Although Chery is an unfamiliar marque to many Malaysians, the Chinese automaker's seven-seater Eastar MPV (multi-purpose vehicle) is not a strange sight on the road, especially in the Klang Valley.
To recap, several thousand units of the Eastar people carrier were sold in the last few years as many saw it as a decent choice in the below RM90,000 MPV segment.
There is even a Chery Eastar owners' club which is quite active in organising get-togethers and road trips.
However, the Eastar is a bit long in the tooth and its replacement is the new Maxime which is also locally assembled.
What's interesting is that Malaysia is the first country to get the right-hand-drive Maxime.
A left-hand-drive model will be launched in China in April - likely at the 2015 Shanghai Auto Show.
In a statement, Chery says the launch of the Maxime here highlighted the importance of the Malaysian market for the automaker which is headquartered in Wuhu City, Anhui Province.
The Maxime is certainly a more stylish and sleeker-looking MPV compared with its predecessor.
According to Chery, the sleek design and curvy-looking front end of the Maxime are due to a design team led by James Brian Hope (former DaimlerChrysler designer), Hakan Saracoglu (former Porsche designer) and Sergio Loureiro (formerly of BMW and Mercedes-Benz).
The Chinese automaker is striving to emulate the Hyundai-Kia Group's success in vehicle design transformation, by hiring top global design talents.
This is a natural progression as Chery is expanding rapidly on the global stage, with 14 vehicle production locations outside China including its largest overseas plant which was inaugurated in Sao Paulo, Brazil last year.
Regarding the Maxime's exterior, we liked the eye-catching chrome-plated side strips on the doors, daytime running lights, and the rear LED tail lights.
As for the cabin, it has styling and materials that definitely provide a better ambience compared with its predecessor.
These include chrome inner door handles and leather trim on the doors.
There are many storage options for small items including cupholders, door bins and front seat-back pockets.
The cabin is nicely designed, and the fabric seats are firm and comfortable.
Like its predecessor, the Maxime's rear seats can be folded to create a flat rear loading area.
This is easily done by simple pulls of seat release straps, and with both the rear two rows folded, the MPV’s rear cargo area is an impressive 2,240 litres.
For its price, the Maxime is not too badly equipped.
You get kit such as audio volume and cruise control switches on the steering wheel, an anti-glare rearview mirror, an MP3 and USB-capable audio system with six speakers, all-round disc brakes and decent safety features.
The illuminated engine-start key-hole is another handy feature at night.
And like the Eastar, the Maxime has a long 2,800mm wheelbase that allows for a roomy cabin.
However, what really impressed us was the big improvement in ride and handling, as well as cabin refinement in terms of NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) compared with its predecessor.
The Maxime's suspension has a MacPherson strut front and rear torsion beam set-up, and we found it to be quite well-tuned.
Fitted with Goodyear Eagle NCT5 205/55 R16 tyres, the Maxime provides a sportier drive when compared with the Eastar.
At the same time, it cushions occupants well from the discomfort of rough surfaces and road bumps.
As for power, the Maxime is powered by a 2.0-litre petrol four-cylinder DVVT (dual variable valve timing) engine that delivers 136hp at 5,750rpm and 182Nm at 4,300 to 4,500rpm.
This is an upgraded version of the Eastar's Acteco engine, which was sourced from Austrian powertrain technology firm AVL.
With two adult occupants in the MPV, we found ample power on tap to propel the Maxime's 1,590kg kerb weight on quick highway sprints.
The 7-speed CVT (continuously variable transmission) with manual mode, provides smooth and linear power delivery.
When we drove at a constant 80kph, the tachometer needle was at 1,900 to 2,000rpm.
At 110kph, the tachometer needle hovered around 2,500rpm.
Its hydraulic power-assisted steering is a tad on the heavy side.
In summary, the Maxime is a value-for-money people carrier that is family-friendly and practical, and has dollops of storage space, very decent handling characteristics and ride comfort.