Although virtually unheard of in our region, Hongqi is China’s oldest passenger car marque, having been founded in 1958. The name literally translates to “Red Flag” – a Communist Chinese symbol – as Hongqi’s vehicles in the early days were used primarily to cart government officials around.
The Hongqi brand folded in 1981 but was resurrected in the mid-1990s and is now under the umbrella of FAW (First Automobile Works) Group – one of China’s big four carmakers, alongside Changan Automobile, Dongfeng Motor Corporation, and SAIC Motor.
Hongqi’s mid-size H5 sedan was added a couple of years ago to Dubai’s taxi fleet, so you’ve most likely seen the vehicle plying local roads without realising what it was. It doesn’t help that the bootlid badge spelling the car’s brand identity is in Chinese.
However, the latest – and by far most interesting – addition to Hongqi’s range is the overtly ostentatious H9 limo, which is similar in size to the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series. That said, the Chinese offering comes with bargain-basement pricing, as the entry-level 2.0T Deluxe costs Dh229,900 ($62,600), plus VAT, while the 3.0T Deluxe is priced at Dh269,900 (plus VAT), and the 3.0T Flagship pegged at Dh309,900 (plus VAT).
One may question the exterior aesthetics of the H9, as it comes across as a mishmash of Rolls-Royce, Lincoln, Maybach and BMW design elements. There’s no shortage of bling, as pressing the unlock button on the key fob triggers a light show (via red and white LEDs on the grille and front fenders) that puts Knight Industries Three Thousand – of Knight Rider fame – to shame.
Fortunately, the cabin is much better executed, as the leather seats are nicely sculpted, the aluminium bezels on the twist knobs have a pleasing heft and feel, and the virtual instrument cluster has a distinctly Merc S-Class look. That said, the instruments are virtually unreadable on bright sunny days as the digitised dash panel reflects a lot of glare.
Hongqi’s designers have made liberal use of glossy piano-black trim on the dash and centre console, but the faux-brushed aluminium strip that’s positioned alongside looks distinctly naff. Rear-seat space is vast, with acres of leg and shoulder-room, and adequate headroom for anyone under 1.83 metres. There’s a control panel on the centre-rear armrest, allowing rear-seat dwellers to adjust the positioning of their seat, and even slide forward the front passenger seat to give themselves more legroom.
The real surprise is the composure and competence with which the H9 drives. We tested the entry-level 2.0T Deluxe, and this model is propelled by a Volkswagen/Audi-sourced 2.0-litre engine that puts out 245 horsepower and 380Nm. Drive is relayed to the rear wheels by a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
A four-cylinder engine might seem small for a limo of this size, but there’s adequate reserves of smooth, tractable pulling power, and the seven-speed auto also shifts through the ratios seamlessly. Most importantly, it has the knack of being in the right gear at the right time.
The H9 rides with an impressive level of compliance, but more surprising still is the crispness with which it steers and how flat and composed it remains – for a vehicle of its girth – even if you vigorously fling it into corners. The brakes are a bit spongy and lacking in bite, but that’s really the only criticism of the H9’s overall dynamics. The Hongqi effortlessly eats up highway miles, with only a modicum of wind noise from around the windscreen pillars intruding on the serene cabin ambience.
It’s also worth pointing out that Hongqi has since recruited ex-Rolls-Royce design boss Giles Taylor to head up its styling department, so coming models from the brand are likely to be much better resolved aesthetically.
In the meantime, the H9 is a compelling offering, as it’s the best-value proposition in the limo class, substantially undercutting not only the Euro brigade, but also fellow Asian rivals such as the Genesis G90 and Lexus LS.
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo
Power: 245hp at 5,000-6,000rpm
Torque: 380Nm from 1,800-4,300rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch auto
Fuel consumption: 7.8L/100km
Price: Dh229,900 (plus VAT)
On sale: Now