Chinese carmaker Great Wall has a clear agenda of a leadership role in the SUV and pick-up market in China and it is using its upmarket Haval brand to position it similarly in global markets. We test the new Haval H9 SUV and find it an eye-opener
Author: Raj Warrior | Photography: Elvis John Ferrao
Chinese cars, so far, have been getting a lot of bad press. Of course there is a mindset around them – they are cheap, built to a cost, usually put together in a very shabby manner and often have no safety credentials whatsoever. But another common refrain that we hear is of how the Chinese market is booming, evolving into the single largest market for automobiles and with every global manufacturer having set up shop in the country. Like anywhere else, the Chinese consumer looks for quality and pays for it in the foreign brands (albeit locally made) that he or she buys. And that’s something that the local industry realises is a goldmine.
We visited the Baoding factory of Great Wall Motors a few years ago, at a time that they first entered Oman with their pick-up trucks. The Wingle was trying to get the attention of small businessmen and they had just finalised plans to bring their Hover SUV built on the same platform. Seen in hindsight, both of these models were work in progress models, quite adequate for the fledgling global aspirations of the company. But even then we knew that something was bound to change. For they showed us the level of automisation that the plant had achieved, spoke with pride of the number of German and Japanese machines and robots they had on the line and how they were investing millions in R&D, design and product development. They were busy scouting out talent from around the world to take them to the next level and it seems that all that effort has borne fruit.
For someone has been doing his or her homework. The local importer launched the Haval brand in Oman a couple of months back and the initial line-up of four crossovers and SUVs had one thing in common – they looked classy. All the way up the size band, from the H2, H6, H8 and H9 the Haval stable looks like something you would be seeing in a modern Korean or Japanese manufacturers showroom.
So we had a mission to check out the H9, something we had promised ourselves at the launch.
Positioned at the very top of Haval’s line-up, the Haval H9 has some of the characteristics that so typified Chinese vehicles till now. You would think that it was made through Toyota collaboration – with very Prado like proportions and more than a hint around the panel work. But to be fair, the brand has steered clear of trying to clone the Prado. The front and rear fascia have a character of their own, with the grille actually looking like something that Chrysler would have offered and the taillights extending up the D-pillars. External styling cues are based around giving the car a rugged mien and that accounts for the solid bumper treatment, the running board and the rear skid plate. As for the general profile, that’s where the similarity to the Prado really comes through, although the Hoffmeister kink at the D-pillar is actually more reminiscent of the Land cruiser itself.
The car’s even got the obligatory styled air intakes on the fenders as well as nicely done rising shoulderline that breaks the monotony of the doors. The rear access door opens sideways in the fashion first made popular by Japanese SUVs, although here it is without the split door that is now associated with the feature. If you look again, you’ll notice that the door opens towards the right, meaning that it’s the wrong direction for kerbside loading and unloading in left-hand drive markets. In the best of SUV tradition the door is provided with a multi-stop support damper that allows you to lock it open, very useful on off-road slopes should you want to do some camping or maintenance.
The insides are more original in their layout and are witness to some dedicated design work. Nice clean lines, soft-touch plastics, brushed aluminium and dark contrast inlays as well as quality leatherette with stitched door panel appliques move the cabin into a premium category.
We were also very impressed with the IP binnacle and the dashboard layout. It uses conservative design techniques that are very pleasing and will remain current through the years. The twin ovals of the speedo and tach flank a small info panel, while the large touchscreen feels so much like a tablet stuck away behind the dashboard. The steering wheel is also well thought out, with backlighting for the various controls and a paddle shifter, which we found quite useful considering that the car is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine.
Coming back to the central display, it is linked to the usual clutch of Android based applications that have characterised do-it-yourself consoles for the past couple of years – it ties in with the rear camera and takes a feed from the steering angle to offer dynamic markers and it has a park assist feature. However don’t expect the car to park itself – the park assist is in the form of a voice that is supposed to guide you through the procedure. You are better off just listening to the proximity sensors beep away.
The touch points of the steering wheel and gearshift lever are quite nicely done and you find the lever to be quite sensibly proportioned as well. The six-speed ZF gearbox offers tiptronic function and can be manually overridden either from the lever itself or from the paddles. The catch is that you actually have to shift the lever over to manual mode before that is available.
Let’s not forget that the Haval H9 also features a terrain control system linked to a rotary dial on the centre console. You can opt to leave it in Auto or choose either of the road modes (sport and snow) or dial in any of the off-road modes. It also allows you to engage the low gear range through the dial. If you scroll through the vehicle information panel on the centre screen you can see the torque delivery change as well as how and when the axles come into play as you change your way through the dial.
The engine, as we mentioned previously, is a four-cylinder 2.0-litre dual-VVT direct injection turbocharged unit that is rated at 215bhp @ 5500rpm and offers a torque of 324Nm all through the mid-range. In the nature of a smaller powerpack asked to do big things, the engine allows you to thrash it when required, spooling up very nicely while slipping back into eco mode when you are coasting along.
Haval make a great deal of the H9 positioning and even though the car we tested didn’t come with the super luxury package that they offer in China – with rear screens, ventilated and heated seats and the like, there is no doubt that the car as offered has one of the best interiors in its price segment. Quite simply, in a blind badge test you would have mistaken the interiors as having come from a Japanese brand.
We will admit that we began the test with an expectation of finding fault. But that didn’t happen. Even the engine didn’t let us down. Yes, you know that it’s only 2.0-litres and we’re sure that in some really extreme situations you would ask for more, but the combination of the drive modes, the low range and the decent levels of torque, we needn’t have worried.
In some ways, it’s a pleasure to be back in a body on frame vehicle. You realise that it is better equipped to handle bad terrain even as you hit the first rocky patch. The body does roll a bit but doesn’t cause any worry. The suspension tuning is spot on, we drove over rough ground at speeds and were amazed at the almost perfect balance between its ability to soak up the ruts and still offer a firm ride and quick handling response. This speaks of quality tuning since the car doesn’t have any gimmicky suspension add-ons to sort out handling, Steering feel is accurate and while the wheel does tend to feel softer than you would expect, aiming your wheels at a gap in the rocks and winding your way down a trail is never in doubt.
Ground clearance is more than adequate although the space available under the body is more than that afforded by the bumper itself. And wheel travel is quite adequate – you only have to look at the wheel bays to see how much the springs will soak up. The rear suspension is a semi-independent layout with a rigid axle on springs and frankly this load hauling arrangement is very welcome on the trail.
The Haval H9 is a rather surprising package. If you would car to think of it in terms of the existing market segment, then it comes in as a good midsize to large SUV with the performance to boot. It has the initial quality to match competition, although we believe it will still take some years and dedicated delivery of reliable and quality product for Haval to match the appeal of either the Mitsubishi Pajero or the Toyota Prado. What it does have going for it is a level of competitive pricing against the latter – we understand that you should be able to pick of the Haval H9 for below twelve thousand rials. The Mitsubishi Pajero is in the general bracket and does have the advantage of a known product, but in most other cases you’ll basically be getting a fancy crossover.
We guess you’ll consider buying the Haval H9 if you are above the comfort of moving with the herd. You’ll get some sniggers from friends if you opt for the H9 but a session out in the countryside should mute that.