The first thing that strikes you about the BAIC B40 Plus when you get up close and personal with this brand-new SUV contender is how well it appears to be built. The doors open with a smooth action and close with a reassuring “thud” that speaks of solid construction, proper design, engineering and attention to detail in terms of build quality.
All this may sound a bit patronising, but as South Africa has often been seen as “virgin territory” for some rather questionable motoring conveyances in the past few decades, it is worth pointing out that this comparatively unknown quantity from China is not a Johnny-come-lately on the motoring manufacturing block.
This was reinforced in the launch presentation at Hartbeespoort Dam this week, when we learned that BAIC has been building SUVs like this for some six decades. It has its roots in military go-anywhere vehicles, where BAIC, having established itself as a manufacturer in 1958, was a forerunner in developing all-terrain vehicles long before China embarked on globalisation for its motor industry.
BAIC’s entry into the sales field here started in low-key fashion in 2016, but with the announcement that it would invest some R11-billion in a plant in the Coega Industrial Development zone outside Gqeberha. That plant is now a reality. Assembly has already progressed from semi-knocked down kits from China to completely-knocked down assembly of its D20 hatch and sedan and X25 small cross over vehicle.
The just-launched BAIC B40 Plus off-roader will be assembled from semi-knocked-down component kits initially, but plans are to begin CKD production in Coega in about 12 months’ time. To date, BAIC has appointed just eight dealers country-wide, but this will be ramped up as CKD production comes fully on stream.
You can order the new BAIC B40 Plus in two basic forms. The first is the petrol 2,0-litre version with a six-speed automatic gearbox. The second option is a 2,0-litre turbodiesel, with a six-speed manual. It is believed that an automatic version of the diesel model will arrive here within the next 12 months.
We sampled the diesel model first, with its six-speed manual ‘box and four-wheel-drive system that includes two-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive and low-range operation. The switch to change between 2H, 4H and 4L operation is rather strangely located high-up on the dashboard, where you might expect to find a radio-volume control.
But as most of our launch drive was located at the ADA off-road driving centre near Hartbeespoort Dam, this actually proved to be very handy. At ADA you need to keep your eyes on the track ahead, watching out for stray branches and lurking sharp-edged rocks, and don’t need to be searching for some button located under the steering column.
The interior of the BAIC B40 Plus pretty much lives up to that build-quality promise noted above, regards the door operation. The leather trim we experienced was of good perceived quality, and although there are body-colour dashboard panels to chime in with the exterior paint choice, the whole package is fairly tasteful, and the quality of plastics used in the interior is quite good.
There is plenty of space in the BAIC B40 Plus, which incidentally only comes in four-door, five-seater form. The rear legroom is more than adequate, and particularly impressive is the boot area. With the seats raised this measures 532 litres, and rises to 965 litres with the rear seat backrests folded.
The first thing we noted about the diesel manual model is that the clutch action is rather too sharp and that it is easy to stall the vehicle. As we got used to the clutch take-up, we noted that part of the problem is that the turbocharged 110 kW turbodiesel with 350 N.m of torque at 1 800 to 2 800 r/min only starts boosting properly at about 1 500 r/min. BAIC staffers are aware if this, and as production ramps up on the B40, they will be exploring a software solution to get the engine to begin boosting at lower revs.
It wasn’t a big deal, but something that could lead to irritation amongst owners who have to contend with stop-start traffic on their commute. Another fix, which we would recommend, would be to fit a shorter first-gear ratio. Travelling on the narrow tracks on the ADA course in High range, first gear was sometimes too fast for the prevailing conditions. But, thankfully, selecting low range instantly solves this problem.
The BAIC B40 Plus is not fitted with any differential locks, but rather uses electronic sensors to individually equalise wheel-rotation when travelling over extremely undulated ground. This proved quite effective when negotiating very difficult rock inclines. The trick is to keep momentum and keep feeding in the power. The compromised wheels spin and then the ones with traction get power transfer, and the job is done!
The second, really impressive aspect that we enjoyed about the B40 Plus is the ride over really bad dirt roads. Massive bumps and dongas are easily ironed out by the long-travel suspension, and the ride in serious off-road conditions is extremely comfortable. This would be an ideal vehicle to use when visiting game lodges that are only accessible by badly corrugated roads, as the B40 soaks these up like child’s play.
Next we tried the petrol version with its automatic transmission. It’s 2,0-litre four-cylinder develops 160 kW at 5 500 r/min and 320 N.m of torque at 1 750 to 4 500 r/min. In low-speed rock-crawling situations, the automatic is much easier to operate than the manual. The ratios (aided by the torque convertor action on the automatic gearbox) meant there was no chance of stalling at low speed in high range, and in low range, there was plenty of torque on tap to handle difficult climbs with uneven surfaces.
The last stage of our launch drive was a short trip on tar roads. The long-travel suspension on the BAIC B40 Plus may have led us to believe that the on-road ride would prove to have a fair amount of body roll, but we were pleasantly surprised at the degree of on-road cruising-speed stability, and the relative accuracy of the steering.
So, would you be happy to pull up in a BAIC B40 Plus and park in front of your favourite table at the pavement café? Well, unlike some Chinese (and Indian) offerings, we reckon the BAIC stylists have also done an excellent job in making this serious off-roader easy on the eye. We note that BAIC’s global operations include a styling studio in Turin (Italy), and checking out the various wheel options and trim embellishments on the various models, we reckon this is a vehicle that is going to create a stir of the positive variety. Also, you can then tell interested parties that you definitely won’t be shaken when the going gets tough (okay, okay, but Bond movies are a hot topic at the moment).
Another enticing aspect for the summer months ahead is that the roof panels are individually removable, to create an open air experience for those occupants who enjoy the topless lifestyle.
Vehicles like the Indian-built Mahindra Karoo Pik Up have begun gaining serious traction in this market, due to their honest approach to an alternative and affordable lifestyle vehicle. The BAIC B40 Plus may well find itself doing likewise, as the range is priced at between R549 500 for the entry-level B40 Plus Diesel six-speed manual to R629 500 for the B40 Plus Petrol Automatic in so-called “Champion” trim.
These prices include a five-year/120 000 km warranty. A four-year/60 000 km service plan is an added-cost option. We believe the pricing is probably fair, given that the least expensive (but admittedly more powerful) Jeep Wrangler costs over R750 000. But given that the BAIC as a marque in South Africa has lots to prove, we are somewhat disappointed that they didn’t find it possible to come in an under the R500 000 level for the base-line B40 Plus.
Model: BAIC B40 Plus turbodiesel manual
Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder, turbodiesel
Power: 110 kW
Torque: 350 N.m
0-100 km/h: N/A
Top Speed: N/A
Fuel Consumption: N/A
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Service Plan: Optional
Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 160 kW
Torque: 320 N.m
0-100 km/h: N/A
Top Speed: N/A
Fuel Consumption: N/A
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Service Plan: Optional