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Foton back in the Australian game

Chinese contender: FAA Automotive Australia has acquired the rights to import a range of Foton vehicles, including the Tunland ute.

Fledgling Gold Coast importer takes on China’s Foton distribution for Australia

25 Nov 2011

A GOLD COAST company on Friday acquired the Australian import rights for the Chinese-made Foton light truck, passenger car and bus range, starting with the full-sized Tunland pick-up in the eastern states in March and continuing with a new-model launch about every six months.

FAA Automotive Australia – a joint venture between public company PR Finance Group and Phelan Family Holdings – signed on the dotted line with executives of China’s biggest commercial vehicle-maker at the Australian company’s Southport offices on Friday morning, putting Foton’s ambitions for Australia back on track after another independent importer, WMC Group, tore up its distribution agreement with Foton in October.

The Foton-WMC arrangement tripped on pricing negotiations for the Tunland ute range, which will be aimed squarely at Japanese rivals including Toyota’s dominant HiLux rather than entry-level Chinese equivalents such as Great Wall Motors and the upcoming ZX Auto franchise.

FAA – the first national automotive distributor to be based on the Gold Coast – was one of the original three importers in the running for the local Foton distribution rights.

It immediately stepped back into the frame when WMC could not reach a satisfactory agreement with Beijing-based Beiqui Foton Motor – a fully owned subsidiary of one of China’s biggest auto companies, the state-owned Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Company (BAIC), which has joint-ventures with Germany’s Daimler and Korea’s Hyundai.

Negotiations between FAA and Foton have continued for about a month, with pricing on the Tunland range – codenamed P201 – one of the key elements of the final agreement.

FAA dealer relations manager Bob Binks – a long-time motor industry player who worked for both Ford and Nissan before founding a number of major dealerships including Bob Binks Ford in Melbourne and Surfside Auto Group on the Gold Coast – confirmed the deal to GoAuto today, saying the vehicle price was right.

“We are very happy with the deal we have done,” said Mr Binks, who has been an industry consultant since selling out of his dealership interests.

64 center imagePricing is expected to start at just under $30,000 for the base Tunland 4x2 powered by the 2.8 ISF Cummins turbo diesel, ranging higher for other variants, putting it firmly in Japanese-brand one-tonner territory and well beyond the Great Wall range topped by the V200 dual-cab diesel 4x4 ute.

FAA is headded by Queenslanders Peter Llewellyn and Grant Phelan.

Chairman of both PR Finance Group and of FAA, Mr Llewellyn, told GoAuto the JV partners had a background in finance, high-level management system development and motor industry experience from importing to dealership distribution, retail and end-user sale, lease and financing of both passenger and commercial vehicles.

“The combined resources underpinning FAA are substantial and the exclusive long term relationship we have forged with Foton allow us to focus on making Foton an Australian motor industry success story,” he said.

“As we do not have the distraction of representing other competing overseas brands Foton know they have our absolute attention because we are a distributor dedicated to the one brand.” Mr Llewellyn said FAA was confident the Tunland would be price-competitive, “especially when taking into account the quality of the vehicle, its size and specifications and in particular it's advanced technology compared to that of its competitors”.

Mr Binks said FAA director Mr Phelan had strong links with Foton, having worked with the Chinese company to import Foton buses for 15 years.

“That’s what this has grown from,” Mr Binks said.

He said FAA was planning to establish an innovative distribution network for Australia, appointing “master dealers” in each capital city.

These master dealers in turn would appoint their own metropolitan retailers. A system of rural representation was still being discussed, but some areas, such as North Queensland, might also get a master dealer.

Mr Binks said master dealers would be established first in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane before the Tunland went on sale in March, and then others would follow from April in Western Australia and South Australia.

Mr Llewellyn said the distribution structure would enable FAA to establish an immediate Foton footprint and achieve instant market penetration which would be an industry first.

“The layered structure of the Australia wide Foton dealer network has been a specific strategic design of FAA, and will link nationally with its central communication and operating centre based in South East Queensland,” said.

The Tunland – a full-sized pick-up about half-way in size between one-tonners such as the Toyota HiLux and American vehicles such as the Ford F-Series and Toyota Tundra – will be offered in a range of body styles, including dual-cab and single-cab, with a choice of 4x4 or 4x2 drivetrains and diesel or petrol engines.

Foton has said it is planning to eventually roll out 10 Tunland variants.

The ute’s premium Cummins ISF 2.8-litre diesel engine – built in a joint-venture plant with Foton next to the ute factory outside Beijing – is said to generate about 120kW of power and 360Nm of torque in its most powerful state of tune (a 90kW version is also available), pitching it directly against the likes of HiLux and Mitsubishi’s Triton.

An unnamed SUV – codenamed U201 – built off the Tunland platform is also expected to land in Australia late next year, while passenger cars – including full electric variants – are due in 2014.

As well, small buses ranging from about nine seats to 25 seats are also on the schedule.

For now, Foton’s Aumark heavy trucks will continue to be imported by Foton Commercial Vehicles Australia, a branch of Western Star Trucks.

“It (FAA) will progressively be a complete franchise, but that will take four or five years to roll out the complete franchise that will include passenger vehicles, as well as electric vehicles,” Mr Binks said.

Australia will wait for Foton’s next-generation passenger vehicles, which – like the Tunland – will be designed for western markets, and pioneer Foton’s electric powertrains that ultimately will spread to commercial vehicles.

FFA hopes to sell 2000 Tunland utes in its first nine months of operation in 2012, starting with an initial batch of 300 vehicles that would arrive in time for the March launch in the three major east coast capitals, where the company envisaged a network of about 15 retail sites.

Mr Binks said the first vehicles for Australian Design Rule (ADR) compliance checks had already come off the line in China and were on their way to Australia.

As GoAuto reported in June, Foton aims to use Australia as a testing ground for the Tunland ahead of its planned roll-out in North America.

Mr Binks said the Tunland name would be used in Australia, as it was in China, in line with the wishes of Foton.

WMC had rejected the name as unsuitable for Australia, and had been aiming to adopt a westernised moniker before the deal fell through.

Sydney-based WMC already imports Chinese Higer buses, and has agreements in place with other Chinese brands JAC and Joylong, with others said to be in the pipeline.

Foton says it has production capacity of a million units a year, with products sold to more than 100 countries through 5000 distributors.

Foton executive deputy general manager Chang Rui recently told The China Daily that while the Tunland would face stiff competition in China from Great Wall Motors, which made up 60 per cent of China's pick-up exports, the positioning would be different.

“Ours is the medium-level in the global market, while the Great Wall is the high-end in the third-tier market,” he said.

“The products are different. Great Wall productions are made in China, but the Tunland is made through efforts between US engine companies, Foton and other foreign partners.”

Alluding to the price negotiation difficulties with WMC, Mr Chang said: “I did receive some complaints from the Australian dealers on the high pricing, but this reflects our strategy that we are targeting the mid- to high-end market, instead of gaining the market by selling cheap.”

Tunland sales start in China in January, with exports planned for South Africa, Australia, Chile, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

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