The cars coming out of Chinese factories have reminded me of nerdy teenagers with bad skin and underdeveloped social skills, the ones who are awkward around the opposite sex and get teased by the cool kids.
But nerdy teenagers tend to grow up into successful adults, often with the former cool kids working for them. While this hasn’t happened with Chinese cars there are signs, like with GWM’s new H6, that they’ve been through the worst of their growing pains.
Following its unveiling at the Joburg International Motor Show at the end of last year, GWM’s new sports utility vehicle has now arrived in local showrooms, sporting significant leaps in build quality and sophistication compared to its H5 predecessor.
The five-door H6 sells in a 2-litre turbodiesel version (on test here) as well as a 1.5 petrol turbo, both with front-wheel drive and six-speed manual gearboxes. No all-wheel drive is offered so they aren’t bundu bashers, but the 180mm ground clearance and high-profile tyres do allow some rough-road driving.
It’s when you step inside that evidence of the metamorphosis is most striking. You’re greeted by a much classier looking interior than we’re used to from Chinese carmakers. Great Wall Motors has made impressive strides in the look and feel of the H6 cabin, with neat finishes that are a far cry from China’s crude earlier efforts. There’s some design flair too with silver accents on the doors and dash, and the air vents are round in the sporty fashion of today’s trend.
Leather seats further raise the ambience in the diesel-engined H6 2.0 TCI, which sells for R329 900 and comes with a three-year/100 000km warranty and two years/unlimited mileage roadside assistance.
Modern gadgets abound in the H6 and the toys include cruise control, climate control, auto lights and auto wipers, daytime running lights, tyre pressure monitor, and rear-view camera with park assist which all come standard. So too a large touchscreen interface for the audio system, which provides connectivity via Bluetooth, SD cards as well as USB and auxiliary ports.
The H6 has grown over the H5 (which is still on sale as a more budget-oriented model). It’s one of the biggest SUVs in its class, and offers a roomy family-sized cabin with great rear legroom, and rear backrests that can be tilted to improve passenger comfort.
The boot swallows a heap of luggage (though GWM doesn’t provide the size in litres) and houses a full-size spare wheel, and the cargo area can be expanded by folding down the rear seats.
The little everyday niceties are well catered for, including a good number of storage nooks and cupholders, a height- and reach-adjustable steering wheel (although it’s still not reach-adjustable enough for the long-legged), and fold-out armrests for both front seats. Safety is taken care of by ABS brakes, which stopped the car swifty when we emergency tested them on a wet road, while tyre pressure monitors and dual front airbags are also standard on both models. The H6 achieved a maximum five-star rating in China’s C-NCAP crash test, but hasn’t been tested by the more respected Euro NCAP.
In terms of driving dynamics the H6 delivers fairly neat handling for a big SUV, and gets around corners without feeling overtly wallowy. The ride quality is acceptable too, if not class-leading.
The H6’s solidity and NVH levels are greatly improved over what we’re used to from China, although you can feel the torsional rigidity’s still below the class leaders.
However, the metamorphosis has stalled in terms of drivetrain refinement, where the Chinese vehicle still lags behind the establishment. At the heart of the problem is the chronic turbo lag of the 2-litre four cylinder turbodiesel engine. Once in its power band the 105kW and 310Nm engine pulls with decent gusto, but that initial low-rev dead spot is exasperating. It’s also a very noisy engine, with a tractor-like clatter that upsets the neighbours and set dogs a-barking.
The other turn-off is the very notchy action of the manual six-speed gearshifter, which is an irritation when it requires such a lot of gearchanging to keep this engine in its powerband. The turbo lag and stiff gearshift combine to make driving, especially in urban commuting with lots of stop-and-go, a very laborious experience.
The onboard computer claimed our test vehicle was sipping a super-economical 6.4 litres per 100km. Computers are usually accurate but it’s a suspect figure given that the factory claim is 6.7 litres.
Buying Chinese cars was previously a straightforward affair of settling for a crude, cheaply-built vehicle for a rock bottom price. It’s become a little more complicated with a newcomer like the GWM H6, which has raised its game specifically in its interior execution, but also at a hiked price.
Where the GWM H5 is around 70 grand cheaper than established rivals like the Kia Sportage diesel, the H6 trims that gap to just 20 grand.
While there are likeable aspects to China’s top-selling SUV – including its high spec levels and roominess – the excessive turbo lag, noisy engine and notchy gearshifts place it significantly more than 20 grand behind the establishment. -Star Motoring
Engine: 4-cyl, 2-litre turbodiesel
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Power: 105kW @ 4000rpm
Torque: 310Nm @ 1800 - 2800rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): N/A
Top speed (claimed): 180km/h
Consumption (claimed): 6.7 l/100km
Price: R329 900
Warranty: 3-year/100 000km
Service plan: None
Hyundai ix35 2.0 CRDi Elite (130kW/392Nm) - R389 900
Kia Sportage 2.0 CRDi (130kW/382Nm) - R349 995
Nissan X-Trail 2.0 dCi XE (110kW/320Nm) - R356 400