Value for money is a relative concept, especially in the motoring industry. Some consumers attribute value to a vehicle’s sheer competence. A BMW 3 Series, for example, has a relatively meagre standard-specification tally, but its inherent engineering quality infuses it with an impression of value.

Other buyers place gadgets and gizmos higher on their shopping list, a characteristic most Chinese carmakers target. The Koreans used to be there, trading on on-paper value too, but their most recent vehicles give you lots of buttons to press and are a pleasure to drive. GWM has slowly started to align itself with this group…

Our initial tests of the Chinese brand’s vehicles were peppered with phrases that highlighted the equipment count but criticised the vehicles for their lack of sophistication, basic drivetrains and cheap-feeling interiors. That’s no longer the case, of course. We tested the facelifted Steed 5 bakkie in December 2012 and concluded by saying, “It’s good enough to be added to any shortlist.”

Building on that success, at the end of last year GWM SA realigned the Steed range. More luxurious versions of the 5 were axed, this facelifted Steed 5E was added and the Steed 6 launched as a flagship version (look out for a test of the latter in next month’s issue).

Under scrutiny here is the Steed 5E, and more specifically the top-spec Xscape version. GWM SA expects it to be the bestseller, a claim we have no reason to dispute after spending two weeks with the bakkie.

Aimed at refining the Steed 5 version, the 5E will be offered only in double-cab format and boasts a number of enhancements. Up-front, there’s a reprofiled bumper, integrated foglamps, darkened headlamps and a number of chrome strakes. The Xscape package (there’s an SX trim level that’s R15 000 cheaper, whether you choose this 2,0-litre diesel version or the 2,4 petrol) adds side steps and a roll bar. GWM also rubberises the load bay.

A major aim in the development of the 5E was to reduce noise, vibration and harshness. The roof-mounted aerial has been swapped for one integrated into the windscreen, the wipers are a different design and should be quieter than before, and more sound-deadening material was added.

These myriad small changes have had a pronounced effect in the cabin. The 2,0-litre turbodiesel is a vocal unit, but is now far less audible inside (and transmits less vibration), while road and wind noise are decently supressed at the national limit. Some testers commented that its refinement is now a match for some of the more established (and far more expensive) bakkies.

Quality control also appears to have been tightened. Our test unit did not exhibit a rattle or squeak, and fit and finish were excellent. Steed 5Es have a more modern instrumentation pack, gloss-black finishes and leather upholstery (which is the real deal in this application).

In the centre of the previous-generation Isuzu KB facia sits a new addition to the range (and its standard on the Xscape): a touchscreen infotainment system. It’s relatively easy to use and features a USB port and Bluetooth as standard, but still no RDS for the radio. Below the screen is the interface for the climate-control system.

A further revision to the cabin is tweaks to the padding of the rear bench (its comfort was criticised in our earlier test). The seat cushion felt softer, but the backrest is still too upright and legroom at a premium, belying the 5E’s more compact dimensions in this class.

Curiously, GWM claims reduced power and torque outputs for the new bakkie (105 kW and 305 N.m versus 110/310 for that 5 we tested) but it performed on par,posting a decent 14,79-second average sprint time to 100 km/h and accelerating with fair verve once past 2 000 r/min and between the gears (which are selected with one of the nicest-shifting six-speed ‘boxes we’ve yet experienced in a bakkie).

Dynamically, the Steed 5E dishes up few surprises. The hydraulically assisted steering is fairly direct, though a touch too
light and devoid of self-centring, and it doesn’t feel too floaty in bends. The ride, however, is punishing at times due to a firmly sprung live rear axle that needs the (below average) payload to be filled in order to smoothen out. Try before you buy, because it might just be too firm for daily urban use.

Safety-wise, all Steed 5E’s have dual front airbags (GWM has finally extended the airbag tally on its local offerings by adding four more on certain versions of the Steed 6) and ABS with EBD. The latter performed poorly on our test strip, the ABS failing to activate to bring down the 10-stop average from 3,84 seconds.



TEST SUMMARY

Our test bakkie exhibited a few shortcomings, most notably poor braking performance and ride comfort, but otherwise the 5E is very difficult to fault.

We applaud GWM for taking what was already a very decent product and refining it further - without hiking the price beyond the reach of budget-conscious consumers - to the point where it receives a recommendation from the CAR team. One or two team members even commented in hushed tones that they’d pick it over some of the big players...