We gave readers the lowdown on our orange GWM H5 project vehicle last month, with details of all the modifications that have been made to it so far.
We left the engine as is, but the added weight made a slight modification on necessary, if only to make the H5 a more agreeable day-to-day companion.
We looked at all the options and finally sett led on chipping the H5. A short while later we were on the phone to a friendly man called
John Planets, who assured us that his products would sort out all of our turbo lag and power-to-weight related issues.
John owns Chipbox. It produces an electronic automotive product that claims to enhance the performance of vehicles via a plug-and-play unit. What really impressed us about Chipbox was the claim that their products were tailored to specific vehicles and not merely generic units commonly found in the marketplace. We also took some comfort from the fact that the installati on had an override plug, so if something went wrong we could simply bypass the system and return the H5 to its original condition.
With the new chip in place, our H5 produced a claimed 125kW and 350Nm of torque. That’s admittedly not a giant leap compared to the standard car’s figures, but there was a good reason for that. According to John, Chipbox is not interested in quantity but rather quality. We could easily have tuned the engine to deliver more impressive performance figures, but that would have aﬀected the fuel consumption and, more importantly, the car’s reliability. And we definitely needed reliability for the road ahead…
Chipbox also installed a PedalBooster to reduce turbo lag. This unit sends a signal to the ECU to get the power to the road more quickly.
The change in the H5’s performance could be felt immediately. The turbo lag had become more pronounced because of the weight of the modifications. It was reduced by the PedalBooster, but it was only on the open road that one really noticed the diﬀerence.
Before the chipping, the H5 struggled a bit on the highway and in overtaking manoeuvres. In some cases it was necessary to go down all the way to third to overtake slower traﬃc, but now you need gear down only to fifth. This simple modification has made the H5 much better on the long haul.
The conversion is now complete and the H5 will soon leave our care, but before that we wanted to drive it on at least one epic journey.
Across the border we go
As frequent travellers, we oft en forget what a prime destination Swaziland is. It’s within easy reach of Johannesburg and oﬀers the kind of scenery and hospitality that delights one on holiday.
With that in mind we pointed the nose of the Golden Dragon towards the Oshoek border post to join Francois Rossouw and the RSG 4×4 Club on their annual adventure through the Swazi hills.
But first we had to get there, which meant finding a driving partner to go along for the ride. We could have chosen a seasoned oﬀ -road traveller, but instead we found a rank amateur to drive the car while we took the pictures. Not only would this ease the burden of exploring Swaziland while working at the same time, but it would also show whether the modifications had made the H5 any more diﬃcult to drive than the average hatchback.
Enter Dane Beisheim, a journalist from radio station OFM. His total off-road experience amounted to the gravel road between Northam and Oppikoppi farm. His day-to-day car is a Toyota Conquest, which is significantly smaller than our orange beast.
On the way down, we give Dane a quick lecture on the ins and outs of off-roading. “Take it slowly and don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. But most important of all, have a good time!”
About a kilometre before the border post, we notice some flashing lights approaching fast from behind. As they get closer, we note that the vehicle is an official looking GWM Steed.
The driver signals for us to pull over, and we fear the worst. Instead of spending the evening at the comfortable Maguga Dam Lodge, we’d be sleeping on a concrete floor in a dimly lit room, next to a fellow who had tried to get a kilo of Swazi Poison into SA. Crossing the border, as anyone who has travelled in Africa will tell you, can be a tricky business.
Anyway, we sigh with relief when we see the forest security markings on the Steed bakkie. We had done nothing more than drive past his forest, and surely he couldn’t arrest us for that?
A man climbs out and walks towards the driver window. He opens with the words, “You bastards…” and images of the dimly lit room start swirling around in our heads again.
Luckily, the forest man follows his initial greeting with the words, “You’d better get out of that car and tell me more about it.”
As it turns out, he’s a Leisure Wheels fan and had recognised the Golden Dragon as the car featured on the cover of the previous edition. Frankie wasn’t going to miss the chance of taking a closer look at the spruced up H5.
After our chat, he asks if he can take a picture of his bakkie next to our car. “The boys back at the office will never believe me if I don’t take a picture.”
Frankie deals with border officials most days, so we ask him what to expect at Oshoek. We get the normal answer: almost no system and a general lack of urgency.
In our experience it’s best to be as inconspicuous as possible when crossing an African border, but it’s kind of hard not to draw attention to yourself when you’re driving a big orange SUV.
The lady at customs simply stamped the little piece of paper we needed to cross the border, presumably because she had bigger things on her mind. She was reading Fifty Shades of Grey and we had no wish to interrupt her.
About 50m into Swaziland, we realised why the abundance of spotlights on our GWM was a good idea. We’d never seen so many cattle walking around the road. Swaziland, it seems, is free-range heaven. We were glad that if we had to drive at night, we’d have no less than seven lights at our disposal.
Meeting the competition
Francois Rossouw told us at the start of the trip that it wasn’t a competition. Yeah, right. There might not have been judges or a points system, but we all know it’s a competition. An off-road adventure is the perfect opportunity to show your fellow travellers why your car is so much better than theirs. But this immediately put us at a disadvantage. We didn’t have 40, 50 or 60 years of heritage to fall back on, and we certainly couldn’t use sales figures to justify our choice of vehicle. GWM may be leading the Chinese invasion, but it’s nowhere near as big as Toyota, for instance, in the sales department.
When it came to bragging rights, we were expecting to be seriously outgunned by a host of Fortuners, Trailblazers and double cab bakkie owners, who would surely be there to greet us on our arrival.
As it turned out, there was only one Fortuner and two or three double cab bakkies, but the rest of the 25-strong group was made up of two SWB Jeep Wranglers, two SWB Mitsubishi Pajeros, a Land Cruiser station wagon, two Land Rover Discos, a Land Cruiser bakkie and a few other serious machines.
These vehicles were designed, built and fine-tuned over decades. Our car was a first-generation Chinese import without a diff-lock.
We were so far out of their league that they didn’t even bother to make fun of us on that first night. The H5 was so seemingly insignificant that it wasn’t even worth a snide remark.
The following morning the group gathers for breakfast and a quick introduction. Francois introduces us as the representatives of Leisure Wheels, which warms the rather mature crowd to the two young guys in their ranks.
Then the snide remarks start. We don’t recall every piece of trash talk, but the one that sticks out is the comparison between our car and a BIC pen – “You throw it away when it’s empty.”
Most of the comments are in good spirit, and we don’t mind. After all, we’re not the only ones getting it from the big boys. The guys in the Ford Rangers are told that more Ranger engines are produced than Ranger bodies, because they make such good anchors. The guys in the Land Rovers are asked how they’ll be getting home.
It’s a tough crowd, but we’d expected as much!
After the briefing, we’re approached by a man who introduces himself as John. He is driving a 100 Series Land Cruiser. We’re expecting some witty remark about the Golden
Dragon, but instead he tells us he’s rooting for us. Apparently he had been on an off-road adventure with an H5 owner and he’d been impressed by the car’s performance. He wasn’t going to compliment our car in public, but at least we had a secret admirer.
We decided then and there to change the perceptions people have of Chinese products.
Yes, some of them are horrible, but not our H5! We were determined to follow in the footsteps of the mighty 4x4s and, hopefully, raise a few eyebrows by the end of the day.
We were on a mission!
The first part of our excursion proves no match for the H5, but then again, the locals in their Toyota Conquests also had no problems on the same roads. However, we appreciate the scenery along this beautiful route, which takes you down to the shores of the Maguga Dam and back up again.
The area is densely populated (by Swazi standards) and we pass quite a few kids on the way. They put on quite a performance and demand to have their picture taken next to the
Golden Dragon. If nothing else, we can head back home knowing that the H5 was definitely the coolest and drew the most attention.
The second leg of our journey takes us deep into the mountains normally covered in long
grass. Unfortunately, the locals had started burning the day before, which means that most of the landscape has turned to ashes by the time we get to it. At least it makes for a nice contrast between the orange hue of our vehicle and the black and grey ashes blowing against it.
With nothing to look at, for the time being at least, our group resorts to asking our guide,
Andy, about Swaziland. This beautiful country is not without its problems, he says. The people are poor and the government, like most governments in Africa, is corrupt.
Someone asks about the king and his power. This is “absolute”, and we are warned not to talk too much about the king over the twoway radios. One of his palaces is close by, and CV radios are constantly monitored for any transmissions about the king.
A short while later, road conditions start to get interesting. We engage low-range and cross a rocky pool next to a majestic waterfall.
From there on, things get a lot tougher. Francois announces on the radio that we’re
about to cross our first interesting obstacle. The brave should keep left, “the posers” to the right.
A few amateur off-roaders decide not to damage their vehicles and set up camp below the smooth rock we’re about to drive up. As we have no diff-lock, we wonder if it’s even
worth the risk. With a large crowd watching as we enter the obstacle, we decide to keep left. No one ever changed perceptions by playing it safe, so we simply have to get the Golden Dragon up that slippery slope.
On the first attempt we grind to a halt, largely because of driver error. After Francois shows us a less challenging line, we power up the hill with no problems whatsoever.
Once we are parked safely, people start taking a closer look at the H5. No smart remarks. They just want to know more about it.
“Does it have low-range? Do you get a diff lock as standard? Who did the wrapping on this vehicle?” Slowly, but surely, we were gaining some respect.
Our moment of fame would have lasted more than five minutes but for an epic ego contest that breaks out between the owners of two Jeep Wrangler Rubicons. There is only enough space for one to ascend to the top of the mountain, and neither owner will give an inch.
We run to get the shot and witness one of the most epic stare downs in 4×4 history. The ego match is eventually won by Gawie, who proceeds to celebrate his victory by blaring the aftermarket siren system on his car.
We might have won some respect, but wecouldn’t compete with a spectacle like that!
After more meandering down the mountain, we come across a dark pool with a steep
and muddy exit. There is no purpose to this obstacle other than completing it, and then
watching others fail to do the same.
Our car has a set of all-terrain tyres, but this seems to be the kind of obstacle that can make or break a reputation. There’s no turning back – we have to make it.
The water proves no problem for the H5 and we simply power through the incline. It must be said that we applied too much power, as the front wheels leave the ground upon exit, but then again, the effort gets us a round of applause as a result. Feeling mighty smug, we stand aside waiting for everyone else to take their turn.
It turns out to be a largely boring obstacle, thanks to most of the vehicles being more than
capable of making it through. Only one person chooses to use the less scary exit, but since he is on his first ever off-road excursion, we decide not to give him and his car too much of a hard time.
The day ends with a spectacular showdown between the mud hole and a Wrangler. Its
owner decides to show us why it’s a legendary car, and we have to say it did look rather noble as it thrashed through the mud.
We’re not suggesting that our Golden Dragon has as much off-road ability as the Jeep, but we did cross the same obstacle moments before, and we had a crowd of 50 people as witnesses if anyone ever challenges our claim!
That evening we play host to a number of people who show interest in the H5. It has really turned a few heads, which is exactly what we were hoping for. The compliments that night can be put into two categories. The first group of people came up and gave us solid compliments – stuff like “What a nice car” and “We can’t wait to read all about it”. And then there were the few backhanded compliments like, “Well done in the mud, but I couldn’t help but notice that you were one of the first cars through.”
In our opinion, the hole is about as muddy as it’s going to get after about the fift h or sixth vehicle goes through.
The next morning we decide against another day of hectic off -roading, purely because it’s been a while since we’ve been in Swaziland and we want to check out some of the tourist sights. Besides, we’ve more than proved our point. The Golden Dragon is a highly capable machine and it’s earned the praise we’d hoped it would get.
Since we’d been looking at the Maguga Dam from our stoep for the two days, we decide to find out more about this impressive engineering feat.
It’s a stunning achievement that one wouldn’t expect to fi nd in a small country like Swaziland. You drive through kilometres of shabby housing and wandering cattle, and
suddenly this mass of concrete opens up in front of you.
At night it’s a deeply romantic setting with its lights illuminating the surface of the water, but by day it’s even more impressive.
As our guide talks us through the story of the dam (see insert), I can’t help but see the similarities between it and our car. People don’t expect to see great things from certain countries, in the same way that some of us are programmed to expect poor cars from China.
The days of bad Chinese cars are long gone. Some are still lacking, but the H5 isn’t one of them.
So next time you see an H5 at an off –road gathering, give the guy driving it some slack.
Yes, you can hassle him a bit, but that’s mostly because deriding the opposition’s vehicle is part of the fun.
We wouldn’t lay it on too thick, because the guy might just end up driving through or over something you couldn’t manage. And that is going to hurt – a lot.