In order to really get our heads around the Haval H9, we decided to play a game. We asked various members of our 40(ish) person team who don’t write about cars – our developers, sales managers, etc – to jump into the cabin and guess its price.
Almost nobody lowballed the answer, $45,990 drive-away, which seems as good a place as any to begin. Any low-profile carmaker desirous of global success needs an angle, and while China’s Haval hasn’t always been a value-for-money star, its H9 flagship ticks the box.
This seven-seat SUV appears to be pitched at family buyers who may otherwise choose a Toyota Kluger, Nissan Pathfinder or Mazda CX-9. The lure is that $46K merely buys you a base version of these more credentialed rivals, whereas the Haval is pretty loaded with spec’.
Concurrently, unlike these urban crossovers, the H9 is a body-on-frame 4x4 with off-road chops – though its lack of market recognition here (albeit, not in China where Haval sells a million cars a year) and smallish dealer network mean it’ll be a hard sell against the robust Isuzu MU-X, Ford Everest, Mitsubishi Pajero Sport et al.
The actual cabin layout is a mixed bag. We've got no gripes with the fit and finish, though given our test car only had 9000km on it, you'd hardly expect rattles or squeaks. The leather wheel and door inlays, soft-touch plastic touchpoints and damped buttons/switches are all world standard. On the other hand, the faux wood inserts are not.
The 8.0-inch touchscreen's software looks a little old-hat, and lacks Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. However, there's integrated sat-nav, the Bluetooth re-paired quickly, and there are some very interesting sub-menus showing stuff such as wheel torque ratio, elevation, battery voltage and trailer angle. Hmm...
Showroom bling that will impress people immediately includes the 1.2m-long opening glass roof, the ‘eco-leather’ seats with heating, massaging and ventilation up front, the heated steering wheel, and the multi-coloured LED light piping scattered about, notably above the rear-view mirror.
Oh, and the giant red 'Haval' light signature projected onto the pavement, from below the side mirrors, just like a Range Rover, Genesis or the Ford Mustang. On second thought, that's a pretty bad idea considering the brand value is currently negligible...
More importantly, Haval has got the basics right. There's plenty of seat adjustment up front, rake/reach movement in the steering column, and a slick new TFT instrument cluster with digital speedo – something we really value, and which was missing on the previous version.
The middle (heated!) seat row has plenty of room for two adults, though the middle seat is pretty narrow. Amenities include USB and 12V points, rear air vents in the roof with separate rear temperature controls, damped grab-handles, decent door pockets, a flip-down armrest, ISOFIX anchors, and seats that slide and recline.
A single pull on a lever near the seat base slides and tilts the split-folding bench in one motion (the smaller portion is on the right-hand side) to reveal the third row. Entry is helped by a third-row grab handle to pull yourself in, while rearmost passengers have their own vents and cupholders, and sufficient head room for anyone below 180cm.
Entry to the cargo area is via a right-side-hinged one-piece tailgate, which is not the best example of packaging. If you don't need the third row of seats they fold flat, and do so electrically via buttons mounted in the side of the car. Like an Audi Q7. There's a full-size spare wheel under the body.
The other crucial element to any prospective family hauler alongside space and equipment is safety. Standard fare includes six airbags, including curtains covering three rows, front/rear sensors, a reversing camera, blind-spot monitoring (BLIS), lane-departure warning (LDW), tyre pressure monitor and rear cross-traffic alert.
On the other hand, the H9 scored a contentious four-star ANCAP crash result in 2015, though its score was 30.65 out of 37. The crash tester gave it 1.02 out of four for low leg protection in the frontal offset impact test.
There are also a few quirks. For instance, the reversing camera display prompts an annoying voice to chirp "please select the parking mode" every single time you use R, the LDW system takes away the digital speed display in the TFT's normal mode, and you must manually switch on the BLIS each time you drive. Small irritants, though.
Let's walk outside the cabin and look at the body. The H9 has a sort of brutalist design appeal and oozes presence. Its boxy silhouette is also pretty aesthetically pleasing, in an anonymous kind of way. The roof rails, 18-inch wheels and 35W Xenon headlights do the trick.
On the other hand, there are some derivative elements that cheapen the overall look. For instance, the easily dented side steps and the cheap shiny plastic bumper cover are both knockoffs of Mercedes-Benz, and the bonnet air inlets are fake (like a Kia Stinger's). Again, it's 90 per cent right...
Mechanically, the Haval is only available with one engine: a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol. China doesn't really do diesel SUVs, and while the H9 was briefly offered in some markets such as Russia with an oil-burner, it wasn't developed for us.
Shame, since despite the 2500kg braked towing capacity, the engine's small displacement and use of petrol will put off a key potential subset of buyers: grey nomads.
In its defence, the 2018 H9's engine has received a set of tweaks to hike its outputs. Peak power is up from 160kW to 180kW, and maximum torque grows from 324Nm to 350Nm – sufficient to lug the 2230kg beast from 0–100km/h in around 10 seconds.
The other major drivetrain change is the new eight-speed automatic transmission sourced from German wizards ZF (supplier to BMW, Jaguar, Jeep and many more), with a manual mode and supplemented by paddle-shifters. For you nerds, it's code-named ZF 8HP70.
The wider ratio spread means the first few gears are shorter for off-road use, whereas the seventh and eighth speeds reduce engine speeds at a cruise, therefore fuel use.
It's actually a decent engine, with peak torque on tap between 1800 and 4500rpm, giving you access to its strongest point quickly and for a prolonged period. Overtaking is not much of an issue. For context, a CX-9 Azami weighs 1974kg (it's monocoque, ergo lighter) and has a 2.5-litre turbo-petrol with 170kW/420Nm.
It's also peculiarly raspy, sounding vaguely diesel-like under heavy throttle. Unfortunately, it also has a diesel's level of NVH suppression. At idle in D, there are distinct driveline vibrations through the wheel and seat, while the auto start/stop is particularly jerky on take-off, feeling a generation old. The bonnet also vibrates notably.
This is despite Haval claiming to have re-laid hard points in the sub-frame to improve this, and accommodate the new transmission.
Haval claims combined-cycle fuel economy of 10.9L/100km, which lines up pretty well against our return of 11.7L/100km during a 283km mixed drive loop with an average speed of 73km/h. It does require premium 95RON fuel, though.
Dynamically, the H9 is a consummate, cosseting family hauler. It's stable and surefooted, very quiet, and the high-sidewall Kumho rubber and long-travel suspension soak up corrugations with ease. Its cabin is largely free from road noise, proving plush and comfortable.
The hydraulically assisted steering is also low-resistance, making it easy to twirl about around town, while the auto-dipping left-side mirror helps you avoid kerb rash on those rims.
The downside of the off-road-ready suspension (double-wishbone front, multi-link non-independent at rear) is the old-school levels of body roll and wallow through corners. The brakes are also spongy in feel and have a late 'bite point'.
One of the more impressive elements to the H9 is its off-road ability. This is no soft-roader. It's got a Borg Warner TOD transfer case, low-range gearing, a 700mm wading depth, 206mm of clearance, hill-descent control, and a system called All-Terrain Control that lets you cycle through six driving modes.
These include an Auto set-up that sends torque to the front wheels on demand, the Sport mode tells the transmission to hold lower gears longer to sharpen rolling throttle response, 4L is low-range, and various Sand/Snow/Mud modes that set the ESC to suit each surface type.
A few months ago, we took part in a Haval H9 off-road day at a 4x4 park in Victoria, which on the 'hardness' scale rates about a 7/10. We loped through sharp descents, rocky outcrops, scrabbly hill climbs, moguls, soft sand and water crossings easily – impressively so. There's also good underbody protection, though the side steps are ridiculously easy to dent/scratch.
Consider this: the Bangladeshi military just signed an order for H9s as a service vehicle. It's competent as hell.
The issue, of course, is obvious. If you're out in the middle of nowhere, do you trust it? Haval's dealer network is growing, but it hardly has the remote coverage of Toyota, Mitsubishi, Ford, Holden, Isuzu Ute etc.
From an ownership perspective beyond this, you get a commendable five-year/100,000km factory warranty, and by factory we mean it, since the company doesn't use an independent importer and distributor. The package also comprises free 24/7 roadside assist over the term of the warranty.
Right. So there's a look at the Haval H9. Verdict?
Judged solely on its merits as a new car, it holds a lot of appeal. It's exceedingly good value for money, has road manners that are the match of many better-known offerings, and will take you further off the beaten path than you'd expect.
Sure, there are some gremlins such as the vibration isolation, infotainment menus and derivative design elements, but does anyone remember late 1990s Hyundais? Well-funded corporations learn fast, and Haval has shown its abilities here, time and again.
The bigger issues for the time being come down to ownership. When the rubber meets the road, will many buyers shell out $46K to leap into the unknown, with long-term resale value unclear despite a few used examples getting around? It'll be a challenge to convert people, that's for sure.
It's a competitive market out there, and it takes decades to earn a reputation, but product such as the H9 does a convincing job of showing that Haval has the chops, if it stays the course.
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