This is the Haval H2. It just might be the most impressive Chinese vehicle to ever hit our shores. To find out just how good it is, we took it on a road trip.
It’s an unseasonably chilly morning when we set off from Johannesburg. It’s 5am. The wind is blowing. There’s hardly any traffic on the road. There’s something about this day; it feels portentous. The world isn’t exactly the same as it had been the day before. Why are we, rightly or wrongly, imbuing this particular day with so much importance? It has everything to do with the vehicle we’re driving, the Haval H2. We got our hands on it ahead of the official launch (although it will have been launched by the time you read this), and we’re taking it out of the city to see how it performs under South African conditions. We have some serious gravel driving in mind.
What’s in a name?
Before we get to that, though, it is probably worth offering some background on the SUV. Chances are, you’ve never heard of Haval or the H2, but you have undoubtedly heard of Great Wall Motors (GWM). GWM has been in South Africa for a decade, and has enjoyed particular success in the bakkie market with its Steed. Well, Great Wall Motors of China took over its South African subsidiary, GWM SA, last year and has renamed it Haval. The GWM brand will still be in South Africa (along with its bakkies), but the South African holding company will now be Haval. In addition to existing GWM dealerships, a Haval dealership network will also be put in place.
Why the name change? This is in line with Great Wall Motors’ global strategy. It is looking to move into international markets, including Europe and the United States, and it will be doing this with the upmarket SUV brand Haval. The brand has seen massive growth, with year-on-year sales in China improving by 42% from 2015 to 2016. An unbelievable 938 000 Havals were sold in China last year. Indeed, parent company GWM seems to have taken something of a backroom role, with this new premium SUV brand becoming the public face of the organisation. At the 2017 Shanghai Auto Show, there was no Great Wall Motors exhibition, but Haval boasted one of the most impressive stands of the entire international event.
The money being invested into Haval is astounding. A plant is in the process of being built in Xushui that will eventually be able to pump out no less than one million cars a year and cover 13 square kilometres. A few phases of construction have been completed and cars are already being built at the site. Then there’s the Haval New Technical Centre: a 260 000 square-metre research and development facility in the city of Boading where vehicles are designed, modelled and tested. It boasts 10 000 employees and an overall investment of ¥5 billion (R10bn).
Then there are the people Haval is employing. The company is going after international engineers and designers. For instance, Pierre Leclercq was appointed as design director a while ago. Before joining Haval, Leclercq was the design chief for BMW’s M division. Haval has also appointed Ramon Ginah as a designer, who before joining the Chinese Brand was Alfa Romeo’s chief interior designer. Haval and its parent company GWM have no interest in creating the cheap and derivative vehicles for which China has become infamous. You don’t employ a designer like Leclercq if the only design tool you intend to use is tracing paper. Haval wants to become a premium SUV brand that can take on the likes of Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz.
A vision of the future
Haval already has a range of SUVs aimed at accomplishing this goal. At one end is the small and affordable H1 (a re-badged version of the GWM M4), while at the other, the imposing Prado-like H9. In between, you have vehicles like the H6, H6 Coupé, H7 and H8. At the recent Shanghai Motor Show, Haval unveiled an all-new version of the H6, and we were given an opportunity to ride in (but not drive) the vehicle. It was impressive. So impressive, in fact, that it caught us by surprise. We’ve come to expect a certain kind of vehicle from China. The H6 was something else. It was so quiet, comfortable and well equipped, that it could have hailed from Europe. Remove the badges, and most people would probably have guessed that this was a German vehicle. It truly was that good.
Sadly, it will take a while for this new H6 to reach South Africa. China’s vehicles are left-hand drive, so they can’t simply be shipped here. Moreover, demand in China is massive, so converting a vehicle to right-hand drive isn’t an immediate priority. Other vehicles are closer to making their local debut. We’ll soon see the H6 Coupé and H7, for instance. But what we do have right now is the H2, the first SUV with a Haval badge to be launched in South Africa. Let’s start with its looks. If you were feeling a bit mean, you might say it’s a tad generic, but you can’t truly fault the design of the H2. It’s clean, sleek and modern. We love that large grille and those daytime running lights. The sculpted bonnet and sloping roofline also give the Haval a sporty vibe, while that sharp fairing at the bottom of the front bumper adds some aggression. At the rear, black cladding on the bottom bumper and some strong horizontal lines give the H2 real presence on the road.
On the road
Looks are significant, obviously, but not all-important, especially not at the more affordable end of the spectrum. If the H2 has any chance of making an impact, it needs to offer a decent drive. So, let’s return to that chilly morning. We head out of Johannesburg towards Magaliesburg. We prod the throttle to test the eagerness of the 1.5-litre turbo engine and the six-speed automatic gearbox. There’s a bit of lag from standstill, but, overall, the engine/gearbox combo feels impressively lively and responsive. There’s 105kW of power and 230Nm of torque on offer, which is enough to propel the H2 along at a decent clip. Cruising along at 120km/h is effortless, and the rev-happy engine (peak power is gen-erated at 5 600r/min) will keep going well beyond that. It’s not a performance SUV, but it doesn’t feel under-powered either. The ride is equally im-pressive. The H2 does a great job of absorbing road imperfections but the suspension (MacPherson at the front and independent multi-link at the rear) isn’t so soft that it feels loose and disconnected from the road. In fact, it’s quite firm and sporty, but never uncomfortable. The cabin is quiet and cosy. There is some engine noise present – specifically the whistle of the turbo – but the cabin does an admirable job of keeping wind and tyre noise at bay.
The little Haval has a solid feel. Nothing rattles or vibrates. Build quality is clearly good. In the past, this was an issue when it came to many smallish Chinese vehicles. They would perform decently around town but once you hit the highway, issues would be revealed. Not so with the H2. It is cold and windy outside, but the cabin is keeping us warm and comfy. Piloting the Haval isn’t a chore, it’s fun. It has a chunky steering wheel that’s responsive to inputs and does a decent job of translating whatever’s happening on the road. Throw it into a corner and the H2 remains impressively composed.
Off the road
We turn off the main road. Time to see how the H2 performs on gravel. There’s reason for optimism. The suspension has already shown itself to be pliant on tar, and the vehicle rides on decent rubber. Although the H2 has 18-inch rims, these are shod with 235/55 R18 tyres that have enough of a profile to deal with bad roads. The gravel road close to Magaliesburg is not in great shape. It is rough and rutted, yet the Haval is dealing with it incredibly well. Our confidence grows and we steadily pick up speed. Before long, we are travelling at a good clip – as fast as you could reasonably want to travel on a road like this – and the H2 isn’t fussed at all. The tyres and suspension are soaking up the corrugations and the cabin is quiet. The comfort offered by the suspension is genuinely surprising if you consider how firm it felt on tar.
Like just about every other compact SUV out there, the H2 is not a hardcore off-roader. The local iteration of the vehicle is 2WD-only. However, it feels far more at home on dirt than many other compact SUVs. Not only does it feel as if it can withstand the tough conditions, but it also stays more comfortable and quiet than most. Moreover, ground clearance is pegged at 184mm, so it can traverse ditches and dongas without getting damaged.
On the inside
Back on tar, our attention turns to the cabin. It is certainly well equipped. The top-spec model we’re driving has keyless entry, climate control, a sunroof, leather seats, large touchscreen, reverse camera, Bluetooth connectivity, steering-wheel controls and a trip computer. It also has a comprehensive list of safety features, including multiple airbags, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and traction control. You even get a tyre-pressure monitor. Of course, when it comes to designing and building a great interior, it’s about more than ticking boxes. You can stuff a vehicle with features, but if the quality isn’t great, and they aren’t enjoyable to use, they can detract from the user experience. Thankfully, everything in the H2 feels pleasing to the touch. Even the small things, like the sunglasses holder and the buttons for the electric windows, have a satisfying solidity to them. Nothing feels flimsy. The steering wheel feels substantial in your hands and the dashboard is soft to the touch.
Changing the game
The Haval H2 is undoubtedly the best Chinese vehicle we’ve tested. In terms of specification, refinement and all-round performance, it is up there with what you’d get from other manufacturers, from other parts of the world. Is it perfect? No, but it is an excellent offering, especially if you consider the cost. The top-spec model goes for R309 000, an excellent price. Many people will worry about reliability, and about the brand’s ability to provide aftermarket support. Only time will tell how reliable an H2 is once it has more than 100 000km on the clock, but it certainly feels as if it will last. Moreover, Haval is backing its product with both a good service plan and warranty (five-year/100 000km warranty, five-year/60 000km service plan). Haval South Africa has faith in its product. Now it’s time for local consumers to discover what China is offering. We suspect they’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Engine 1.5-Litre Turbocharged Petrol
Transmission Six-Speed Automatic
Fuel Consumption Nine Litres/100km (Claimed)
Ground Clearance 184mm
Kerb Weight 1 495kg
Price R309 000
Warranty Five-Year/100 000km
Service Plan Five-Year/60 000km
Text and photography: GG van Rooyen