Daihatsu Gran Max Automatic Strikes New Ground

By Lee Pang Seng

CONSIDERATIONS for vehicle purchase in the commercial vehicle sector differ significantly from private vehicle ownership. A business has to make money and that figures prominently when it comes to buying a vehicle to serve the trade.

This is where Daihatsu Malaysia has taken the bold step of introducing an automatic option for its popular Gran Max panel van. This range of light commercial vehicle was previously available only with a five-speed manual transmission.

The introduction of a new four-speed variant stems from the need to explore new market needs, especially from the younger age group in new start-ups or the female business fraternity. These younger and female entrepreneurs might prefer the convenience of driving an automatic vehicle, especially in heavy traffic urban areas, if the cost of maintenance and vehicle fuel consumption is within a reasonable limit.

It must be said that automatic transmission vehicles in the commercial vehicle industry are not new as heavy-duty and prime movers are already available with such transmissions. Advancements in engine management systems complement a high-torque low-rev engine to achieve fuel consumption that is better than that achieved by a manual transmission model.

Torque is the pulling power that plays a key role in moving a vehicle from inertia and this explains why electric vehicles have strong acceleration. An electric motor generates very high torque to move the vehicle quickly. That is why a fully electric Tesla car could accelerate as fast as, if not faster than, a Ferrari in standing acceleration.

However, this low-engine rev high-torque formula is not fully applied yet in the lower spectrum of the commercial vehicle sector until now. Going by engine development these days, vehicle manufacturers are already adopting this formula for privately owned vehicles. The turbocharged range is an excellent example as most turbo cars today produce a lot of low end torque despite having smaller engine displacements.

It might not be so obvious with the normally aspirated range but even so, more than 60 per cent of torque is already available from low engine speeds to make initial acceleration brisk. This is achieved without having to step too much on the accelerator and that helps to keep fuel mileage low.

The engine used in the Gran Max is also the power unit applied in the privately owned range in the Daihatsu family as well as that of Toyota and Perodua. This is the Daihatsu Xenia or the Toyota equivalent, Avanza, Daihatsu Terios or Toyota Rush and of course, our own Perodua Alza and Myvi 1.5.

This is a double overhead camshaft unit with 16 valves and variable valve timing. It is grossly undersquare with a long 91.8mm stroke and 72.0mm bore to displace 1495cc. Power outputs vary according to driving needs. Take for example the newly launched Perodua Alza and Gran Max. The Alza’s engine is rated at 76kW (104PS) at 6000rpm and 136Nm at 4400rpm while the Gran Max’s engine delivers 71kW (97PS) at the same engine power peak and 134Nm at 4400rpm with different tuning.

A major difference between the Gran Max (also sold as the Toyota Townace) and its privately owned cousins is the drive system; the Gran Max is a rear wheel drive unlike the privately owned range, which is a front wheel drive. The engine of the GranMax is located under the front passenger seat and access is by unlatching the section on which the seat is affixed to.

This is an engine location commonly used in some light commercial vehicles to free up useable space and optimise body design. With the radiator still located in the nose section of the vehicle along with the brake and water reservoirs, the engine would continue to run reasonably cool even in urban traffic.

During a recent visit to the PT Astra Daihatsu Motor (ADM) factory in Jakarta, Indonesia, we learnt from Masaharu Tezeni, Chief Engineer of Daihatsu Motor Co Ltd, that the fuel consumption of the Gran Max automatic is only slightly lower than the manual version; less than 9.3 l/100km (about 10.7km/l) to the manual’s 8.4 l/100km (11.9km/l). That is about a 10 per cent difference. These figures were attained in internal tests under controlled conditions.

In the old days, the fuel mileage difference between an automatic transmission car and a manual was often higher than 5km/l or a difference of more than 20 per cent. Advanced engineering in engine management systems and more efficient power units with high low-end torque have narrowed the difference. In some turbocharged cars, the fuel mileage of automatic transmission models is even better than the manual versions.

A significant factor that also comes into play is how the vehicle is driven. Gentle and progressive use of the accelerator helps in getting more kilometres per litre while hard driving during which the accelerator is worked on aggressively to get going quickly would lead to poor mileages.

As we drive a first generation Perodua Alza, we still enjoy maximum fuel mileage every time we top up at the petrol station. This is highlighted by the mileage indicator and we often see available mileage on a full fuel tank of above 450km. The engine management system records the way we use the accelerator and base on that, it could determine how far we could drive on a full tank. Mind you, we are not exactly slow drivers but we use the accelerator progressively to gain speed rather than flooring it.

The Gran Max is also a very capable vehicle especially in fording flood waters, useful in times of flash floods. Daihatsu has conducted tests at the Jakarta factory where the Gran Max could drive through 30mm of water at 30km/h and 60mm (almost two feet) at 10km/h. The rear-wheel drive Gran Max could also handle 20-per cent loose surfaces on 11-degree inclines, giving it a good level of traction.

Top Quality Factor
Daihatsu also emphasises the quality in vehicle production that is applied at ADM. The Gran Max is produced on the same assembly line as the privately owned range. ADM is also unique in that there are two different vehicle brands – Daihatsu and Toyota - being put together on the same line. Daihatsu comes under the Toyota Group but they are still seen as different brands.

This assembly plant produces about 5,000 commercial vehicles per year and some 1,400 of them are exported, including Japan. If the vehicle could be sold in Japan, it must meet the same production quality as that of the vehicles made in that country. This in itself is a testimony of the plant’s ability to make vehicles with the same quality as that benchmarked in Japan.

During our plant visit, we were informed of the steps to train the staff even in the most basic of job requirements, such as fitting a nut and bolt into place. ADM uses a production system that incorporates a version of the Japanese SSC (simple, slim, compact) concept. This is said to reinforce the high-quality Japanese manufacturing standards while harmonising it with the Indonesian working environment and climate.

The plant also adopts a system called ‘Quality Gate’. Instead of sending defective products downstream, the Quality Gate system stops the line and has the defects fixed immediately before resuming assembly flow. ADM says this process ensures efficiency and quality of production. Many quality checks along the assembly line also helped to maintain the high quality benchmark.

In financial year 2017, ADM produced 539,779 vehicles; the Daihatsu brand accounted for 195,334 units (51,296 commercial vehicles and 144,038 passenger vehicles) while the consigned/OEM (the Toyota range) group number 344,445 vehicles.

An interesting note is the definition of the latter. Consigned production refers to vehicles/engines developed by ‘another company and sold under that company’s brand’ while OEM (original equipment manufacturer) refers to the supply of vehicle developed and produced by Daihatsu and sold under another company’s brand. The Gran Max and Toyota Townace are one example.

ADM produces one vehicle every 66 seconds or 1.1 minute. Depending on models, the local content is between 93 and 95 per cent. The imported parts are mainly components of the automatic transmission. Its export market, apart from Japan, includes the Philippines, Mexico, South Africa and Sri Lanka.

It is the biggest vehicle production facility in Indonesia and the biggest Daihatsu manufacturing plant outside of Japan. ADM is supported by three other manufacturing facilities in Karawang, about 50km away, which produces the engines, transmissions and other vehicle parts. ADM also produces a few parts for Perodua.

This plant started operations in 1992 and currently employs more than 12,000 staff. Its 5th million vehicle roll-off was achieved in 2017. The Daihatsu range produced by ADM is said to account for more than 40 per cent of the vehicles sold in Indonesia.

Malaysian scenario
In Malaysia, Daihatsu Malaysia is targeting to sell about 50 Gran Max Automatic a month or a 30-per cent increase in sales to reflect its bold ambition in appealing to a growing market. Last year, the company sold about 900 Gran Max in panel van and pick-up variants and the 2018 target is 1,150 vehicles with the automatic variant in the mix. The Gran Max Automatic’s price on the road without insurance starts from RM69,888. This is about RM6,000 more than the manual transmission GranMax panel van.

Besides the automatic transmission, the Gran Max range comes standard with anti-lock braking system (ABS), double front airbags and power-assisted steering. Its small turning circle of 9.4 metres gives it versatility in mobility in tight areas. It has a maximum payload of 890kg and maximum space storage of up to 5.8 cubic metres. The vehicle warranty is over three years or 100,000km.