This is the Haval H2, a Chinese-made small crossover SUV to rival the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, Mitsubishi ASX, Suzuki Vitara and Nissan Qashqai.
If you have never heard of Haval, welcome. And if you have, congratulations on being so well-informed about such a niche player in the market.
This is the battle that Haval – the self-professed number-one SUV brand in its native market, itself the world's biggest – has ahead of it in Australia.
Not only must this new player convince a bunch of badge snobs to trust it. There's also the thorny problem of how to make its wider brand name known to the general public. Haval, you say? What the hell is a Haval? Like gravel?
So far 264 Australians have purchased one of these since it went on sale last year, making it Haval's top-seller. Its market share this year is just 0.4 per cent, though it's actually outsold the Renault Captur and Skoda Yeti.
It's a pretty little thing, with slightly odd proportions and a clumsy nose that weirdly grows on you. Lots of chrome, 18-inch alloy wheels and LED daytime running lights help.
Length-wise, the 4335mm H2 sits between a Honda HR-V and Nissan Qashqai, though the Haval sits a little taller and has a particularly high driving position and hip point. The 135mm ground clearance is useless, but we never scraped the chin.
Greeting you when you hop behind the wheel is a well-resolved cabin with some upmarket touches including padded door trims, soft console and dash, LED reading lights and ambient red night illumination.
There's also a good quality steering wheel and build quality every bit as decent as something Japanese or Korean. Remove the silver Haval badge and you could be in a low-end Euro.
The ergonomics are also good thanks to ample seat and steering wheel adjustment, and the layout is contemporary aside from the lack of a digital speedo in the display.
Here we're driving the base H2 Premium that now costs a more reasonable (and discounted over its previous $28,490 price) $24,990 drive-away, a few grand cheaper than base versions of its better established rivals.
Necessarily you also good lots of equipment including a 7.0-inch touchscreen with a quick-to-re-pair Bluetooth connection and USB/SD inputs, matched to a relatively crisp and powerful sound system.
Satellite navigation costs $1000 and we'd be haggling to have it added for free, and it sorely lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. But the screen resolution is as good as a Toyota C-HR's. Maybe better...
You also get a padded headlining, a glass sunroof (a really nice touch, controlled by a chunky knurled dial), cruise control, a proximity key with starter button, cloth seats and a rear-view camera. The heater is excellent as well.
Rear seat passengers get adult-friendly legroom and headroom and ample storage including a flip-own armrest with cupholders. There are also LED reading lights and door pockets, plus ISOFIX anchors.
The back seats flip-fold 60:40, and the cargo space is about on par with the class excluding the cavernous Honda. There's also a rare-for-the-segment full-size spare wheel (with a reputable Kumho tyre) and a sturdy pull-out cargo cover.
The cabin is protected by dual front, dual front-side and full-length curtain airbags, though there's no NCAP score (the H9 got four stars). There's also no AEB, blind-spot monitor or radar cruise available.
For those after more luxury there's a $2000 more expensive H2 Lux with leather seats (heated and electric up front), puddle lights, electric folding mirrors, a better audio system and climate control.
So far so good. In fact, it's only small things that annoy. No digital speedo, a small creak from the driver's armrest handle, a constant chiming when cruise control or Auto Hold are engaged, the way the rear-view camera kills the audio sound completely and takes an eternity to switch off when you're parked. Quibbles, really
But what about from behind the wheel?
Under the bonnet is a 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol engine making a respectable 110kW of power at 5600rpm and 210Nm of torque between 2200 and 4500rpm. That's bang-on for the class, though note the H2's portly 1500kg-plus kerb weight.
It's matched here to a six-speed automatic gearbox with a really nice and tactile steel and leather gear shifter, and a front-wheel drive system (on-demand AWD costs $1500 more but comes with a manual 'box).
The engine's actual responses are decent, with a suitably robust mid-range giving good rolling response. Meanwhile the 6AT is relatively well-sorted for urban use.
However there remains a notable torque hole down low that hurts response under heavy throttle at times, and excessive noise and vibrations through the firewall and into the cabin (evident by the buzzing steering wheel and mirrors, especially on cold starts) despite factory tweaks since launch.
It's also got turbo whine reminiscent of a car from the '90s.
Haval needs to further refine its NVH suppression to truly compete, but it's all a work-in-progress, and the company has signalled a willingness to make running changes.
Fuel consumption on our test was 9.0L/100km, which actually matches the (high) factory claim. Haval recommends 95 RON premium fuel or above.
Dynamically the H2 has all-round independent suspension, a relatively light and well-sorted electric-assisted power steering system (better than the weighty H6 setup) and decent Kumho tyres.
We were actually quite impressed by the ride, which is soft and compliant over sharp hits despite the large wheels. Body control is a little bit like an older SUV, with a degree of roll and pitch that don't suit aggressive driving, nor do the spongy brakes.
Noise suppression beyond that raucous engine is fine for the class, indeed we'd bet on the Mitsubishi ASX letting in more wind and tyre roar, and feeling no more planted at freeway speeds. Ditto on gravel tracks.
After a few hundred kilometres on highways, gravel and urban roads – some alone, some with two passengers and their luggage – the H2 remained a pleasant and amenable enough companion for most people.
Befitting its challenger brand status, Haval offers a good five-year/100,000km new-car warranty with full roadside assistance across the journey, which should reassure doubters. Of which there will be many.
There's a small dealer network of 15 sites, meaning servicing your car over the 10,000km intervals could be a pain in the neck, but that's the price you pay. And the network will grow, considering the amount of money Haval Australia's parent company plans to spend here.
Haval sees Australia as a test market for its brand, a way to learn about the requirements of a developed and mature market before expanding into Europe or the US. There's never any guarantee that any startup will go the distance, but the company has extensive R&D operations and big plans.
Is it a good time to jump on board and buy a Haval H2 instead of a Honda, Suzuki, Nissan or Mazda? At $25k drive-away you get a lot of car for your money, and the long warranty and solid feel should put your mind at ease.
On the other hand, many established rivals don't cost much more (though there'll be a specification shortfall), the H2 lacks a NCAP crash score and the dealer network is small. Plus there are those small NVH gremlins.
In short, we'd suggest looking elsewhere for now, at something with more runs of the board like a Vitara or HR-V. But the H2 is well ahead of where Hyundai and Kia were 20 years ago, relatively speaking, and that's promising.
What we would say is, if you're an intrigued party, go and kick the tyres and have a look. You may not buy a H2, but you'll come around to Haval's value to the market. There's a future here worth waiting on.
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