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Kayole Revolution

Around 1960,Africa experienced a revolution. The main agenda was to win independence from the Europeans who were colonizing them. With Ghana having won independence some 3 years earlier, most countries engaged a no surrender fight, using it as their model. The Europeans somehow gave way and most countries gained their much earned Independence.
Fast forward to June 2015, and a route associated with 1960 is busy laying down the markers for a change. That matatu fans over the years have come up with jibes aimed at Kayole is no secret.

Kayole has for long been known as the lorry nation. Their continuous use of the Mitsubishi FH model as their preferred mode of transport simply never went right with other Nairobi residents. Not that the FH is a bad truck. In fact it ranks as the best lorry in the segment. But while Isuzu were able to to fit a bus body on the FRR chassis, little is known on whether Mitsubishi ever tried it. With this, those interested in buying the FH for passenger business did settle for style where the body was separate from the front cabin. Theories have been put forward trying to explain this. It has been argued that putting a bus shape on the FH chassis would reduce the seating capacity from 46 to around 38. This is a very big difference in matatu business where the more the number of passengers accommodated the better. Add the fact the FRR handles 51 passengers and you realize they would struggle to make ideal profits.
Why don’t they go for the FRR then? It has not been known why though as you expect, different arguments have come up though I won`t delve into them. It is at this point we highlight an important fact. The Kayole people never saw it as a problem despite almost everyone else despising them. The residents have adored them and as a result they happen to be the most vocal in matatu based social media pages.

This previous month though, a different phenomenon has taken place. First was news that the first Isuzu had started plying the route. This monumental feat was well received with much zeal as it depicted a change. Not that it would be hailed by other routes. While they were did acknowledge the feat, debate swiftly shifted to who had a greater influence for enacting the change. Umoja, their neighbors, proudly took that title just like a man will take pride for being the first to take a lady round the town.

One is never enough, it has been said. Within the month, Balloteli graced the route. Sporting a theme of the aforementioned player, it was a little disappointment that it did not have him in his current Liverpool colors. Maybe it was a well thought strategy considering the guy is virtually a dormant player for Liverpool. Lady Gaga (the first Isuzu) has since shifted base to Rongai. Despite this setback, a blueprint has been formed and now it seems Isuzu will be taking over 19/60 route. If rumors are anything to go by, a Choda fabricated NQR is on its way there. Choda has arguably established itself as the best fabricator and most of their vehicles happen to be the best. If indeed the rumors turn out to be true, then Isuzu will have taken a major step in offering competition in Kayole.

The return of the Maybach, the undisputed king of Kayole, couldn’t go unnoticed. Stocking seven screens, muffler, remodeled light house among many other minute things like tint and stylish side mirrors,none compares to it in Kayole. Diwali graced the route around the same time. And just like many other before it, it was swiftly declared not up to the challenge. Becoming the king of a route does not mean you are the best in Kenya. So when it became known that Maybach has a personalized Kenya 1 plate, the arguments started immediately. As expected, no winner can be found in such a debate. The best I can do is stay neutral and wait for Nganya awards which will adjudicate the issue. In the meantime, a detailed review of Maybach is on its way.

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Nairobi Auto Festival Talking Points

On 24th May, the annual Nairobi Auto fest took place at the KICC. On a day which started slowly, with the heavily pregnant Nairobi clouds threatening to open up, it was a relief for the organisers when rays of sunshine replaced them. Being the first event of the year to take place, expectations were high for the event. So what are some things we learned?
1. Lamborghini Murcielago still causes a buzz
March seems far, but not for the Murcielago. When pictures started circulating in the social media of the green Lamborghini, it instantly became the talk of town. From the morning shows to the numerous drive shows, it instantly changed the traffic updates landscapes. Not that many people pay attention to them but it literally monopolised the segment as almost all updates revolved around where it had been spotted.
Then in one way or the other (leaked or by design) videos came about it being thrashed on the famous ring by a Nissan GTR. Anybody who cares to read about sports cars, will comfortably tell you how the GTR otherworldly acceleration rate has ashamed most its expensive competitors. Not so for our so called experts. They trolled on the blog sphere shouting from the rooftops how the car is phony. Thanks to them, I learnt about a one produced in China.
And it so happened on Sunday the Lamborghini was lined next a red Ferrari 430. Ferrari has had its name around for a long time thanks to its F1 team. On any day, it would have taken the attention all by its own. But not when the astonishing design of the Lamborghini is in the mix. I bet the owner must have been proud seeing people surround it to the point of almost barricading the road when it was moving from the exotic cars corner to the monument area.
2. QUIET DAY FOR THE SUBARU AND EVOLUTION CLUB.
The two groups rarely agree on which is better. With this in mind, the organisers booked their spots close to each other. This was in anticipation that the two would engage into some kind of debate. As it turned out, nothing of the sort happened. The cars were parked in a rather professional manner (angle parking common in street racing). The evolution had been well represented with only evo6 missing in the line up. Apart from that, nothing more was worth noting took place as the cars remained closed for most part of the day. My guess is they preserved the arguments for the upcoming Subarufest.
3. Exhaust notes
With many not taking close attentions to the music played by the DJ, a convenient way of getting people to your corner was conceived. Many have complained of the noise made by the Subaru’s but in a field full of enthusiasts, that topic would hardly arise. And it all started with the supra from unity garage. The exhaust note was enough to bring all people around it. By doing that they managed to show people the humongous engine and the NOS supercharger at the back. But what followed next had not been accounted for by the unity team. A full spec rally Subaru from the Delights team engaged its. Turbo lag proved to be the attracting figure as fans quickly ran to view it and possibly record the exhaust. It was not long before a BMW with the illustrious M division badge came to the mix. What it brought was completely new to most – gun shots. Oh, yes, gunshots filled the air.
With the insecurity fear lurking on our minds, thanks to the terrorism, you can guess the relief on fans faces when it turned to be coming from a car. With that they ran frantically as they would have done if it were real gun shots, this time towards the M5. The delights team shed was left empty in seconds as discussion turned to how a car can produce such ping sounds. And still on the exhaust note, am wondering where the fallen king of whistle (madcity) would have ranked.
4. CLASSICS STILL AT HEART
Classic cars, like the past, always bring fond memories. With exotic cars in the show, one could have easily been forgiven for forgetting the past. And it is even so especially when futuristic cars like the Porsche Panammera are busy championing the cause to green. When they did show up towards the day, it was thrilling to see that they could get fans around them. Represented by a 1975 Ford Rekord, the long Chevrolet Bel air among others. Then there were the Minis. The Mini club happens to be one of the country’s most active clubs and rarely miss any motoring event. This time, it was represented by only two cars yet one can`t help but admire them. In the end they made a lap of honour round the Kenyatta Monument to great applaud by fans.
5. MOTORING CULTURE GROWING
10 years ago, there were few motoring events in the country. Limited mostly to the safari rally and motocross championship, they hardly had an impact on most people. The Rhino charge has been around for quite a number of years but its until recent years that people have taken notice. Today, the motoring calendar is almost full with hardly a month passing without an event. Numerous motoring clubs have been formed such as the Kluger and the Honda club. The latter was at hand to show case two Honda Civic type R. with 225hp and a top speed of 240km/h factory spec, my crystal ball shows me the number is going to increase especially considering how Honda is growing in popularity. And do I mention it will not wake up toddlers in the middle of the night? It is also important to note that the number of garages offering tuning of cars services has also grown tremendously over that period.
The great run 7 was scheduled for the next weekend in memory of Amir Mohamed. The Nairobi auto show is expected to take place this year also. Motoring shows are now being produced too. Autovault premiered though it is been long since the last season came to an end. I came across journalists from the Bazaar TV who told me the station deals with motoring news in the country. Kiambu time trials have also been well received with spectator numbers increasing with every trial held. One was scheduled for April but with the accident which claimed the life of Amir, a director of the event and christened King of the ‘ring’ the event was cancelled.
Matatus are on the up also. After years of being dormant thanks to the previous government crackdown, the president’s authorization for the pimping to be allowed the industry has come back to life. No time was lost as by January pimped matatus full with dazzling array of colors, well choreographed graffiti bumping music, screens and wonderfully crafted bumpers were on the roads. The competition has been so strive that one can`t even predict what the winner will have as the unique fixtures.

Considering the growth over the last 10 years, the future looks bright. Nothing looks to stop the rise. Factoring in the growth is led mostly by youths, most of whom are young in their careers; we are set for more exotic and sports cars gracing our roads in future. The motorcycles have also not been left behind as evidenced by the number seen on the streets nowadays. Hopefully, somebody somewhere will take notice of this and invest in coming up with that racing track

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“Look, Ma! No Hands!”: A Driverless Drag Race [Video]

When the curtains came down on the recently concluded Nyaribo Time Trial competition, I was left with an empty track and three cars to play with. What to do? Quite obvious:

Organize a drag race.

It’s not the kind of drag you expect, it did have a tweak, the tweak being the drivers were OUTSIDE the cars. The cars ran by themselves for the most part. Here, have a garner:

The real idea behind this was, as track master for Time Trial Motorsports, I had to pick up my cones after the event with the help of the folks you see there. I quickly discovered that it was much faster to round up the little plastic markers if I let the car run slowly by itself as I jogged alongside collecting my assets, a maneuver called “ghost riding”. This is fairly easy to do in an automatic, snick the lever into Drive, down with the parking brake and hop out of the car. You just have to be careful when stepping in and out of the car as it’s moving lest you break your teeth.

(ALSO DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, OR ANYWHERE ELSE FOR THAT MATTER. I WILL NOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE IF THINGS DON’T GO WELL FOR YOU AS THEY DID FOR ME)

After I was done with the cones, the others noticed what I was doing and hey presto! A driverless drag race was soon under way.

The observations here are interesting. The Mazda Demio DE (same green one we reviewed first week of 2017) is equipped with a CVT while the Toyota Corolla 110 sports a 5-speed manual gearbox. They both have 1500cc 4-cylinder petrol engines, but as you may observe (or hear my gruff voice proclaim), the Corolla is just a little bit faster than the Mazda.

If you have any solid explanation as to why (besides the fairly obvious gear ratio argument), please drop your words in the comments below.

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Ford should come clean and tell us why its cars are catching fire

THE PROBLEM

“I’m scared to drive.”

This was  the fear expressed  by one Limpopo resident, Makgamatha Malehotlo, and with good reason. You see, over the past 15 months there have been strange things happening with Ford cars, and I’m not talking about the installation of a 4-cylinder turbo engine in the Mustang muscle car. There have been fires, and Malehotlo happened to have been caught up in one, along with her friend and two children.

Fiery and flammable Fords are not exactly nes since the days of exploding Pintos back in the ’70s. And slightly more than a year ago,  I reported how an Australian auto journalist found himself starring in his own automotive roadside barbecue courtesy of a Ford Everest demonstrator vehicle he was testing. While both these examples might be far from us in distance and time, the flames are now burning much closer home. The new victim is the Ford Kuga.

Lastly, Fords aside, the need for an efficient cooling system cannot be gainsaid. This debacle has blatantly shown us that overheating an engine can have effects more far-reaching than a blown gasket or a burst hose, more so in the current hot weather. The need for proper cooling is even more crucial to turbocharged engines such as Ford’s own Ecoboost: my own experience is the twin turbo that currently does duty under my bonnet quickly reaches furnace levels within minutes of initiating operation, and a failing water pump or insufficient coolant can spell disaster.

Initial reports from Mzansi indicate that there have been at least 48 incidents of Kuga fires in the past 15 months. After an extended period of burying their heads in the sand and wishing the problem would go away, Ford of South Africa says they can “confirm” only 39 cases. Other news outlets say they could be as many as 56, with one incident in Botswana and another in Swaziland.

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Whatever the number, it is obvious that there is a big problem and the inevitable safety recall was only par for the course, especially given that these fire incidents have led to at least one death. That is serious. How many incidents does it take before a TSB or a full safety recall programme is initiated?

THE AFFECTED

There is a very specific model of car affected by these fires and that is the Kuga mini-crossover with the 1.6 litre Ecoboost petrol engine manufactured in Spain between December 2012 and February 2014, and sold in South Africa. That places the total number of cars affected at exactly 4,556, all of which are now the subject of what could eventually be a much bigger recall. These vehicles can be identified by VIN at dealership level, though official word is that only vehicles sold initially in South Africa are part of this – anything that was imported into the country is not affected.

It doesn’t end there. Reports indicate that the 1.5 litre car might be affected too, which is what Ms Malehotlo was driving when she got the biggest scare of her life, but Ford denies this and told her to follow it up with insurance. Sound familiar? It should. That is exactly what happened in Australia. Others allege that the 2.5 litre car is not immune from fires either, and that one complaint specifies a 2015 model car as being affected too. As I write this, a Ford Figo hatchback reportedly also  also caught fire in a Nelspruit hospital parking lot.

Ford insists that the 1.6 litre Ecoboost is the  errant model and had earlier promised to send a sample number of the affected vehicles to Europe for investigations into the cause of the fires.

THE CAUSE

Ford PR put their foot in it by at first blaming the prevailing hot weather for the fires, which is a silly move to be honest because the immediate questions that follow are: “Are your cars not tested during R&D before being released to the public? What is this, TVR? How will Kugas operate in climates with much higher temperatures?”

There was a more solid explanation that came later: that a flaw in the cooling system design leads to the vehicle overheating, which in turn causes a crack in the cylinder head. The crack results in an oil leak and if (or when) this oil leak comes in contact with the exhaust manifold, a fire is more than likely.

There are more questions here too. Back when the Ford Figo was launched in Kenya, I bemoaned the scantiness of information available from the instrument cluster. One of the missing dials was a temperature gauge, and from the high number of Kuga fires and the attendant explanation, it seems that either the Kuga, too, has no gauge or Kuga drivers don’t check their instruments, which warrants a return to driving school to acquire such rudimentary prerequisite skills as being aware of what is going on in your engine bay in real time. This is because by the time the cylinder head fails from overheating, the car will have been running extremely hot for quite a while.

There should be more ways of noticing an overheating engine other than your own car bursting into flames. So what exactly is the problem?

Ford already admits to having an imperfect cooling system, which is what will be repaired during the recall, but is the cylinder head also part of the problem? As stated earlier, 50 is not an insignificant number, and of all 50 or so drivers, surely at least a few would have noticed their cars running hotter than usual? To make matters worse, in about three cases, we have claims where the drivers took their vehicles to dealerships (under warranty?) for confirmation that everything was fine, only for them to have their vehicles burn to the ground shortly afterwards.

THE OUTCOME

Can you say disaster*? It is a right mess. The bereaved family from the lone fatality in this fiasco has promised not to relent in their fight for closure and to “guarantee the safety of other families”, and their case is drawing a lot of attention. They say that the subsequent recall is just the first step in what will eventually be a lengthy and unforgettable lesson for the American car maker.

There is a dedicated Facebook page for this as well, dubbed “Ford vehicles burning” but the tag line is equal parts witty and brutally upfront: “@ford.kuga.on.fire”. As of the time of writing, it had racked up a massive 132,000-odd likes, with an equal number of followers. That is not small by any standard.

The contents of this page are heartbreaking, as they reveal the extent of Ford’s folly in their handling (or lack thereof) of this issue.

First was the delay in reacting to the rising numbers of Kuga fires, which was bad enough. But on trawling the page, one sees news snippets about dealers deliberately undervaluing Kuga cars on trade-ins or flat out refusing to replace. This has then resulted in various publications declaring the Kuga currently worthless in South Africa. Trade-in offers currently hover at around 40 per cent of book value for vehicles with less than 50,000km mileage, which is as insane as it is unfair. Worse yet are dealers telling clients outright that if they want another car they will either have to pay for it or trade it in with any car other that is not a Ford Kuga.

Also under fire (pun not intended) is Jeff Nemeth, Ford CEO  for Middle East and Africa, who made the misstep of engaging the bereaved family** (see notes) of  Reshall Jimmy alongside the company spokesman, Rella Bernades, in a cringe-worthy back-and-forth about whether or not the fire that ended Jimmy’s life was a direct result of the cooling system flaw. This is strange in that Ford South Africa claims they “recognise” only 39 fire incidents involving the Ford Kuga. There were 39 reported incidents between Jimmy’s death in December 2015 and the moment Ford made the recall official. Who is fooling who? There is also a video of the incident showing the fire originating under the bonnet of Jimmy’s car. This whole situation stinks, and not just of smoke.

To add to the stench are the incipient threats of a class action lawsuit. The penalties will be financially painful if the class action succeeds; and all the signs of a massive payout are there. This includes fresh evidence that they did, in fact, know something about the susceptibility of the vehicle in question to unforeseen conflagrations being more than incipient, seeing how the Ford Escape, which is a rebadged version of the Kuga, had undergone another recall*** (see notes) not too long ago following the possibility of fires as a result of fuel leaks in the engine compartment. Insurance companies also allege they had issued warnings to Ford about the Kuga as far back as 2014.

And what do they do? Deny, deny, deny.

THE FIX

The repair process sounds insanely simple for what is quickly becoming Ford’s biggest PR disaster in Africa. The essence of the fix is to change the coolant bottle and pipes as well as the fluid dynamics of the cooling system, particularly how the coolant returns to its reservoir.

The idea is to blank off one pipe from the coolant bottle to act as pressure relief, which prevents the coolant bottle from cracking under the attendant pressure of high temperature operation, which in turn prevents the overheating that allegedly leads to the fires via the cracked cylinder head and oil leaks.

The original layout was, one hose led directly to the cylinder head from the coolant bottle while another led to the cooling system. The difference with the fix is that post-recall, the hose that feeds off the cylinder head will be closed off, with the remaining one being split to feed the cooling system and then the cylinder head. There will be no direct connection to the cylinder head. Projections are the fix on all affected vehicles should be complete by end of February.

Initial reports from Mzansi indicate that there have been at least 48 incidents of Kuga fires in the past 15 months. After an extended period of burying their heads in the sand and wishing the problem would go away, Ford of South Africa say they can confirm only 39 cases. Other news outlets say they could be as many as 56.”

WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT

Keen followers of this column probably know I visit South Africa several times a year to test new cars. This is because both markets (East and South Africa) share products in terms of brand and spec and most car models will be released first down south before we get them here. Ford Kenya sells the Kuga, or at least they used to. If the 1.6 Ecoboost is part of the lineup, perhaps they should let us know at least those are not part of the Spanish-built 4,556 stock, and that they will never catch fire unless intentionally set aflame? Have any of the 4,556 cars been exported to East Africa?

Another question why  the matter is coming to the fore right now, almost three years after the last of the errant vehicles was manufactured and more than a year after the fires started. Why did it take so long to respond? FoMoCo does not have a good history with either fires or class action lawsuits; it behooves them to be more circumspect in the face of such situations lest they find themselves tossed into the unpleasant annals of the legal system that is the tort.

The 1.6 litre Ecoboost is a modular engine available in two levels of tune: 160hp and 180hp, both of which see duty in a variety of cars from the ill-fated Kuga, to the Focus and Fiesta hatchbacks all the way to a number of Volvos (V40, S/V60, S80, V70 etc). Do these cars have a different cooling system design or are they, too, disasters-in-waiting?

Lastly, Fords aside, the need for an efficient cooling system cannot be gainsaid. This debacle has blatantly shown us that overheating an engine can have effects more far-reaching than a blown gasket or a burst hose, more so in the current hot weather. The need for proper cooling is even more crucial to turbocharged engines such as Ford’s own Ecoboost: my own experience is the twin turbo that currently does duty under my bonnet quickly reaches furnace levels within minutes of initiating operation, and a failing water pump or insufficient coolant can spell disaster.

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Petrol Stations: Come on! You can do better than that!

I begin by warning that what I am about to narrate is brutal and disgusting in nature and if you have a weak spirit it will ruin you forever. I offer you the opportunity to stop reading this immediately and think yourself lucky to have escaped with your innocence intact.

A couple of months ago, some two gentlemen of my acquaintance convinced me to accompany them on a ride to Masinga Dam. I loved the idea because it was an opportunity for me to see how three bikes I love compare on the road. I was on a Bajaj Pulsar 200NS while the other two were on a Yamaha FZS-FI and a KTM Duke 200. The bike riding and sightseeing was alright, but it was what these two men did to me during a stop we made that defined my day. The two gentlemen are simple unsophisticated Christian men, whose reputation I do not wish to tarnish and I shall therefore not expose their identities by saying that they are called Peter and Danson.

The stop in question was a lunchbreak in a small ramshackle of a town near Masinga Dam called Kanyonyoo Market. I should have taken a hint from the name because it was a pitiable little town and all it could offer was readymade roast meat in a series of horrible looking butcheries that lined the road.

We got into one of the horrible butcheries and the enthusiastic butcher and his assistant led us to a grill that had heaps of roasted meat which to my trained eye, could not possibly be the goat they advertised. The bones were suspiciously too small and I thought it strange that it was on the same grill as intestines and other internal organs which I imagined were meant to mask the actual taste of the meat.

My simple unworldly companions laughed off my feline and canine suggestions and assured me that in Ukambani, people’s tastes were not as diverse. They seemed unperturbed so I reluctantly joined them in the feast.

When we returned to Nairobi, we each went our separate ways home and it was then that it happened. I had been feeling some abdominal discomfort since the suspicious lunch and it seemed things were getting worse. I determined that I would push on until the house but that determination lasted about one hundred meters when my stomach churned very violently and threaten to expel some elements in it there and then.

I grimaced involuntarily and tried to do the same at the opposite end of my anatomy, but my stomach was not having any of it. It had to expel the culprits and it could not wait a minute longer. I slowed the bike and tried all manner of movements on the seat hoping to reverse the looming onslaught but it was getting desperate. As luck would have it, I was riding through a heavily populated area and an emergency fertilization of the land would not be taken with kindness. Tears were welling and I was horrified it would turn into a full-blown trouser accident but I managed to muster some will power to hold because such an accident would mean I would have to remove the trousers before walking into the house and walking into the house with no trousers, I judged, would traumatize my people irreversibly.

Just as I was saying the words “take me Jesus”, a petrol station loomed into sight. I made for the nearest security guard and asked him where the lavatory was. He pointed it out and I rode right up to the door and leapt at the door handle only to find it was locked. Damn it! At this point, the churning in my stomach had turned into a boiling cauldron, especially at the sight of the respite. I tried to steady myself by the door and then let out a crude animal yell, asking the security guard to fetch me the key.

The security guard, whose lineage I was certain includes a tortoise, a chameleon and a sloth finally arrived. I stared at him with eyes that were a combination of pitiable puppy eyes and the bewilderment of a man being lynched, begging him to open the door. To sustain my dignity as he opened the door, I had crossed my legs into a double helix coil and TIG welded all the remaining gaps.

The disciplines of seismology, geology and meteorology, cannot sufficiently describe the thundering and sheer force with which my stomach evacuated. It was a brutal affair but after a minute or so, I regained a feeling of wellness. I was glad to have escaped with my dignity and I thought about the two evil men I had spent the day with and wondered if they too were in a petrol station somewhere or had succumbed in more embarrassing fashion. Whatever the case, I cursed them comprehensively, wishing them and all their all their descendants for all eternity the very worst.

My indignation subsided and as I slowly took in my surroundings, I realized that my ordeal was far from over – there was no means of acceptable sanitation. Why do petrol stations do that? For heaven’s sake, you are required by law to maintain a lavatory and what’s the sense in having one when it doesn’t have the very tools required to make a trip to it a success?

It is a wicked shame for oil marketing companies, some multinational, not to bother maintaining a lavatory and yet profit from the country’s citizens. It’s not that expensive I imagine, unless your petrol station is at Kanyonyoo Market, in which case I can excuse you because I know the whole town will be turning up every afternoon after lunch.

You must be keen to find out how I eventually got out, but I shall spare you the details and save myself extra embarrassment. I loved that t-shirt though, it was branded with my favorite musician of all time, the late Kiptesot arap Sang of the Junior Kotestes band.

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What bike to buy in 2017

I love listening to people go through the agony of choosing which bike to buy.

My friend Eric aptly calls it “Kung-fu”. In his mind, a sick one I might add, a person agonising over whether to pick a KTM Duke 200 with ABS or one without, is akin to a Kung fu fighter kicking, chopping and performing all manner of violent acts in the air before finally settling on top of a mountain with one foot on the ground and another held up.

When the agony moves to whether it’s actually worth it spending a fortune on the Duke 200 when you could get virtually the same engine and gearbox on a Pulsar AS200 at almost half the price, Eric imagines that the Kung fu fighter has leapt from the top of the mountain, hurled himself across the landscape, kicking everything that’s standing before settling once again on a small twig at the top of the tallest tree in the forest.

I love Kung fu. It’s an absolutely necessary process because it helps justify decisions and creates a feeling of satisfaction, which if you ask me, is more important than the actual value of the bike. As a person that sells bikes, I have been on the receiving end of thousands of such fights. I have had my neck snapped, my head punched and my legs twisted until I tap out. Sometimes I punch back to keep the fight going but some people are very rude and they react by kicking me straight in the plums.

I write this because I know that several new year resolutions have “Get new bike” or “Upgrade bike” somewhere in them and so I imagine the country is awash with bikers looking for their black belts and getting ready for Kung fu. This article is therefore meant to help you begin the fight or at least show you to the right battlefield.

The broad categories

There are six main categories of bikers (and hence bikes): Those that love racing (sports bikes), those that like falling over and being dirty (off-road bikes), those that love looking good but only in urban areas (street bikes), those that love touring the country (touring bikes) and those that love wearing leather vests, taking oaths and keeping long armpit hair (cruiser bikes).

You might know what category you fall into but question is, at what level are you?

Levels of bikers

The first level is the one-percenters. These are people who feel the urge to ride a BMW R1200GS and they go to Bavaria Auto to get one. You are not a one-percenter if you go to Car and General to get a TVS Apache, read on because I will be putting you in your place soon. This level belongs to those that can afford the best of what the world has to offer right now.

The second level is the decent-second-handers. These are people who want to get a brand new R1200GS but economic considerations make them settle for decent second hand bikes. These are usually well kept bikes from South Africa, the US, the UK and other such places; bikes that might be second hand but still are expensive and very good indeed. I love this level of bikers the most because they are pioneers who suffer the cost of importing and owning a bike not supported by a dealership all because of love. These are the true bikers if you ask me.

I like to call the third level the fake-it-till-you-make-it people. These are the folks that will get a horribly old and broken Suzuki Hayabusa and nurse it to ill health, all for the scant reward of telling people they own the fastest bike in the world. These are the chaps whose bikes break down during every group ride and they have a shortcut and an explanation for every single ailment on their bike. They know the mechanic’s children and wife a little too intimately and if you look under their beds, you will find a minefield of broken headlights, fairing pieces, cables and old chains. This level is mainly characterised by bikes from Uganda. The idea here is to own a bike with a respectable name, irrespective of how it treats you.

The gradual-progress level belongs to those that are not able to break the bank the way the one-percenters or the decent-second handers do, but still want a unique and decent bike to begin with. They prefer to begin with smaller cc bikes and slowly learn the art of riding in the hope of eventually buying their dream bike. The more discerning of this type go for very well made bikes that offer good value for money despite the bikes not being immediately available in the country. For example, bikes from the Bajaj Pulsar range and other global brands with licences to manufacture in India such as KTM Duke, Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki and Piaggio. They know that these Indian manufactured bikes are genuinely well made and priced to offer great value for money.

The final level is the dealership-only fellows. These are people that treasure the comfort in numbers and perception of good service that dealerships such as Car and General offer. It is the place that Mr. TVS Apache belongs. Nobody in this group actually wants the bike they own, it’s just that it makes so much sense to buy a bike from a shop you can see and a bike you have seen at least a thousand others riding. They are a sensible lot I agree, but very boring.

Making the decision

By now it should be pretty straightforward then as to what category you belong and at what level you operate. You will find dealers and a community that will help you choose the best bike. You will also find groups of riders that share your interests and ideas about social life so whatever bike you choose, you will not be lonely.

I should also tell you that pillions, people that don’t own bikes but are always riding on one, are there in plenty and they too are of different categories and levels. I shall not delve into that today because my research is inconclusive but I thought you should know that once again, whatever bike you choose, you will not be lonely.

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Road Safety Awareness, Chapter 2: Responsibility on social media

Of all the aspects comprising the life of a contemporary individual, one of the least policed is social media. You can choose any persona you want and nobody will be the wiser. Thus arose the troll phenomenon: people who are intentionally repulsive just because they can, and because the consequences aren’t tangible, if at all they exist. However, the saying “It is on the Internet so it must be true” is sarcastic for those who don’t know, and this is beginning to have an effect in the local motoring industry. Some of us are taking the rubbish on the Internet a little too seriously for the wrong reasons.

Remember the recent matatu awards ceremony? It stood out in that one person lost his life during the proceedings, an unprecedented outcome. Typically, if there was loss of life at an awards ceremony, the first question would be, “Which rapper shot the other?”

No, the tragic incident happened when the winning matatu ran over one of its own fans, and this brought to the fore the question of social media. Whatever that young man was doing when he met his end is highly glorified online, ill-advised as it is.

The local authorities even crafted a law specifically banning that kind of behaviour, which people then proceeded to ruthlessly parody on their respective platforms; the activity being dangling outside a moving vehicle. We laughed, we opined, we ranted, we debated and then a young boy lost his life. Inappropriate as it sounds, the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) had the last laugh on this one.

KILL THE NONSENSE

Stakeholders in the transport industry will decry the NTSA’s pest-like insistence on sucking the life out of them while ignoring the Exchequer connections; there is a good reason for this. PSV operators have made it clear that a blatant disregard for the law is a prerequisite for employment, and a clueless or deliberately ignorant fan base on social media is an added bonus. That is why after the young man’s death, there were still comments of “I will hang till I die! RIP So-and-so”.

That is why photos and videos of passenger buses pulling insane manoeuvres on the highways are greeted, not with scolding faces, but with open cheer in certain corners. And the more reckless, the higher the number of likes and the more vocal the defence when the matter is taken up by more sober minds. Is it any wonder, then, that these social media platforms, with populations running into tens of thousands, have a tangible effect on how PSV vehicles are operated?

People’s jobs are on the line depending on how many thumbs-up they get: you could get fired just because you were overtaken or because the music in your vehicle was not loud enough and someone (not always positively) influential pointed it out. That is social media for you. It, therefore, follows that the vehicle operators take this as a carte blanche to misbehave at will. After all, if the administrator of a 50,000-strong online cult is for you, who can be against you?

Wait till you meet the law, my friend. Or worse still, wait till you have the blood of dozens on your hands. Then you’ll tell us how much help those fans really are when you are either languishing in jail or can’t sleep at night. We need to save these unwise youths from themselves. They need to be stopped.

The buck stops with the owners (or investors, as they are sometimes called) of these vehicles. Kill the nonsense and cull the jokers. Divorce yourselves from entities that promote dangerous and illegal activities on the road. Just say no, it doesn’t matter if they have the backing of a million people: the entire million does not engender your client base.

These are people who rarely travel anyway.

Stay safe and arrive alive.

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“All About The Benz-amins, Baby”

Mercedes-Benz. Effectively the inventors of motoring and emotionless purveyors of conveyances that exude the subtle whiff of wealth and possible control over a standing army, this Teutonic outfit has been big on my radar over the past few days. This is how they did it:

Day: Thursday  October 20, 2016

Event: Anniversary TT

Venue: TGRV Circuit, Mai Mahiu

What would you do if you had to drive a Mercedes-Benz on a go-kart track? Would you:

  1. a) take the U boat that is the E Class saloon, or
  2. b) unwind the slightly unhinged crossover that is the GLA45 AMG with a 380hp grenade under the bonnet?

At Mai Mahiu, we had a chance to see both. The black E Class was a registered racer and it was with some amusement that we watched the driver wrestle his Panzer tank into submission through the inconvenient chicane I had intentionally included as track master.

The car handled surprisingly well, given the tightness of the track, its weight and its Cold War-era dimensions. However, if that driver intends to get anywhere close to the podium, there is another Benz that he should take into consideration.

That Benz is the GLA45 AMG. The base GLA is essentially a lifted hatchback (CLA) with 4WD to help achieve its crossover pretensions. It still looks like a hatchback anyway. Now, to get the AMG version, the engine builders took a 2.0 litre engine and turbocharged it halfway to the moon. The result is you need that 4WD, not to go driving over rocks in, but to help channel the resultant rocket power onto the ground; 360-odd horsepowers are what you are blessed with, and it helps if you know how to corral them.

The little AMG made short work of the racetrack without even trying, and with the added handicap of having ballast in the form of passengers. The car itself was making an unplanned cameo appearance, given that the driver was a guest, not a racer. He showed us that even guests can mix it up with the dedicated, single-minded, glory-seeking pack that is the starting line-up, and come out looking shiny. Well in, sir.

 

Date: Saturday  October 22, 2016

Event: Maximum Attack Drags & Gymkhana

Venue: Nyaribo Airstrip on the outskirts of Nyeri Town

 

There is something graceful about a Mercedes-Benz, even if it is a dark green 2.0 litre W124 E Class spiralling out of control on a cordoned-off airstrip somewhere in Central Kenya. The huge saloon majestically unstuck its driven axle off the loose chippings, coating the grossly underused tarmac (or parody thereof) and went sideways in what looked like slow motion – but was actually just the slow, ponderous motion that has lately been associated with these vehicles as far as Kenyan time trial motorsport is concerned – before coming to a regal rest, followed by its driver calmly resuming his stately progress towards the finish line. You cannot find style and composure like this anywhere else. You really can’t.

When American cars (which we see on TV) lose it, it’s like a hurricane passing through. Death and destruction are part of the package. When Japanese cars wipe out, it looks both frantic and frenetic, and their inherent flimsiness and delicacy is almost always brought to the fore with observations about their lightness and the thinness of their skins. That’s why they used to make such good base cars for rally attempts.

When a Mercedes-Benz has an accident, it looks scripted. First, it has to appear classy doing it. It won’t cartwheel or spin wildly about its own axis or perform any hectic, high-strung cartoon-like histrionics. It is like an orchestra – carefully arranged to reach a finale that will please anybody listening (or watching), but not as much as the person sitting inside it who realises that he is not going to die after all. Stand up and claim your “Most Composed Time Trialler”, oh calm-and-composed driver of Car No. 05. You did well.

 

Day: Tuesday October 25, 2016

Event: Mercedes-Benz X Class Concept Reveal

Venue: Stockholm, Sweden

 

The mass of the three-pointed star gets tossed grille-first into the increasingly heated war theatre that defines the world of double-cab pickups. Undenied rumours have it that this car can also be described as a Nissan Navara wearing a German mask. Don’t toss the papers aside yet; I know the allegation sounds preposterous but hear me out.

Sure, the current Navara might not be the last word in the rock-solid granite groundedness that has been a defining characteristic of the Mercedes-Benz marque, but anybody who has driven or ridden in one will admit that it is the most comfortable pickup within three galaxies. It also drives and handles like a dream (for what it is), and surely those two qualities have to count for something.

Now, a new one is coming out which I hope to try in a few days’ time, and it is this new car that the Mercedes utility is based on – or basically is. This is a strange conclusion because word on the street is, Daimler spent the astronomically imposing figure of $1 billion (Sh101 billion) developing this vehicle, which Nissan will apparently build for them. That must be one very expensive sheet of paper they signed that agreement on.

DIFFERENCES CENTRED ON ENGINE AND DRIVETRAIN

There will be differences and there will be distinctions between the two, though. The differences are centred mostly on the engine and drivetrain. Mercedes-Benz has a thing for torque and is, therefore, likely to sling its own powerplants — presumably V6 engines with turbos — under the bonnet to ensure this vehicle can maybe tow a freight train and is not easily overtaken by the competition, while given the overall structural limitations of a pickup as far as weight distribution are concerned, we should also expect a raft of electronic driver aids such as electronic brake force distribution, traction control and stability management programmes. Sure, the Navara might have these too, but Mercedes will more likely than not develop their own bespoke (and ruthlessly effective) systems.

Distinctions come with the nose and tail treatments, as well as the interior. These have to be undeniably Mercedes, and if the press photos are anything to go by, the nose and the interior sure are. The nose looks like a graft from the AMG GT sports car with extra chin while the interior looks futuristic. The tail is unlike anything I have seen before, which, on the positive, will assist in uniqueness but on the negative, looks a little strange, particularly with the off-road biased Powerful Explorer Pack.

Yes, the car was shown in two trims. First up is the “Powerful Explorer”, sporting chunky tyres and a gnarly mesh tailgate that will give nightmares to anyone trailing you off the beaten path where this vehicle is intended to be driven. The other trim package is the “Stylish Adventurer”, the “stylish” aspect being 22-inch, 12-spoke rims and the absence of a winch. This pickup will look good dropping off the over-privileged progeny of the fabulously wealthy at their  private schools where they will be taught the tricks of how to mint enough money to buy X Class trucks of their own before they hit 25. The world is a funny place, I know.

Global press reports call it the first “premium” pickup, conveniently overlooking the ridiculously over-the-top Yank Tank offerings such as the Cadillac Escalade EXT, Ford F150 and the Lincoln Blackwood. The prices of, and accoutrements in, these giant pickups scream nothing but “premium”, and with prices well within range of Landcruiser money, they certainly do qualify. There is also the fact that, not too long ago, the self-same Mercedes-Benz intimidated all of us with the G Class 6X6 AMG, which is also a double-cab pickup, but not as you know it…

Expect the X Class here sometime next year. Price ranges are still as nebulous as my hopes of owning one, but one thing I can bet is they will be much higher than those of the Navara, with which this vehicle shares more than just a platform.

 

Day: Thursday October 27, 2016

Event: Mercedes-Benz E Klasse Launch

Location: Nairobi Arboretum

 

So now we come back to the city, where DT Dobie was so kind as to lower my self-esteem by introducing me to the rarefied atmosphere of the potential Mercedes-Benz client. They had a new car to sell and they wanted me to see it.

The Mercedes-Benz E Class W213 is the latest iteration of the Stuttgart taxi that we have come to know and shamelessly covet. Gone are the split headlamps, reverting to the single-unit look that initially went out after the W124. In comes the new bulbous, soapy appearance that has festooned both the C and the S Class ranges, and this is where I have a problem.

First accused at Audi, Mercedes-Benz has followed the trend of making its saloon cars all look the same, with only the differences in size separating one range from another. Given that the smaller C is slowly growing bigger to boost practicality while the larger E is slowly shrinking (rear legroom has been slowly vanishing since the W212 age) to make it more tractable in our increasingly packed metropolises, telling them apart is a lot more difficult. Distinctiveness is going out the door, and if there ever was a quality sought by Mercedes clientèle, it is distinctiveness. The whole effect was underlined by the puny rims and chunky rubber that the launch E200 car was shod with. Coloured brown, it did not look as special as I had hoped it would.

All these criticisms and feelings of disappointment are flushed down the toilet once you step inside. Who cares if your E looks like a C when you have an interior like this? What you are looking at, touching and feeling is excellence personified. There is a reason German cars have always been respected, and it is this. What you are looking at is engineering like you cannot imagine. What you are looking at is the future.

NO MORE ANALOGUE DIALS

I will not go into details about the interior — that will come in the review after a test drive — but I have to mention that dashboard. Gone is the traditional cluster of analogue dials, centre console and separate screen. What you have instead is, for all intents and purposes, a stretched iPad. All those fiddly things that require several hundred buttons to control in a Lexus have been embedded into that giant wall of glass that stretches across slightly more than half of the dashboard to create less a “driver area” and more the control room of a digitally advanced surveillance facility. The displays are infinitely customizable, with the party piece being the real-time satellite navigation (available with a zoom capability) that in true Mercedes fashion, singles out places of interest to the default Mercedes driver. And yes, some of these places of interest are petrol stations. Suddenly, the E Class not so much impresses as further awes my already fascinated eye. This is amazing.

The car can park itself. The interior lighting is available in 64 selectable colours, all in the same car. My eyes can’t detect 64 colours. The leather looks and feels expensive. The voice command system is bang on. Despite the presence of that oversized tablet in front of my face, there are still a few hundred buttons scattered all around the front part of the passenger cell, most of which I’m tempted to prod curiously but I dare not lest I inadvertently activate an ejector seat or send a distress signal to the Mercedes headquarters in Germany. I cannot wait to make this car park itself while talking to it and select 33 of the 64 mood lighting hues all at the same time during the upcoming test drive. I might even ask it to brew me a cup of tea.

For now DT Dobie will sell you the entry level E200, though given how well kitted it is, if that is entry level, then a fully-specced range topper probably comes with its own helicopter perched on the roof as standard.

Later on, there will be an E250 followed by an E300 but get this: for the first time there will also be an AMG version available – the E43. It might not be the harbinger of the Armageddon, that the hairy-chested E63 is, but it should be enough to get you from A to B faster than 99 per cent  of everything else on the road.

You want one? For the E200 you’d better have €90,000  (Sh9.9 million) or thereabouts.

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How To Drive Through The Namib In An Isuzu Pickup

“So you say you have done this before, right?”

“Sure I have. I have done plenty of off-roading and I have driven in two other deserts besides The Namib. I daresay I am quite good at this and we won’t get stuck”

“So why are we not moving?”

“Because we are stuck…”

Shoot.

*                                  *                         *                             *                             *                             *

Four years ago I started an article with the quote “God doesn’t punish us, He only grants us lives long enough to punish ourselves.” This was in reference to the fact that while skillfully palming the wheel in the then-new Range Rover Vogue Autobiography in the northwestern fringes of the Sahara, I may have made light of a fellow driver’s misfortune of getting stuck in the sand; after which karma made her presence felt by getting me stuck on top of a dune exactly 90 seconds later. Well, history was repeating itself: I was in yet another desert, I succumbed to the sin of pride (again!) and gloated about how good I can be behind the wheel and I promptly beached the Isuzu KB300 DTEQ LX I was driving. Talk about being brought back down to earth, literally.

The instructions were clear: Maintain momentum at all times. Maintain a respectable distance from the vehicle ahead. Make sure the vehicle behind sees you making any turns. When stopping, try as much as possible to do it on a downhill gradient. Don’t saw away at the wheel like a Group B maestro and don’t powerslide the car. Either of these may cause the (intentionally) deflated tyres -as explained last week- to get torn off the rims. Traction control off, stability management off, transfer box in 4 High, transmission in gear, let’s go.

So we went.

It was not exactly my fault, but then again it also wasn’t the other guy’s fault per se. When powering up a gentle incline, spinning the wheels and spraying white rooster tails in the air, I made the mistake of getting off the throttle and back on it again. That meant two things: one, I lost momentum and two, I dumped all the (not insignificant) torque available from the 3.0 liter turbocharged and intercooled diesel engine through the four nearly-flat tyres at once and I started digging. Within seconds, we were knee-deep in the sand, having sunk up to the floorboards in the glistening mire. One more dab of the throttle and I might have struck oil. Where is that rescue team?

The reason I lifted was because perhaps my momentum was considerably more than that of the car I was trailing; either way my sense of perspective -very difficult to get accurately in the sea of constantly shifting dunes- told me that I was closing the gap between us real quick and if I didn’t ease off, I might start the next descent right on top of the car ahead. I had to cut the power, and when thundering uphill across the hot sand, the last thing you want to do is cut the power. The inevitable happened. Plumes of sand cascaded in the air like a fountain, the engine roared, the whole car rocked and it immediately became obvious that we were going nowhere fast. Neal, do your thing with the walkie-talkie.

Thankfully, the expert rescue team got us unstuck in short order and we were on our way again. Also, with my ego bruised and everyone mirthfully aware that the loudmouthed know-it-all from Kenya got served his just desserts (pun intended), extra care was now being taken. No way was I going to get stuck again, no sir.

Once you get the hang of it, sailing across the sand is actually a lot of fun. I call it sailing because it doesn’t feel like driving. The steering becomes inaccurate, the car is always sliding even in a straight line and braking creates a swash ahead of the front tyres, not unlike the prow of a massive ship traversing slightly choppy waters at full steam. Keeping the wheels inside the tracks left by the lead vehicle (another instruction we were asked to follow keenly) is not as easy as it may look, especially through the sweeping turns, and especially if you carry too much speed into the turn.

Day 1

This was an afternoon drive following the earlier briefing from our hosts. The idea was to get us familiarized with the desert environment, which for some reason was actually cold, as well as helping us get our sand feet, i.e honing our sand-driving mettle. Much as it didn’t seem like it, the dunes were less extreme, the slopes less steep and the twists and turns less dramatic. We drove around in huge circles, randomly getting stuck, dancing gracefully across the desert floor in a convoy of gleaming trucks and stopping every now and then to take photos, grab a snack, swap seats and such. It was during this drive that I beached my car not too long after the start. At the close of the day, the hosts cheerfully told us that what we had just done was child’s play compared to what lay ahead of us the following day.

Day 2

We arose at zero dark thirty to catch the sunrise next to the Atlantic ocean, followed by an interesting beach drive before we started inching further into the desert. I recall leaving the highway, making a right turn past an ATV racetrack before stopping at the foot of the biggest sand dune I had ever seen. It looked like a mountain and I strongly suspect the view from the top would allow one to see all the way to South America across the Atlantic. Or not. We were about to find out.

When they said the second day would be a lot more extreme they were not talking out of the side of their necks. The insanity kicked off with us powering our way up that sandy mountain with nothing but the sun in your eyes and the roar of the diesel mill in your ears as your back is pressed into the seat under what felt like twice the normal force of gravity. It became clear why the driver’s seating position had to be uncomfortably intimate with the dashboard (again, explained last week). One could easily and unwittingly unhand the vehicle controls, ceding your fate to the designs of geography and the laws of physics as you participate in what could only be described as the most spectacular accident of your life.

Power up the dune, crest it and immediately wonder aloud why no one is spotting for us (another off-roading requirement). The surprise that awaits you on the other side actually unsettles the stomach because you will instantly get an inkling of what it feels like to be in an elevator whose cables have snapped. The descent is crazy; it is even steeper that the ascent. The instinctive reaction is to slam on the brakes; but this is a serious no-no because the front of the car will dig into the sand, the back will rise into the air and you will descend to the bottom in a series of cartwheels.

The trick is to modulate braking (the DMAX does not have any of that fancy hill descent control electronic wizardry found in Land Rovers) and hold the wheel as straight as you can. This is because there is no time or opportunity to start downshifting for engine braking without the risk of over-revving and probably blowing the engine. Float down to the bottom atop a rapidly growing mound of sand which you have to be keen to power out of early enough otherwise you will bury yourself in it once you reach the bottom.

After expertly extracting yourself from that driving predicament, one pats oneself on the back, grinning toothily and thinking that was one heck of a wake-up call. All remnants of sleep have immediately cleared from the mind. Feeling inspired and chummy with the guide, I look askance upon him:

“Which way are we going now?”

“We are going that way”.

He points at an even bigger sand dune. Welcome to the desert.

Day 2 is not easy, I will grant you that. There is increased frequency of cars yielding to the treacherous sand. More and more people are getting stuck more often. Our average convoy speed is picking up fast. The gap between vehicles is increasing. There is drifting, there is understeer and there are powerslides as drivers become desperate to keep their compadres in sight.

This is important because our guide, in a pre-facelift branded vehicle, has a dark and diabolical sense of humor. As the slopes become longer and steeper, the crests become totally blind and he chooses these points to make sudden turns which nobody sees meaning there are several hair-raising moments that follow this. To make it up the slope, one has to go flat out. Shoot up the slope, fly across the top and you suddenly notice, while in mid-air, that the tracks have veered left as you continue plowing straight at full speed. This is quite the quandary because if you make a hard and sharp turn, you will either flip the vehicle (good Lord, please no!), you will rip the tyres off the rims or if you are feeling particularly lucky, you will understeer directly into a less viscous portion of the sand box in which case you will sink immediately and the rest of the convoy will hate you because that will mean another twenty minutes wasted as the rescue team exhumes you from your sandy interment.

The drive is as entertaining as it is unnerving. It is amusing to watch drivers react to the instant changes in topography as they drive unknowingly into the guide’s craftily laid out traps. The script is the same all round: watch a truck drive at full speed up a slope, then suddenly cut speed, the brake lights immediately glow and the car disappears from sight as the ensnared helmsman helplessly watches himself fall down a hole with very little control over his vessel. There are a few tense moments of dead silence after which the truck reappears a mile away looking for a place flat enough to stop and regroup. Nerves are shot.

The desert is unrelenting. The repetitive and monotonous dunes are starting to take their toll on everybody. The sun’s rays are melting the sand into a soft and gooey pillow that robs the cars of forward motion and captures those who forget the driving tips given the day before. It becomes trickier for the guide to find ground solid enough to drive on without doubling back on our tracks. In fact, things are becoming so technical that even the guides and rescue teams start getting stuck. We enter a chasm that becomes the pit of tribulation because the steepness of its sides, the blindness of its rim and the inconsistency of the sand means close to half the vehicles get properly stuck, with a very close call as one silver truck catches air as it enters the chasm and narrowly misses ramming into the back of a red truck that is stuck halfway down the slope. The tension builds and there are hushed words going round that perhaps we are now hopelessly lost in The Namib. Looking around, the length and gradient of those slopes make it fairly obvious that we don’t have enough horsepower to make our way to the top without grinding to a halt somewhere along the way. It seems like we are trapped inside the giant hole.

But we aren’t. The guide knows his stuff and he designs a winding route (with fewer surprises) that worms its way out of the chasm with zero casualties and a short while later we are on top of another massive sand dune with the ocean lying below us. The place seems familiar, as it should because this was the self-same dune with which we kicked things off earlier that morning.

The blast in the desert is over.

SIDEBAR:

The Sandstorm

As we made our way back to the hotel on the first day, we drove into a sandstorm. It is nothing like you have ever seen before. Haunting, wispy, spectacular, beautiful plumes of sand cascade across the road in an endless loop of gusts and dust devils, as you drive in an empty post-apocalyptic landscape that feels specifically crafted for a scene from a Star Wars film. The storm is so powerful and the dust cloud so dense one can’t see the vehicle ahead. Check your mirrors and realize you can’t see the vehicle behind either. The crosswinds are quite strong; you have to have both hands on the wheel, constantly adjusting your line otherwise the gale will blow you right off the road. The thickness and the whiteness of the sandy pea-soup and the quantity of sand being blown onto and across the tarmac means once you lose the road you will probably never find it again.

A lone bus appears from within the mists, full lights on, and thunders past. You try not to imagine what would happen if you saw it too late and drove under it. The whole thing feels surreal and unforgettable.

 

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Review: The new Isuzu DMAX

There is sand everywhere. Surrounded by sand, sand in my teeth, sand in my throat, sand in my eyes, sand in the air; but most importantly, there is what looks like all the sand in the world under my press demonstrator. I’m not moving, and the sand in the air is the direct result of the rooster tails I shoot up as I try to unweld myself from the uncompromising desert environment. I am well and truly stuck; and wheelspin is not helping me any. Neal, my upbeat co-driver and budding cameraman, cheerfully gets on the gong to let our hosts know that this motor vehicle is going nowhere fast.

Do not adjust your newspaper pages, this is not a repeat of the Morocco test from three years ago; this is a whole new one. I am in a fleet of Isuzu KB300 DTEQ LX cars; what we call the DMAX, somewhere on the western coast of Africa, a place called Walvis Bay right at the point where the Namib Desert meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is quite a sight and quite a feeling being here, I tell you: to the left is nothing but miles and miles of empty desert; to the right is nothing but miles and miles of open sea. There may be oil rigs and the odd ship. To the front is a road that may or may not be tarmac (speed limit: 100km/h), and to the back is the rest of the convoy. We are threading our way through the biggest sandstorm I have ever seen in my life. It feels like I have woken up in a Frank Herbert novel.

Q. Enough with the Geography! The car?

Ah, the new DMAX which is not so new. It is new to these pages, but not new to the market. The reason I was in the desert was because the car has just received a facelift (already) which goes to show how behind the times this column has fallen lately; and we were there to try the new look (new foglamps, addition of daytime running lights). That seems like a pretty flimsy excuse for one to go on a bucket-list busting trip across Africa’s waistline, but hey; who’s complaining?

Q. So? Does the facelift work?

Only if you stare hard enough. The DRLs are what you’ll notice first because… ummm… they glow during the day. The bumper calls for a keener eye to notice the changes, and in the process you may notice that the headlamps, though similar in appearance, are actually quite different. In short, yes the facelift works.

Q. Instead of going down the well-trodden path of listing specs readily available on the internet as done by lazy automotive writers everywhere, how about we summarize it into this: what did you like about the car?

  1. I like the new look. It moves forward GM’s traditionally conservative design language without treading on anyone’s toes. Or does it? More than once I have been told that the Toyota Hilux blazed the trail (see if you notice a pun here) for the swoopy lines that were quickly adopted by the Mitsubishi L200 (looks odd), a slew of Chinese pickups (who don’t understand what “copyright” means) and now the DMAX. So what? Does the DMAX look good or not? I think it does, for what it is. Leave the flashy bodywork for mall-crawling saloon cars, this is meant to be a work truck.
  2. The car is a lot more comfortable. For starters it is quite roomy inside, a lot more than the previous generation DMAX. Rear legroom in particular is very impressive and the seats are not as hard as they used to be. I could do a painless Great Run in this (see the archives for clarification on what happened during the Great Run 4X4 back in 2013, which I did in the old DMAX). Suspension optimization is also at a higher level such that bumps, rumble strips and the general unevenness of the ground is better isolated from the occupants’ skeletons. It may not be at Navara-levels of smooth but it is smooth all the same. It is so much better than the previous model that we had to physically confirm it still stood on leaf springs at the back and not coils.
  3. Refinement: the DMAX/KB feels a lot less lorry-like than before. Don’t get me wrong: the engine is still gruff to the point of raucousness at 3000 rpm and beyond; but keep it below 3k and all will be well. You won’t even need more than that unless you are dune-bashing (to be explained shortly). Fit and finish is also improved and for the first time in history the interior of the DMAX looks like something out of the 21st Century… not necessarily 2016, but the 21st Century all the same. There is a screen. There is Bluetooth connectivity. There is a USB port and an iPod dock; hell, there is even a slot for your micro SD card, if your fingers are deft enough to wiggle it into the nook. The instrument cluster is a mesh of analog and digital: the clocks are analog (speedo and tach) while the fuel gauge and gear indicator are digitally displayed on a tiny little screen in the center of the cluster. In what looks like a Range Rover knock-off, the markings in the clocks have glass inserts which are strongly reminiscent of the Evoque’s own bejeweled diamond dash.
  4. Sound system: this was unexpected -and a pleasant surprise- but the thumping stereo really does thump. It is miles ahead of what I have experienced in any other pickup, up to and including but not limited to the ridiculously expensive Amarok (from which I expected better). Combine this with ease of use of the entire system via the touch-screen interface and any trip inside this car becomes enjoyable for all aboard.
  5. Fuel economy: driving in the desert is a thirsty exercise, and not just for the driver, but for the car too. Average figures were quoted at 14-15 km/l, though it was not easy to get an accurate return while thrashing across the sand with no top-ups. What I know is: roughly 200km most of which were spent spinning wheels, in 4WD and at high revs only yielded the smallest of dips in the fuel gauge level. There goes one of the biggest pains ever for the Kenyan motorist alleviated.
  6. Pricing; another pain to the Kenyan motorist. The DMAX undercuts the competition at the moment by something close to a million, which are very many shillings. Is the difference justifiable? No. This was best expressed by a South African colleague whose shock was palpable after we told him exactly how much a million Kenya shillings translates to in Rands.
  7. Perfect mesh of the old and the new: there is this mindset that the more mechanical and analog the automotive experience, the better. I don’t necessarily agree: I still believe an autobox is the best for off-roading over a manual. I however agree with the fact that less electronic intrusiveness and computer gimmickry makes for a better overall driving experience, especially when it comes to locking your own diffs. The DMAX covers all this. You can have it with either a manual transmission or a traditional auto with manual override (which I recommend). While costlier fare comes with preset parameters (called Terrain Response, wink, wink), in the DMAX you still have to select between 2WD and 4WD yourself; and high range and low range. No need for a lever (too analog, and too 1960s), there is a rotary dial in the center console for that. It increases the sense of involvement in the exercise while simplifying it at the same time, as opposed to simply pushing buttons and waiting for the car to drive itself. The beauty of the system is one can shift from 2WD to 4WD at speeds as high as 115km/h, but only for high range. To engage low range you need to stop, and that will never change. Throttle response is more immediate too, which may indicate the lack of an electronic throttle. The DMAX is quite good off-road, as we found out in Port Elizabeth back in 2012 (see archives); but with nothing more than chunky rubber and a lift kit, it will transform into one of the most veritable of Rhino Charge-class off-road vehicles at par with Landcruisers and Land Rovers, I kid you not.

Quite a list. So, what did you not like?

  1. Improvements in refinement aside, the car still feels agricultural to some extent. There is no mistaking its genealogy; like father, like son. The noise becomes really egregious above 3000rpm, and if you use the vehicle as it was intended, you may stray to that engine speed or more once in a while, in which case prepare for some irritation. The manual option, while creamed with the oiliest clutch action one’s left foot could ever desire, is marred by a slightly ropey gear change especially going into first. Snapshifts will not exactly be your friend unless and until you get used to the car. The automatic really is the better transmission here.
  2. There may be USB porting and iPod docking but it took us a while to locate them. They have been squirreled away in some deep recess at the bottom of the center console with no clear markings unless you really squint (and know where to squint), and to make matters worse, they have these silly plastic covers that require a fish hook to disengage. Nobody told me to bring a fish hook with me; nor can you readily find a fish hook randomly lying about on the desert sand so the trip was spent with my music stick bouncing around uselessly in my trouser pockets. The micro SD slot is also fairly pointless. I can see the need for it (utilization as a surrogate hard drive, which other cars have inbuilt in them but the DMAX doesn’t); but who in the world of today actually owns a standalone SD card except for dedicated photographers? These are found in phones and cameras, and I doubt anyone would be disassembling their phone just to get at the memory card to push into the dashboard. My suggestion would be to shift the USB port to where the SD card slot is and forget the whole SD thing. Speaking of phones, the perennial pain that is Bluetooth connection is present here too; connecting your phone is still a bit of a hit-and-miss; though to GM’s credit, this was a lot less of a hassle in their KB as compared to other (*cough, cough) more expensive vehicles.
  3. The rear doors: they are weighted for some reason that is not immediately apparent and shut with a heavily damped and muffled thud which is quite impressive and evocative of a top-of-the-line Mercedes Benz, until you realize they are not actually shut; in which case you have to slam them. That is counter-intuitive to some of us who spend work hours doing road tests in expensive vehicles away from home and drive Subarus with frameless doors when home. Slamming doors is not really our thing. We may have spent a considerable amount of time driving in the desert with doors that were almost ajar, which is fine when belted up and driving in a sea of sand but could pose as a hazard in the more realistic world of narrow streets and two-way traffic.

Q. Interesting. So what is your summary?

My summary is this. Toyota rules the roost in terms of sales and kerb appeal by virtue of reputation. The Ford Ranger comes a close second and is about to overthrow the Japanese truck as king of the hill. The Mitsubishi L200 was and still is anonymous as to get skipped in almost every conversation involving double-cab pickups. The Volkswagen Amarok still sports the new-kid-on-the-block patina that keeps the wary at arm’s length. The Nissan Navara… well, let me stop here for a moment and change tack.

All this means nothing because the double-cab war that surfaces every now and then in this column just shifted gear. All these pickups now have new versions; or are about to. With the exception of the new DMAX, which has been around for some time, Toyota has a new Hilux (whose launch they keep promising to invite us to but nothing seems to be happening), Ford has a new Ranger (but for some reason they have sworn I will never touch any of their cars; I don’t know why), Volkswagen has a new Amarok with a more realistic 3.0 liter engine (the 2.0 liter sounds like the work of fiction) and is yet to reach these shores and Nissan will launch a new Navara in November; in which I will get first dibs in yet another desert, way up in the northwest corner of the continent. I will be visiting Morocco again. So that means we will not be doing a comparison just yet unless and until all the new vehicles are sampled. For now, let the DMAX be the standard against which the rest will be measured.

That being said, there are projections that can be made. Expect the DMAX to undercut the field in price, with the probable exception of the L200 and of course the Chinese. Expect the new Amarok to have the classiest interior of the pack, and probably pack the meanest punch in terms of engine output while costing as much as a BMW SUV. Expect the new Hilux to be unbreakable (they say they have strengthened the frame), a trait it shares with the DMAX though no one wants to say it out loud; while costing seven figures more (really, Toyota, you are killing us with your price tags). Finally, expect the Navara to bring more of what it already sports: comfort and handling like an executive saloon, with just a touch of flimsiness. This is especially likely because rumors abound that Mercedes-Benz is entering the double-cab game too and theirs will be nothing different from a reskinned Navara: same car, different badge; so it follows that the engineering Nissan puts into it has to be worthy of German scrutiny. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

Q. So, would one buy one?

Buy a what? A DMAX? Hells, yeah! Why not? The simple reason can best be summarized thus: there is nothing the Hilux will do that the DMAX won’t. But the price difference between the two is massive: the Hilux just seems to get more and more expensive as its fans get more and more vocal; while the DMAX maintains its understated, open-secret, smart-choice status. I could easily live with this car, and then some; especially once I buy a fish hook and manage to plug in my USB music stick.

Q. OK, thanks. That was really…

Hold on a minute, I’m not done yet. Remember some of my earlier observations about the DMAX over its stability or the lack thereof? There was a video clip of one toppling over on live television and another one threw me into the undergrowth during the Great Run 4X4. These issues have been addressed with the introduction of traction control and stability management systems which are on by default, making the car as tractable as you’d like it to be. To disengage the traction control, just tap the button (conveniently located near the steering column where only the driver can reach it) once; to disengage both traction control and stability management, you have to tap and hold the button for a clean eight seconds. No room for mistakes here. Once off, and with the transfer case in 2 High, it is a case of wheeee!!…. wheelspin and sideways action on a loose surface. Fun; if you know what you are doing.

How To Drive On Sand

The Namib Desert was my third major sandpit ever, after the Sahara and the Kalahari in that order. While I have done sand driving before, as well as dune-climbing, none of it has been to this scale. To tackle it, one needed preparation.

  1. Your apparel: you are better off in a Gideon boot rather than a sports shoe. Fortunately, a Gideon boot (or something similar) is what my landing gear was shod in; because the alternative is a lot more idyllic for the romantic at heart but makes for an ignominious return to the hotel lobby in the evening: going barefoot. Ordinary shoes tend to sink in the sand, which makes walking tiring and the sand gets in your shoes making you uncomfortable. Of course you need sunglasses too to battle the glare of the sun and its reflection, particularly in a sand storm where everything goes white and you get dazzled in short order. I learnt this the hard way. For most deserts, you need light, bright clothing to keep cool; but in the Namib close to the coast you may wind up in a jumper; there is a gale that feels like the sort of Harmattan which hardens foofoo much further to the north of this place: very cold, very strong and unrelenting.
  2. The car: Deflate the tyres. Drop the standard tarmac pressures to less than half what you normally use: in our case, it was down from 1.8 psi to 0.8. The thinking behind this is that a slightly deflated tyre has a longer footprint that increases its contact area enabling it to float on the sand. To the off-roading know-it-alls out there: lowering tyre pressure does not widen the tyre footprint, it lengthens it. It’s the sidewalls that bulge, meaning the width of the tyre is unaffected, bit along with the sidewalls, the effective length of the tyre circumference in contact with the ground also increases, and this is what we are interested in. You will also need the car to be in 4WD the entire time (4-Hi mostly unless you get stuck in which case 4-Lo comes in handy). Most interestingly, one wants the traction control off, because
  3. Make Yourself Uncomfortable: Literally, you have to. Move your seat forward until you feel like you are too close to the wheel. You’ll need to because when ascending a 1:1 slope at wide open throttle the last thing you want is to slide back into your seat like you are riding a cheap roller-coaster and thus cede control of your little off-roader. You don’t want to cede control at that moment. Both hands on the wheel, elbows at a 90-degree angle.

*Next time: what happened on the dunes