We have seen several Chinese brands come and go in Australia without making much of an impact. But the latest contender, Haval, might not be quite like the others.
The company has just launched in Australia with a three-SUV range priced and specced more closely in line with competition from Japan and Korea, and inspired in part by rivals out of Europe.
How do we know Haval (pronounced like 'gravel') means business?
Well, it sold more than 1.25 million SUVs last year, putting it in the global top 10 and making it China’s number one. It also talks openly of aspiring to become the “world’s leading premium SUV brand”, and just opened a $4 billion R&D centre in Baoding. Those are some seriously big calls, but it hardly wants for ambition.
Here we test the Haval H8 in Premium trim, which sits between the baby H2 and the rugged H9. It’s about the same size and weight as a Ford Territory, but only seats five people like an SUV from a class below, such as a Mazda CX-5.
It’s also billed as a premium product. Haval rather ambitiously claims the H8 is “destined to become a favourite with Australian families”. That’s a bold claim, backed by a bold price.
As tested, this car is $44,490 plus on-road costs, meaning this is no cheap and cheerful rival like a Great Wall. This is mid-spec Territory money, and close to a flagship CX-5 Akera.
You can get a 2WD version of the H8 Premium for $41,990, and the H8 Lux with a mountain of extra features such as heated/cooled seats with massaging, electric tailgate, 19-inch wheels and an Infinity sound system for $48,990.
So you have a Chinese car designed to compete on merit, rather than tempt strictly on cost. Which is a hard ask when you’re a brand with no history or equity here, and goes against the common wisdom embodied by the likes of Kia and Hyundai for a decade or two when they were establishing.
Where does the Haval H8 fit? At 4806mm long, 1975mm wide and 1794mm high on a 2915mm wheelbase, it’s about the size of said Territory, and almost a foot longer than the CX-5. But it only seats five people like the latter rather than seven as with the former, so it’s a segment-straddler.
What do you think of the design? It’s a conservative shape with rear-drive proportions. To the untrained eye, those side steps, kick plates, bonnet vents and oversized chrome grille might look a little premium. It’s all a taste thing. It also gets Range Rover-style illuminated puddle lamps in the mirrors that flash HAVAL onto the sidewalk in giant red letters at night. Interesting.
The cabin, as befits an ‘upmarket’ vehicle, is relatively well-trimmed, with the exception of the tacky fake wood. The fit-and-finish inside feels acceptable, and the glossy black/silvery plastic trims add some welcome contrast. The doors also close with a Germanic thud, and unlock via hand sensors.
The equipment levels are decent, but not particularly outlandish. You get sat-nav, leather seats, park assist, cruise control, a sunroof, parking sensors and rain-sensing wipers. But there’s no DAB+ digital radio, no electric tailgate, and no active safety like radar cruise or autonomous brakes to complement the standard six airbags that are fitted.
ANCAP is yet to test any Haval, but the company says it is confident it will get the maximum score.
Get a load of those Mercedes-esque diagonal stitch-lines in the leather-padded doors and the distinctive cruise control stalk that pays homage to Benz by basically copying it. No bad thing. Or the very Jaguar touch-sensitive roof lights. Or the VW Group-style headlight dial.
It’s a comfortable place to kill time. The eight-way adjustable electric driver’s seat, trimmed in Australian leather, is super comfortable and supportive. You can option seats that are heated/vented and have a massage function for $1000, too.
The lovely leather wheel has reach and rake adjust (and a very cheesy red badge) and intuitive buttons for your audio, and you even get nice leathery pads for your knees to rest on.
Everything is laid out relatively intuitively, though the digital climate control screen looks old hat. We also experienced a strange phenomenon where the two heating zones were set to the same temperature, but the air coming out the vents was significantly different in feel.
You get a felt-lined two-tiered console, a good glovebox and sunglasses holder in the roof. A digital speedo is missing, but will soon be added, apparently.
The eight-inch LCD touchscreen is a decent size for the class and sufficiently tactile, and it loads relatively quickly, though the homepage graphics are dated. It all looks and feels quite ‘aftermarket’, and lacks sophistication and any feeling of ‘premium’.
The Bluetooth phone and audio also re-pairs quickly and has good clarity. The sat-nav software is basic, though it gets the job done even if it lacks a scale function. Haval will keep the software updated for you.
There are some quirks — it has a calculator for some reason, and a list of the world’s countries with their respective speed limits and maximum blood-alcohol limit. The ‘Habit’ button flanking the screen that adjusts the parking mode is just odd, as is the fact the text on them turns as you turn the dial — a tiny detail, but a naff one.
One absolutely excellent detail is the sound system, a 10-speaker system with a sub that had outstanding clarity across the spectrum, six pre-set EQ modes and speed sensitivity if you want it.
Probably the absolute highlight of the cabin is the layout of the rear seats. You get two really comfortable outboard leather pews and a decent middle seat that’s set low and isn’t intruded upon overmuch by the drive shaft. You also get three adjustable headrests and two Isofix points.
Headroom (even with the sunroof) and legroom is outstanding, and those deep side windows give you fantastic outward visibility. You also get rear air vents with their own separate climate control, and a flip-down ski port with cupholders and a little covered storage compartment.
They also fold perfectly flat — the seat backs fold 60:40, while the bases flip forward. It’s an excellent setup that gives you a huge cargo area, though the temporary spare wheel and the lack of an electric tailgate are both obvious oversights (it comes on the Lux version).
Under the bonnet of the Haval H8 is a 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine making what appears on paper to be a very healthy 160kW at 5500rpm and 324Nm between 2000 and 4000rpm. The engine is matched to a ZF six-speed automatic gearbox with lovely metallic paddles.
But while these outputs are good on paper, the H8 is a modest performer under load, a likely trade-off for its hefty kerb weight nearing 2.2-tonnes (600kg more than a CX-5, and more even than the Territory). There’s a notable delay between pressing the throttle and getting momentum — no fault of the generally intuitive gearbox. At least the engine is generally quiet and refined.
We managed a fairly stately 0-100km/h average of about 11.5 seconds.
Where things really get pear-shaped is the fuel consumption. This little engine is working hard, and even the factory claim admits it’ll use 12.2 litres of premium (95 RON) unleaded on a 100km combined cycle. We actually averaged closer to 14L/100km, which makes the H8 a class outlier.
Torque is directed to the rear wheels by default, while a transfer case by Borg-Warner sends up to 50 per cent of said torque to the front wheels if the sensors register a loss of traction. So, like most rivals, it’s an on-demand system. Off-road work is aided by a hill-descent control system.
Of course, nobody is taking this thing off road. On-road, it uses a thoroughly modern double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension setup. It also sports novel self-levelling technology developed by ZF, called Nivomat.
This system uses an internal pump that relies on movement between the axle and chassis to adjust the levelling and damper function. This setup is installed on the rear axle in place of a traditional damper. It’s fully automatic and uses no extra electronics, being a simple pump.
As you’d hope, the Haval H8’s ride in most scenarios is plush and absorbent without being overly floaty over elevation changes, making it a comfortable car to eat up speed humps and that ilk. That said, throw it at some cobblestones and the system seems to lose its head a little bit, given the brittleness on display.
In the handling department, the H8 lacks the hunkered-down, almost sporting pedigree of a number of modern rivals. There’s evident body roll in corners, and a subsequent thorough unwillingness to be pushed beyond a stately clip on a twisting road.
The brakes do an okay job of hauling in such a heavy vehicle, though the pedal feel borders on ‘wooden’. Of moderate concern is the way the hazard lights lit up several times, with several drivers, under moderately hard braking that we wouldn’t say constituted an emergency stop.
It’s generally quite refined and quiet at speed, and we’ll give credit in this area to its relatively unknown GitiComfort 520 235/60 tyres on 18-inch wheels. We can’t speak to the grip levels of these hoops, as driving the car fast in corners isn’t something that suits it at all.
We’re not big fans of the steering — a traditional hydraulically assisted system (not electric) that is too heavy at low speeds, feels oddly ‘elastic’ on centre and is a little slow in the rack (more than three turns lock-to-lock). This means turning the wheel is hard, and you have to turn it a lot.
In essence, the H8 rides nicely in most instances, but it’s also thirsty and handles in corners like an SUV from two generations ago.
One further idiosyncrasy we will mention is the fact the H8 ‘beeps’ at you with regularity, be it when you engage the cruise control, press the transmission’s ‘Sport’ button that programs the car to hold lower gears subtly, or manifold other scenarios. A Chinese thing?
What about from an ownership perspective? The Haval H8 comes with a five-year/100,000km factory warranty with complimentary 24/7 roadside assist across the term. That’s good.
You also get five years of capped price servicing, with okay intervals of 12-months or 10,000km. The cost of each visit at current levels is: $260 (six-months/5000km checkup); $315 (18-month/15,000km); $370 (30-month/25,000km); $455 (42-month/35,000km); $260 (54-months/45,000km) and $435 (66-months/55,000km). The service guarantee covers you out to 126-months /105,000km. These figures aren't overly cheap, considering Holden will service your Captiva 7 for free until 2020.
The elephant in the room is the dealer network, which launched at just two sites in Melbourne, one in Sydney and one in Perth. But the company wants 10 dealers by the end of 2015 and 25 by the end of 2016, so its footprint will grow along with demand.
And that’s the Haval H8. The real message we want to impart here is that we hope the company stays the course, and takes on board the feedback it will doubtless receive. It has the potential (and the money) to be a serious player, and in not a whole lot of time, just like Hyundai/Kia did before it, and the Japanese brands before that.
Right now, the H8 is a mixed bag. It has a fairly well-designed cabin, an outstandingly spacious rear seat and commodious cargo capacity, and generally decent ride. Its fuel use, handling and price, however, let it down.
At close to $50K on the road, it exceeds a number of rivals that offer seven seats, and despite its claims, some nice leather and silver exterior highlights do not make a luxury car. Is the H8 a bad car? No it isn't, though in some areas it feels quite unpolished.
But to buy a car at this price, from an unknown brand with unproven resale, without a suitable array of luxuries to compensate, would be a bold call. That said, we wish Haval all the luck in the world, and will be watching eagerly what it does over the next few years.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.
Videography by Igor Solomon.