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China science

Is the Chinese military’s off-road sport utility vehicle the toughest on the planet?

  • PLA’s boxy BJ80 SUV had seven times higher reliability test scores than the Mercedes-Benz that reportedly inspired the Chinese vehicle
  • Vehicle’s test results are ‘almost a miracle’, researcher says
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 12:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 9:15pm

The People’s Liberation Army rates its Chinese military BJ80 SUV the “most reliable off-road vehicle in the world” after the boxy four-wheel drive model achieved test scores that were seven times higher than those of the Mercedes-Benz SUV on which it was reportedly modelled, according to an official document seen by the South China Morning Post.

“It is an incredibly high score considering the ordeals it had to go through,” said Song Kai, an associate researcher specialising in automobile structural fatigue at the College of Mechanical and Vehicle Engineering at Hunan University in central China.

“In the military proving ground, a vehicle can age 10 times faster than in a normal environment,” said Song, who was not involved in the BJ80 project. “If the result is correct, the vehicle might have passed the entire reliability test with only two or three failures. For a mass production model, it is almost a miracle.”

China produced more than 29 million motor vehicles last year, equivalent to the number built by the United States, Japan, Germany and India combined, according to the Paris-based trade group Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles.

The midsize BJ80 made by Beijing Auto Works has been widely perceived as a copy of Mercedes’ G270CDI, a midsize all-wheel-drive military model that is part of the carmaker’s family of G 463 light weight utility vehicles.

The German vehicle, powered by a turbocharged 2.7 litre, five-cylinder diesel engine with a double overhead camshaft, is used by military forces in China, Canada, Australia, the US and other countries. But the Chinese vehicle sells for a fraction of the price of the German car in all markets.

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The PLA sought to determine how the Chinese vehicle would stack up against its German counterpart, so it arranged to pit the two SUVs against one other in a reliability test that would subject them to the greatest possible abuse over the most challenging terrain.

With military drivers behind the wheel, the tests aimed to establish the vehicles’ respective rates of mean distance between failures (MDBF) – a measure of reliability that calculates the average distance travelled by a ground vehicle before it needs preventive maintenance or repair.

Ultimately, the BJ80 had MDBF of 7,536km (4,682 miles) – compared with the Mercedes’ 1,201km (746 miles).

By contrast, American military ground vehicles typically have an MDBF of 450km (280 miles), according to a 2004 study done for the US Army by Rand Corp, a think tank that provides research and analysis to the US military.

The tests were carried out at the largest PLA military vehicle test facility in Yongding, in eastern Anhui province, according to researchers.

The proving ground stretched over about 650 hectares (1,600 acres). Though small compared to similar US military test facilities, the site created by Chinese engineers and construction workers simulates a multitude of potential car-wrecking terrains, including the Gobi Desert, permafrost, war trenches, foxholes and rice paddies.

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Driving fast over these rough surfaces puts enormous strain on the cars’ drive chains, suspension systems and other components.

“A consumer vehicle might be able to do a cross-country tour without sweat on a highway, but it may not survive a day of being abused by the military,” said a researcher who was told about the test but asked not to be named owing to the topic’s sensitivity.

Special equipment also was used to simulate dust storms, extreme heat, low temperatures or electromagnetic blasts that could burn on-board computer chips.

Through the tests, the PLA observed that the BJ80, which is powered by a 2.8-litre Cummins turbodiesel engine, could reach 45km/h (28mph) in the worst road conditions, more than 10 per cent faster than the G270.

The Chinese vehicle, however, had louder cabin noise at full throttle on a high-speed loop than the German car. When idling, the Chinese car also had greater steering wheel vibration than the Mercedes.

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The BJ80 also outperformed other foreign SUVs in reliability tests, including the Mitsubishi Pajero and Toyota Land Cruiser, but comparison figures were not provided in the document.

The assessment rated the BJ80 the “most reliable off-road vehicle in the world”.

Beijing Auto Works’ parent, Beijing Auto Industry Corp, or BAIC, confirmed the test results in an exchange with the Post. But it declined to give more details about the test or its plans for the vehicle, citing the need to respect military confidentiality.

Mercedes-Benz, which is headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, did not respond to requests for comment.

Car experts, however, questioned the credibility of the test results, noting that the PLA both organised the test and was the car’s developer.

“It was like the player is also playing the role of a judge,” said an automobile technology researcher who asked not to be named because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“Many elements, such as the age and condition of the German vehicle, can affect the final results [of reliability tests]. Testing conditions can also be manipulated to work in favour of [Chinese] domestic cars.”

Mercedes, the researcher said, “has over a century’s experience in making military vehicles. It is quite unusual that a Chinese car can outpace the [German car in a] test by a large margin”.

China’s Ministry of National Defence did not respond to requests for comment.

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But the mainstream car research community responded more positively to the news.

The China Society of Automotive Engineers, the nation’s biggest non-governmental organisation formed by car researchers in industries and universities, awarded the BJ80 project the top prize at the China Automotive Science and Technology Awards last month.

Yuan Shihua, an automobile technology researcher at the Beijing Institute of Technology, a major weapons development research institution, said he accepted and trusted the test results, saying the PLA counted on the vehicle to get its soldiers in and out of war zones.

“It is a matter of life and death,” he said. “There is no room for cheating.”

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A petrol version of the BJ80 with a 2.3-litre turbo engine has been on the civilian car market for more than two years. It has a price tag of nearly 300,000 yuan (US$43,500), an unusually high price for a domestic brand.

Just 1,500 civilian model BJ80s were sold in China last year, a fraction of the more than 10 million SUVs that are sold annually in the world’s biggest car market.

Online car forums have featured relatively few discussions about the BJ80. Buyers in the few chats have complained about the vehicle’s gas guzzling and excessive cabin noise.

One of the most discussed topics was about using aftermarket mock-ups to make the car look more similar to a Mercedes G-series SUV.