China’s off-roader seeks a niche in SA with its BAIC B40 Plus

Stepping into a vehicle like the BAIC B40 Plus for the first time is a bit like opening a lucky packet. You know you’re going to get a collection of trinkets; some might be cheap plastic, but the hope is that there’s enough useful items to make the purchase worthwhile.

Here’s what you do know. The B40 is sold as adventure off-roading on a budget. It comes from a manufacturer — spelt out as the state-backed Beijing Automotive Group — that began to dip its toes into South African water in 2016 and is now a little more comfortable getting its hair wet. Most of their cars are assembled at its Gqeberha plant from semi-knockdown kits — industry parlance to say the parts were manufactured in China and pieced together here.

Beginning at R549 500, the B40 Plus is an attempt to create a niche at this price point for all-terrain enthusiasts. It is an interesting concept. 

We’ll get the obvious out of the way first: the vehicle borrows a heavy influence from the Jeep Wrangler. And influence is a generous choice of words. It’s not quite as bad as some other Chinese copycats — look no further than the BJ80 in this stable — but it’s undeniable the rugged American’s aesthetic firmly guided the designer’s pen.

At least in the back three-quarters of the car. The front opts against the signature Jeep single headlights and seven-slot grill (you have to give the lawyers something to work with) and instead adopts a shinier, shallower bumper that looks closer to a Hummer. The interior takes inspiration from Mercedes-Benz and builds the dash around central bladed vents.

The result is a design paradox. Many of the ideas are borrowed but their amalgamation creates something distinct. 

And, some might argue, something that looks good.

Parked at the V8 Roadhouse in Hartbeespoort, a family packed into a Toyota Fortuner caught sight of it and rubbernecked all the way out of the parking lot, presumably trying to figure out what this was. Although there was certainly a curiosity factor at play, for any vehicle at this price to generate such fascination is worthy of note.

The biggest positive of manufacturing a Wrangler baby is that the Jeep’s on-the-go DIY comes along with it. In probably the coolest feature of the 4×4, you can rip off the exterior on a whim. The roof is cut into two and one or both parts can be clipped undone. The doors are relatively easy to remove as well with an Allen key.

The drop-top buggie-esque look will never go out of fashion on a warm day and the ability to greatly transform the look and feel adds a new dimension to the BAIC.

It all contributes to the de facto marketing theme — no-fuss, no-nonsense off-road ability. And it’s fair to say that it’s capable. Obviously you’re not going to get the technology of a high-end Land Rover, for instance, but all the fundamental 4×4 functions are here; 4H/4L, rear differential lock and so forth. The clearance level (210mm), approach angle (37 degrees), departure angle (31 degrees) and ramp-over (23 degrees) all look good on paper as well. 

On a rainy weekend there wasn’t too much that troubled our 2.0-litre turbopetrol (160 kW/320 Nm) test engine (you could also opt for a diesel). On the flooded tar it felt secure and beyond its limits the grip felt steady going over drenched sand hills. Some of the murmurings from those who have spent extensive time with the SUV are also positive and suggest that it will not fall apart after 10 000km on wilder terrain, as you might expect from a true copycat.

Perhaps the biggest mark against the B40 Plus is there already exists an affordable way to muck around in the mud — the Suzuki Jimny. As everyone should know by now, the Jimny is a stellar vehicle and is available for a chunk less of change. The BAIC would argue there’s also a whole lot less car, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison.

In either case, the B40 Plus does offer its own personality. Which, again, is odd to say considering the borrowed elements, but it’s not easy to name a direct competitor. The BAIC might have just succeeded in creating its niche.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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