Haval H9 full-sized seven-seat SUV: Challenging mindsets
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Two things would turn out to be telling about my first off-road drive in Haval’s new full-sized, seven-seat H9 SUV.
First, we were driving on the same road tyres paying customers would leave the showroom with, and secondly our guide was in a V8 Landcruiser equipped with serious off-road rubber. The benchmark was clear.
Truth be told, I wasn't expecting a lot from the Chinese challenger.
Yet, five hours of serious driving later, I had to concede my preconceptions about this 2.2 tonne, ladder frame seven-seater couldn’t have been more wrong.
The H9 is the third Haval model launched in New Zealand, after the brand arrived here last year with the mid-sized H6 and compact H2.
But luckily for Kiwi buyers, the H9 has already been on sale in Australia for three years. During that time Haval’s designers and engineers have processed a lot of feedback from customers and motoring journalists — resulting in a raft of updates fitted to the H9s on sale here.
For Haval, the SUV specialist brand of Great Wall Motors, the H9 is now its premium flagship vehicle in New Zealand, but it hasn’t arrived with a premium price tag.
Haval has decided to bring two grades of its H9 full-sized seven-seater to New Zealand: an entry-level LUX priced at $43,990, and top-end Ultra for $47,990.
Inside the cabin, you’ll find Haval’s first digital instrument panel and speedo, sunroof, anti-glare mirrors and the company’s all-terrain control system.
A step up to the Ultra adds a panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel, eco-leather front seats with heating, massage and ventilation functions (the middle row gets heated seats, too) and an updated Infiniti 10-speaker audio system.
So Haval hasn’t cut corners in the features department. And the same is true when it comes to safety. Blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and rear cross traffic alert are standard across the range.
There’s also a Driver Status Monitoring system that monitors the way the vehicle is being driven, sounding an alarm if it senses the driver is nodding off behind the wheel.
Both models are powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine producing 180kW and 350Nm.
Despite its small capacity, given the size of the vehicle it has to propel, the powertrain is a strong performer. The torque is always there and it’s capable of hauling the family boat or caravan with a 2.5 tonne towing capacity.
Paired to the engine is one of the best transmissions available, a silky-smooth ZF 8-speed with paddle shifters.
The two are well matched and the gearing is perfect for city and country driving.
Behind the wheel, the first thing to get used to is the sheer size of the H9 on the road as you look forward over the its large flat bonnet.
The H9 is designed, positioned and proportioned in the market to make Toyota Prado and Mitsubishi Pajero customers think twice before walking into a Japanese dealership. And, from the driver’s seat, all three feel similar.
Once at speed on some one-lane country roads, the H9’s ride and cabin noise was a revelation.
You could hear the engine working when you planted your foot or flicked down a few gears, but at cruising speeds engine noise faded into the background. And, at 50km/h, it all but disappeared.
The interior was a revelation, too. All the buttons on the steering wheel are positioned logically and, once you get use to the centre stack and infotainment system, it was no bother to change settings on the move — especially those vented and massaging seats.
Everything looks and feels well-made inside the cabin.
The only jarring note is the fake wood on the dash and centre console, which should be left at the factory.
But once at the off-road course, the real test began, and Haval wasn’t mucking around.
During my drive we encountered “axle twisters”, 45-degree hills, steep inclines with tree roots sticking out everywhere and river crossings, before turning around and doing it all over again. This was no entry-level, “have a go” off-road track.
Incredibly, the H9 handled all these tracks with little fuss. But why was I forced to change my tone about a large petrol-powered Chinese SUV going off road? Because I'm a 4x4 novice, and the H9 couldn't have cared less.
It has the systems to deal with everything I was doing wrong and the smarts to let me loose on the occasions I got my steering angles right.
The all-terrain system was vital off-road with its six different modes and the hill descent control system was called upon regularly.
The final kicker happened at the end of the day when I followed the Landcruiser up a steep, muddy incline.
The Landcruiser needed two goes. Meanwhile the H9, with road tyres and me at the wheel, did it effortlessly first time.
Shoddy Chinese car you say? That might have been true five years ago. But in the case of the 2018 Haval H9, the charge simply doesn’t hold up.
And when you consider the H9 has to appease both Chinese buyers who have never owned a large car before, and Kiwis who know large 4x4s well, the middle ground Haval has shows it is ready to hit on our backroads.
At the very least, it warrants a test drive for those looking for a large 4x4 SUV. For a new company that is entering a competitive market, that’s a win.
Price: LUX - $43,990, Ultra - $47,990 + ORCs.
Engine/Gearbox: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol (180kW, 350Nm), ZF 8-speed auto.
Pro: Extensive features list, legitimate off-road performance and on-road refinement.
Con: Out of date preconceptions can hurt