Bakkie Comparative Test: We pit seven bakkies against each other.
Ford Ranger vs. Foton Tunland vs. Isuzu KB vs. Mazda BT-50 vs. Mitsubishi Triton vs. Toyota Hilux vs. Volkswagen Amarok
THIS is bakkie country. While CAR’s test-team members are used to being stopped and asked questions about flashy new vehicles they’re evaluating, not even a Lamborghini or McLaren garners as much excitement from the South African public as an all-new double cab. When a VW Amarok test unit first arrived, it created such a scene in a shopping-centre car park that it’s minder couldn’t leave for minutes. Another tester was followed home (twice) while evaluating the Ford Ranger. And now there’s the new Isuzu KB. Faithful supporters of this marque have been waiting for what seems like an eternity, and the expectation and excitement were palpable when they encountered the newcomer for the first time. Has the wait been worth it? Have the KB’s rivals (new and old) moved the game too far forward for this perennial South African favourite to still be a strong challenger? There is only one way to find out.
In a similar fashion to most new double-cab bakkies, the sixth-generation Isuzu KB has grown in size. That said, parked between the likes of the chunky Ranger and broad Amarok, it appears smaller, mostly owing to its relatively low overall height of 1 790 mm.
The Isuzu’s wheelbase has grown by 45 mm and its tracks, front and rear, by 50 mm. This has allowed Isuzu’s designers to create a more spacious cabin with particular emphasis on the rear-seat area. This neatly addresses two complaints often levelled at the old KB: narrow rear doors and subsequent compromised rear access, and rear seating comfort. Although the improvements are very noticeable compared with the vehicle’s predecessor, it has to be said that the Ranger/BT-50 and Amarok, as well as the Foton Tunland, still “look” more spacious.
Up front, the KB borrows heavily from the Chevrolet Trailblazer, a vehicle with which it was co-developed. There’s the same unique hang-down section with a circular grouping of the ventilation system controls. The instrumentation is different, however, as is the grade/finish of plastic used for the facia moulding. There isn’t a soft-touch panel in sight, but overall the KB’s interior fittings feel sturdy, if less car-like than those of the Amarok and Ranger.
The Amarok is by now a regular sight on South African roads, although it has not really made inroads in the commercial segment. It would appear that South Africans regard the Amarok foremost as a leisure vehicle. And with by far the lowest payload (680 kg) of all the vehicles here, perhaps they’re not wrong.
Now, with the addition of an eight-speed automatic model that eschews the traditional low-range transfer case of 4×4 bakkies, Volkswagen has once again raised eyebrows. Will this configuration be regarded as too much of a smarty-pants solution for the hardebaarde? More of that later…
Visually, there’s nothing to distinguish the new flagship Amarok from other models and it remains a handsome vehicle. It is also one of the largest, with not only the widest body but also the widest front and rear tracks. Consequently the cabin is large and spacious, with ample front and rear leg-, head- and shoulder-room. Volkswagen has infused the Amarok with plenty of its road-car DNA, and this elevates the vehicle above its peers in terms of seating comfort and ergonomics. Both the front seats feature height-adjustment and it’s the only vehicle here that offers reach adjustment for the steering wheel, which really is something that the others need to copy. You’ll pay extra for leather upholstery, but the standard cloth-upholstered seats are certainly very comfortable, with generous side bolstering. As with the KB and all the other bakkies here, the Amarok doesn’t feature soft-touch plastics, but the finish is top-notch and the ergonomics simple, clear and infused with a degree of “premium-ness” that the others lack.
Until the arrival of the Amarok, the Ford Ranger/Mazda BT-50 twins were left fairly unchallenged at the top of the automatic-transmission, luxuriously specified double-cab pile. There is nothing small about these vehicles; from their exterior dimensions to the outputs of their 3,2-litre, five-cylinder engines, and their class-leading payloads, the Ford/Mazda engineers appear to have been of the Top Trumps mindset when developing these vehicles. On paper, they appear unbeatable.
Under the skin, the two vehicles are near identical, but on top they couldn’t be further apart. Differentiation is good, of course, and it’s certainly more desirable than badge engineering, but you have to wonder whether the Mazda’s almost universally disliked exterior design won’t be the subject of revision fairly soon.
The Ford, on the other hand, possesses genuine desirability in this segment, with its bluff, chunky design giving it a robust appearance that has gone down very well with the buying public.
Whichever you choose, you’re getting a very big vehicle. Although the Mazda is longer than the Ford, they are identical in all other measurements, including width and, importantly, wheelbase. With a colossal 3 220 mm of space between the front and rear axles, it comes as no surprise to find that the Ford and Mazda have very spacious cabins. It is interesting to note that, when seated in the rear, they don’t necessarily appear more spacious than the Hilux, as an example. This is possibly due to the use of thicker front seatbacks and a less upright seating position than on the other vehicles.
Up front, the two again boast very different designs, and here the Mazda design team has been more successful, endowing the BT-50 with a very car-like facia. Its flowing design is very much the polar opposite of the chunky look featured in the Ranger, but both work reasonably well from an ergonomics point of view.
Another area where the Amarok beats the Ford/Mazda duo is in seating position. While the Ranger and BT-50’s driver’s seats offer manual height-adjustment, their steering wheels can only be adjusted for rake, and not by much, either.
Both the Ford and Mazda test units had seen more than 10 000 km of test-fleet use in their lifetimes yet still appeared robust and rattle-free. The only glitch – loose driver’s door guides that made a clacking sound when opening the door – affected both vehicles.
By now this Hilux has had nearly as many facelifts as Cher and in terms of its underpinnings it is now the oldest vehicle in this segment. It has aged very well, however. When it was launched in 2005, it heralded the arrival of big bakkies and even today its dimensions are not far from what is currently the norm (although only the Triton is narrower). It is worth noting, though, that it offers the second-lightest payload. Visually, the last update gave it a handsome new grille treatment and a welcome trim and features upgrade.
The Hilux is still a spacious vehicle inside, with surprising rear legroom, but passengers sit high and upright in the back. Up front, the latest facia treatment is neat and modern, with only the second lever for the transfer ‘box striking a jarring note. The hangdown section now features a smart touchscreen infotainment system with USB connectivity and Bluetooth preparation. The ventilation controls are neatly grouped, too, so overall ergonomics are good. As is the case with all the vehicles in this test (bar the Amarok), the Hilux’s steering wheel offers limited rake adjustment.
Mitsubishi’s Triton is one of the most underrated bakkies in the local market, perhaps partly due to the brand’s diminished visibility within the Mercedes-Benz portfolio a few years ago, but mostly because it looks so odd. Its curvaceous styling never found much favour (perhaps Mazda should take note), even though the underpinnings are very much up to scratch.
Compared with the latest-generation bakkies, the Triton is small, being the shortest, narrowest, lowest and sporting the shortest wheelbase. And yet it is by no means a cramped vehicle – space in the front and the rear is commendable.
Unfortunately, the swoopy facia design has dated, and the look and feel of the trim materials is not quite as upmarket as the other vehicles here. That said, build quality is very good.
From behind the wheel, the Triton is clearly from a previous generation. The steering wheel doesn’t feature remote audio controls, while the radio looks like an aftermarket item and the trip computer provides limited (useful) road data. The driver’s seat features electronic adjustment (including height) and, like
the Hilux, there’s a second lever to operate the transfer case instead of a more modern push-button system.
With the unfortunate demise of our test GWM Steed 5 (see more about the Steed 5 here), it was up to Foton’s attractive new Tunland to illustrate the rapid rise of the Chinese brands.
Unlike previous Chinese entrants, however, the Tunland is no bargain-basement cheapie, being priced at R339 950. It is also not a copy of a previous-generation vehicle and therefore smaller than the latest bakkies. In fact, it’s even bigger (in some cases); we’re sure Foton had a very close look at the current Toyota Hilux and stretched the dimensions of that vehicle slightly. You can make of the Hilux-esque styling what you will, but general comment from the public has been positive.
Inside, the Tunland represents a leap of generations for Chinese vehicles. There’s no copycat design in here, just a simple, reasonably stylish facia design built with solid-feeling materials. Yes, a whiff of that typical Chinese car cabin odour remains but overall the Tunland’s interior makes a good visual first impression. Unfortunately, we’re not quite convinced that the quality lies deep enough. The window switch of the front passenger door pulled out of its socket, there were loud creaking noises from the door seals while driving in the rain and the lid of the storage box in front of the gearlever was not always in the mood to open. Its air-conditioning system also proved to be weak compared with those of the others.
In terms of spaciousness and load-carrying ability, the Tunland is among the best here. It has a payload of 925 kg and is rated to tow 2 500 kg (braked). This Comfort model features cloth upholstery (leather is reserved for the R20 000 dearer Luxury trim line) and the driver’s seat is manually adjustable for height.
COMFORT AND SAFETY FEATURES
Mostly as a result of its ride comfort, the previous-generation Isuzu KB was always highly rated as a leisure vehicle. With the latest model, the emphasis was on refining these talents and adding some style and features. Isuzu has been largely successful in this challenge, with the rear passengers benefitting most. In terms of standard comfort features, the new Isuzu also seems to be in with a fighting chance, but the lack of reach adjustability on the steering is a disappointment, with the result that the outstretched-arms-and-legs driving position of the old vehicle remains. It does, however, feature cruise control and a comprehensive infotainment system that includes Bluetooth and auxiliary, USB and iPod inputs. For a comparative list of features, see Features checklist. Interestingly, while this KB features a relatively long safety-features list, including six airbags, Isofix child-seat anchors and ABS with EBD, there are no electronic stability or traction control programmes.
The Amarok is expensive (R461 000) and its standard-features list is a bit mean in terms of nice-to-haves. Besides the previously mentioned reach/height adjustable steering wheel, it comes with dual-zone climate control, cruise control and an audio system that includes aux-in but no USB/iPod or Bluetooth connectivity (R4 000 extra as part of the Communication package). Park-distance control and leather upholstery also cost extra.
Where the Amarok hits back is in terms of its active safety and driver-assist systems. It features ABS with a special off-road mode to boost stopping performance on loose surfaces, as well as an electronic stability programme (ESP) that incorporates brake assist, hill-start assist and hill-descent control. Front and side airbags are fitted and Isofix child-seat anchorages are provided.
The Ranger and BT-50 also put safety high on the agenda and the Ford was the first double cab to achieve a five-star EuroNCAP crash rating. In the specification featured here, the Ranger boasts seven airbags, rear Isofix mountings and ESP that includes traction control, hill-descent control, hill-launch assist, trailer-sway control, adaptive load control, emergency brake assist and roll-over mitigation. The slightly cheaper Mazda doesn’t have the knee airbag or Isofix child-seat mountings.
With around R6 000 difference between these two vehicles, the choice would likely come down to which design you prefer (the majority are voting Ranger with their cheque books), but for what it’s worth, the Mazda is pitched as the more leisure-oriented offering. The BT-50 has dual-zone climate control (as opposed to manual air-con in the Ranger) and a sliding rear window. The Ford has side-mounted tie-down hooks and the Mazda not, but that’s the extent of the Ford’s workhorse advantage over the BT-50. Interestingly, while both vehicles feature auxiliary and USB inputs, the Ford’s are conveniently located on the hangdown section while the Mazda’s are in the glove compartment.
Surprisingly, the “old” Hilux shows up some of the newer entrants in terms of infotainment. Its smart Bluetooth compatible touchscreen system not only lifts the ambience, but also works well, while the cabin features USB/iPod ports. Navigation is optional. Also, while the Ranger still features manual air-conditioning, the Hilux has climate control.
Even in terms of safety features, the Hilux is relatively up to scratch, featuring six airbags, ABS with EBD and a electronic stability control (ESC) system.
Cloth upholstery covers the seats, which will be a disappointment to some, but at least the steering wheel and gearknob feature leather.
The cheaper Triton features leather upholstery all-round, but lacks in a number of other areas. Besides the previously mentioned lack of adjustability for the steering wheel (reach), the Mitsubishi also has an old-fashioned radio/CD player and only dual front airbags, no cruise control and no Isofix child-seat anchors. Factor in the lack of an electronic stability control system and it’s clear that if safety is a high priority, then perhaps the Triton is not for you.
When it comes to Chinese vehicles, you half expect a features list that beats all the rivals, but Foton’s approach with the Tunland is quite different. There appears to be enough belief in the basic product so as not to have the need to sugar coat it. For example, while the Tunland features a neat built-in audio system with aux-in and USB, there are no remote audio controls on the steering wheel and no iPod port, either. There is no rear-window demister nor sliding rear window.
That said, the Tunland doesn’t lack the basics – there is a manual air-conditioning system with a neat interface, power steering, electric windows all-round, a trip computer and manually adjustable driver’s seat (including height).
In terms of safety equipment, the Foton lags behind the others, with only dual front airbags and ABS with EBD being part of the package. Isofix anchorages and electronic stability control are excluded.
ON THE ROAD
Mechanically, the new Isuzu KB is very much an evolution of its predecessor. The venerable 3,0-litre direct-injection D-TEQ engine has been carried over, but features a number of small changes, mostly centred on the uprated variable-geometry turbocharger, optimised fuel-injection system and larger front-mounted intercooler. Maximum power is up by 10 kW to 130 and torque by 20 N.m to 380.
Isuzu points out that the camshaft drive gear on this engine is of a split design, with the aim of eliminating backlash on deceleration and achieving lower noise levels and less engine wear. General Motors South Africa (GMSA) is well aware that reliability and serviceability are crucial in South Africa and to this end emphasises the relocation of the oil filter into a more accessible position. The engine also features large big-end bearings for added durability and a long service life.
GMSA’s local development programme (see the November 2012 issue) focused heavily on hardware reliability, a more old-school approach (seemingly) compared with rivals that have, in terms of marketing focus at least, emphasised creature comforts and design.
On the road, the difference in approach is immediately obvious. The KB is a comfortable daily driver, as it’s always been, but the likes of the Amarok and Ranger/BT-50 are definitely more car-like in terms of seating, ergonomics and drivetrain. The KB’s engine is clattery, as before, and the gearshift is mounted directly on the gearbox, resulting in a very direct, mechanical shift action compared with the smoother shifts on rival vehicles. For some owners, this more traditional approach may actually be a positive. One area in which the KB still remains among the leaders, however, is in its ride quality. Now featuring over-slung rear suspension on some models, the KB’s ride is certainly supple enough.
The engine, noisy as it is, provides enough firepower, perhaps because the KB is lighter than its main rivals. Although it takes a somewhat leisurely 12,2 seconds to get to 100 km/h, far more important is its good overtaking performance with and without a 500 kg load. Its predecessor’s solid performance against newer rivals in the recent TowCAR of the Year competition (click for videos) seems to have been further improved. In fact, Isuzu claims a class-leading towing capacity of 3 500 kg for this model when fitted with an optional heavy-duty tow-bar developed specifically for the KB.
The Amarok plays a significantly more high-tech game. It is powered by the marque’s recently upgraded 2,0-litre biturbo-diesel engine that now delivers 132 kW at a relatively high 4 000 r/min and an impressive 420 N.m of torque at 1 750. Coupled with the new eight-speed transmission, the Amarok performed superbly in our normal road-test procedure, proving to be the fastest sprinter (0-100 km/h in 11,35 seconds) and also impressive while carrying a load. However, at higher-speed intervals, the Ford and Mazda’s extra twisting power and wider torque curves come into play. While the TowCAR judges recently considered the (manual) Amarok to be the best tow vehicle in its segment, it is worth noting that CAR’s two jury members, Kyle Kock and Peter Palm, rated the Ford and Mazda above the VW.
Compared with its rivals, the Amarok’s engine sounds more refined and its thrum quickly fades into the background as the speeds rise. The new transmission is very impressive, being smooth in operation and performing its job relatively unobtrusively. It aids the Amarok’s already enviable reputation for frugality, with our test unit consuming only 8,9 litres/100 km on our fuel route, the lowest of all the vehicles in this test. For all its high-tech nature, it is worth noting that the Amarok engine can run on 500 ppm diesel.
The smooth transmission and good NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) control in the cabin are matched by supple suspension settings, imparting the Amarok with the on-road feel of a properly sorted unibody SUV. Simply put, in terms of on-road sophistication, the Amarok remains unmatched.
The Ford/Mazda duo’s five-cylinder, 3,2-litre turbodiesel engine delivers the most power (147 kW at 3 000 r/min) and most torque (470 N.m at 1 500-2 750 r/min) and yet they struggle to keep up with the VW in terms of sprinting ability. This is partly due to the Amarok’s clever eight-speed ‘box, but also because the Ford and Mazda are the heaviest vehicles here (and they feel it).
Of course, at higher speeds the extra power really comes into play and the Ford and Mazda are more responsive than the Volkswagen. That said, only the Foton Tunland is slower to 100 km/h…
But that arguably matters little. More important are overtaking power and towing ability. With a tow rating of 3 350 kg, the Ranger is beaten only by the new KB, but then the KB doesn’t boast the Ford and Mazda’s electronic stability programme with built-in trailer-sway control…
As long-distance cruisers, the duo really shines, their spacious, comfortable cabins, decent sound systems and large luggage areas perfectly in tune with the leisure vehicle lifestyle. Ultimately, however, they can’t match the Volkswagen for ride quality, as the extra firmness in the suspension (to carry heavier loads, you see) does become perceptible in the cabin over poorer surfaces.
Finally, with larger capacities and bigger power comes bigger fuel thirst. With a fuel route figure of 10,2 litres/100 km, the Ranger proved to be the least fuel-efficient vehicle in this test.
The game has moved on at such a pace that the Hilux’s once class-leading 3,0-litre D-4D turbodiesel engine now develops the second least power (120 kW at 3 400 r/min) and equal lowest torque (343 N.m at 1 400-3 200 r/min). The engine shows its age in terms of fuel economy, as the fuel-route figure of 9,6 litres/100 km is among the highest recorded in this test.
The lower outputs are not that noticeable from the driver’s seat and out on the road, but the figures don’t lie: the Hilux lags behind the newer vehicles in terms of sprinting ability and overtaking punch (with and without a 500 kg load). Toyota claims a towing capacity of 1 840 kg (trailer with overrun brake). The Hilux makes use of a five-speed manual transmission with a slightly old-fashioned long-throw shift action, but gearchanges are crisp and precise.
A criticism that has often been levelled at the Hilux is one of the ride being too stiff. In its latest guise, the Hilux remains the firmest of the bakkies, if you discount the cheaper Foton Tunland, which has taken harshness to a new level. Driving at any speed on poorer surfaces will see the Hilux shake and jiggle more than the other vehicles here, but at least hitting a large hole at speed is unlikely to see the Hilux bottoming out.
The Triton was a surprise package on the road. Although the interior lacks some of the creature comforts of the newer vehicles, its ride quality (firm but forgiving) and good NVH control are impressive while cruising.
Also surprising is the power from 3,2-litre turbodiesel engine. On paper, it is not only underpowered (118 kW at 3 800 r/min), but, along with the Hilux, has the least torque (343 N.m at 2 000 r/min). To its benefit, however, it has the least weight to lug around. The Triton performed well in sprinting and overtaking-acceleration tests.
It is worth noting that the Triton’s relatively compact size and light weight has not affected load-carrying ability too much, as its payload of 902 kg is still very competitive. At the same time, its more compact dimensions make the Triton a comfortable vehicle to drive round town.
By comparison, the Tunland is a very large vehicle, and if it didn’t have standard rear parking sensors it would’ve been tricky to manoeuvre in tight locations. But size is hardly the Foton’s biggest problem; its harsh ride is a stand-out feature for all the wrong reasons. Admittedly, it gets better at speed and with a load, but compared with the other vehicles here, the harshness is more pronounced.
Foton teamed up with turbodiesel specialists Cummins to develop the Tunland’s 2,8-litre engine. This is potentially a clever strategy, because while consumers could be resistant to a “Chinese” (i.e. unproven) engine in such a pricey vehicle, having a known brand under the bonnet can ease tensions.
On paper, the Cummins engine seems up to the job. It delivers 120 kW at 3 600 r/min and 360 N.m of torque between 1 800 and 3 000 r/min. The Foton is not the heaviest vehicle in this test (although it still tips the scales at over two tonnes). The engine is mated with a five-speed manual transmission.
The Tunland lags the other vehicles in terms of sprinting ability (slowest to 100 km/h), but is not too far off the mark when it comes to overtaking power. Not much happens under 1 800 r/min, so gear shifting may be a regular requirement. The Tunland also has the lowest top speed (160 km/h) and when cruising at high speed we noticed a burning smell in the cabin. Besides turbo lag, another criticism of the Tunland engine is its noisiness.
THE ROUGH STUFF
If you’re going to purchase a 4×4 double cab rather than a soft-roader for the same money, chances are you’re going to venture off the beaten track. To properly assess these vehicles’ off-road capabilities, we travelled to the Land Rover Experience facility on the picturesque Simonsig Wine Estate outside Stellenbosch and jetted in a man with formidable off-roading experience, SA motorsport legend Hannes Grobler.
While the Land Rover Experience track is not the toughest, it nevertheless offers enough opportunities to evaluate the vehicles’ gradient climbing/descending abilities and boasts a number of axle-twisting articulation obstacles.
In its latest guise, the Isuzu boasts a 220 mm ground clearance, which is certainly very competitive in this segment. The rear step bumper and tow bar were designed with a good departure angle in mind. In similar fashion to the Mazda and Ford, the Isuzu’s drivetrain modes can be altered using a simple knob on the centre console. This allows the driver to switch between 2H, 4H and 4L modes. Two-wheel-drive to four-wheel-drive (high) shifts can be done at speeds of up to 100 km/h. The KB LX also comes standard with an electronic differential lock that can be easily activated by pressing a button at speeds below 60 km/h. It automatically disengages at speeds above 80 km/h.
As Hannes would agree, the KB made mincemeat of the off-road course, displaying excellent axle articulation and a low-range low enough to make easy work of the uphill sections. But what the KB continues to do very well is to be comfortable for its occupants while at the same time being among the best off-roaders. And, while it doesn’t feature any advanced or clever off-road systems, it has the necessary hardware onboard to make it a very capable off-road vehicle in the hands of more experienced drivers. An automatic model is not offered, which would be preferable to casual off-roaders, especially because the clutch action on this test unit proved quite tricky.
It has to be said that there were doubts about the Amarok’s capabilities off-road. On paper, it just doesn’t look like a serious off-roader. It has one of the lowest ride heights, its Pirelli Scorpion tyres’ tread appear very road-biased and there’s no low-range. And yet the Amarok glided through our off-road course like a hovercraft, its occupants isolated from the knocks and scrapes.
The first ratio of the gearbox is set at 4,714:1 and was quickly christened the “donkey gear” by Hannes, indicating its ability to replicate the function of a low-range. Hannes performed a number of incline starts (diff-lock not activated) and the Amarok easily sailed to the top. When the car’s onboard electronics do not detect the need for the donkey gear, it generally pulls away in second gear. And the driver would never know because it all happens so unobtrusively. Faced with a steep downhill section, the driver merely has to press a button to activate the hill-descent control, take his feet off the pedals and let the Amarok do all the work. Part of the package is a standard rear-differential lock, activated with a simple switch on centre console.
The benefits of an automatic transmission in off-road conditions were further illustrated by the Ford/Mazda duo. In similar fashion to the Amarok, the Ranger/BT-50 made short work of the off-road course with only the side steps coming in the way of achieving full marks. Both vehicles feature an electronically controlled transfer case that allows shift-on-the-fly from 2H to 4H at any time, as well as an electronic rear-differential lock.
The bulk of these two vehicles is quite pronounced in off-road situations, where some manoeuvring is required. Thankfully, reverse park sensors are fitted.
A small niggle – but one that is highlighted by the Amarok – is that throttle modulation is not as intuitive. As a result, there were moments when wheel spin occurred on loose surfaces, resulting in the vehicle getting stuck. Note, however, that this happened only while driving with the rear diff-lock off.
In off-road conditions, the Hilux’s firmer ride is as much a positive as it is a negative. It feels like it will cross any obstacle you may care to roll into its way, but when traversing rough roads with passengers in the vehicle, its bouncy nature may not be appreciated.
Although an automatic model is offered and would suit less-experienced off-roaders, the manual version tested here seems perfectly geared for off-roading, although using its manual low-range transfer-case lever is not as convenient as the modern push-button systems.
Off the beaten track, the challenge is often to maintain steady momentum over obstacles and the Hilux’s smooth transmission and low-range torque spread combine well to make this relatively easy, even for novices. What helps is good axle articulation and ground clearance. We know from experience that the Hilux is a good vehicle on sand, too.
The Triton’s good performance continued off-road, leading Hannes to comment that the years of being competitive in the Dakar Rally must have had some impact on this vehicle’s impressive suspension. It is, however, a more old-fashioned kind of off-road vehicle, with none of the electronic-assistance systems of the newer bakkies. The Triton imparts a feeling of indestructability that is similar to that of the Hilux, but it does it all with a softer ride.
The Tunland, on the other hand, lacks pliancy in the suspension, something that is already noticeable on the road and highlighted off-road. In fact, some testers joked that occupants would have to wear sports bras when taking the Tunland off-road, whether they’re female or male!
But, the Tunland was actually quite impressive over our course, with good ground clearance and wheel articulation. The engine lacks low-down torque, so even in 4L it requires some driver skill to modulate the throttle. With regards to its transfer case, the switches to select 2H, 4H and 4L modes are well-placed and clearly marked, but require to be depressed for a long 10 seconds before the desired function is completed. This Tunland lacks a locking rear differential, another reason why it requires more skill from the driver to perform to the same level of the others off-road.
By now you may have realised that the most impressive vehicle in this test, by some margin, is Volkswagen’s Amarok automatic. The Achilles’ heel of the Amarok manual has always been its tricky clutch action, which particularly in off-road situations can be frustrating. The new eight-speed automatic transmission has not only eliminated this problem, but has further improved this vehicle’s class-leading on-road comfort levels while also performing impeccably in our off-road test. In short, there was not one moment when we felt a traditional low-range transfer case was necessary. The Amarok, then, offers the best of both worlds and, if you’re able to afford it, currently represents the pinnacle of bakkie-dom.
And yet, there will be those buyers who simply will not venture deep into Africa with it, and in some cases they may have a valid point. While there’s been no evidence yet that the Amarok has inherent reliability issues, its small-capacity engine must be more highly stressed than, for example, the Hilux’s 3,0-litre. Plus, parts availability in more remote areas could be problematic.
With this taken into account, the Isuzu KB comes back into play quite strongly. The new KB is not as sophisticated as the Amarok or Ranger/BT-50, but is certainly a step forward. For more conservative buyers who need a near 50:50 workhorse/leisure split from their vehicles, the KB could well be the best choice here. It’s just a pity that Isuzu doesn’t offer a 4×4 version with an automatic transmission.
As for the rest? The Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50 may be twins, but they’re certainly not identical when it comes to design, inside and out. Under the skin, they’re evenly matched, and as a pair come close to matching the Amarok as the best choice here. In fact, the Ford and Mazda feel more like bakkies when compared with the sophisticated Volkswagen. Depending on what you want from your bakkie, this more traditional feel could be more desirable.
The Hilux has aged well and continues to come highly recommended. Yes, the ride quality is not the best here and its engine is no longer class-leading in terms of power delivery, but there’s a inherent robustness to this vehicle that is apparent from the moment the wheels start turning. As a leisure vehicle, however, the Hilux is behind the leaders and its appeal lies in its proven reliability and tough-ness, as well as back-up in remote areas.
The Triton feels very similar to the Hilux with its commercial vehicle roots shining through more obviously than in the likes of the Ford, Mazda and Volkswagen. It was nevertheless an impressive vehicle in this test, performing excellently off-road and with commendable comfort and refinement on-road. The styling splits opinion and the interior has aged, but mechanically the Triton feels bullet-proof.
Finally, the Tunland is an impressive new Chinese entrant but one which is priced too optimistically, especially given the few quality glitches on our test unit. The Cummins engine feels strong but is too noisy. The interior is comfortable but lacks features. But the biggest complaint, however, is the bone-shaking ride. It makes even the Hilux feel soft. At the price, the Foton represents a significant saving over a new Hilux, but it is possible to get a used Toyota (with some warranty left) for a similar outlay.
In conclusion, then, the Amarok is the best bakkie for the leisure-vehicle enthusiast that puts an emphasis on comfort and performance. On the other hand, the KB and Hilux continue to offer more traditional solutions that may please owners who want to travel into the sticks confident that parts and service will be easily available. You already know in which camp you pitch your tent.
Road Test Scores:
Ford Ranger – 78/100
Foton Tunland – 68/100
Isuzu KB – 76/100
Mazda BT-50 – 77/100
Mitsubishi Triton – 73/100
Toyota Hilux – 76/100
Volkswagen Amarok – 80/100
THE LEGEND THAT IS HANNES
FROM RALLYING TO TRACK RACING, Hannes Grobler is a South African MOTORSPORT legend
Multiple SA Off-road and Rally champion Hannes Grobler wrapped up his 36-year motorsport career at the end of 2012. Closely associated with the Nissan brand, the immensely popular Grobler is best remembered for driving a Skyline in local rallying and circuit racing, mostly sideways.
During his long and distinguished career, Grobler won two SA Amateur Rally driver’s championships (1979 and ’80), two National Rally championships (in ’86 and ’91), two Rally Production-car championships (’98 and ’99), and four National Off-road championships (’86, 2003, ’04 and ’06). He was awarded Springbok colours for motorsport in 1987 and National Colours in 1999.