Let’s kick this off right at the top: Great Wall Utes did have a poor reputation for build quality, but they filled a gap at the budget end of the market.
In many cases they were considered a disposable item, a tradie- or four-wheel drive wagon at a highly affordable price. When they first arrived you could get two for the price of a HiLux and, while rough around the edges, you could run them into the ground and get the job done along the way.
Hitting this with an unbiased and open mind, the rebranded 2021 GWM Ute looks, feels, and drives a whole lot differently to its predecessors.
It’s crammed with all manner of electronic safety wizardry, comes standard with permanent all-wheel drive (with centre diff lock for true four-wheel drive), and boasts a ripper 360-degree camera setup unmatched in this category.
Are the bells and whistles all smoke and mirrors, or is this rebirth actually a well-priced contender in the dual cab utility market from China?
Let’s take a closer look at the Ute Cannon-L to see if, and how far, GWM has lifted its game when it comes to off-roading.
So what’s the difference between all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD)?
Typically an AWD has only a single-speed transfer case, limited clearance and suspension travel, and no centre differential (diff) lock. It’s not a 4WD! But it does provide better traction and safer handling on low-grip surfaces which is a huge plus for the Cannon.
Engaging low-range on the Cannon automatically switches on the centre diff lock, eliminating any variation in tail shaft speed between the front and rear drives, and ensuring an even torque split from front to rear differentials.
Basically the same as what a normal 4WD would do when you go from 2H to 4L. The gearing is on par with other variants in the dual-cab class, allowing a more controlled off-road driving experience.
The Cannon does not have the best clearance in its class, nor exciting power and torque figures. But the fact it has AWD and a high-quality transmission make it a safer bet on-road than most other four-wheel drives with only 2WD as their road option.
Add to this a decent (Borg Warner) 4WD system with a true low-range and a rear diff lock and you have the majority of the traction challenge covered, and something that should be at least half decent off road.
During off-camber inclines the Cannon felt stable with the rear flexing nicely and the front resisting lifting. Whilst the rear suspension is touted to be a heavy-duty leaf setup for load carrying, it flexed well and was relatively comfortable, even when unladen.
The longer wheelbase (this thing is comparatively large) does make a difference in keeping the ride stable, but the payoff is a lower ramp-over angle and a small hindrance to agility (turning circle).
Over rocks the lower clearance and reduced ramp over angle meant a few more bumps and scrapes, but this could be somewhat remedied with a suspension lift and taller tyres.
In most situations the vehicle felt solid and drivable, but throttle sensitivity was an issue. The ZF automatic does a great job but adding an electronic throttle controller would go a long way to providing more controlled torque at a lower pedal pressure, and reduce power surging at higher pressures.
It’s an easy and cheap fix most off-roaders are opting for these days considering manufacturers are programming delayed throttle response into their vehicles in an effort to attain better fuel economy figures.
On the hillclimb the suspension ran short in the deep holes but again, the rear diff lock makes a world of difference in drivability. We keep harping on it, but the fact there’s a rear diff lock included at this price is amazing.
The vehicle overall is just so highly featured. With all that said, and the right amount of right foot, the Cannon did make it comfortably to the top of the hill without too much fuss.
It’s becoming a bit of a running joke but one of the things we’re testing in regards to ‘off-road ability’ is whether a vehicle can keep its front number plate during a very basic (and gentle) water crossing.
In this case, the Cannon was one of the better ones we have tested with full retention of the number plate. You’d be surprised to hear which vehicles have actually lost their plates in upcoming articles.
At speed across dirt the vehicle again felt stable and capable. A throttle chip will liven things up, but for general driving the Cannon gets the job done. For those who demand better performance, it does seem that the engine is the rusty nail in such a well set-up vehicle.
Not to say it’s unreliable, but it does feel underpowered.
Capping off the driving experience, the electronically-assisted steering works well off-road, and the interior is roomy and comfortable.
While it’s not luxurious, it’s not budget – and the seating is supportive and adjusts well for long-distance touring and technical four-wheel driving.
The Cannon is powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine backed by a ZF eight-speed automatic.
I’d love to spend more time conducting long-term testing, but the eight-speed seems to strike a decent balance between the more common six-speeds in other makes and the 10-speed in the 2.0-litre Ford Ranger.
It has a good mix of shorter, more frequent gear changes and balanced torque delivery without excessive hunting across a narrow rev range.
At 120kW and 400Nm it’s not going to be a frontrunner on any track but, at the opposite end, I like the that it has a more proportionate and applicable towing capacity of 3000kg, unlike the often exaggerated 3500kg of many others in the category.
It also boasts a seven-year warranty which does provide a bit of confidence when you are venturing into harsh and remote areas.
If you’re seeking more information on the engine, you can find more detailed specifications within the official GWM Ute specifications page. You can also find more details on all the options and inclusions across the GWM Ute variants on the official website.
There is some availability, but it’s barely a murmur compared to what’s offered elsewhere.
There’s the typical offerings of floor mats or tray covers, and esteemed companies like UteMaster are leading the way with premium offerings in the tub area. That is a big tick, but it’s nowhere near enough.
If you’re serious about off-roading, you’ll likely be waiting for the likes of ARB to at least release a bullbar and suspension. Of course that will be based on numbers sold.
When accessories arrive, it will be a game-changer for the Cannon.
In China, there’s an off-road version that has been seen at motor shows but we are yet to see it here, along with the accessories adorning it.
We can only hope that it becomes a factory option locally.
We’re still waiting on Australian crash data but it’s expected the GWM Cannon will fare far better than its predecessors, which to be honest won’t be hard as the earlier Great Wall utes were dismal.
As far as value for money goes you won’t find a more comfortable, higher-specced or nicer-driving dual-cab ute at a better price. The GWM Cannon is an absolute bargain. Watch out if it pulls a reasonable ANCAP rating and accessories start to appear.
The fact it has a proper transfer case and a rear diff lock puts this on the map as a capable four-wheel drive right out of the box, and the long list of electronic safety features plus the comfortable interior are welcome at the price point.
I was hesitant in the beginning but the Cannon leaves a solid first impression.
I’m keen to see more of these on the road, and to doing further drives with some accessories fitted. I’m really hoping the community will give the Cannon a go.
As dual-cab ute prices continue to soar, Aussie drivers deserve a fair deal on a safe and comfortable package that still gets the job done reliably.
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