It’s not quite a Jeep Wrangler competitor yet, but the 2017 BAIC BJ40L does come across a rather handy utility vehicle, with go anywhere capabilities and a decent price tag

Author: Raj Warrior | Photography: Elvis John Ferrao

We don’t really get this sort of opportunity too often. For after all, utility vehicles, the hardcore, go-anywhere, bash them on the rocks sort of utility vehicles are a dying breed. Can we be blamed for that? The Jeep Wrangler is the go to ride for anyone in the region who wants to get some serious dune bashing or off-road work done. Yes, we do have some bigger options in the form of the Pajeros, Land Cruisers and Patrols of the world, but they have decided some years ago that being more passenger friendly was the way to go – often eschewing the hardcore attributes of ladder frames and solid axles for the softer options of monocoque and independent. Before we digress into the apparent merits of the new cars, let’s look at the specimen that we are testing here.

The BJ40L, to give the vehicle its full moniker, is Beijing Automotive’s latest entrant to the Oman market. That’s not to say that the BJ is an all-new model. For you can look at the vehicle and see the source of the platform. It is spawned from one of the earliest collaborations in a heavily controlled economy between Beijing Auto and AMC with the end result that the XJ began to be made in China in 1985 to replace the pseudo-Jeep that BAIC were making till then. Of course after that, AMC itself was taken over by Chrysler a couple of years later and the joint venture began to manufacture Jeep brand for Chrysler (along with Mitsubishi SUVs too for the then partner). But that wasn’t the end of the tale – Daimler got Chrysler and hence its share of the alliance and with the breakup with Chrysler in 2007, stopped production of the Jeep brand at BAIC.

From that point in time – the technology and elements available to the company from the older Jeep became the basis for the development of the BJ as well as certain further modified platform spin-offs for Chinese military use.

Of course a second stream of acquisitions was taking place over the past decade. A newly resurgent and cash-laden Beijing Auto was able to strike a deal with General Motors for the Saab engineering assets. The brand itself is owned by the aircraft company of the same name, but in the process of the takeover Beijing Auto managed to get vital access to a rather dependable, if aging platform series in the 9-3 and 9-5 as well as to the then unique family of turbocharged four-cylinder engines. This could only happened because of the bankruptcy of Saab under Spyker ownership, after the brand had taken over the GM stake in the company. GM of course tried its best to prevent the Chinese conglomerate getting access to its technology, but over the years, significant Chinese stake in NEVS (the company that bought up the bankrupt Saab Auto) means that the channel remains open.

Which brings us back to the BJ40L. It’s like no other utility vehicle out there. What it does is use a marriage of technologies and bought out elements to achieve a purpose. From the heavily modified TJ platform of the Jeep Wrangler, the 2.3-litre turbocharged unit sourced from the Saab adventure and a modern six-speed transmission with transfer box that is bought out from Aisin, the BJ40L brings a degree of mongrelisation to the showroom floor.

That’s not to say that the end result isn’t striking. Like we were to realise over the length of our test drive with the BJ, the format draws interest from across the spectrum and the well executed and rather macho BJ gets drivers out of their cars asking for details.

The BJ does look different from the TJ. The clamshell hood is very pronounced (and decidedly heavy with its thick gauge of steel) and the fascia has been modified to incorporate the fenders as part of the shell, making the grille and headlight assembly wide and wraparound the corners. The grille itself draws a visual reference to the Jeep grille but stops short of mimicking it – with just five spaces in between the shiny chrome risers. The lamps are encased projector units, while the BJ gets a black over-fender treatment at the front and rear – again visually connecting to the Wrangler, without quite being there. The fact that the BJ doesn’t try to copy the Wrangler is good – you get the feel of a bulkier, slightly more muscular vehicle, with hints of a Hummer and FJ thrown in. But some parts do scream Jeep inspired – like the windshield that looks like its taken off the JK Jeep platform, the lift-off doors from the TJ (with the same black handles too) and even the mirror from the TJ.

In addition to that – the BJ40L comes with removable roof panels, removable rear end and the rear hatch designed in two pieces – open the lower gate first and then lift up the rear glass panel. The spare wheel is bolted on to the rear gate. With all the removable panels, the interior of the car gets a rather solid looking roll-cage built-in, including with protection for the second row. The roll-cage naturally becomes the base to anchor the seatbelts and even the interiors lights. Like we mentioned – the doors sit on lift-off hinges with electric power coming to the panel through harnesses that can be detached. In typical Jeep fashion this means that the bulk of the controls sit off the door panels, with even the window power controls on the central unit.

The dashboard would remind you of a Wrangler, again without complete duplication. The round air-conditioning vents sit astraddle the dashboard with equal spaces carved out for the IP and steering wheel assembly and the passenger grab handle. It would be so easy to mirror the vehicle into a right hand drive version. The modern looking dashboard incorporates a gimbal at the centre that is graded to show degrees of yaw and pitch along with a compass and altimeter being available on the instrumentation. Also, don’t miss the tyre pressure monitoring available as standard.

The multi-function controls on the steering wheel take care of Bluetooth, audio and scrolling through the digital display and meter in between the tach and speedometer. The wheel itself is rather good to the feel – nicely padded at the right places and with a solid mien. That could be the take about the state of all the interior plastics – it is of relatively high quality, with all touch points adequately upmarket in feel and texture. The central display is also quite nice – large and colourful with decent graphic elements, although it does lack some of that all-round utility of the usual tab based panels that come out of China – here it could have done with a Navigation function, which it alludes to on the hardkeys, but doesn’t ever bring up.

Surprisingly, the BJ40 doesn’t feel either cheap or like a clone anywhere on its interiors – the gearshift levers and almost German in their feel, seating is well-bolstered and clad in a decent leather feel cladding (which the regional manager of the brand insists is genuine leather) and the lighting at night is spot on both inside and out. And the sound system is very decent as a standard option, although we suspect that there is huge room for modification in the usual fashion of the young person’s activity vehicle.

The engine, as discussed previously originates from the Saab 2.3-litre turbocharged unit and the assembly seems to fill the bay, sitting high off the ground to accommodate the gearbox and transfer case and still providing room for an engine guard and 210mm of ground clearance. Mated to a smooth shifting six-speed Aisin gearbox and a slightly harder to shift low and four-wheel drive engaging lever, the engine is able to translate its generous amounts of torque into performance.

Driving impressions

At the outset, don’t try to compare the BJ with anything, not even an older Wrangler. The car seems to be a bit heavier and there’s a good amount of whine that percolates in from the transmission. Your ride height is just perfect and so is the visibility over the hood, which has clearly defined outer edges from which you can judge your position on terrain. Despite the snap off panels, the NVH levels are quite good, with steering feel being something to look forward to – however, that said, we did find the shift from 2H to 4H and 4L to be stiffer than expected – we even spent time looking for a catch or release, which isn’t there.

Suspension is rather good for a modern utility vehicle. We actually quite liked it both on road and on the sands. It has just enough give and a generous travel on the wheels. You won’t mind that it isn’t fully independent. There’s almost zero rocking and the generous 17” standard wheels offer a good balance between handling and ride quality.

The engine bay does tend to run hot. The lifted engine with almost no air gap at the top between casing and hood may be the reason – but then that means the lower reaches are better ventilated. The air intake sits at the lip of the open engine bay, meaning that the vehicle should be able to live up to its 1-metre plus wade height claim, although we would stick to the wheel bay as a visual reference point. The wheelbase is rather generous at 2,730mm, rear room is good and you do get lots of storage volume behind you in the cargo area. Thoughtful strap-on grab handles aid in climbing into the vehicle.

Driven on road, the pickup of the engine seems to be quick, although it lacks linearity. Initial grunt is hit only by 2,000rpm and so there is a bit of lag. From there the flat torque curve helps, but it seems to run out of steam by 4,200rpm or thereabouts. It is a good mid-range performer but begs the question of why the vehicle isn’t offered with a V6. Gearshift also hits a patchy zone in the 3rd and 4th with a bit of a clang. However, push the box over to manual mode and you really fall in love with the transmission. It is silken smooth with a very predictable and direct feedback from the engine.

Off road the BJ40L drives like it is charmed. It doesn’t offer the essentials of a lockable differential so you are going to have to use the generous low range, predictable transmission and firm suspension to stay out of trouble. We took the BJ on very loose sand and it came through – although we were worried about having to call for help if we got stuck.

Verdict

It’s the price that the company is selling the vehicle for that makes all the difference. It isn’t a Wrangler Unlimited, but it’s not priced anywhere close. But we don’t think that the BJ will actually draw in many customers from the dedicated Wrangler pool. What it does is offer an option to buyer who haven’t yet been exposed to that particular market – the sort who would normally be looking at a crossover and can be convinced to move up into a go anywhere vehicle. On the other hand if you want to draw in the former type, the BJ has got to get a V6 engine and diff locks.

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