The winner of 2013’s bakkie shootout, back then the Amarok represented the benchmark in terms of on-road dynamics and SUV-like levels of comfort. And, even carrying a potential handicap of larger wheels on this Ultimate model, the Volkswagen again reminded testers just how accomplished it is at soaking up open-road miles, even when asphalt gave way to gravel. One of the highlights of the Amarok package, the eight-speed automatic transmission simply gets on with the job at hand no matter what the conditions demand.
Others that impressed on the opening day’s driving were the two newcomers, the Triton and Navara. While much has been written about Nissan’s decision to drop leaf springs at the rear in favour of coils, it has to be said that, driven back-to-back with some of the more accomplished leaf-sprung contenders here, the supposed advantages of this new setup proved absent. Low-speed road imperfections are ironed out well, but once up to speed, you’d be hard pressed to notice a difference in the impressive ride qualities of the Triton and Navara. If anything, the Nissan’s dampers can be softened slightly.
Noteworthy is the work Mitsubishi has carried out in making the cabin of the Triton one of the most impressively insulated in the business. The Nissan comes close to matching the best in class in this regard, although we did note some intrusive tyre noise on coarse tar. By contrast, every loose stone and twig pulled up by the Isuzu’s General Grabber tyres can be heard making their way around the KB’s wheelarches. Combine this with one of the oldest and least refined (although no less enthusiastic) drivetrains in this segment and, like it or love it, the KB300 driving experience is an altogether more agricultural one.
Where we’ve covered the driving dynamics of the Ranger and Hilux before, their different approaches were again spotlighted over the course of this test. Where the Ford and the Mazda feel more substantial (i.e. heavier) than the Hilux, the Toyota counters by being lighter on its feet, and therefore more nimble round town. The downside to this setup is that it also feels twitchier, almost unable to get its rear axle to settle on the open road. As one tester noted, the Toyota struggles to find a compromise between functioning as a proven, rock-solid workhorse, and being attuned to more forgiving leisure use.
And, yet, on gravel, the Hilux is one of the most surefooted and confidence-inspiring double-cabs in the market; it’s a timely reminder of what 50 years of local knowledge can achieve when tackling the rough stuff. Shifted on the fly into all-wheel drive, the Toyota, although exhibiting the firm ride characteristics experienced on tar, managed to soak up the gravel sections of our test route, bettered on the day only by the superbly composed and quieter Amarok, riding as it does in permanent all-wheel drive.
Perhaps the biggest surprise once tarmac made way for gravel was the Navara. Here, the unyielding damper settings chosen by Nissan SA for our market (no doubt to accommodate heavy loads) struggled to settle into a rhythm over broken surfaces, making the driving experience somewhat more challenging than it should have been. While it would be interesting to complete the same exercise on a make of tyre other than the supplied Toyos, the chosen compromise in damper settings to cater for the varied challenges of the South African market does appear to be just that: a compromise.
Where the previous-generation Triton remains underrated as a competent cross-country tourer, the new model gains improved gravel-driving prowess thanks to a revised rear suspension (with longer leaf springs) and the incorporation of a new Super Select all-wheel-drive system that enables the driver to shift from RWD-only into either a variable all-wheel mode or locked 40:60-split, front to rear. Once again, the Triton’s impressive levels of NVH suppression came to the fore on gravel and, combined with a composed ride (even on the smallest wheelbase of this group), the bakkie left a positive impression on the test team.
If the Ranger feels substantial on road, it’s even more surprising away from tar. Admirably planted in a straight line, the bakkie’s combination of a well-weighted electric power-steering system and loads of torque offered by its 3,2-litre engine make it both precise (and playful if the mood takes) and capable of powering through any situation. Besides the fact that the Ranger has the more insulated cabin of the two, the BT-50’s firmer suspension setup can make it feel just a little lighter and less surefooted at times. Otherwise, in terms of power delivery, it’s as impressive as its cousin.
Never one to shy away from the rough stuff, the Isuzu’s General Grabber rubber, although detrimental to NVH levels, worked in conjunction with the KB’s long-proven suspension settings to make light (but noisy) work of the gravel section.
The towing test
As it’s conceivable the leisure bakkie buyer will occasional tow with their vehicle, we decided to use a Jurgens Safari Xplorer caravan (R329 000) to test the pulling power of each. The Xplorer is of the go-anywhere variety, and therefore weighs a hefty 1 420 kg empty because of the added structural strengthening. We hooked up our Racelogic’s VBOX equipment and tested the in-gear acceleration of each combination from 40 to 120 km/h in both directions to compensate for prevailing wind conditions. The Triton surprised all by coming first in the test thanks to its excellent power-to-weight ratio, but it’s unfortunately rated for only 1 500 kg braked capacity, which rules out this Xplorer when it’s fully loaded.
The Navara just edged out the Ranger and BT-50, while the quick-shifting eight-speed auto transmission kept the Amarok in contention. Bringing up the rear was the KB and Hilux, which were most affected by the added load and, in the Toyota’s case, the notion of slip from its auto transmission was doing it no favours. As an aside, it was interesting to note only the Ranger, BT-50 and KB have a towbar as standard. For this feature, the others charge between R4 500 (Amarok) and R7 980 (Hilux). Thanks to Jurgens South Africa for supplying the Safari Xplorer caravan. For more info, visit campworld.co.za.
Some are better at xploring than others
|40-60 km/h (s)||3,28||3,45||3,69||3,79||3,63||3,91||4,21|
|60-80 km/h (s)||4,92||4,36||4,61||5,01||5,15||6,19||6,82|
|80-100 km/h (s)||7,34||7,41||7,38||8,04||8,02||9,40||10,61|
|100-120 km/h (s)||11,60||12,23||12,70||14,64||15,22||20,44||19,58|
|TOTAL TIME (s)||27,14||27,45||28,38||31,47||32,01||39,94||41,22|
Ever a downside of manufacturers attempting to make their leisure-oriented double-cabs “look the part”, the running boards fitted to these bakkies are the first hindrance to true off-roading potential. Ironically, our Triton test unit arrived sans such items after another publication left them too damaged to retain. Not otherwise inclined to remove standard-fitment items for the purpose of testing, we headed into the picturesque Honingklip Farm 4×4 course with an air of caution so as not to damage any of these (pricey) vehicles.
With six double-cabs locked into low-range and the Amarok merely placed into off-road mode, the train of bakkies slowly but surely navigated all obstacles in its way. Where the Triton relished the fact that runner boards didn’t hinder its break-over angle, Hannes Grobler commented on how refined and capable its engine felt, and he noted, too, its impressive suspension articulation. That said, the Navara, while we were careful not to damage its pre-launch-fitted runner boards, easily followed the Triton.
Where the KB’s heavy-duty tyres once again proved their worth, the Amarok, here wearing 19-inch road-biased tyres and a full complement of chrome cladding, stubbornly kept pace. Indeed, it was only on particularly steep and broken surfaces where the absence of low-range meant the VW needed a bit more throttle input to follow the others as they crawled under engine load.
Just as we experienced on gravel, the Hilux relished the opportunity to show off its off-road pedigree, tackling every obstacle with confidence-inspiring tenacity. Similarly, despite its larger dimensions that make it feel slightly ungainly when compared with the Toyota, the Ranger proved just as unstoppable off the beaten track. Once again, the more compliant ride of the Ford gave it a slight advantage off-road next to the BT-50; not that the Mazda backed down from any challenge on the day, mind.
Without deflating any tyres, it was again the KB’s rubber that helped it make light work of the sand section of the off-road course. By contrast, it was somewhat surprising to see the Navara, and its Toyo Open Country items, lose momentum as quickly as it did. Despite this, no double-cab was left behind when it came time to leave the sand.
There are few better ways to uncover a vehicle’s shortcomings and class-leading positives than when it’s stacked up against its peers in identical situations. Where each of these double-cab bakkies has attributes that should please their owners when driven in isolation, our job on the day was to see where one supersedes another based on a set of criteria that best encompasses a leisure-based 4×4 bakkie with an automatic transmission. To the final reckoning, then.
There’s a certain charm and charisma to the Isuzu that endears it to many. However, despite that recent update, there’s no escaping the fact that it can be a chore to pilot on the open road. Whether Isuzu will like it or not that we label the KB an “old faithful”, there’s honesty (and proven ruggedness) to the KB range that its owners will appreciate. But it exits first … loudly.
If Ford has proven one thing with its Ranger range, it’s that South Africans want to drive bakkies that look the part. Even without the obligatory extra kit that many plaster onto their Rangers, it’s the styling, first, that has made people want to experience the Ford. Is that perhaps why the mechanically identical BT-50 lags so far behind in terms of sales? Not ones to focus on styling, however, we remain frustrated that the Mazda, while being so closely related to the Ranger, also seems so far removed when it comes to interior treatment, specification and ride quality. It’s the next to fall.
So much has been written about the highly anticipated new Navara that we were perhaps expecting too much. There are certainly lots of positives, including great perceived build quality, excellent drive-train refinement and generous standard specification, but once the road surface changed and that “trick” suspension setup began showing signs of imperfection in finding an optimal balance between comfort and load-bearing ability, its expected advantage over the already very accomplished bakkie market began to wane. As the Nissan exits in fifth, it’s interesting to ponder what Mercedes-Benz and Renault will do with these underpinnings on their forthcoming X-Class and Alaskan.
As the Navara’s suspension struggles with compromise, so too does the Toyota Hilux’s in this specification. Adept at the rough stuff and likely still the only one here that we’d confidently point north towards Cairo, there’s no escaping that it has its shortcomings in everyday leisure use. For one thing, its ride is generally too firm. Compliant over gravel, yes, but compared with the three vehicles that place higher than it in this test, unforgiving on the school run. Also disappointing – and this is something we didn’t expect – was the relatively poor performance of the six-speed automatic transmission. Where other boxes hunted for a moment before choosing a gear, the Hilux’s unit constantly showed signs of slip under load, especially on our acceleration runs and during towing.
Ever the nemesis to the Hilux, the five-time CAR Top 12 Best Buys-winning Ranger impressed the entire team throughout our two days of testing by being good at everything. The low-key (blame the test unit’s white paint finish, and absence of optional nudge bar and a non-factory-fit Raptor kit) Ranger XLT proved both comfortable and capable throughout the test, its Sync3 entertainment system the new benchmark. If there is a negative, it’s that the 3,2-litre engine lacks a little punch low down and that it has the potential to be thirsty.
Perhaps our positive experience with the Triton-based Fiat Fullback ought to have prepared us better, but there was a genuine element of surprise from all who exited the Mitsubishi every time the convoy stopped, be it on road, gravel or perched on a mountainside. Even Hannes Grobler, on returning from his drives in the Triton, proclaimed it to be the dark horse of the group. It has an impressively refined drivetrain, including an intuitive automatic transmission, an accomplished ride on all surfaces, near class-leading levels of NVH insulation and a welcome nimbleness round town to complement its relatively compact dimensions. Indeed, only its open-to-all tailgate and relatively low braked-towing capacity may cause uncertainty.
Less than a month after assisting us with the 2013 bakkie shootout, Hannes bought an Amarok, such was his appreciation for the VW’s ability to keep pace with its arguably more rugged rivals while offering higher levels of comfort than many SUVs of the time. Four years later, and with the arrival of a big brother V6 and a comprehensive visual facelift (the underpinnings remain untouched) to complement the 2,0 TDI and BiTDI range, the Amarok remains the one vehicle every member of the test team wanted to drive home once the testing was completed. It’s victorious once again.
Thanks to Honingklip 4×4 & MTB (www.honingklip.co.za) for giving us free reign of its 4×4 track.
Click the image below for full specifications and test results (pricing correct at time of print)…