BAIC Philippines is bringing in the M20 MPV, having shipped in a unit of its max-passenger 8-seater variant in time for this year’s round of automotive awards tests.  Badged by BAIC Motor either as the M20 or the R315 in different parts of China, the MPV model was introduced there in 2013, first deliveries happening late that year in October.

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Toyota Innova: heavier and longer than the BAIC M20 but with shorter wheelbase
Toyota Innova: heavier and longer than the BAIC M20 but with a shorter wheelbase (note the significant overhangs, front and back)
Initial M20 unit brought in by BAIC Philippines for the testing circuit
Initial M20 unit brought in by BAIC Philippines for the testing circuit
Toyota Avanza: smaller than the M20 in all respects
Toyota Avanza: smaller than the M20 in all respects

In China, the M20 is portrayed as a “one-of-a-kind MPV … which combines all the features you would expect to make it what we call an off-road family car” (see http://www.baicintl.com/product/r315/). When asked to elaborate on this reference to rough-terrain use, BAIC Beijing’s Vice Director for the Southeast Asia Region, Emily Liu, said that this was to highlight the ruggedness of its rear-wheel-driven, body-on-frame construction. Adding context to this answer, BAIC’s Robbie Liu (Manager for Southeast Asia) explained that rural, inter-town roads in China are very rough.

A soft-roader, maybe

In a sense, this MPV’s mission brief has been dialled-back somewhat, back to that of the AUVs that have been petering out since the last decade. Not at all a stigma in this market where our notion of MPVs are as evolved Asian utility people movers (not as unibody mini-vans), and where another brand of Western origin even attempted, unsuccessfully, to adopt the moniker, the AUV label appears incompatible with the sensibilities and aspirations of China’s automotive market and industry, respectively.So then, it’s an off-roader mini-van for them, a description that won’t likely stand over here where off-road, really off-the-map motoring, means four-by-fours. Notably, though, literature for BAIC’s other markets eschew the off-road reference and simply describe the M20 as a high-end MPV with a reinforced chassis. So, it could be that strong soft-roader would be a more appropriate description for this new MPV model … and its engineering indicates the M20 has credible claim to this conservative caption.

Soft-sprung, stable wheelbase

From the start, the M20’s 2790mm wheelbase stood out and looked familiar at the same time. With bulk and weight between that of Toyota’s top-selling Avanza mini and Innova compact MPVs, the BAIC M20’s wheelbase is surprisingly longer than that of either one (2655mm on the Avanza, 2750mm on the Innova). On smooth pavement, this should make for more stable vehicle dynamics, either on straight-line cruises and G-pulling turns. On rough, rolling terrain it’ll dampen the seesaw jinks caused by the front and rear wheels individually hitting the road’s bumps and dips.

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And, although leaf-sprung rear suspensions are standard on the M20’s basic variants, they’re bringing in just one variant, a higher-end one that has coil springs in back. BAIC Philippines President and CEO George Chua confirms that they’ll be offering just the one variant with its maximum 8-seater capacity featuring the premium ride of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link independent suspension in back—arguably the variant with highest general value and utility.

A hard, pedigreed chassis

The BAIC XB424 SUV with the Prado 3400's high-rigidity chassis
The BAIC XB424 SUV with the Prado’s high-rigidity chassis

BAIC’s other models and the fact that the M20’s variants offer the option for either leaf- or coil-sprung rear suspensions, these together offer clues to the origin of the M20’s all-important and much-vaunted chassis. BAIC produces the XB424, a full-on, body-on-frame, mid-size SUV that they openly say uses the high-rigidity chassis of the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado 3400, that model’s third-generation 120 series. Although Toyota never included the Land Cruiser in the list of vehicles built on their successful IMV platform, they acknowledged that it shares its chassis with the Toyota 4Runner—and that one, Toyota does list as an IMV-based model.

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Land Cruiser Prado 150 series with the 2790mm wheelbase

Connecting the dots then: (1) BAIC’s XB424 SUV uses the short 2600mm wheelbase chassis of the third-generation Toyota Land Cruiser Prado 120 series; (2) the “reinforced chassis” of the BAIC M20 MPV has a 2790mm wheelbase, a number equal to that of the long-wheelbase version of the chassis used on the Prado for both its recent 120 and 150 generations; (3) the Prado’s chassis count among Toyota’s IMV platform configurations, configurations that include those with either leaf (like the Innova’s) or coil-sprung (like the Fortuner’s) rear suspensions; and (4) the M20 has both leaf- and coil-sprung rear suspension variants. With these as premise, it isn’t much of a stretch figuring that either BAIC OEM’d a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado’s IMV chassis into their M20, or, after working with a Toyota chassis for their XB424 SUV, engineered their own version of a high-rigidity frame for their MPV.

The kicker to it all is that this makes it a similar though longer chassis to that of the best-selling Toyota Innova, while still being almost 400kg lighter than that popular mid-size MPV—light enough to be powered by a 1.5liter petrol engine like that of the Toyota Avanza compact MPV. And the engine itself, the BAIC-built BJ415B with DOHC driving 16 valves with VVT (more powerful than the BJ415A—built by BAIC’s powertrain subsidiary—that’s featured on the M20’s more basic variants), brandishes numbers that suggest surprising power.

Table-top power curve

In-house designed and built BJ415B engine with VVT valvetrain technology
In-house designed and built BJ415B engine with VVT valvetrain technology

Nominally delivering peak power of 106hp at 6000rpm (typical power density for a 1.5L petrol burner), the BJ415B seems to use its VVT-equipped valvetrain to not only address the torque loss at the lower end experienced with 16 valves as compared to those with 8, but appears to dramatically flatten the power curve as well. Its 106lb-ft of peak torque kicks in over a range from 3000 to 5000rpm, exactly where you’d need it for hauling and acceleration on a powerplant that redlines at 5250rpm. Even with a conservative estimate of just 50% of torque available at idle (under 1000rpm), reaching that 3000 to 5000rpm plateau for 100% torque suggests that 75% or nearly 80lb-ft would already be available at 2000rpm.

If not for anything else, that 80lb-ft at 2000rpm pushing the M20’s 1270kg curb weight would account for some nice short-shifting for fuel economy, while still accelerating smartly enough for prompt up-shifts.   BAIC Beijing’s Robbi Liu says that the M20’s fuel consumption numbers measured in China were 11.2km/l in city traffic, 16.9km/l on the highway, and 14.7km/l with mixed driving. If the goal is to deliver similar figures here, the mileage numbers seem attainable with common everyday driving given the 5-speed manual transmission’s slightly taller-than-usual second and third gear ratios—2.104:1 and 1.339:1, respectively—leading up to a true direct drive 1:1 fourth and overdrive 0.838:1 fifth gear ratio.

Bigger shoes to wear, and fill

The M20 with higher-walled 185/70R14 tires

Finally, though, a note on running gear: the BAIC M20 lists options for either 185/65R14 or 185/70R14 tires. It has to be said that not only would the higher walled 185/70R14 tires be more consistent with the M20’s soft-roading potential, a quick look at the M20’s wheel wells show these to be able to accommodate even further upsized rubber to the tune of 185/75R14 tires. BAIC Philippines could consider either the larger stock or locally upsized options.

The wheels would look in better, more handsome proportion to the M20’s height, certainly, but more importantly, the cushiony tires would provide a wider inflation pressure range that could be adjusted to suit road and load conditions, and would instantly increase the MPV’s 162mm ground clearance by 9 to 18mm. This’ll raise the soft-roader MPV into true high-rider territory with from 171 to 180mm of minimum ground clearance, while the slightly deeper-than-usual 3.857:1 reduction in first gear ought to be able to handle the slightly larger wheel diameter on roll-outs.

Aggressive price point

Obviously, this is a developing story with many factors that’ll bear testing in an actual drive. But if things do pan out, as is likely, the M20 will definitely present a serious challenge to MPV market leader Toyota.  BAIC Philippines’ George Chua confirms that they’re targeting a sticker price of under PhP600k.  That’s a price point that’ll put the BAIC M20 within reach of a buyer base that’s much deeper than that of the bigger Toyota Innova , and that of the smaller Toyota Avanza mini MPV as well.

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