YOU’RE in the market for a well-equipped, diesel-engined 4x2 SUV and you have a budget of around R250 000. Having studied CAR Guide at the back of the magazine, you quickly come to the realisation that the R250 000-section is something of a no-man’s land for such vehicles. There’s a smattering of workmanlike double cabs or the odd dinky, petrol-engined SUV; and virtually nothing else that otherwise fits the bill. But a closer look will reveal the subject of this road test. At R249 990, the GWM H5 2,0 VGT 4x2 is one of the cheapest diesel-engined SUVs in the market, but do you get what you pay for?

Having experienced two long-term GWM H5 test vehicles finished in white, the CAR team was impressed with the manner in which this example’s metallic burgundy finish gave it a far more upmarket air. Chinese vehicles have come in for a great deal of flak for their derivative styling and, while the H5 isn’t completely inculpable – there are hints of Honda CR-V about the flanks and rear, while the lights, grille and front wings exhibit a bit of Mazda – it remains a good-looking vehicle.

Hard plastics abound in the cabin, but the finish is passable and the design neatly executed. In the short space of time since the H5’s introduction, GWM has already made a number of improvements to the interior, including revising the binnacle, installing a new trip computer with instantaneous fuel-consumption reading and a tyre pressure/temperature monitor with a read-out neatly integrated into the rear-view mirror. Space in the two seating rows and boot is generous.

Criticisms? Well, there were a few quirks that irritated, including the driving position which is too high, the fact that the steering wheel doesn’t have enough height adjust­ment and that you can't operate the high beam or foglamps with the headlamps in their auto setting.

We’ve spent plenty of time with the entry-level 2,4-litre petrol 4x2 model, posing as it did as a long-termer in CAR's test fleet and undertaking everything from the daily commute to acting as a support vehicle for our 2012 Performance Shootout. Although that particular example gamely withstood everything thrown at it, there were some negatives surrounding the gearshift and a vociferous engine that lacked somewhat in terms of low-to-mid-range punch. Does the diesel equivalent fare any better?

This model’s 2,0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel is an in-house developed engine that features a variable-geometry turbocharger, exhaust-gas recirculation and common-rail fuel injection. It serves up respectable outputs of 110 kW at 4 000 r/min and 310 N.m from 1 800 to 2 800 r/min. It’s a boisterous unit that leaves you in no doubt as to whether you’re driving a diesel when the engine is idling from cold, but the noise does lessen once you’ve reached your desired speed.

Earlier examples of the 2,0 VGT were noted for a lack of low-end grunt, especially at Reef altitudes. Much to GWM SA’s credit, this situation appears to have been remedied by the recent phasing-in of an upgraded ECU that has lent consequent H5s more urgency at the lower end of the rev range than our automatic long-termer. Performance-wise, it’s not going to set the tarmac ablaze, with the 0-100 km/h run taking 13,2 seconds, while the ABS and EBD-equipped brakes brought it to a standstill from 100-0 km/h in an average time of 3,4 seconds over 10 stops, earning it a “poor” rating. However, the fuel-route figure of 9,4 litres per 100 km is a vast improvement over the 2,4 petrol’s 14,4 litres/100 km.

On many Chinese vehicles, the gearbox is often the Achilles’ heel of the drivetrain setup and the H5’s six-speed manual unit mars what is otherwise a pleasant drive. While there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the gearshift’s long-throw action, there’s an annoying imprecision to the engagement that resulted in more than one tester accidently grinding the gears. Our test unit was also one of the early examples lacking a discernable divider, such as a button or push-down action, between first and reverse, making it all too easy to engage reverse when going for first.
The gearbox’s shortcomings also translated to the clutch, which tended to baulk when swiftly lifting off the pedal. It gets better once you take a more measured approach, but it isn’t ideal. It also appeared that the transmission noise that afflicted our 2,4-litre petrol model has found its way to the diesel, while our automatic long-termer appears to have circumvented this issue.

The gearing is fairly tall, so you have to remain in a lower gear than you’d initially think to keep things smooth and punchy. It also manifests itself in leisurely top-gear overtaking-acceleration figures of 8,7 seconds for the 80‑100 km/h run and 10,9 seconds for 100-120 km/h, while you’d spend 13,58 seconds eyeballing the speedometer needle as it gra­dually travels from 120–140 km/h.

A frame-on-chassis setup means that the H5 lacks the dynamic finesse you would expect of an SUV with what appears to be quite upmarket bearings. The high centre of gravity results in a noticeable amount of body lean when tackling corners at moderate to high speeds and an occasionally bouncy ride on rutted surfaces. The steering is fairly light, doesn’t generate a great deal of feedback and requires 3,6 turns from lock to lock.

The specification has always been the strongest part of the H5’s arsenal. Among the standard features are (deep breath): alloy wheels, auto lights and wipers, front and rear foglamps, leather upholstery, power steering, ABS with EBD, front airbags, reverse camera and parking sensors, electric windows and mirrors and a touchscreen infotainment system with CD/MP3/aux/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. It’s a lot of kit for your money, but is it enough to recommend this H5 to folks with a budget of R250 000 for a diesel-powered SUV?

Test Summary

Slotting a turbodiesel into the GWM H5 may not have exorcised the previous transmission-related issues and it may lack in refinement, but it has made the car punchier at the low end and a bit less thirsty than its petrol sibling. As ever, Chinese products tend to feel a touch behind offerings from more established Japanese and European rivals, but in GWM’s case, as evidenced by the H5 diesel, they’re definitely heading in the right direction.

However, does it make a strong case for itself as a value-for-money offering? That depends on whether you’re willing to accept the drivetrain shortcomings and leisurely performance on offer. And, if you can extend your budget to the automatic model, you’ll appreciate the considerable hike in overall refinement. Otherwise, there’s virtually nothing to touch the diesel-powered H5 at this price point. The 2,0 VGT 4x2 could well be worth investigating.