Chery Maxime 1

Malaysians love MPVs. Okay, maybe love is a rather strong word to use in this context, but the fact is that our rising population has pretty much forced the people carrier to become the default transportation of choice for many families, whether urban or rural.

And frankly, you’re spoiled for choice, at least if your bank account is relatively healthy. Take your pick – there’s the Japanese zen-like comfort of the Nissan Serena S-Hybrid and Mazda Biante, the European sophistication of cars like the Peugeot 5008 and Volkswagen Sharan, or, if you’re really feeling flush, the Toyota Alphards and Vellfires and Nissan Elgrands flooding the grey market (or, if you want, through official means as well).

If you’re looking for something affordable, however, your only options are of the national (Perodua Alza, Proton Exora) or of the bargain basement Japanese kind (Nissan Grand Livina, Toyota Avanza). This was the environment in which the old Chery Eastar thrived in when it came on the scene in 2008 – the Chinese seven-seater was a breath of fresh air from P1 and P2, and more car-like than the Nippon-badged offerings.

That was seven years ago, however, so the Eastar is getting a bit long in the tooth now. Early this year, Chery has finally sent in reinforcements by supplanting it with a new model, called the Chery Maxime. In fact, we’re considered such an important market for the new MPV that Chery has launched it here first, a full three months before the Chinese-market model makes its debut in Shanghai. But is the new pretender good enough to sling it out with the sub-RM90k competition? Let’s find out, shall we?

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The Maxime is really a rather comprehensive makeover of the Eastar, and while you may still catch a few glimpses of the old car in profile, the revisions – designed by a team led by ex-GM assistant chief designer James Hope, ex-Porsche senior designer Hakan Saracoglu and former GM senior designer Sergio Loureiro – lend the new car a different outlook altogether.

The bulbous double-bubble reflector headlights have been replaced by sleeker upswept projector units joined to a broader front grille, while a single lower air intake takes the place of the previous triple inlets, flanked by vertical LED daytime running lights.

Chrome door mouldings add class as well as protection against dings and scratches, while the slim, full-width LED tail lights bring to mind cars like the Honda Civic Tourer and the Toyota Previa/Estima. You almost don’t notice the additional panels required to hide the hole left by the predecessor’s vertical tail lights. Almost.

Below the tail lights sits a wider rear number plate recess with a prominent chrome trim piece bearing the Chery badge. The rear indicators, reflectors and fog lights are housed in the bumper as before but look far better integrated, while a black lower insert gives the car a touch of sportiness. Only the busy 16-inch wheel design – which looks like the one offered on the Proton Satria Neo CPS – disappoints slightly.

The interior has also been completely revised. The minimalist dashboard and acres of fake wood have been banished; there’s now a more sophisticated design. And while there are still hints of typical Chinese brittle plastics and hollow switchgear in some areas (as well as some cheap-feeling spongy fabric upholstery), the overall fit and finish is decent enough for this price range. Although the plastics used are of the hard variety, the Maxime feels more luxurious than its rivals thanks to its smattering of leather trimming.

More of a pressing issue are the ergonomics, which are still ever so slightly off. The steering wheel only has rake adjustability – that’s fine given how cheap it is, but the range of tilt on offer isn’t wide enough, so it always sits too low. The glovebox is also quite small; it opens up deceptively wide, but the rear portion is fixed – you really only have a small slot in which to store your odds and ends.

Then there are the audio controls, which are all clustered below the upper dashboard – the simple head unit between the centre air vents, which does not even have a CD player, only features a slim LCD display and the preset buttons; everything else is manipulated by a row of buttons low down, making them harder to get to. The air-con knobs are also a bit on the small side, but there are no complaints on their operation.

I do have a complaint about the instrument cluster, though. It’s placed in the centre like on the Eastar, but it isn’t angled towards the driver; instead, it faces straight forward. It doesn’t sound like much of a problem until you realise that the parallax makes it difficult to read certain gauges accurately, particularly the speedometer when at or near the speed limit.

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The good news is that these are really just minor bugbears that are possible to get used to with daily use, and don’t get in the way from the rest of the cabin’s good bits. One of them is space – the Maxime is one of the bigger cars in its class and it shows inside, with decent head-, leg- and shoulder room on the first two rows. The middle row can both recline and slide fore and aft.

The rearmost two seats are a little tight to be in for extended periods of time, but they are completely useable for short to medium-length journeys, and beat the pews of most of its rivals. There’s a decent amount of boot space, too, even with all the seats folded up, although Chery’s quoted 588 litre figure seems quite optimistic. Folding both rear rows results in a flat, truly commodious load bay.

For RM86,800 on-the-road inclusive of GST and insurance, the Maxime provides quite a fair bit of kit – the aforementioned LED daytime running lights are standard, as are all-round disc brakes, cruise control and audio controls on the steering wheel. An extra RM7,000 nets you the Premium variant, which receives a bodykit, leather seats and tinted windows, all of which are also available as options on the regular model.

In terms of safety, the Maxime gets dual airbags and ABS with EBD – par for the course for the segment, although the new Exora Premium and Super Premium variants have raised the bar with the inclusion of side airbags and stability control. The centre middle row seat also has to make do with a lap belt (all other seats have three-point belts), but thankfully Isofix child seat anchors can be found on the outer middle row seats.

Under the bonnet sits a revised version of the Eastar’s 2.0 litre ACTECO four-cylinder engine, now with the inclusion of dual variable valve timing. It produces 136 hp at 5,750 rpm and 182 Nm at 4,300 rpm, two horsepower and two Newton metres of torque higher than before. The old four-speed automatic transmission has been substituted for a CVT with a seven-ratio stepped mode, operated through the gated shifter. Chery quotes a fuel consumption figure of 7.7 litres per 100 km at a constant 90 km/h.

First things first – manoeuvring the big Maxime is not such an easy task. It’s fairly wide, at 1,823 mm, and guiding it through tight spaces is made more challenging by the thick pillars, tiny wing mirrors and small rear windscreen. There’s no reverse camera, but there is a distance readout from the three-cell rear sensors in the instrument cluster, which does come in handy.

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Off the line, the Maxime pulls away cleanly, if not spectacularly – piling on the speed is a bit of a chore, as the engine can struggle to pull all 1,590 kg. Helping to mask the bulk is the cooperative CVT, which, although still a step behind the best transmissions in the business (particularly Nissan’s latest Xtronic), is reasonably responsive and smooth.

Driving it spiritedly, the car’s handling is, while not at all terrible, is nothing to write home about. The soft suspension induces quite a bit of roll through the corners, and it’s coupled to steering that is vague and lacking in feel. The brake pedal also requires quite a stab for the stoppers to kick in, even though there is a decent amount of stopping power on tap. At least it has good grip through the Goodyear Eagle NCT5 tyres, though once the threshold is passed there is a fair amount of understeer to be had.

Better to drive it in a more sedate manner, as you should in a people carrier like this. Settle down and you’ll find that the ride is pleasantly cosseting, ironing out the worst of the potholes and bumps Klang Valley’s roads can throw at you, although its high-speed ride can get a little bouncy. Noise levels are also pretty low at a cruise – you can hear the CVT’s characteristic whine at higher speeds, but it’s no deal-breaker.

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The Chery Maxime, then, seems to have been designed purely to satisfy its intended market. It’s not perfect – far from it, in fact – but it provides more than enough space for seven people and transports them to their destination comfortably and, if not briskly, then at least at a reasonable pace.

Its flaws – some iffy interior bits, poor visibility and less-than-stellar handling – perhaps show that Chery is still not quite in step with other manufacturers from Japan, Korea and Europe, but on evidence, it is very quickly catching up.

Certainly, its competitive pricing only serves to sweeten things further – apart from the comparatively more technologically advanced Exora Turbo, the Maxime serves up a more attractive proposition next to the Grand Livina and Avanza. If you are looking for a handsome, refined MPV that won’t break the bank, this car makes a convincing argument indeed.

The Chery Maxime is on sale now at RM86,800 on-the-road inclusive of GST and insurance, with the higher-spec Premium variant retailing at RM93,800. A five-year/150,000 km warranty is included, and buyers who register before June 30 will also receive a five-year/100,000 km free service package.