If you need proof of how fast things move at Haval, the F7 you see here is it. The company is just 15 years old, but it's eyeing dominance on a global scale, and Australia is one of the territories high on its hit list.
The pace of its development is staggering. Eight-year product cycles? Forget about that. Haval is pumping out fresh models every four, facelifts be damned.
Even the brand's physical scale is impressive. It has a sprawling proving ground in Baoding, nestled within which is a factory capable of producing 2200 cars every day. A new facility is in the works for Russia, too.
To put that into context, just over 600 of its cars found a home in Australia last year. Had it built them in a single day, our total sell would've been out the door and on a boat before the staff had finished chatting about last night's episode of Game of Thrones.
There’s also a hydrogen laboratory on a humbler, older proving ground nearby, and scenic four-wheel-drive test centre where a military base once stood, secreted in the hills around two hours from Baoding.
We could go on about the glass-fronted head office, a gleaming, monolithic testament to China's automotive ambition, but you get the idea.
The F7 you see here won’t be coming to Australia, at least not in its current form. Nor will the coupe-styled F7X, although both cars would comfortably slot into our marketplace today. They are, however, under consideration as part of Haval’s plans going forward. The car on the table for our market will be an update, likely a significant one, on what you see here. Should it be green-lit for Australia, a 2021 arrival is on the cards.
Our time with the car was limited. As in, eight laps of a 200m cone circuit limited, with one jaunt to about 110km/h on the open skidpad. Frustratingly, 'give us a proper crack' doesn’t appear to translate to Chinese.
Measuring up at 4620mm long, 1846mm wide and 1690mm tall, it’s also larger than the Koreans. It's 135mm longer and 35mm taller than the Sportage, although the Chinese SUV is 9mm narrower.
It’s seriously handsome from the outside, with an aggressive snout and neatly detailed flanks flowing into an appealingly rounded rump. From the bejewelled headlights to the wavy grille, all the details are nicely thought out as well.
We don’t usually start with the rear seats, but legroom is paramount in China and second-row passengers are well looked after as a result. Headroom is generous, even with a panoramic sunroof fitted, and at six-foot-seven I was able to sit behind another full-sized adult with room to burn. Impressive.
Boot space is pegged at 490L, up on the 466L offered in a Sportage and a carton of milk more than you'll squeeze into a Tucson. Back seat passengers also benefit from two USB ports and air vents. It certainly feels more spacious than a Sportage from the cheap seats.
Slipping into the front, the huge strides Haval has made in interior design and quality fast become clear. The F7 represents a quantum leap forward from what we get in Australia. Material quality is up, the dashboard design is properly modern, and the driving position won universal praise.
There’s a matte-finished touchscreen (impressively low on glare) neatly integrated into the dash, angled aggressively towards the driver, along with a digital driver display. Both take clear inspiration from Peugeot’s iCockpit, although the distinctly French ergonomics haven’t made the leap to China. Phew.
The transmission tunnel is similarly up with the times, housing a rotary infotainment controller, slim electronic shifter, wireless charging pad and electronic parking brake.
Power comes from a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine making 147kW and 345Nm. A smaller 1.5-litre four is also offered, but we didn’t get the chance to sample it in the F7. Grunt is put to the front wheels through an in-house-developed seven-speed DCT with wet clutches.
Performance feels strong, without really knocking your socks off. The engine is smooth and torquey, and feels pretty happy to run towards its redline – set at a conservative 5500rpm. At least, it does in first, second and some of third gear.
Foot to the boards with cones rushing past and 80km/h on the digital speedo, our ‘minder’ started getting nervous about the makeshift chicane coming up, calling a halt to proceedings. Come on mate, give us a proper crack.
Shifts from the dual-clutch transmission are smooth, but they don’t slam home with the conviction or pace of the best from Germany.
Relevant to the average buyer? Probably not – we don’t know many SUV owners timing the pause between gears on the school run – but there’s still room for improvement.
An even quicker spin in Haval’s flagship Wey VV7 revealed strides have already been made – strides we’d suggest will translate to the updated F7.
You still get a tasty little pop on upshifts, and downshifts are acceptably quick. Given the brand has only been working on DCT technology for two-and-a-half years, first impressions are promising.
Getting a read on the steering was tricky on our whirlwind test drive, but the word ‘fine’ feels appropriate. It’s light enough lycra-clad ladies (and gents) of leisure will be able to slice through town with cappuccino in hand without coming across as unnaturally easy to twirl, but isn’t overly chatty about what the front wheels are doing.
Watching a crew of Russian journalists have their way with the F7 revealed understeer is the car’s default balance when pushed. And when we say pushed, we mean brutally abused. Apparently there's no word for mechanical sympathy in Russia.
Judging ride and refinement is tricky on a billiard-table smooth skidpad, but wind noise was nicely suppressed at 100km/h, and the engine settles down below 2000rpm at cruising speeds. It isn’t a stretch to suggest highway kilometres wouldn’t faze the F7.
Oh, and a fully loaded F7 costs the equivalent of $30,000 in China. A spokesperson from Haval told us it'd likely cost around $5K more in Australia, were it to appear in showrooms tomorrow.
Standard equipment would be typically generous at that price, too. Keyless entry, a panoramic sunroof, a 360-view camera, autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise and parking sensors all around, along with heated, electrically adjustable front seats are included in the top-spec car. One of our test cars even came with a really neat yellow-and-black finish for the seats.
The mantra 'improving little by little' is prominently displayed around the buildings at Haval HQ. It sells short how far the brand’s cars have come in the short time since they touched down in Australia.
The F7 is a great leap forward from the H6 we get at the moment. Even crazier is the fact we won’t be getting the F7 pictured here, we’ll be getting a newer car again, should head office decide it’s a more attractive proposition for our market than the third-generation H6 currently in development.
Whether it’s an all-new model or a significant mechanical upgrade (a Haval spokesperson said it’s “more than a facelift”) remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: it should make some of the ‘value’ brands in Australia very nervous.