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by Tim Beissmann

The Haval H8 will become a fresh threat to the likes of the Ford Territory and the Hyundai Santa Fe when it arrives in Australian showrooms in July.

The large urban SUV will be the third model in incoming Chinese brand Haval’s local line-up, joining the fledgling range just weeks after the compact H2 crossover and the rugged H9 seven-seater.

As with the rest of the ambitious marque’s new-generation vehicles headed to our shores, the Haval H8 – set to start at about $40,000 plus on-road costs – will challenge the class leaders for cabin space and comfort, offer unexpectedly high interior material and design standards, and come loaded with more equipment and at a sharper price than the current value benchmarks.

The battle to bring the H8 down under has been one of endurance for Haval Motors Australia. Quality and performance issues forced Haval to withdraw it from sale and relaunch it twice in its native China, and consequently led to a drawn-out eight-month homologation and approval process in Australia.

But with all those hurdles now cleared, Haval is confident the H8 is ready to join Australia’s ultra-competitive family SUV segment, which last year totalled more than 100,000 sales.

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Haval will launch two trim levels of the H8, the base car and the high-grade version, which it’s currently referring to as ‘luxury’ and ‘super luxury’ because of their planned equipment levels.

The entry-level H8 will come with 18-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights, rain-sensing wipers, built-in sidesteps, sunroof, keyless entry and push-button start, cruise control, three-zone climate control, leather upholstery, and electrically adjustable front seats.

The 8.0-inch colour touchscreen in the middle of the clean and attractive centre stack features satellite navigation, a reverse-view camera, DVD player, and Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming.

Six airbags, electronic stability control, hill start assist and roll movement intervention safety systems are also standard, and Haval claims the H8 has been engineered and equipped to achieve a five-star ANCAP rating when it’s tested by the local crash-tester.

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The step up to the flagship variant – which will cost an extra few thousand dollars (exact pricing is still to be finalised) – brings adaptive swivelling headlights, an electric tailgate, an Infinity sound system with amplifier, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, heated and ventilated front seats with massaging function, and rear DVD screens in the backs of the front headrests.

The base grade will be available in both rear- and all-wheel-drive layouts (the latter adding $3000), while the high-end variant will be AWD only.

Initially the Haval H8 will only be available with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine that produces 160kW of power at 5500rpm and 324Nm of torque between 2000-4000rpm.

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The engine proves only adequate to haul the H8’s hefty 2098kg/2175kg (RWD/AWD) body as we discovered during a short teaser drive at Haval’s Xushui production plant and testing facility near Boading, southwest of Beijing.

Accelerating from 0-100km/h with three occupants on board took a leisurely 12.5 seconds, and it showed little immediacy to pull from low down when simulating an overtaking manoeuvre.

It’s a quiet and largely refined unit, however, with the cabin insulated from all but some dull, metallic whines at high revs.

Haval knows the 2.0-litre turbo lacks the kind of grunt desired by many Australians. To address this, it’s hopeful of bolstering the H8 line-up with two additional engines by the end of the year: a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel, and a 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo petrol – both of which promise to deliver significantly more pulling power.

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The H8’s standard six-speed automatic transmission delivered smooth shifts on our short test drive, though once changed up from second gear to third much sooner than was necessary. The transmission has a manual mode that can be controlled either by the gearshift lever or paddles behind the steering wheel, though the gearbox was eager to shift on its own in this mode, and the paddles lack a solid click to them. Early impressions suggest there may still be some refining to do in this area, then.

Light steering and a vague patch around the straight-ahead position means the H8 lacks precision, while body roll caused by changes of direction makes it feel less balanced and controlled than the dynamic benchmarks.

The subject on ongoing improvement since its initial domestic launch in 2013, the H8’s suspension is presumably now far from the sub-par set-up it once was. The vehicle’s weight is evident in the way it lopes over undulations and falls into holes, though it never became crashy or unsettled, and on the whole felt fluent over the varying surfaces at Haval’s proving ground.

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As with the H2 we experienced earlier in the week, it’s the H8’s cabin that delivers the greatest surprises.

Previous Chinese vehicles that have been sold in Australia have all possessed cheap-feeling interiors with ordinary materials and sub-par fit and finish. The Haval H8 could hardly be any more different, boasting a cabin that will challenge the best in its class.

Soft-touch materials line the dashboard and front and rear door sills, the buttons and dials feel great in your fingertips, the pillars and roof lining are luxury car standard, and the leather upholstery has a quality feel.

Also, unlike the cheaper H2, the steering wheel is wrapped with silky leather, the glovebox doesn’t feel cheap when you open it, and there are some brushed metal elements that further enhance the premium environment.

There are still some nags though, such as the painted plastic door handles that will scratch with wear, the foot-operated park brake when other models in the line-up have an electric lever, and the ‘Haval’ badge on the gearknob that reeks of budget brand.

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As with most Chinese vehicles, priority is given to back seat passengers in the Haval H8. Headroom, legroom and foot space are excellent, and the comfort of the seats in both the back and the front is impressive.

Unlike many SUVs in this class, however, the H8 is strictly a five seater. (The larger H9 and the new H7 L that’s on the local division’s radar for a mid- to late-2016 launch will serve as alternatives for bigger families.)

The more spacious cabin also comes at the expense of boot space, which appears decent but off the pace of many in it class. The rear seats fold 60:40 to expand the cargo space, though the second row offers no slide or recline functions to increase its versatility. It’s also the only Haval model headed our way that misses out on a full-size spare wheel, coming with a space-saver instead.

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The local division is hoping a five-year warranty and roadside assistance program and capped-price servicing will help ease the minds of potential buyers reluctant to put $40,000-plus down on a locally unproven Chinese SUV.

Haval knows the H8 is unlikely to be a big hit with Australians until the more powerful engines arrive hopefully by the end of the year, but says it’s keen to bring it here as soon as possible to show new car shoppers its many other merits.

After such a short stint behind the wheel, question marks remain over its dynamic performance, though little time was needed to convince us that from a comfort, cabin quality and value perspective, the Haval H8 will be a genuine contender in the family SUV class.






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