Haval H8

Chinese newcomer aims high, doesnít quite get there

DAMION SMY

FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE

STEREOTYPES are common in this business.

German cars have the best perceived quality; French cars are the most chic; Japanese are reliable; Australian cars are sturdy.

Chinese cars are not seen as quality, chic, reliable or luxurious, yet thatís exactly the pitch Haval is making with its range of SUVs, headlined by the H8.

The H8 is the Chinese carmakerís challenger to the Toyota Kluger and Mazda CX-5, two of Australiaís most popular SUVs. Weíre the first export market for Haval, which is owned by Great Wall, and the H8 is first cab off the rank for its three-model SUV launch line-up.

This big SUV is 4.8 metres long, with a monocoque chassis, and is loaded with equipment. The handsome exterior, which looks like a blend of previous-generation Mercedes ML with a few Volkswagen Touareg overtones thrown in for good measure, has genuine presence and appeal. It looks the business on its standard 19-inch alloys, with excellent detailing, fit and finish.

Climb in and thereís equipmentlist overload. Caramel leather covers seats that offer endless electric adjustment, plus (optional) heating, cooling and massage functions, while the door trims, grey marbly applique and dash top are generally convincing.

However, there are a few detail inconsistencies that undermine Havalís premium-SUV positioning.

The 8.0-inch centre touchscreenís graphics look dated, and while the beautifully textured rotary dial for the sunroof is clearly from the school of VW, the plain, shiny black power window buttons look and feel generic. Thereís no digital speedo, a foot-operated park brake and the cruise control stalk is hidden behind the steering wheel.

Driving the H8 backs up that feeling of it being Ďnearly thereí.

Itís powered by Havalís own 160kW 2.0-litre turbo-petrol fourcylinder, and while the engine has a smooth idle that develops a bassy tone under load, its progress is adequate, not grunty.

Throttle response at slow speed reveals a long pedal, but even after a stab, the throttle and six-speed auto canít answer fast enough, with lag that makes gaps in traffic a no-go. Below 2000rpm, where the peak 324Nm kicks in, the H8 struggles. You canít spontaneously flick the shift paddles, either, until youíve moved the centre shifter into manual mode.

Around town, the ride is too firm to qualify the H8 as a premium SUV, catching every surface change and bump, and its body control reveals its 2175kg heft by pitching and rolling too much into corners.

Add to that steering thatís flaccid on-centre, weights up excessively and is heavy around town, and the H8 feels large.

A 12.2m turning circle only underlines that.

Itís not all bad news, though.

The H8ís fuel economy on test with 98-octane was 11.1L/100km (better than its 12.2L/100km official figure), despite lacking idle-stop, and while there is wind whistle at speeds beyond 60km/h, overall refinement is otherwise reasonable. Thereís also loads of space in the second row, with ISOFIX child-seat mounts, a 60/40 split-fold seat and a decent boot area. The standard 10-speaker audio system rocks too.

The H8 is not convincing as a premium SUV, but it shows Haval has genuine talent that will only improve from what is a reasonable base. It should break the Chinese stereotype. Trouble is, with such a competitive Australian market, a product thatís almost there may find it tough alongside so many well-executed competitors.

PLUS & MINUS

Harsh ride; heavy and lumpy steering; large turning circle Excellent fit and finish; roomy cabin; generous equipment level

ON THE LEVEL 01

You may not have heard of Haval, but if you know anything about cars, youíll know ZF.

It supplies the self-levelling suspension thatís standard on the H8, that raises the car, from rest, automatically. It works via a pump on the rear axle in place of conventional dampers.

YES, CAPTAIN 02

Havenít driven a car before? No problem. To entrust you with 2.2-tonnes of metal and plastic in a public space, thereís a voice that tells you which way to turn the steering wheel when you select reverse. Thatís correct: it tells you how to reverse parkÖ

100% AUSSIE BEEF 03

The leather that covers the seats and doors in the H8 isnít from China, but from Australia, says the company. Itís not bad but lacks the smooth, textured finish of other luxury brands, despite having perforated centre panels.

Lofty ambition

Haval officially launched here in November 2015 with three models: the entry-level H2, which sits between the Mazda CX-3 and CX-5 in terms of size; the H8 tested here; and the ladder-chassis, offroad- centric H9 (above) that will be aiming to lure buyers away from Toyota Prado and Ford Everest. The first factorydistributed Chinese brand in Australia, Haval kicked off with four dealerships and should have six by the time you read this. It has ambitious plans to reach 25 Australian dealers by the end of 2016.

OR TRY THESE...

Mazda CX-5 Akera

$47,410 The best-selling SUV in Australia, and for good reason. The sharply styled CX-5 has car-like dynamics, excellent fit and finish, and highly efficient engines. Great resale value bolsters an already compelling case.

Kia Sorento SLi AWD

$49,490 A Wheels comparison test winner, the Sorento AWD diesel has excellent build quality, a classleading seven-year warranty and a five-star safety rating. While talent is up, so is the price: itís no bargain.