With the launch of this light SUV, the Haval brand takes a bold leap into the South African market...

Over the last decade, several Chinese automotive brands have entered and then exited the South African market. Great Wall Motors (GWM), however, is one automaker that has managed to endure despite the industry’s ups and downs. Recently, it has decided to relaunch here under the brand Haval. While the GWM name will still be used for the company’s Steed bakkie range and related commercial vehicles, the Haval passenger range will consist of the H1 (previously called the GWM M4) and the H2 tested here, along with the larger H6.

The H2 is a light SUV similar in size to the likes of the Ford EcoSport and the Renault Captur and Duster, with a design aesthetic clearly more European than we’ve come to expect from Chinese brands. Conservative would best describe the look and, given some of the more exuberant stylings we’ve seen from China, this is a good thing. There are relatively few chrome accents among its rounded lines, with front and rear executions that are perhaps a little generic but nonetheless complement its overall aesthetic. Haval has clearly gone for a safe design that will appeal to a wide audience.

Open one of the front doors and the public will be in no doubt which brand of car you’re driving; a puddle lamp projects its light brightly (with a red “Haval” in the middle) on the ground next to the car, supplementing the badges in the C-pillars. Even the high-mounted third brake light is branded.

Climb inside, pull the door shut and you immediately notice that the exterior sophistication has filtered through to the cabin. There are soft-touch materials throughout and the perceived quality is very clearly a step up from the GWM passenger cars we’ve experienced in the recent past. The buttons and switches operate with reassuring solidity and a multifunction steering wheel offers logical control of the Bluetooth and audio systems, as well as the cruise control.

Being the top-spec Lux model, this H2 offers many premium amenities as standard, including a sunroof, dual-zone climate control and a reverse-view camera. Heated front seats are one of the few options and, compared with its rivals, the H2 is especially well equipped. There is also a large infotainment touchscreen to manage all related functions, accompanied by a smaller 3,5-inch colour trip computer screen between the speedometer and the rev counter that includes individual tyre-pressure and -temperature displays. There is also an SD card slot and USB and auxiliary ports for all your music or entertainment needs.

All the controls are easy to access and well spaced out, especially the buttons below the main screen. The rear bench offers generous kneeroom, although some of our taller testers did feel their hair tickled by the roof lining. The shallow luggage area is less impressive, however; most of the space is taken up by a full-size alloy spare wheel, along with a fire extinguisher (why don’t all cars have the latter?). The load lip is also quite lofty, so bags need to be lifted up higher than normal to be placed on the boot’s floor.

Once you start the engine, slot the gearlever in drive and roll down the road, the H2 exhibits a solid, well-engineered feel. Behind the wheel, you have a relatively commanding view thanks to a driving position set slightly higher than those of most light crossovers and SUVs. Although the seats are comfortable, they are rather flat and a little more lateral support would be welcome.

The ride quality is good and commendable bump absorption makes for a comfortable driving experience, one helped by high-profile 235/55 R18 tyres. On our test strip, the brakes did an average job, achieving a time of 3,2 seconds, and there was one rather worrying occasion when, during our 10-stop braking procedure, ABS appeared not to activate. You need to really stomp on the pedal to enjoy all of the H2’s stopping power.

One of the most challenging aspects of vehicle development is drivetrains, and it is here the H2 needs further work before it is on par with its rivals. At low revs, the 105 kW/202 N.m 1,5-litre engine suffers from noticeable turbo lag. Beyond that point, it pulls well when you push the throttle to the floor, but that dents fuel consumption and the unit runs out of puff as you close in on 5 500 r/min.

We also discovered that the transmission tends to hunt between fifth and sixth gears when holding a steady throttle just below 100 km/h. However, select the eco driving mode instead of the default setting and the problem almost disappears. Overall, the H2 feels well built, with almost no rattles or squeaks emanating from outside or inside the vehicle, and that’s not something we can say of all Chinese vehicles we’ve tested.



TEST SUMMARY

There's no doubt the H2 is a solid offering in terms of interior space, comfort and standard features. It is a car that can easily tackle a gravel road (it has hill-descent control) and functions well as a family vehicle (if your needs don't test the capacity of the boot).

The drivetrain, however, feels less powerful than its outputs suggest. That said, while it is not as frugal as we would have liked, compared with previous engines from the GWM stable, this is a definite improvement. It's also worth noting that the H2 and H1 are currently some of Haval's oldest products, which bodes extremely well for future models, including next year's H7.

Apart from the effects of potentially heavy depreciation (although we can but speculate), most CAR testers said they'd be happy recommending the H2 to friends and family. It is clear that, with Haval, GWM is improving the quality of its vehicles at an astounding rate ... faster even than Hyundai and Kia managed to do a decade or two ago. Don't be surprised if this brand finds similar purchase to the Koreans in our market.

*From the September 2017 issue of CAR magazine