JAC gets back to basics

It is not a question of ‘if’ Chinese trucks come into the Australian market, but only ‘when’. We have seen a number of bus brands from China on sale here and now the second Chinese brand has reached our shores following the relatively low level release from Foton. The latest brand to hit our shores is JAC Trucks, who are being brought to this country by WMC, the company responsible for the success of the Higer brand of buses in Australia.

The light duty market is the first port of call for the new Chinese entrant with 4.5, 6.5 and 7.5 tonnes GVM being offered. The trucks come with a reasonably high specification level of which the headline is the Cummins ISF engine coupled with a ZF gearbox in the lightest model in the range. The company is also offering substantial warranties with a basic two-year warranty plus a five-year or 500,000 km driveline warranty.

However, the Australian market has some understanding of where Chinese products coming into the country stand. And while this is not a particularly sophisticated product, but it does have a very interesting price point. The entry-level J 45 model is being advertised as having a recommended retail price of $36,389. This is considerably lower than any of the Japanese competitors this truck is lined up against.

It is not usual for a truck manufacturer to make the recommended retail price a major part of their initial launch strategy. In fact, many of the truck manufacturers will not talk about price unless you are a serious customer for their product. By emphasising this cash figure, JAC are utilising their biggest strength – they are cheaper than any competition. Their prices are set at a level with which they can compete against second-hand Isuzus, Hinos and Fusos.

Apart from price, the other strength JAC brings to the table is their dealer network. They have managed to get AHG, CMV, Adtrans and Macquarie involved with launching this brand on the market and supporting it around the country. This dealer group also gives the JAC Trucks brand added credibility as they are some of the most successful automotive retailers in Australia and unlikely to bring a new brand to the country without seeing a genuine business case for its launch.

The initial launch range, with three models – the J 45, J 65 and J 75 – are all wide cabin trucks. Future models are likely to include a narrow cabin, factory tippers and a crew cab. There are two engines being used in the range, both from Cummins and both identified as an ISF. The 4.5 tonne model uses the 2.8L version of the engine while the two larger models use the 3.8L version. While the lighter model uses a high-speed ZF gearbox, the two heavier models used a JAC six-speed transmission, which is based on the Isuzu six-speed box sold in Australia in the past.

“Part of the strategy for us is that someone can walk into a dealership and have the opportunity to look at a variety of products on offer, side by side,” says JAC National Sales Manager, Enzo Magistro. “We are fairly confident that our product will pull people up from used trucks into a new truck.

“Why JAC? Because we offer a competitive specification and realistic pricing, which is approximately 20 per cent lower than the Japanese competition. Then there’s the dealer network and our class leading 2+3 warranty. We are offering a five-year, 500,000 km warranty, which combines a two-year or 100,000 km bumper-to-bumper cover and the next three years of driveline warranty.”

Looking to the future, JAC are intending to introduce more models in the years to come. An automatic option fitted with an Allison transmission is in the pipeline and will give the range more acceptance in some sectors of the market. There will also be higher GVM products coming as the manufacturer moves into the medium duty sector of the market.

Whether the new Chinese brands, led by JAC, can make reasonable headway in the Australian truck market is still a matter for conjecture. The reaction of truck buyers in Australia to this first group of models and the way they are perceived is going to inform just how JAC can develop the brand into the future. The process is going to involve getting people to engage with the product, get a feel for the new trucks and just see how they seem from the driver's seat. Comparing this experience to the price will set the agenda for the future development of JAC in Australia.

At first appearance the truck does look very familiar. The basic cabin design looks, to all appearances, to be that of the Isuzu NPR circa 2004. The lights, grille and other equipment fitted to the outside of the truck, are distinctly JAC, but overall this truck is a very familiar shape. Climbing inside is also reminiscent of light-duty trucks from about 10 years ago. The seat, steering wheel, high set gearstick and long straight dashboard could all come from a Japanese truck of the past.

Turn the key in the ignition and we are in a modern truck. The sound of the Cummins ISF is of a modern electronically injected SCR engine. Light duty truck engine design has come a long way in the past 10 years and much more precise ignition and combustion control makes for a much smoother running engine. This smoothness is also clearly seen as the truck sets out down the road within easy rise in rpm levels and plenty of torque to get the truck moving.

Tilting the cab reveals this engine has very little in common with anything found in a Japanese truck. Apart from the famous Cummins red paint there is a clean design with very little ancillary equipment fitted to the outside of the engine. Its Japanese counterpart looks very complicated in comparison with a mass of pipes and wiring around the engine. This Cummins ISF is clearly the main factor which differentiates this truck from its direct competition, but at the same time matches the performance available from the Japanese trucks.

Driving this truck on the road is also reminiscent of trucks from the past. We have become used to much more positive steering and much smoother gearboxes over the years. While the steering works well and does the job, including quite a useful turning circle, it just doesn't feel as positive and tight as its modern competition from elsewhere. Similarly, the gearbox is a little clunky. It is possible to get smooth changes from one gear to the next but it is not easy. Experience, over time, would probably give a driver enough experience to get the gears right every time.

These parts of the driving experience must be considered alongside the price being paid for this particular truck. It does do the job, more than adequately, it just doesn't do it quite as easily as its much more expensive competition. At the end of the day it simply comes down to calculating what the buyer really wants in a truck and the commercial reality of running a business and keeping costs to a minimum.

The overall driving experience of this truck is quite pleasant. The fit and finish of the cabin interior is quite good, the models tested didn't have any squeaks or rattles which will normally give away sloppy finishing. All of the systems worked well; the J 75 tested was fitted with full air brakes with ABS and felt very positive and safe when under braking. Visibility is good all round the truck and although the rear view mirrors are quite basic they seem to work pretty well.

With the arrival of an increasing number of Chinese vehicles in the Australian market we are going to have to start thinking about trucks in a different way. The past 30 years have seen a great deal of change as very basic truck brands have constantly improved the technology available, the efficiency of their systems and basic cabin comfort. Progress has been continuous and the truck driver's lot has improved year-on-year, each successive truck has been easier to drive and more efficient.

These new trucks from China are not in direct competition to the current truck offering, they are coming into their own sector of the market. Where the Japanese light duty trucks were seen as cheap, cheerful and extremely basic, even just over 10 years ago, they are now premium quality, high technology and comfortable trucks. As they have developed, a niche has developed at a lower price point and this is the area where trucks like the JAC are likely to succeed.

Yes, these trucks are more basic in some aspects of their design and build but they are as clean as any of their competitors, in terms of exhaust emissions. They are a good working truck and do the job well. JAC do not have any pretensions to be the best truck on the market, at this stage, but they do have a product which, for its price, will perform at a good standard. The brand-new truck will also always have an advantage over a used truck in this price range, the warranty offered by the manufacturer.

Leave a Reply

  1. Australian Truck Radio Listen Live
Send this to a friend