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Utility in the eye of the beholder

Mondayís Automotive News story on the 37 mpg, Oklahoma-built, China-designed Tiger Champ pickup is a taste of the culture shocks ahead in a global economy.

In the U.S., awash with sophisticated pickups with air conditioning and powerful stereos, itís easy to ridicule a 28hp work vehicle that canít meet federal safety standards. But in China and most of the developing world, a sleek Chevy Silverado is ludicrously expensive, bloated and grossly over-engineered.

Both vehicles fit local needs in their native markets. In China, low purchase price counts. Fuel economy counts. Simple, easy-to-repair technology counts. So a small three-cylinder diesel pickup makes sense. Similarly, in India, a $2,500 Tata Nano microcar and its two-cylinder engine makes sense when you see the number of ďfamilyĒ motorcycles carrying three, four and sometimes five people.

These are certainly not the oddest (to developed-country eyes) vehicles out there.

My current favorite is the five-wheel mini dump truck I saw last year in central China, not far outside Chongqing. Swarming around a construction site, several of these had cargo beds about six feet by eight feet.

But what caught the eye was the configuration of the wheels. A single axle with dual wheels on both sides carried virtually all the load. Up front inside a tiny enclosed cab, the driver used motorcycle-style handlebars to control the single wheel in front. Fortunately, the construction site was pretty flat. I hate to think what would happen if a loaded truck tried to brake on a downhill turn.

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