Lined up under shiny department store lights are two identically sized televisions, one from No Name and the other Status Quo. Each bright picture looks identical, only the latter costs a whole 50 per cent more … and that is the one I forked out for.
This is the automotive equivalent of that electronics-product conundrum. Or, in my case, not a conundrum at all because I just wanted my new idiot-box to work for years ahead. Indeed, it will take an SUV with a towing capacity able to shift Uluru to be able to drag offroad- and towing-obsessed buyers away from the Toyota Prado.
From the start the Haval H9 will struggle to do this, we have to be clear.
This is near enough to a Chinese copy of the Japanese bush-icon, but it isn’t available in diesel and it doesn’t have its rival’s long-held reputation for reliability nor its outback-wide parts and servicing.
Yet in almost every tangible way they duel tyre-to-tyre, from space and equipment to performance and refinement, and on-road and offroad capability. Yes, we’ll even give parts of the test away right now, purely in order to emphasise that the H9 costs $44,990 plus on-road costs while the equivalent Prado asks … $73,990 (plus orc).
A price gap of $30,000 is unheard of between similar competitors, whatever the segment class. So, it has to go somewhere in the Toyota over the Haval, right? Well, both have bush-friendly 18-inch tyres, locking differentials, similar ground clearance, near-identical approach and departure angles, plus a 10mm difference in wheelbase.
The Prado is now diesel-only, with the 2.8-litre turbo producing 50kW less power than H9’s 2.0-litre turbo-petrol but a whole 100Nm more torque. Not only is the Toyota claimed to slurp 2.9 litres less fuel per 100 kilometres (8.0L/100km versus 10.9L/100km) but its 150-litre fuel tank is almost twice the size of its rival’s 80L, and its 3.0-tonne braked towing capacity is a half-tonne higher than the 2.5t-rated Haval.
Is a slight outputs advantage, a 500kg towing and 2.9L/100km fuel advantage, plus an extra 70L in the tank, worth $30K? On paper they’re the primary differences.
To be fair the $44,990 (plus orc) H9 Ultra splits the equipment differences with a $66,490 (plus orc) Prado GXL Premium Pack and the $73,990 (plus orc) Prado VX tested here. The cheaper of the Toyotas includes leather, plus electrically adjustable heated and ventilated front seats to match its Chinese rival, though it does add active cruise control and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) absent from any Haval.
Yet it takes the dearer of the Prados to match the H9 with 18s, front and rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, and premium audio (14-speaker JBL versus nine-speaker Infinity respectively). The VX then streams ahead by uniquely offering a 360-degree camera, a console fridge and digital radio, only for the Ultra to return serve with massage seats, an electric-adjust third-row and panoramic sunroof all missing in its Japanese rival. There is nothing (except price) in it yet…
This current-generation ‘LandCruiser’ Prado came out in 2009. Indeed, one of the only SUV models older than it is the LandCruiser 200 that landed in 2007. Toyota has an ageing four-by-four fleet, but in this segment proven durability counts for more than light-veneer updates – although Prado has been facelifted three times since.
Such perspective is required when opening the doors of these rivals, and to then understand the contrast between them.
Quite simply, the H9 looks and feels newer inside. Haval use individual LED map lights in all three rows, compared with square, halogen dome lamps in its rival. Its door armrests are coated in lush padding, every storage pocket is flock-lined in furry velour, and the perforated-leather steering wheel is backed by tactile paddleshifters.
Speaking of tactility, it extends to soft-touch door trims complete with vertical door grabs that simply feel solid. If only such tightness extended to the centre console buttons and general fit-and-finish, which is more than a bit Fisher Price toy set.
Some buttons – like the horizontal line of ancillary functions on the lower stack that are clearly a Mercedes-Benz rip-off – are nicely damped, while others including the transmission selector are just clacky and wobbly. Variable door shutlines are a worry, too, and our 7000km-old (but hard driven) example had an enormous dash rattle.
Up front, the Toyota is in many ways its opposite number. Practical and pragmatic without feeling very premium, bright screens and leather cover what is otherwise a basic and blocky interior. But do buyers prefer style and chintz, or simple quality?
Tellingly, our 12,000km-old Prado had not a rattle inside, and everything was screwed together well.
Yet we have to keep coming back to the price difference, because this Chinese contender is in all other ways a match for its established Japanese foe.
Ergonomically, both are simple, although the touchscreen design and integrated satellite navigation feels similarly slow and basic, with neither scoring Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone connectivity. The Toyota has the 360-degree camera, but the Haval’s rearview is actually much clearer. And both audio systems are good, the trip computers easy, the front seats comfortable, and vision all fine.
One row behind and both score a 60:40-split sliding and reclining middle-row bench and backrest respectively, but only Toyota places the smaller ‘40’ side on the kerbside for our right-hand drive market. In the Haval, kids will need to push forward the larger and heavier portion of the middle seat in order to access the third row.
Both also get three-zone climate control with heated outboard positions, but it’s the H9’s bench that is much less flat, and its leather is less slippery. Meanwhile each offers near-identical legroom that can rounded to the nearest shedload.
In a sign of the times, and each model’s vintage, the older Toyota gives middle-row riders a 12-volt charging port while the newer Haval provides a fast-charge USB port. And the latter copies the former with a side-hinged tailgate, boot-mounted powerpoint and pretty much exactly the same amount of all-seats-up boot space.
Only the Ultra doesn’t hinge its spare wheel to the tailgate, which is more prone to swinging closed unintentionally on the VX. Plus, the former gets a one-touch 50:50-split electrically adjustable third-row versus the plain old two-stage manual seats of the pricier contender.
Once seated back there, the Chinese SUV has wider and shapelier seats along with more headroom, while the Japanese SUV gets narrower seats that are more like sitting on top of a hot-cross bun. That said it also provides greater legroom that demands less of a knees-up seating position, ultimately aiding under-thigh support.
And so the to-and-fro continues. Other than with fit-and-finish issues, it really feels like these two competitors could be identically priced, not a Camry’s value apart.
ON AND OFF THE ROAD
Weird noises emanate from under the bonnet of the Haval around town. An agricultural hiss here, and buzz there, while along with a sporadically working stop-start system, this 2.0-litre turbo-petrol comes off as more than a bit diesel-esque.
Its performance is impressive, though. Off the line the eight-speed automatic – from renowned German brand ZF – helps the engine drive through a short first gear to feel immediately responsive and, once up and running, decently refined. A peak 350Nm of torque comes in at 1800rpm and holds strong until 4500rpm, while 180kW of power enters at a low-ish 5500rpm. So, despite being petrol, it is eminently drivable.
Urban consumption, though, is not a highlight. Even a gentle, but heavily trafficked run through the city saw 19.0 litres per 100 kilometres. The same in the diesel-only Prado delivered 12.5L/100km.
Ah, the Toyota. On light throttle its 2.8-litre turbo is louder than the H9 petrol, with an ever-present and persistent gruffness penetrating through the firewall. With 130kW at 3400rpm and 450Nm from 1600rpm until 2400rpm, the six-speed auto wisely shifts early and it always remains adept at picking the right gear.
Both none-too-quiet engines smoothen out at speed, thankfully, and they similarly close the gap for economy on the open road and after offroading. While the VX fell to 9.8L/100km, the Ultra moved to a competitive 11.5L/100km. The biggest difference is that the former’s fuel tank made for a 1200km range … after 250km of testing, mind. The latter’s tank and higher fuel usage combined for a relatively paltry 550km range.
It’s no coincidence that the Haval closes the gap at country speeds though. It is 50kg lighter, albeit at a still considerable 2335kg. But its overall performance and overtaking ability is much, much stronger than its hard working and breathless rival.
Here’s the kicker, too: thanks to a tall eighth gear, at freeway pace the H9 Ultra is near-silent under the bonnet, as well as being hushed in terms of wind and road noise, and providing astonishingly level ride quality. Right in that moment, this actually feels like a decently expensive large offroader.
The Haval is also surprisingly linear in its steering, and its body control through winding and rough country roads is tight enough to suspect that the development benchmark wasn’t the Toyota here, but rather the superb Land Rover Discovery.
Switch to the Prado and it immediately feels cushier. On really chopped-up backroads that makes for less fidgeting than that which is delivered by its rival. But the advantage ends there. Around town the Toyota rocks between its axles during braking, with pitch that could make occupants queasy. It also lumbers side to side, by no means excessively, but by enough to notice relative to the Chinese contender.
The Japanese model’s steering is softer and lazier, requiring constant attention on the freeway or straight dirt roads alike. It’s simply less tight and less right.
On tarmac, the revelation is that the Haval H9 is more pleasurable to drive than the Toyota Prado. It’s the sentence brand loyalists, or those who just paid 50 per cent more for a dynamically inferior vehicle on road, simply won’t want to hear.
That said, though, off road is arguably where these two vehicles most need to shine. First in the VX and there are no surprises. A near-30-degree, heavily corrugated hill is clambered up with aplomb. But the Ultra follows it without any issue.
As the photography shows, an enormous cavity mid-way through the climb had each rear-right leg dangling into it yet always maintaining tyre contact with the surface and proving that wheel articulation is a strong point for both vehicles.
The Toyota has 219mm of ground clearance versus 206mm for its rival, but given the tentacle-like ability of their independent front and solid rear axle set-ups, they are each able to keep their belly off the ground admirably well. The Haval’s approach angle of 28 degrees is just off its rival’s 30.4deg, but the 23deg breakover angle eclipses it by 1.9deg and the departure angles are both 23deg.
Of course the Prado has high- and low-range, plus a locking centre and rear differential, but the way the electronics also flicker and graunch to help it out of tight spots is simply superb. It doesn’t have the H9’s (once again Discovery-esque) multiple modes – such as Mud, Sand and Snow – but really doesn’t need them. That said, with the same two ranges and rear-diff lock, the Ultra just churned and burned.
Can you go as deep off road in a Haval? Quite probably, yes. But could you get as far and for as long as the Toyota? The fuel tank issue, petrol engine and servicing indicates no.
The H9 does get a five-year (versus three-year) warranty, plus 15,000km and annual versus 10,000km and six-month services. But it lacks the Prado’s clear capped-price servicing that costs $240 for each of the first six, as well as the number of Toyota service (and parts) centres available nationwide.
Last year the Haval was more expensive, had only six gears and less power. This year the H9 is improved in those respects. Indeed, the pace of change for China is like comparing fibre-optic Internet speeds to the copper-wire of its Japanese rival.
However, we’re not talking about savvy, smartphone obsessed buyers and city-car smarts here. In this segment, toughness and durability counts for more than glitz and glamour. We’d cast no aspersions on the Haval, except to say its fit-and-finish, rattles and buzzes and creaks indicate already that quality is not nearly on par with Toyota.
For country touring, a large tank is a must, and for towing, a 500kg advantage could make all the difference. And even the price difference could arguably be recouped in resale values – according to industry guide Redbook, a 2015-built and then-$50,990 (plus orc) H9 LUX would now be worth $21,900 as a trade-in with 50,000km; a then-$61,990 (plus orc) Prado GXL of the same year and kilometres would nab $37,800.
These external factors are realities, yet they should take nothing away from the fact that the H9 Ultra is better to drive on the road than the Prado VX while doing everything asked of it off road, all for an up-front $29K saving.
The established Japanese contender is the best recommendation here, but for the first time we can confidently say that the phrase ‘the Chinese are coming’ is more than just a cliché. This four-wheel drive largely proves that they’re already here.
Haval H9 Ultra – 3.5 stars
Toyota Prado VX – 3.5 stars