The ever-popular half-tonne bakkie segment gains a cool new derivative. Is it enough to keep a restless buying public interested? 

Two years ago, CARmag.co.za ran an April Fools' Day spoof article claiming that Volkswagen SA had confirmed plans to launch the Saveiro half-tonne bakkie. Much to the ire of local dealerships, whose switchboards lit up for days to follow, this "news" feature remains one of our most popular online pieces to date, drawing a record number of comments on Facebook, the majority of them welcoming the prospect of a new contender to this popular segment. While the possibility of the Saveiro arriving in South Africa seems more likely now that a right-hand-drive model has been confirmed, the widespread reaction to our 2015 story serves to highlight not only how popular Volkswagen is in our market, but also just how starved fans of the half-tonne bakkie have been of late.

Indeed, the last time we published a road test of a half-tonne bakkie was in March 2013 in the form of a then-new Chevrolet Utility. Before that, the December 2009 issue of CAR featured a comparison test between the Opel Corsa Ute (the forebear of the Chev-branded example), the long-since-retired Ford Bantam and the new Nissan NP200. A spiritual replacement for the much-loved “champion of Africa”, the Nissan B140 (or 1400), the NP200 soldiers on alongside the exclusively petrol-powered Chevrolet Utility range to service around 3 000 new customers in this segment a month, fulfilling myriad roles, from small-business workhorses to weekend-warrior recreational duties. Aimed at offering a best-of-both-worlds scenario for prospective buyers is the recently introduced NP200 Ice.

Brandished with no fewer than seven reminders that this is the Ice edition, it’s disappointing that the colour-coded bumpers found on the higher-spec SE model have been ditched in favour of black-plastic items (the side mirrors and door handles are unpainted, too) on this “coolest” variant. Where the spaces allocated for front foglamps on the R8 000 more expensive SE model remain covered in this execution, Ice models are nevertheless distinguishable via a bespoke, brushed-alloy nudge bar and similarly finished roll-bar sections at the rear. Fifteen-inch alloy wheels and standard smash-and-grab-protection window tinting complete an exterior package that’s offered with a choice of either a silver or Starling Blue paint finish.

Although decidedly more spacious than the B140, the cabin of the Ice edition is compromised by the omission of the height-adjustable driver’s seat offered in the SE. Together with a fixed steering column, this means a one-size-fits-all seating position that’s not ideally suited to taller drivers. Standard leather upholstery does, however, add a touch of sophistication.

Dispelling any confusion that Ice may otherwise stand for “in-car entertainment”, the standard JVC front-loader, while conveniently having Bluetooth, MP3 and USB connectivity, still requires the owner to remove its face for security considerations when not in use. The omission of a locking function on the generously proportioned glovebox compounds this problem.

The Ice comes with either a 1,6-litre petrol- or 1,5 dCi turbo-diesel engine, and it’s the latter (as tested here) that offers the most favourable consumption (6,9 L/100 km on our fuel run) while matching the petrol-powered option in terms of straight-line performance. Boasting a healthy 200 N.m of torque at 1 900 r/min, the 1,5 dCi is effortlessly kept on the boil via the slick five-speed manual transmission.

With a class-leading 800 kg payload, the NP200’s MacPherson front struts and torsion-beam rear arrangement offer an acceptably compliant ride quality obviously engineered to still comfortably accommodate a full load. Despite being somewhat lifeless, the electrically assisted power steering has enough weight and precision to make the NP200 easily manoeuvrable in and round town. Standard ABS assistance on the ventilated-discs-fore/drums-aft brake setup ensures the NP200 provides fuss-free stopping in an emergency situation.



TEST SUMMARY

The NP200 Ice successfully bridges the gap between workhorse and lifestyle motoring, with a combination of low-maintenance (and easily reparable) items such as black-plastic bumpers and a rubberised load bay, with nice-to-have features like fashionable nudge bars, alloy wheels and a choice of two vibrant colour schemes.

That said - and while individual tastes and requirements differ widely - it's difficult to ignore the appeal of the SE model positioned R8 000 further up the NP200 food chain. It has an identical powertrain and payload, but adds colour-coded bumpers and door handles, electric mirrors and windows (the Ice's are both manually operated) and comfortable cloth upholstery, with the added convenience of height adjustment.

*From the February 2017 issue of CAR magazine