December 23, 2013
Review and photos by Justin Pritchard
I no longer wonder what it would be like to nearly lose a leg on a Cuban mountainside on account of a shoddily built Chinese SUV.
The Pritchards. Click image to enlarge
Being a good big brother, I agreed to be my family’s driver for what was pitched as a “Jeep Tour” that my sister spotted advertised in our resort. I’ve always wanted to go on an exotic Jeep tour – checking out the scenery, wildlife and locals in another country from behind the most capable of worldly travelers: a Jeep. A bucket-list sort of endeavour, this Jeep tour. And it was only about $275, so what the heck, eh?
Thing is, there are no Jeeps in Cuba. Instead, there are things called the Zotye Hunter 1.3i — a Chinese SUV that resembles a Geo Tracker, powered similarly to a roto-tiller, and constructed from leftover washing-machine parts.
The Hunter has a 1.3L engine with about nine horsepower, a five-speed stick and rear-wheel drive. Inside, the Hunter (we determined it was a 2010 from markings in the door-jamb) was styled and trimmed like a ‘94 Tempo.
It only had 80,000 kilometres on the odometer, but pieces of the interior trim that hadn’t fallen off yet were mostly beige, or spray-painted (poorly) with silver for a touch of attempted flare. The ceiling and seats were line with the same sort of paper-thin vinyl you might find on a padded dollar-store toilet seat.
The radio was busted. The door handles were both missing. The paneling was gouged as if it had served duty as a scratching board for angry raccoons. The list goes on.
So a few hours into the “Jeep Tour”, I’m at the bottom of this huge (like, seriously huge) mountain with a rolling pack of crappy Chinese machinery and sweaty tourists. Even my little brother, a Tacoma owner and avid off-roader, quietly muttered an expletive when he saw this climb.
I’m bad with heights – especially from the driver’s seat of a quality vehicle. And this wasn’t a quality vehicle. In fact, the Hunter had felt like it was falling apart faster than Joan Rivers’ facelift all day long. I’m sure it had one, maybe three ball-joints about to crap out, at least half of its shocks were blown, and even little bumps in the road kicked the suspension around like your baggage before an Air Canada flight.
Translation? There was no confidence. But I couldn’t let the fam-jam down. No, I, Justin Pritchard, automotive writer extraordinaire, would get into the zone. I, Justin Pritchard, had this.
Zotye Hunter. Click image to enlarge
Taking delight in my obvious stress levels as I prepared my assault on the hill, my passengers laughed at me. I don’t like being laughed at — especially when I’m psyching myself up to climb a Cuban death mountain in a vehicle that’d barely pass for a four-seat lawn tractor where I live.
So I leave the other vehicles plenty of room, put the Hunter in first gear, and hammered on the throttle like it owed me money. Air conditioning off, of course, since we’d need the power. The 1.3L engine sort of pukes off the line, smokes a fair bit, and makes a sound like a piece of two-stroke landscaping equipment while it half-assedly steams towards the incline. The transmission sounds like a bunch of coins inside of a blender.
And two thirds of the way up this mountainside, where it really started to get steep and scary, the Hunter started losing power, hard.
“FLOOR IT!! FLOOR IT!!!” everyone yelled. My brother was shaking my seat to drill the point home. He’s climbed some stuff in his day from behind the wheel and knew we were in trouble. All I could see was the sky. I was about to have an aneurysm and possibly soil myself.