Johannesburg - In reputations we trust. Customers are willing to pay top dollar for car brands that have paid their dues over the years, and they tend to view newcomers with suspicion.

Especially if those newcomers are built cheaply and have dodgy build quality and safety, as has been the case with many Chinese-built vehicles until now.

But, in the same way that Korean and Japanese marques went from cheap-and-nasty to establishing solid reputations, Chinese cars have been steadily improving over the past few years – some more than others.

Haval seems to be at the forefront of this Chinese automotive revolution. It’s the premium arm of working-class brand GWM and it concentrates solely on SUVs. Its vehicles still offer significant price savings over established market rivals but without the quality shortcuts that have plagued so many Chinese offerings.

A few months ago we were reasonably impressed by the Haval H2 SUV we road tested, and now the larger H6 C has come our way and bolstered our growing enthusiasm for the brand.

The H6 C comes in three spec levels, priced between R329 900 and R389 900, and it’s the entry-level City version on test here. It has cloth instead of leather seats but otherwise it comes well-loaded with features, including dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and starting, reversing camera, parking sensors, cruise control, an infotainment system with a large 20cm touchscreen, and automatic headlights and wipers, to mention a few. It’s a very well-stocked package for the price.

Spending extra money on the H6 C Premium or Luxury models will get you additional knick-knacks such as synthetic leather upholstery, electrically-adjustable front seats, xenon instead of halogen headlights, and a more premium sound system, among others.

Kudos also go to the quality and modern design of the Haval’s cabin. From the soft-touch dashboard to the illuminated Haval signs on the door sills, the H6 lays on a reasonably upmarket sense of occasion, with none of the low-rent plasticky feel we’ve come to associate with Chinese vehicles. Remove the badge and you could be sitting inside a Korean or Japanese SUV.

The cabin is very roomy with generous leg and headroom for front and rear passengers. Occupants in the back seat can adjust their backrests and operate their own ventilation controls. The boot’s a good size too, although it’s equipped with a space saver spare tyre.

Chinese vehicles in general don’t have the best safety record, but Haval has loaded the H6 C with ABS brakes, electronic stability control and dual front airbags (the Premium and Luxury versions also get side airbags).

That all makes for peace of mind, but less welcome are the intrusively loud bleeps that sound when you engage reverse, open the doors, shift the transmission from Economy to Sport, and every time you adjust the speed of the cruise control. These annoying sounds made me want to utter bleeps of my own.

Also, the hazard lights would start flashing if I even lightly dabbed the brakes while driving through a corner. All this nannying is a little over the top methinks, and perhaps an over-reaction to previously lax Chinese-vehicle safety standards.

Performance-wise the H6 C offers great bang for your buck; all three derivatives in the range have the same 140kW/310Nm two-litre turbopetrol engine under the hood. The car we tested was the dual-clutch automatic, priced at R359 900, but it’s also available as a six-speed manual for R329 990.

This kind of power is usually unheard of at this price point and it’s a likeable performer, with a willing delivery once it shakes off some turbo lag in initial pulloff. The spirited pace is delivered smoothly and there’s little noise or vibration to complain about. The dual-clutch auto does the gear-changing job with swift efficiency.

It’s quite thirsty, however, with out test car averaging 11.5 litres per 100km.

There’s little to criticise in the ride and handling stakes; the H6 C corners cleanly whilst delivering decent bump-soakability. It seems solidly built, and driving over rough gravel fails to expose any judders or rattles.

There's no off-road ability claimed for this front-wheel drive SUV (you can get an all-wheel drive version only on special order), but the raised ground clearance and high-profile tyres make it better suited to rough gravel than a regular car. To assist the driver on trickier trails it’s also equipped with hill ascent and hill descent control.

VERDICT

Haval is easily the best Chinese brand we’ve yet tested in terms of sophistication and cabin quality, and the comparison list below shows the H6 C as offering great affordability in the medium SUV league.

This comes without the usual dodgy build quality and safety that accompany a bargain pricetag; its refinement is a match for its pricier rivals, it solidly outpunches them in power, and it’s well endowed with luxuries.

How Haval’s build quality will shape up after a few years of ownership is a question that still needs to be answered, however. Chinese vehicles also still have a way to go before they earn the same resale values and consumer trust as more established brands, but Haval seems to be on the right path.

The brand seems to offer a reasonable dealer footprint and after-sales support too. The number of South African dealers is expected to grow from 18 to 35 by the end of 2018, and all Havals are sold with a five-year or 100 000km warranty and five-year or 60 000km service plan.

FACTS

Haval H6 C City AT

Engine: 2-litre, 4-cyl turbopetrol
Gearbox: 6-speed automatic
Power: 140kW @ 5500rpm
Torque: 310Nm @ 2000-3600rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 9 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 190km/h
Price: R359 900
Warranty: 5-year/100 000km
Service plan: 5-year/60 000km

ALTERNATIVES

Ford Kuga 1.5T Ambiente AT 132kW / 240Nm R381 900
Hyundai Tucson 2.0 Premium AT 115kW / 265Nm R399 900
Hyundai Tucson 1.6 Turbo Executive 130kW / 265Nm R449 900
Kia Sportage 2.0 Ignite AT 114kW / 192Nm R382 995
Mazda CX-5 2.0 Active AT 121kW / 210Nm R394 700
Nissan Qashqai 1.6T Accenta 120kW / 240Nm R429 900
Peugeot 3008 1.6T Active  121kW / 240Nm R414 900
Toyota Rav4 2.0 GX AT 107kW / 187Nm R391 100
Volkswagen Tiguan 1.4 TSI Comfortline AT 110kW / 250Nm R479 900

Follow Denis Droppa on Twitter @DenisDroppa

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