The Haval H2 is the first of the new wave of Chinese vehicles headed to Australia, and the first that will make the mainstream brands sit up and take notice of the long-threatened but as-yet-unproven rising superpower of the East.
Since Great Wall landed on our shores in 2009, Chinese vehicles have offered a cheap but largely crass alternative that has failed to catch on with new car buyers.
The H2 promises to change the game, arriving in Haval’s new Australian dealerships in June with an equipment list to make the South Koreans look stingy, cabin space and comfort to challenge the best in the compact SUV class, and some interior materials that wouldn’t be out of place in a premium German model.
It’s that last point that represents the biggest step forward for a Chinese car maker in Australia, and the first of two big surprises for us as we experienced the Haval H2 for the first time at its production plant in Tianjin, south of Beijing.
Superb soft-touch plastic lines the dashboard and front and rear door sills, the pillar and roof lining is as good as you’ll find in any affordable European model (yes, including our favourite, the Volkswagen Golf), the grab handles on the roof are nicely damped, the buttons and dials have a decent tactility about them, and the rear map lights feature haptic touch sensors instead of conventional push buttons.
There’s also an 8.0-inch central touchscreen integrated neatly into the dashboard and a smaller colour display in the instrument cluster with a digital speedometer and detailed trip computer.
Don’t go and set your Audi on fire just yet, though. The H2’s perforated ‘leather’ steering wheel feels average, the glovebox door is springy and cheap, the painted plastic interior door grabs could get scratched by rings and fingernails, and the exterior handles feel plasticky.
They’re small things, but they make the difference between a car feeling complete or a little underdone. The H2 is 90 per cent of the way there, however, and its presentation and cabin quality will embarrass plenty of big name rivals when it arrives locally in the coming weeks.
The Haval H2 will also offer one of the most spacious and comfortable rear seats in its class. Legroom is generous with plenty of foot space beneath the front seats, and headroom won’t be a worry for anyone under 185cm tall. The padded leather of our high-grade test car makes the seats lounge-chair comfy and extends to the door liners to enhance the premium feel. There are no rear vents, though that’s not unusual in this class.
The trade-off for the super-roomy second row is the H2’s cramped boot, which is shallow and has a high loading lip. It does have a full-size alloy spare wheel beneath its floor, however, which is something few rivals can boast.
Our second big surprise is the length of the H2’s standard equipment list, and the price at which it’s set to be offered.
Haval Motors Australia is still yet to finalise pricing and specifications, but it’s hopeful of having just two trim levels, skipping a traditional base model to offer just mid- and high-grade variants.
The ‘mid-grade’ entry model will come standard with 18-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights and wipers, LED daytime running lights, rear parking sensors, reverse-view camera, tyre pressure monitor, sunroof, push-button start, cruise control, single-zone climate control, and the large touchscreen with satellite navigation and Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming.
Six airbags and electronic stability control are also standard, and Haval says the H2 has been engineered and equipped to achieve a five-star ANCAP safety rating when it’s tested by the local crash-tester.
With all that on board, Haval expects pricing to start at around $24,000 plus on-road costs for the front-wheel-drive six-speed manual H2, which should see it undercut equivalent versions of the similar-size but more sparsely equipped Hyundai ix35 and Nissan Qashqai, among others.
The optional six-speed automatic transmission costs $2000, while all-wheel drive (at this stage only available with the manual) is $3000.
The top-spec variant will add about $3000-$4000 to the price, putting the front-drive manual at around $27,000-$28,000. Features unique to the flagship H2 will include a blind-spot monitor, dual-zone climate control, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, leather upholstery, heated front seats and a six-way adjustable electric driver’s seat with electric lumbar support, plus more.
Customers will have three optional ‘themes’ to choose from for no extra cost to personalise their look of the H2: red body paint with a black roof and red leather inserts, black body paint with a white roof and white leather inserts, and brown body paint with a white roof and white leather inserts.
Customers will also be able to choose from multiple alloy wheel designs, select the colour of the brake calipers, pick from different grille patterns, choose from a range of interior trim inlays, and change the interior illumination colour, making the Haval H2 one of the most customisable cars at the affordable end of the market.
Sweetening the deal is a five-year warranty, roadside assistance and capped-price servicing.
Sounding good so far, you say, but what’s it like to drive?
Unfortunately, we’re still wondering too, as our short stint behind the wheel under highly controlled conditions at the Tianjin plant only gave us a small taste of the Haval H2’s dynamic aptitude.
Under the bonnet is a 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine that produces 110kW of power at 5600rpm and 210Nm of torque between 2200-4500rpm.
Low down it seems quiet enough and reasonably refined, though changing from first to second saw the engine fall into a torque hole that took some heavy throttle application to dig it out of. Off-the-line acceleration isn’t helped by the H2’s relatively heavy 1495-kilogram kerb weight. Second gear and 50km/h was about as much as our tiny circuit permitted, so the jury is still well and truly out on the engine and transmissions.
A passenger lap over an assortment of bumpy surfaces to test the suspension was likewise too brief to reveal much about the H2’s ride quality. The only measure for comparison was an identical lap in the older and larger Haval H6. Equipped with more sophisticated independent multi-link rear suspension and benefitting an extra few years of engineering know-how, the H2 showed more control, remaining more composed over ruts where the H6 slammed into its bump stops, and rolling less around corners.
The steering seems a little lifeless and on the heavy side at low speeds, though again our time with wheel in hand was extremely limited.
We’ll have to wait until June to properly assess how the H2 performs dynamically on local roads.
The Haval H2 is a real eye-opener to how far China’s automotive industry has come, and just how quickly it is closing the gap to – and in a number of ways already overtaking – mainstream models from household name brands.
If you think the H2 will be just another cheap Chinese pretender with little substance and appeal, think again.
If the local division can convince head office to approve the pricing and equipment it’s hoping for, and if it’s capable and inoffensive on the road, the Haval H2 will be at worst a high-value alternative to the mainstream crowd, and at best a serious challenge to the status quo.