CAPE TOWN – I bet a large number of your personal belongings are made in China. From clothes to high-end electrical goods, very many goods come from the Land of the Dragon. So why are we so sceptical when it comes to Chinese cars? The poor quality of early imports into South Africa may be the prime reason, and several companies have come and gone without success.

Haval, though, has set its sights on changing perceptions and what better way to do so than by arranging a 3 000 km "Outreach Expedition" road trip along the coastline of South Africa? The star of the trip was Haval’s new H9 SUV.

Who is Haval?

The manufacturer can be seen as the SUV arm of Great Wall Motors (GWM) ... and it sells more than one million vehicles every year in China (how's that for a number, considering our entire car market across all brands barely exceeds 500 000 units per annum?). Locally, the line-up comprises the H1, H2, H6, H6 C and recently launched H9, available from a dealer network that currently numbers 31 (with plans to expand to 35 before year-end).

Where does the H9 fit in?

The H9 is the largest offering from Haval (and, at R599 900, the most expensive Chinese car on our market) and boasts seven seats over three rows. The final two pews fold neatly (and electronically) into the floor using buttons sited in the luggage compartment, and can comfortably accommodate occupants measuring 1,7 metres tall. The body-on-chassis SUV can be compared in size to a Toyota Prado, but in price it's closer to the Fortuner, Ford Everest, Mitsubishi Pajero Sport and Isuzu MU-X.

Drivetrain hardware

China is not particularly fond of diesel owing to its air quality concerns and therefore the H9 is powered by an in-house-developed 2,0-litre, direct injection, turbopetrol engine delivering 180 kW and 350 N.m to an eight-speed transmission sourced from ZF. Borgwarner supplies the torque-on-demand, clutch-operated transfer case (with low range) that can channel torque to the front axle as required. At the rear, an Eaton limited-slip differential (with locking capability) completes the pukka off-road package. Braking is taken care of by an all-disc arrangement employing a Bosch-developed system with electronic stability control. In short, it promises impressive on- and off-road performance.

Styling

What is immediately evident is the sheer size of the vehicle (the H9 measures 4 856 mm long, 1 926 mm wide and 1 900 mm high). The vast grille, faux bonnet vents, flared wheel arches and broad stance enhance the macho appeal while chrome accents, running boards and roof rails add some style. From my point of view, the best way to describe the appearance of the H9 is "purposeful".

Inside

Newcomers to the Haval brand will be surprised by the upmarket air of the interior as well as by the lengthy list of standard features. Take, for example, the leather front seats (with massaging and cooling functionalities), the full panoramic sunroof, the LCD instrument cluster, the eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system (with sat-nav) and the three-zone climate control. Information provided to the driver is wide-ranging and includes tyre pressures and temperature, altitude and heading, to name but a few. Overall, the perceived quality is not far short of outstanding.

On-road behaviour

Pressing the starter button fires the 2,0-litre four-cylinder turbopetrol engine into life. It is not the smoothest at idle, with vibrations entering the cabin, but it levels out on the move and NVH is generally better than that offered by turbodiesel competitors. The eight-speed transmission makes the most of the available power with quick and efficient shifts, but the engine still needs revs to propel the 2,2-tonne vehicle with any sense of urgency. The result is fairly high fuel consumption (we ranged between 11,0 and 13,0 L/100 km on the trip).

The ride is typical of body-on-chassis vehicles; comfortable on smooth roads but quickly deteriorating on broken surfaces, where “shimmy” becomes evident. Still, in its class it is one of the more relaxing vehicles to pilot over long distances. A commanding driving position, meanwhile, is easily obtained thanks to the rake-and-reach adjustment on the steering column.

Off-road

Haval was keen to show the capabilities of the vehicle off the beaten track, so we tackled the dunes at Brakkeduine near St Francis Bay. With the tyre pressures lowered to around one bar and the driving mode either in "sand mode" high range or 4L (low range), we headed into the soft stuff. While I found the vehicle capable, it requires plenty of driver skill to keep momentum as the engine can be slow to respond to go-faster commands. Some mechanical noises can be heard from the transmission and transfer unit during hard driving, which may be the central torque-on-demand system deciding where the torque should go. Another observation was a bonnet that shook noticeably over the bumps.

Summary

The H9 is by far the most impressive vehicle from China that I have sampled. Although the value-for-money offered cannot be denied, the asking price is now on par with popular body-on-chassis SUVs, albeit ones that are smaller and with less standard specification (but undoubtedly more brand cachet). The turbopetrol unit counts against the H9 in our market, which generally prefers turbodiesel in this segment.

However, should you want your perception of Chinese vehicles changed then pop in at your local Haval dealer and have a poke around. Kudos to Haval for stepping into the big league.

Author: Nicol Louw