One of the great things about camper trailers is whether you have a budget of $10k or $100k you can find one that suits your needs. Sure, some give up features to meet the budget, and others might have a simple design to hit the right price tag, but others are affordable purely because of the country they’re manufactured in.
Yet, despite all that there’s very little choice when it comes to the tow-tugs to lug your camper around. Want good and new? That’s expensive. Want good and cheap? It ain’t going to be new. With that in mind it shouldn’t shock too many people that Chinese company HAVAL figured it was high time the Mecca of manufacturing stopped throwing cheap models our way and offered an affordable luxury vehicle to compete on more than just the price.
For those unfamiliar with the marque, it’s the SUV arm of familiar ute maker Great Wall that last year sold more than a million cars worldwide, so it’s worth paying attention to. It offers a range of SUVs in Australia from the Grand Vitara-sized H2 right through to the top-dog H9 ‘Lux’, which aims to go toe-to-toe with crowd favourites like the Prado and Pajero.
Despite coming in petrol only (diesel passenger cars are unpopular in China) the H9 offers a spec sheet longer than Borgy’s outstanding tab at the Dargo hotel, so we figured it was well worth a look in.
Luxo-spec interior, serious offroad credentials and all for a sub-$50k price tag? You’ve got our attention, HAVAL.
As we made our way up to the H9 in the loading yard, we weren’t expecting great things. It’s not the first Chinese-built 4WD we’ve monkey’d the tiller in and despite all boasting impressive spec sheets, the important thing holding them back has always been build quality. Despite having laser guided windscreen wipers, they look goofy, sound tinny, and rattle if you sneeze too loud. With that said, the H9 didn’t stand out in the ways we’re used to. You could slap a Mercedes or Audi badge on it and at first glance no one would second guess it.
Swinging open the door, it was clear as day the H9 is a serious step-up in build quality from previous examples we’ve seen. The doors close firmly with a solid thud, the panel gaps are even, the design doesn’t look like my 5yo son drew it with a fist full of crayons, and the squeaks and rattles we’ve come to expect were all absent.
The interior is leather-clad with a reasonably high-end feel and most things falling within easy reach. The seating position is a winner – high and commanding with plenty of vision in every direction and minimal blind spots. The seats are deep leather buckets with adjustment in areas we didn’t know needed adjustment and tilt/reach adjustments on the steering wheel too. Although, if you’re not 5ft tall chances are you’ll run out of adjustment before getting things positioned perfectly. Despite being a reasonably common 6ft tall, I had to set the steering wheel at full extension for a comfortable ride.
Our test model had a few flaws that are easily avoided as well. The colour choice was horrible and not in the fashion police sense either. Despite only having 15,000km on the clock and presumably routinely detailed, the cream carpet was stained front to back. The body was also covered in scratches that, though easily fixed, did show more than you’d like. If you’re eyeing off a H9 as a family wagon, do yourself a favour and don’t tick the light colour cream interior option. A white exterior and black interior package would be the pick for anyone planning on travelling outside of Vaucluse.
HOW'D SHE DRIVE?
At rest, the H9 punches in at a hair over 2200kg, putting it heavier than an 80 Series LandCruiser. And while the 80s were powered by an array of 4+ litre six-cylinder petrols or diesels, the H9 has a 2.0L four-cylinder turbo-petrol under the bonnet with less torque than a Kia minivan. We weren’t hopeful on this part of the test. That said, it wasn’t that bad. The petrol donk is backed by a ZF six-speed automatic transmission which did a fantastic job juggling ratios to keep the engine singing in its sweet spot without the awkward shifts present in even some mainstream 4WDs. It had plenty of go around town and didn’t seem limited until you really tried to get into it.
HAVAL has put plenty of attention into NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) levels too, which ties in well with its affordable luxury ethos. There’s minimal wind noise even at freeway speeds, vibrations through the floorpan are negligible and engine noise is acceptably muted. The suspension goes a long way on this front as well, helping to smooth out most minor and major bumps without wallowing around like my uncle after a few too many Christmas sherries. It does squirm a little when hitting terrain changes at lower speeds, although an aftermarket suspension arrangement will change these characteristics.
The steering is reasonably weighty and direct, being more or less in line with most other SUVs, although it did grunt and groan occasionally turning at slow speeds on idle; the joys of hydraulic steering.
The bottom line is the HAVAL H9 doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but neither do most 4WDs on the market in this category. If you would be comfortable doing the trip in a Prado you’d be just as comfortable doing it in an H9, although the extra $40k left in your wallet might be uncomfortable to sit on.
BUT DOES IT TOW?
This isn’t Australia’s Comfiest Family Wagon magazine: if it can’t tow it doesn’t belong here. So how did the HAVAL do? First let’s address the elephant in the room. It’s underpowered, almost laughably. If you’re buying a H9 to lug the groceries around and haul the occasional load of camping gear to Fraser Island you’ll probably wonder what the big deal is. If you’re hitching 2T of camper on the back you will be pushing the friendship. Surprisingly, the auto and torque convertor hid the problem incredibly well getting up to speed, easily shuffling our big Skamper around without too many issues, but if you try and overtake a slow-moving truck in the left lane at freeway speeds you better have a long overtaking lane. There are murmurs of a diesel option in the future, which should take the towing ability from acceptable to good, but it doesn’t help us now.
The suspension was surprisingly competent despite many other coil-spring offerings dying in the… well, you know, when a trailer is hitched on. There was barely a centimetre or two of sag and at no point did the wagon feel like it was being given orders from behind. It remained planted and nimble through both fast-flowing corrugations and high-speed blacktop work. There are plenty of safety features on the electronic front, but very little specific towing features. Hill-start assist will stop a trailer pulling you backwards when taking off, but don’t expect trailer sway control to get you back in line if things go haywire. The reverse parking sensors can’t detect if a camper is connected too, and if you turn them off you lose the reversing camera as well. Someone didn’t put too much thought into that but it should be reasonably easy to correct with an update.
One big negative – and it is a big one – is the side-hinged tailgate. It makes access to the rear of the big wagon difficult when a trailer is hitched onto the rear, so either keep the drawbar clear of toolboxes, or get used to climbing in over the back seat to grab supplies around camp. Again, not the end of the world but something you will be frustrated with.
A SOLID FAMILY BUS
The H9 is one of the rare vehicles that doesn’t put everyone behind the B-pillar into steerage. The most noticeable bonus is the air-conditioning runs all the way to the back with foot, side, and roof vents depending on where you’re sitting. If you score yourself a spot in one of the front two rows you’ll also have your own separate zone in the climate control system with a second set of controls on the back of the centre console to keep the bickering down. The front two bucket seats pick up a heap of goodies like two-stage lower back massagers (yes, you read that right) as well as heating and venting but the middle row doesn’t miss out too much with plenty of space and the seat backs can be re-angled. You’d comfortably be able to pound out hours of complaint-free travel with your kid in the back seat. The third row is as comfortable as a plank of wood, which is all you can hope for when they need to fold flat into the floor, but there’s still plenty of room.
Storage is plentiful with bins and pouches in every direction you look and more cup-holders than you can shake an XL Diet Coke at. Access to the third row is reasonably easy with the 60/40 bench sliding forward allowing plenty of room to get past. Unfortunately, the 40 section is on the driver’s side so passengers can either play chicken with traffic, or commando roll over the 60 section. One downside you will come across as a family wagon is the fuel bill. While we had a reasonably respectable 12.8L/100km around town it did climb up to 17L/100km lugging a camper around and a boot full of gear.
When the going gets tough is when newcomers like the HAVAL fall to pieces, right? Sorry to disappoint Mr Cruiser, but offroad is where the H9 shines. It’s built on a familiar ladder frame platform with independent suspension up front and a live-axle rear with coil springs and 5-link suspension arrangement.
It’s also backed by a competent 4WD system that makes more than a few traditional players look amateurish when wheels start lifting. The top-spec ‘Lux’ model we tested has HAVAL's All-Terrain-Control-System, which includes at no extra cost a whole bunch of marketing drivel, but in practice is comparable to Mitsubishi’s fantastic Super Select system. In auto mode it’ll send the majority of drive to the rear axle, powering the front as required. There’s a whole bunch of modes that promise to ‘adjust the vehicles traction’ and ‘ensure maximum grip’ but in reality you’ll be reaching for the 4L mode, which automatically engages the rear diff lock and gives a 2.48:1 reduction in drive. It easily masks any shortcomings in the engine and, with the Cooper Discoverer tyres, has no trouble crawling forward even when lifting wheels.
Despite cocking a leg, the H9 never felt unsettled. From the driver’s seat you could rarely tell a wheel had lifted as there was none of the bucking or bouncing you’d experience in less capable vehicles. Ground clearance and angles are all acceptable but aftermarket modifications will be difficult with few manufacturers producing a kit for the relatively unknown brand. If you’re used to punting a 4in lifted Patrol on 35s up rock ledges the HAVAL is a step down, but if you’re stepping sideways from almost any late model 4WDs you’ll be right at home. Touring range is a bit limited, with the stock 80L tank only giving approximately 500km when filled to the brim, so keep that in mind before heading across the Simpson Desert.
I went into this test assuming the HAVAL would be a hot pile of steaming mess and I’d be embarrassed to be seen in it anywhere. I figured it’d fall over itself towing, would drive me nuts with creaks and rattles, and would struggle doing anything resembling serious offroad work. But hey, it’s only fair that all players are given an equal opportunity and are tested fairly.
The HAVAL continually impressed me. In fact, the biggest problem the HAVAL will have in the Australian market is the HAVAL badge. If they could sneak a Japanese badge on the front and hide where it was manufactured (hot tip, it’s the same country that makes premium Apple products) people would be singing its praises as a luxo-4WD that’s seriously affordable, despite having a few rough edges here and there. As it stands I’d be more than happy to have one in convoy on a desert crossing. Well, as happy as I’d be with any late-model 4WD I can’t fix with an oily spanner and a knowing look.
If you’re in the market for a competent offroader with a luxury flair that can tow the occasional camper the H9 might knock a few other makes off your list.
HITS AND MISSES
- Detailed finish
- Well appointed
- Aggressively priced
- Great for larger families
- Nimble on the blacktop
- No diesel engine option
- Small dealer network
- Unknown reliability
- Tare: 2236kg
- GVM: 2850kg
- GCM: 5350kg
- Towing Capacity: 2500kg
- Engine: 2.0L 4-cylinder turbo-petrol
- Torque: 324@2000rpm
- 4x4 System: Full time dual range
- Fuel Consumption: 12.8L/100Km as tested
- Suspension: Front: independent double wishbone coil; Rear: live axle coil spring
- Brakes: Front: disc; rear: disc
- Seats: 7 (2/3/2 configuration)
- Wheel/tyre: 18in alloy 265/60R18
- Style: Wagon
PRICE AS SHOWN