FIRST DRIVE | Why the Haval Jolion is the best Chinese offering yet
Great Wall Motors (GWM) and its slightly swankier Haval division seem to be at the same tipping point Hyundai and Kia reached just over a decade ago.
From trading primarily on the virtues of affordability and high standard specification, the Korean brands upped the ante in terms of quality, technology and design prowess.
They began producing cars people would want to put in their driveways, not merely decided on from practical viewpoints. Evidence of success was seen when the Elantra won the title of South African Car of the Year in 2012.
For Haval, the H2 has fared superbly from a sales metric since being introduced in 2017. Good looks (that got better with a 2019 facelift), a high level of kit and keen pricing made it a hit, even though it was rough around certain edges.
But its successor, the Jolion, has upped the bar dramatically: the new compact family sport-utility vehicle makes its forebear seem completely outmoded. It was launched in SA last week and we spent a day with the model in town and through the countryside of Gauteng.
And that name? Haval claims that Jolion is the anglicised version of Chūliàn, which means “first love” in Mandarin.
We will resist dismissing it as odd, since we always swoon when French and Italian carmakers slap words from their languages on the rears of vehicles.
The first and most obvious calling card of the vehicle is its aesthetic character. From some angles the styling does appear derivative of a particular Swedish specimen. And with cues familiar from Teutonic alternatives too.
But not in a blatant, rip-off kind of way – subtle influences that create a positive affinity. A reminder that Phil Simmons, former studio director for Land Rover exterior design, took up the post of design director and vice-president at the Chinese firm.
He has a decorated list of hits, having led the evolutions of products such as the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and Range Rover Evoque.
Our top-grade Super Luxury test unit wore visual highlights like a chrome mesh grille, which echoes the impression of a vehicle costing much more than what the Jolion asks.
Which is a reasonable R299,900 for the basic City grade and R332,900 for the Luxury, both equipped with six-speed manual transmissions.
Then the dual-clutch automatic offerings kick off at R339,900 in Premium guise, R367,900 in Luxury kit and R398,900 for the flagship we drove.
The Jolion is sold with a five-year/100,000 warranty and five-year/60,000km service plan.
Expectations were exceeded on stepping into the future-forward cabin of the Jolion. A 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system dominates proceedings, boasting a wonderfully clear display, with sensitivity and functionality that proved slick and issue-free.
Quality delivers on the premium aspirations that the brand is vying for. The execution and flair is superb, with soft, hide-like material for the fascia and plastics of a delicate texture.
As for features, the Super Luxury is true to name, with no glaring omissions in kit. You get a panoramic sunroof, leather upholstery, electric seat adjustment for the driver, wireless smartphone charging, 360-degree exterior view, dual-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control and traffic sign recognition.
Add to that lane-keeping assist, lane-departure warning and a lane-centre keeping function with steering intervention.
This trio of aids spoiled the experience, seemingly poorly calibrated to the nuances of South African roads. The hyperactive sensors were triggered every few seconds, accompanied by a warning chime that could prompt a severe nervous breakdown. We are told that the feature can be disabled.
There were other quirks noted too. The frontal camera was positioned behind the grille and its display looked like the fishbowl lenses through which many a 90s R&B music video was filmed.
Also, why did they have to hide the USB port behind the centre console?
The ride quality, handling and overall performance of the Jolion were redemptive factors.
It is powered by the same 1.5-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder petrol from the H2. But with a DCT in the mix, the grunt of the motor seemed better utilised. A surprising thing, since the on-paper output of 105kW and 210Nm is nothing to write home about.
It only starts to feel out of depth under hard acceleration uphill, in cases where you would need to overtake swiftly. Around the city and through the rolling hills of the provincial outskirts, it is up to task when finessed along.
No crash test results are available yet, but the Luxury and Super Luxury models feature dual front, side and curtain airbags. The City and Premium do without curtain airbags, according to the specifications sheet.
Luggage space is rated at 337l, extending to 1,133 with the rear seats folded.
If we are comparing boot areas, that puts it roughly on par with the Volkswagen T-Cross (377l).
But with a total length of 4,472mm it is similar in size to a Mazda CX-5 (4,550mm) or Toyota RAV4 (4,600mm).
Price-wise, of course, its base sticker undercuts all of these: even the T-Cross Comfortline goes for R345,700, while the other two cars from a segment above begin at R455,500 and R472,900 respectively.
The Jolion is an impressive product and one we could recommend.
But if Haval is to be considered in the same league as well-established, mainstream players, then the aftersales experience had better be as good as the product they sell.