China's big plans for small vans

Date: Monday, November 28, 2011

More than five years after the Suzuki Carry disappeared, and with the Piaggio Porter no longer on sale, the microvan is back as the Chinese make their long-awaited entry into the UK market with the DFSK brand. Paul Barker finds out more.

By the end of this year there will be a new light commercial vehicle brand in the UK marketplace with the introduction of the DFSK Loadhopper. A microvan very much in the mould of the Suzuki Carry – the two even share running gear – the Loadhopper arrives in four different bodystyles as UK importer Vestatec Automotive Distribution sets about re-establishing a market that, it claims, was around 6000 vehicles per year in the middle of the last decade, although that was before the likes of Citroen’s Nemo and its Fiat Fiorino and Peugeot Partner siblings, slightly larger products that compete with the micro van sector, entered the fray.

DFSK, or Dongfeng Sokon Motor Company, is a 50:50 joint venture from 2003 between Donfeng Motor Co and Sokon Co. The former is a top three Chinese brand established in 1969, that holds an 11% share of its local market, while the latter builds minivans, motorcycles, quad bikes, engines and shock absorbers. The UK importing of DFSK products, starting with the Loadhopper but expected to expand with another model next year that’s currently called V-series  (see ‘Expanding the range’, opposite), is being managed by Swindon-based Vestatec, a company headed by former Mitsubishi UK boss Jim Tyrrell (pictured).


Bearing in mind Vestatec’s claims about the microvan market being 7000 units up to 2005, its 1600-unit target for next year, heading up to 5000 per year in 2016, seems achievable. “The microvan market was 6000-7000 vehicles per year, it didn’t fluctuate much,” Vestatec chairman Tyrrell tells What Van? “It’s left a vehicle parc of round 40,000 vehicles with owners wondering what to do next – there are a lot of 10-15 year old microvans and when you talk to customers they are keen to have another one; there are very specific reasons why they want one over a car-derived van. Some people have gone to car-derived vans reluctantly and will return on cost grounds.”
Local councils are a big target market, with Tyrrell also listing plumbers, electricians, carpenters, farmers, gardeners, sandwich- delivery operators and florists as potential customers.
Demonstrating that there is a market out there, the Suzuki Carry has held its value as well as anything in the commercial vehicle market thanks to the lack of a more modern alternative, with six- and seven-year-old examples with around 50,000 miles still up for just under £4000 plus VAT online.

The product

“I’m a big believer in keeping things simple,” says Tyrrell, referring not only to the fact that the Loadhopper range will launch alone before the addition of the V-series, but also to the fact that the new model, available as a panel van, pick-up, double-cab pick-up or tipper, will come in white, unless the buyer specifies the only factory option of silver metallic paint. While central locking and electric windows will be standard, the only other additions will be UK-fit accessories such as an alarm, in-car entertainment options, alloys, load lining and floor mats, with more at both factory and local level to be added over time. Optional anti-lock brakes and airbags are possible, but Tyrrell says there has been little interest from customers so far because of the additional expense.

The Loadhopper meets Euro5 emissions rules and has passed all the European crash and homologation tests. “DFSK produces old-fashioned product with good quality – no special technology but it’s all well screwed together,” declares Tyrrell. “We might have something that appeals in the current climate of saving money.”

Dealers

The big problem with new brands selling low numbers is the coverage, in terms of having a dealer nearby to buy from and service the vehicle. Tyrrell claims Vestatec has already signed up 24 dealers on the way to a target of 40 by the end of the year, and potentially 50 in total. “We won’t have more than 50 dealers – it’s 50-100 units per dealer so it will always be a bolt-on franchise.”

Of that initial 40, Tyrrell says around 30 will be either Suzuki or Mitsubishi dealers looking for a non-competing franchise to offer another revenue stream. “Both Suzuki and Mitsubishi dealers need more revenue and this is all amicable,” he explains. “Suzuki dealers already have a client base out there from the Carry.”

The dealers are expected to have a display area for four vehicles, either in the showroom or forecourt, and at least one DFSK sign, as well as a service and parts facility, plus a panel van and either pick-up or tipper demos. “We’re a full-service distributor – we’re not just selling vehicles off a boat and we’ve got professional dealers that know what they’re doing,” states Tyrrell. “We don’t have to sell lots of vehicles – no-one will get knocked over in the rush for 50 vehicles a year times 40 dealers.”

Conversions

 

As well as the basic four products, Vestatec is expecting conversions to be popular for the Loadhopper. The potential for factory-built high-cube vans, skip loaders or refrigeration trucks exists, plus UK conversions covering anything from sandwich vans to cherry pickers. “We will market a complete solution, not just the vehicles but a nationwide network of conversions,” says Tyrrell.

Vestatec’s Chinese importing may not stop at just DFSK. “We may look at other commercial vehicle manufacturers to come in. There are several CV manufacturers from trucks to similar vehicles to DFSK, and it is my view that we should focus on the CV market,” declares Tyrrell. “Trying to get a passenger car into the UK would be very difficult, very expensive and potentially disastrous.” Tyrrell mentions that for around £10,000 he could be importing a Ford Transit-sized vehicle.

DFSK also has an electric Loadhopper, but Tyrrell is cautious. “I don’t think it’s ready for market yet. I wouldn’t want to sell it to a member of the public, but for a fleet or council we could do,” he says. “It could come in at around £15,000-£16,000 depending on whether it’s a van or pick-up, but EV is not a priority yet.”
For now, establishing a Chinese brand into the mature UK LCV market will be enough. “We don’t want everyone to love it, but we want 3% of the market to be interested and 1% to love it, and then we’ll be fine,” summarises Tyrrell. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’ve got a gut feel on this one – I feel they are realistic targets.”

Expanding the range
Within 12 months the Loadhopper will have a big brother in the form of what’s currently called the V-series. Likely to be “tactically” priced around 15% higher, it’s 20% longer, has a 33% longer load bed than the Loadhopper in pick-up form, and is scheduled for launch next autumn as importer Vestatec wanted to keep things as simple as possible by establishing one model before launching a second product line.


Expected to account for around 30% of DFSK’s UK sales, the more rugged-looking V-series will come with the option of all-wheel drive and van or pick-up bodystyles, as well as the potential for diesel or electric power, although the UK options haven’t yet been confirmed.
 

 



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