Chevrolet Utility and Hino 500, the game has just changed

Chevrolet Utility half-tonne pick-up

What is it? This is General Motors’ smallest commercial vehicle on sale currently. It is a tiny little pick-up meant for small deliveries.

When I say small, I mean cargo not exceeding two metres in length, two metres wide and 500kg mass. It is a weird-looking thing, with an unusual face, sort of like what an E60 BMW 5 Series would get if it ever mated with a Chevy Silverado full-size truck, and the resultant offspring was severely malnourished. I know that description does not make sense, but I defy anyone to accurately describe that countenance.

It is new in our market, as was evidenced by the incessant gawps and stares I received as I did my rounds around town in typical stop-start Nairobi traffic.

The quirks do not end there: unlike most other commercial vehicles where the payload area is massive and the driver cabin small (like a regular pickup or a lorry), this one is the other way round: most of the vehicle consists of the bonnet and passenger cell. The load bay looks like it was added to accommodate the rear axle, if nothing else. It actually reminds me of those tuk-tuk pickups that nobody ever buys. It is not so bad though.

I’m a businessman, let’s talk money: This car will cost you Sh1.8 million.

What do I get for my investment? For your outlay, you end up with a half-tonne pick-up that is surprisingly fun to drive. The handling is (almost) secure in spite of the crude suspension (leaf springs, anyone?).

There is understeer when you turn in hard, oversteer when you lift off mid-corner and circus-like body roll when you decide to do a slalom (zig-zag to avoid obstacles).

The long-travel suspension struggles to cope but if you try hard enough, you could get one rear wheel wiggling in the air for a moment or so.

You might be wondering why I am talking about the driving characteristics of a vehicle in a niche where handling rarely matters. Well, you see, for a car this size, you will most likely be doing small town-bound deliveries, some of them urgent; like office supplies, delivering perishables, aka food (one can only imagine the kind of party where a large amount of food is put away by the guests) or rapid parcel drop-offs. So that means some manoeuvering “a-la-emergency vehicle” might be in the books.

I took the Utility hard through a roundabout, countersteering on the exit and it danced like a badly set up enthusiast’s project. It was hilarious.

The interior is basic and feels cheap. Nothing is powered, except for the steering. The windows are wind-up affairs, as are the mirrors, the A/C does not work properly (but at least it’s there), you only get two seats, and in between them are three stalks.

Two of them are the receptacles for the metal tongues on the seat belts. The third one is the handbrake. The gear lever is fore of the handbrake….

About that gear lever: reverse is up and to the right, next to first gear. This might sound like a recipe for a big mistake, especially on a hill-start, but there is a small party piece to mitigate disaster. Subaru Boys, where are you? The gear lever is equipped with a “switch” of sorts, which you have to tug upwards and hold in place for the lever to slide into reverse. Just like an Impreza STi. Huh.

About that reverse: It adds to the cheap feel of the car. To save money (my own guess), reverse gear is not synchronised (this I am sure). Cue some grating noises at the office car park when executing an egress from a parking space. Cue some nosy watchman walking up to the car and asking if you have stepped on the clutch pedal all the way. Cue some nasty, “do-I-look-like-a-child” looks from yours truly.

It requires patience and deftness of palm to get into reverse; you can’t just slam the lever into position and shoot off backwards. Not a good getaway vehicle then…

To make the delivery driver’s life easier, there is a radio. By radio, I mean a thumping stereo with impressive sound. I’d give it a rating of three-and-a-half speakers out of six, where the 2013 Range Rover and its otherworldly sound system scores six out of six. Compare, and go figure.

This radio has the best functionality I have ever come across and always look for in a car: USB connection (in my line of work, I travel the world collecting flash drives, which I proceed to fill with music. In the course of collecting these memory sticks, I sometimes do a test-drive). The radio is also labelled “Bluetooth”, but ignore this. It is the same thing as me wearing a T-shirt labeled “World’s Sexiest Man”. We all know it’s not true, in spite of the misleading script. There is no Bluetooth.

You have not answered my question: The question being, is this car a worthy buy? Hell yeah! For two main reasons: the first being it is in a class of two.

The second is that being a General Motors product, we know the engineering behind it is focused. It is made as a commercial vehicle, and it will therefore serve its purpose.

The simplistic and elementary build also means there is little to go wrong, it will be easy to clean and repair and the car is both rugged and robust. The ground clearance is massive, but one let-down is that it is front-wheel drive. Traction will be an issue when fully loaded and driving uphill. I still give it a thumbs up though, unreservedly.

Class of two? Yep. There is only one known rival, the Nissan NP200. Once upon a time there were a lot more: Opels, Ford Bantams/Mazda Drifters, Datsun 1200s and Volkswagen Caddies, but not anymore. Only the Nissan is left. That being said, I did espy an Opel half-ton pickup at the self-same General Motors premises where I picked this car up. Are they planning to sell the Opel too? I don’t know.

Fun fact: General Motors know what a real road test is. I was given this vehicle for FIVE days. It is still parked outside my house at the time of writing.

Realistic facts: This is not the first time I have driven this car. I drove what I can only describe as the prototype in South Africa last year. The previous car felt truck-like in operation: it was a bit unrefined and felt agricultural. Then again, it was a demo vehicle, maybe it had seen some hard use.

Also, I maxed out the earlier car at 175 km/h. This car I am (still) driving does 100 km/h at 4,000 rpm in fifth gear, and the red line is at 6,500 rpm, so this means our version will not top 165 km/h. I got it to 150 then eased off, because we have speed cameras nowadays.

On to Hino 500 9.9-tonne GVW truck

Unlike GM who give their car a realistic name (Chevrolet Utility is actually a utility), Hino calls their truck the 500. What does the 500 stand for anyway? It is not engine capacity, it is not power output, it is not load capacity… what does the 500 mean? Anyway, that aside, let us have a look at it.

What is it? It is an opportunist, that is what it is. The 9.9-tonne truck class has proved to be the most lucrative commercial vehicle segment in Kenya, both in terms of sales and end user application. You didn’t think Toyota was going to miss out on this, did you? “Toyota?” you ask. Yes, Toyota’s truck division is Hino.

Cash? It will cost as much as three Chevy Utilities. However, Hino claims that you can acquire these vehicles on a zero per cent deposit finance package. It may be true, but I doubt if it applies to everybody; if it did I’d be having a fleet of 10 right now, then I’d try and work out how they will pay for themselves. I think the zero per cent deposit works on the same principles as those of bank loans: to qualify for it, you must first prove that you don’t need it.

What do I get for my investment? What you get is Kenya’s newest non-Chinese commercial vehicle, with backing from the most reliable car company in the world. It is also (allegedly) the best-selling truck in Japan, but this is not Japan. Around here we have the Mitsubishi FH as the best-seller. Go to Machakos and see what I’m talking about.

The truck looks funny from outside. The indicators are bigger than the headlamps, which leaves critical minds like mine asking: what the hell for? The headlamps themselves are set in the bumper, which is usually the part of a truck/bus/matatu that experiences the most beating within the first three months of operation. In bus form, you get a massive logo at the back just to remind those who are about to overtake you that you are, in fact, driving a Hino.

Even if you are overtaken, you will not be frustrated. The driver area is modern and well thought out. The truck is easy to drive, and everything is intuitive, especially if you have driven trucks before. The only problem is that this is not a vehicle you will enjoy driving when empty (no fault of Hino’s, all its rivals also suffer the same difficulties).

Unladen, it is hard and bouncy, especially over bumps. At 100 km/h, crosswinds are going to give you hell. You have to keep sawing away at the wheel just to stay on the road.

Being new, it is hard to say exactly what it’s strong points are… or rather, its weaknesses (these lorries are almost all the same). I know those of its rivals. The Mitsubishi FH 215 is on high demand, so it is a bit hard to come by a good unit at a fair price. Also, it has been with us unchanged for 17 years… those are two life cycles in automobile years; surely an update is long overdue?

The Nissan Diesel UD MKB 210 is noisy, and falls apart a bit quickly. The Isuzu FRR has a massive engine (8,200cc) with no discernible power or torque gains on the competition (all of which have sub-7,000cc engines); and this huge engine makes it costly to buy. Anything Chinese will get you laughed at. The Mercedes Atego is… well, it’s a Benz. Enough said. And I think it is time these vehicles got turbocharged, none of them has a boosted engine. Not even Hino.

Hino claims the 500 will return 5kpl to 6 kpl of on-the-road operation, so they keep chanting about “fuel economy”. I don’t know what to say to this.

So, should I buy one?

If you can qualify for that zero per cent deposit thing, then sure, why not? Sounds like a plan. Other than that, its rivals seem to have cemented their status in this market. The FH has the truck class firmly in its grip, while the FRR and the MKB210 are sharing what I call the “bus-truck” segment: bus bodies mounted on truck chasses, like City Hoppa vehicles and those gaudily decorated Githurai PSVs. Toyota and/or Hino have their work cut out penetrating this market.

Fun Fact: My friend, The Jaw, does not know how to use the exhaust brake on a truck. I almost choked on my sugarcane stifling laughter when he kept asking why the exhaust brake was not activating in spite of him stirring and twirling the column-mounted stalk every which way. Take your foot off the clutch, you clown, and release the accelerator pedal completely. Ha-ha!

Conclusion: Both these cars are new in the market. Only time will tell how the public reacts to them, but from my end, they get a recommendation, especially the little Chevy. For full spec sheets and finance packages available on purchasing, please contact the manufacturers… or your bank manager.

Comments

comments

Leave a Reply