent ownership in GM India which went through a reorganisation post General Motors going bankrupt.
GM China and SAIC got into an alliance a decade ago, and along with Wuling Automobiles, have formed an automotive force of considerable importance in China. The Sunshine that we mentioned above is a car originally conceived by the little known Wuling which went on to climb new heights under the three-way joint venture. Phew!
In short, the sky is the limit when it comes to product planning for GM India. It will all get kick-started with a commercial vehicle that will help GM India keep the Halol plant in Gujarat ticking while passenger vehicles may roll out of the spanking new Talegaon plant near Pune.
One of the biggest challenges in bringing the Sunshine and its newer variants like Rongguang to the Indian market is that they need to invent, build and transplant a diesel engine for our market. For the time being, the only engines that the Sunshine uses are 1149cc and 1206cc petrol units — lean engines that return good fuel consumption in a market where diesel is more expensive than petrol.
These petrol engines may do the job for India when it comes to the city-based people-mover segment, but for commercial vehicle applications and as a more affordable option against the likes of the Mahindra Xylo, the Sunshine needs to start drinking diesel. The GM think tank is toying with the idea of either bringing in new diesel tech or going for the existing 1.3-litre engines co-developed with Fiat (the same engine is also built and used by Maruti Suzuki in India).
I got up close with the Wuling products and even got to size them out. These monoboxes do have great ground clearance and that means getting into the car is not that easy. Once you clamber your way up though, you notice that space has been cleverly used, as these are genuine seven-seaters. Seating is car-like and the instrumentation and controls make you feel like you are sitting in an economy car rather than a van. Leg room is at a premium in the last row but this can be addressed by using a slightly stretched version of the car as and when it comes to India. Trust this long wheelbase Wuling to rule the tourist trade, where economy — while buying and running — matters more than anything else. The vans are sprung using a McPherson strut front suspension and a simple, leaf spring set up at the back. You certainly can’t argue with the ability of leaf springs to cope with rough terrain, right?
The petrol engines available now dish out 80 and 84 bhp of power and 10.5 and 11 kgm of torque respectively — trust GMI to use the more economical 75 bhp variant of the 1.3-litre diesel in the Indian application. The engines are mated to a five-speed manual transmission with surprisingly good shift quality and feel. Braking duties are handled by a double circuit system with discs at the front and drums at the rear.
It makes sterling sense for GMI to utilise the strengths of its Chinese partners to rake in some much-needed profits into their local operations. While giving the Halol plant a new role, the Sunshine and its variants will open up the people-mover and light-transport segment to an even wider audience. The role these vehicles will play as parallel transport services between small towns will be pivotal for a country on the move too. Expect GMI to price these machines between Rs 4 and 6 lakh though it remains to be seen whether they will wear the Chevy bowtie that they don’t wear in China.
As for me, perhaps I will get to actually crank up, shift gears and drive the Sunshine soon — if not in China, then in India.
General Motors may have had troubled times worldwide but they did get into some very important alliances at the turn of the millennium. One such is the alliance with SAIC and Wuling which is giving the restructured GM a much needed strong presence in the world’s largest market that shows no sign of slowing down. Also important is another tactical alliance with SAIC to form the Pan Asia Technical Automotive Centre Co Ltd (PATAC) in 1997. Today, this 50:50 JV remains the first professional automotive product development effort in China. Apart from playing an important role in the Chinese automotive industry and nurturing local design and development talent, PATAC offers splendid support to GM-SAIC brands like Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac. Recently PATAC conceptualised and developed the all-new Buick Sail (earlier, the Opel Corsa was badged as the Sail in China). This design facility can offer its clients 360-degree automotive development facilities starting from early sketches to full-blown crash simulations and tests. Whether it is adapting the Cadillac SLS to the Chinese market or bringing people movers like the Wuling Hogfu up-to-date, PATAC has played a role in it all. Seeing a facility like PATAC with an over 1,700-strong qualified workforce is important to understand where design and development is headed in China. Time to forget the copycat image then!
The writer was invited by General Motors India to visit its facilities in China.