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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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Review: Manhandling The Girly Mazda Demio DE

Fun things come in small packages, some say. This might or might not require verification for certain things, but in the case of Mazda’s littlest hatchback, all you need to see the truth is take it for a little spin around the block. More popularly known as the 2, locals identify it more easily if you call it a Demio.

I am the former owner of a Mazda Demio, so the drive for me is a reintroduction to the brand. While my own steed was the more staid DY platform, the current drive is the later DE and there have been changes, the most obvious being the looks. It is  no longer the smoothed-off rounded blockiness of the almost van-like form that I had got used to; now the car looks purposeful, the purpose being to appear pretty. The aim of a hatchback is to be less a transporter and more a lifestyle statement.

It looks like a Vitz, which is the definitive hatchback in Kenya. This is both good and bad: good in that it really is pretty, but bad because 1. The car loses identity in adopting the generic soap-like shape of the current crop of cars, and 2. The car loses practicality. Gone is the boot that made the former car more of a station wagon. Now the car is just a trendy hatchback with five nominal seats, only four of which are realistically usable.

Ground clearance is quite low.  The car was running on relatively orbital 185/65/15 tyres but still, anything rougher than a regular murram road will risk scraping the lip,  the belly, or both. The low stance and the aerodynamic bias in the design language make for a sharp and very appealing look.

The changes to the inside are more dramatic. The feel, layout and deployment of material feel more European than anything else and that is a good thing, because the Mazda 2 is a direct relation to the also-popular Ford Fiesta. The arrangement of controls and instruments is more scientific than artful, but there isn’t a lack of soul in it either. Sitting there before firing it up, one cannot help but think that this car was built for enthusiasts by an enthusiast, and they actually did put a lot of thought into it, girly appearance notwithstanding. One cannot help but gleefully notice the presence of paddle shifts behind the steering wheel.

The whole idea behind sitting in the car is to thrash it around and see what it is made of. You don’t necessarily need a sledgehammer horsepower slam to make the hair at the back of your neck stand up. Towards that end, our test route is a heavily potholed, lonely road.  And we will be doing this in the dark. What we need is not top-end firepower but initial pickup, midrange torque, good brakes and a balanced suspension. We have all these, plus the added bonuses of compact dimensions and light weight. I am driving a very comfortable 5-seat go-kart.

The go-kart pretensions extend to the transmission. The DE comes with a CVT with seven preset ratios. That is not what I have. A 5-speed manual is also available. That is not it either. I am in a 4-speed boggo autobox car, and before anyone laments the prehistoric nature, let me tell you the one advantage of having an automatic with fewer ratios than the current standard: there is less hunting of gears and for budding helmsmiths, there is the satisfying sensation of feeling the power build as the tachometer sweeps the wide arc between idle and the red line. It might not make for wild acceleration , but the gaps in pulling power are well covered up by the torque converter. This car can accelerate if you want it to.

So away we go in the Demio, headlights stabbing the darkness as we seek out the potholes. The ruts are fearsome enough to break a shock absorber or eat a tyre, so I am doing a lot of dodging. Initially adopting the sensible power-off-stab-the-brakes-twirl-the-tiller-power-on technique of the novice, the sharpness and responsiveness of the car soon has me dancing around the holes under full power. The nose does not wash wide, grip is ample. Body roll is there but not to alarming levels: comfort has to be maintained as well as handling. The linearity of the acceleration, the soft damping of the primary controls and the subdued thumps that reach me when one or two potholes get the better of my targeting abilities is distinctly European; if anything, it reminds me of the entry-level Jaguar XE saloon, which is high praise for a little Japanese runabout. The drive only lasts for 20 minutes, but 20 is all I need to be convinced that the Demio is still the connoisseur’s weapon of choice if you want a city-bound daily driver that will not bore the hell out of you.

THE BORING STUFF

The engine in the DE is a 1.5 litre MZR four-cylinder, which is the top-of-the-range power unit in the lineup. Very smooth and quiet in the usual Mazda way, it does not lack for torque and is good for 111hp. This is the same engine I had in my DY, and while the smaller units may be more economical for really dedicated traffic-intensive deployment, what you really need is the 1.5. It will still return the desired economy figures, it is urgent when need be and it can hold its own out on the open road without having to mash the firewall to keep up with more powerful transportation.

As stated earlier, the gearbox  is a 5-speed auto, again ideal for city use. I can say with some confidence that the 5-speed manual would be more engaging for the adventurous types, but the autobox is in no way a letdown. It holds on to gears longer, preventing hunting, and it shifts without any jerks or surges.

The front-drive platform is fairly obvious; but less obvious is the absence of an AWD version. Does this car really need an AWD? Hardly; 111hp is not enough to compromise drivability. The tyres can, and will ,break traction when launched mercilessly but only briefly so before grip is regained and tractability resumes.

ACQUIRING ONE

Local dealers are selling six or seven-year old sub-100k units at about Sh700,000, which is a lot. You’d probably rather bring one from Japan yourself and pay less, say roughly half a million if you are lucky. For this outlay you get a sweet little hatchback that you will have a hard time parting with, but in case you do, the  resale value will be a concern. The misplaced belief that Mazdas have rare and costly spares means the used-car market is not strong.  The car is quickly catching on, though, as more  people discover what a gem it really is.

The upturn in desirability means at one point the demand will go up ever so slightly, increasing used prices before coming down again once the market is flooded with them. This is no Toyota: buy it because you want it; don’t buy it in the hopes of recovering your money three years down the line.

Would I buy one? Certainly.

THE COMPETITION

First up is the Vitz, which is the benchmark car for this segment. Being a Toyota, it is not only a cliché but is also the butt of many jokes. An alternative would be the European Volkswagen Polo, which has now entered production in Kenya. For double the Demio’s used asking price, one can avail oneself of a brand new Polo. Fellow Japanese rivals are the Mitsubishi Colt, which is a fairly boring car unless you opt for the fire-breathing and unsubtle Ralliart version. Nissan has the Note, which comes nowhere near the Demio’s beauty, refinement and handling. Another Toyota alternative is the Passo. Of this lineup, I’d say only the Polo rivals the Demio outright.

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Review: A Day’s Work With Jaguar Land Rover – The New Evoque Convertible and The F Pace

Day 1: Range Rover Evoque Convertible

The Range Rover Evoque convertible is a hall of mirrors. What you see might not always be what you get, and what you get you probably didn’t see the first time. Interesting car, this one: it looks pretty, and I do mean pretty, not beautiful, which means I would never buy one – at least not for myself. The first we laid eyes on it was a couple of months back, and I will confess: I did not pay much attention to the launch or to the car itself. You could blame the race-spec 993 Porsche 911 GT2 freleasing all of 700bhp through its tailpipes a few yards behind me, mopping the floor with a race-spec BMW M6 and an equally race-spec Mercedes-Benz AMG GT. An automotive German civil war with a Wagnerian thunderclap for a soundtrack on a South African racetrack on a hot weekday afternoon fresh off a glitch-ridden flight sure beats the presentation of a jacuzzi-style, mall-crawling urban assault vehicle rumoured to be designed by a woman.  My hosts were not amused by my ADHD-grade lack of attention.

That is why they brought me back, to face the ragtop Evoque, again. To make sure my scatter-brained tendencies didn’t rear themselves again, they even allowed me to drive it for a while. The report is fairly straightforward: it drives just like tin-top Evoques before it have done, and it packs the exact same electronic gimmickry ubiquitous throughout the Jaguar Land Rover range (now available with Internet, but don’t ask me how that works). However, with open-air motoring come some new experiences that I should probably mention.

It is easy to look cool, like my colleague and I did by selecting a Black ops, black-spec, black-on-black cabriolet: black rims, black badges, black paint, black interior; it’s not just Martin Luther and Barack Obama who are Black. Mr Busy Signal. Our car was, too.

It looks a touch “gangsta”, if the “gangsta” in question is either metrosexual — fearlessly in touch with his X chromosomes — or a woman.

It easy to look silly, like my colleague and I did, by cranking up the stereo to 51 while creeping through Johannesburg’s less seedy neighborhoods. I must warn you, dear reader, the quickest way to draw hate is to helm an ostentatious, expensive vehicle while broadcasting your questionable taste in music to the rest of the world that  doesn’t really care and is trying to go about its business without your frankly annoying distraction.

So, the car. I think it achieves its primary goals, which, in order of priority, are:

  1. Draw attention to oneself. You won’t even need the loud, suspicious music for this to happen. On the freeway, we got several hoots and waves of approval from other drivers (who probably couldn’t hear the atrocities blaring from our sound system). Of note is that these drivers were predominantly female, in equally trendy, if less conspicuous, Euro-hatchbacks like Mini Coopers and Renault Clios. The target market of the Evoque “Roadster” has been singled out.
  2. Purvey the joys of open-top motoring but from a mini-SUV perspective. The relatively high driving position is there, relatively because in most cabriolets, one is usually inches off the ground. At least with the Evoque, you are more than two feet off the ground. This makes for a good view out, a view further enhanced by the lack of a roof, or windows, or pillars around us. It feels like sailing a speedboat on an impossibly calm sea, or a giant swimming pool. It also makes conversation impossible at certain speeds, but then again, I probably should point out that the loud music probably had something to do with it too. Also not helping the conversation was one of my test protocols, which I sometimes use to silence vocal passengers, of flooring the throttle exiting a junction.

Would I buy one? I’ll tell you this: the likely buyers of this vehicle hail from a very specific demographic. I would only buy it for my daughter when she joins an Ivy League university, and that is only when my bank balance finally reaches nine figures. I’m still a long way away from that, so no, I wouldn’t buy one.

Day 2: Supercharged Jaguars 

When that supercharged Jaguar XE saloon piloted by a professional racing driver squeaked to a dead halt from 100km/h within the space of the average middle-class backyard, there was plenty of food for thought for everyone. The idea of a “panic stop” from the same speed in a certain twin-turbo Subaru Legacy BH5 with an intermittent ABS warning light and rapidly balding Chinese tyres is screeching noisily across the length of two football fields in a smelly cloud of bright blue tyre smoke before coming to a shaky halt not exactly facing the way it was originally. Sweaty palms and clenched glutes are optional extras, as are white knuckles and a 350bpm heartbeat. The lesson was road safety. The topic? The three-second following rule. Welcome to the Jaguar experience.

Now, many of you might  think that my job description is solely a holistic holiday of hedonism and haste, and you’d mostly be right – when I’m not bent over my typewriter trying to come up with another week’s output. However, you need to earn your stripes to do this; not only do you require the necessary skills as a wordsmith, you also have to be a bit special behind the wheel. A refresher course for a middle-level manager entails seminars and PowerPoint presentations in a hotel or resort somewhere. A refresher course for a motoring journalist involves skidpans, gymkhanas and a slew of supercharged Jaguars. I attended traffic college, which is nothing like a driving school. Welcome to the nebulous world of an auto journo in school.

Lesson 1: The Workings of Traction Control and Stability Control Systems…. or “How To Drift”

Tools of Trade: Two Jaguar F Type Roadsters, a V6 and a V8, both supercharged.

The Setup: Two figure-of-eight skidpans.

In a nutshell, the traction control kicks in when one or more tyres lose grip and start spinning. The modus operandi is fairly simple: it cuts off engine power until that tyre stops spinning before restoring the energy supply. Stability control takes things a step further: not only does it cut power, it might channel torque from end to end or even apply the brakes to keep the vehicle facing the direction it is supposed to. It is activated when sensors all over the car detect that steering angle, throttle input, vehicle behaviour and yaw angle all show signs of “conflict of interest”.

The lesson here was the effect these systems have on the dynamics of a motor vehicle so equipped. The skidpan was extremely slippery close to the centres of the circles making the figure eights, and extremely grippy just outside it. This made for an interesting drive: with both systems on, engine power was cut early, ensuring you won’t slide at all, no matter how hard you mashed the throttle of the V8 sports car. With the traction control off, the car did slide a little, controllably so, but not enough to initiate a proper drift. With both systems off, doughnuts were not only possible, they were done gleefully, but doughnuts aside, I did what I intended to do from the moment I laid eyes on the setup: drift a supercharged V8 Jaguar.

You have to be quick with your wrists and deft with your right foot to prevent spinning out – that’s how greasy the skid pan was. You also have to hold the car tight within the slippery surface because once a single tyre gains grip on the outer fringes, you will understeer briefly and your chain drift will be broken. However, get it right and the little roadster dances beautifully to your song. Judicious throttle applications and constant sawing at the wheel meant I could take the figure eight entirely sideways endlessly, grinning like a kid in a candy store right up to the moment when I touched the grippy surface and straightened out.

The V6 car was a different kettle of fish. For one, the instructor was less smiley and had a different rulebook. He insisted one take the outside line, which makes it harder to tailor your drifting line, and which meant the nearside tyres almost always had grip. That made drifting difficult: to stay sideways you had to stay on the power, which is counterintuitive once the back of the car steps out. It was almost impossible to drift this car properly: you either pushed the nose wide or you spun in a tight little circle. Given the behaviour, methinks this may have been an AWD…

Self-awarded Result: A-

Lesson 2: Spatial Awareness at High Speeds…. or “Pretend You Are Nico Rosberg Gunning for a World Championship”

Tools of Trade: Numerous… Jaguar XE, XF, XJ, F Type and F Pace, all supercharged except for the XJ, which is a diesel twin turbo.

The Setup: A short pseudo-racetrack looping around the perimeter of the traffic college’s technical wing.

The comparison I earlier there between the XE saloon and my own ageing wagon highlights the stark difference between modern cars and… ancient metal. In a brand new premium car like a Jaguar, one might find oneself doing illegal speeds in no time at all, and it won’t feel like hustling along like it would in something older or less refined. Enter the track test.

This was a combination of wide-open throttle, full-anchor mode, braking points, trail braking, part throttle, steering inputs and racing lines. To fully understand all these, we started off with a recce lap, which I did in the diesel XJ. Don’t be fooled by the oily fuel that goes into its tank, this leviathan saloon can keep up with its petrol colleagues with no shortness of breath. Then we were let loose in the cars.

The whole idea was to give us an inkling of determining how fast you are really going (quickly glance at the speedometer just in time to see yourself nudging 200) and when to brake effectively from certain speeds.  It was also a lesson on when to let off the brakes on corner entry and when to throttle up during corner exits. In other words, how to race professionally.

This is what I observed: the “intelligent” automatic transmission in the V6 F Type negated the need to use the paddle-shifts, such was the aplomb with which it timed the up and down shifts. The system even blipped the throttle on the downshift, which occurs high up in the rev range when in Sport Mode, which meant that 95 per cent  of the time you were right on the power band. Trust me; you don’t really need to choose your own ratios. The result is a surreal track experience and a sneaky suspicion that in the right hands on the right track, this little coupé could outgun its bigger V8 brother. It sounded gnarly and brutal, popping and snarling on a trailing throttle.

The bigger V8 brother is, of course, the daddy and 542bhp in a straight line causes electricity to shoot up and down your limbs and your fingers to tremble with excitement. While the V6 is aurally exciting, the thrills in the V8 come from raw power. It behooves you to be circumspect with the hot pedal should you take possession of one of these.

The diesel XJ saloon picks up its skirts and sprints with the rest of the pack. Easily the biggest, heaviest car and burning the wrong fuel, it would be easy to dismiss it as the runt of the litter, but it isn’t. It is still properly quick and handles its heft with alacrity, dimensions notwithstanding. Pedal travel is long with the accelerator, which means on the penultimate straight, it will take a while before your foot meets the firewall, which in turn means probably a top speed of 180km/h before you have to brake hard for the medium left curve leading into the staging area. One driver saw 225km/h on this stretch in the F Type V8 during one stint.

The XE saloon is a revelation. It’s not the most powerful,  the most pretty, the most luxurious nor  the most expensive, but it is the one I enjoyed driving the most. Jaguar aimed squarely at the BMW 3 Series when building this car and I daresay they have come up with something dangerously close to the ultimate driving machine. It is easy to drive this car hard, which I had no qualms doing. The weight distribution is perfect. The dimensions are just right. The response is immediate. This, or a BMW? This… so much this! The BMW might edge slightly ahead (barely noticeable) in absolute dynamics, but the concerto comprising the guttural exhaust note and the high-pitched supercharger whine is music the Germans can only dream about composing…

Self-awarded Result: A+

Lesson 3: Psychological Awareness and Mental Reaction Times… or “The Most Difficult Car-based Competition I Have Ever Participated In, Which I Lost”

Tools of Trade: Jaguar F Pace

The Setup:  a dynamic gymkhana course with pairs of smart cones placed randomly in a 50mx50m (or something) space.

What is this? It looks like a gymkhana, but not as we know it. This is one of only six systems in the world and the only one of its kind in Africa. It is a complicated mess involving gigantic “smart” cones topped with bright LED lights and a control panel not entirely dissimilar to what you might find at NASA. This is what we call a “dynamic” autocross: the course changes shape as you drive on it, and from the few cones we had on site, we were told there were 150 different courses derivable from that one layout.

This is how it works: enter the field from one side and head for the nearest pair of cones with green lights flashing at the top. Only one pair will have these lights, while another pair will have flashing blue lights. All the rest remain unlit. The green pair are the ones you are supposed to drive through immediately, keeping the car dead centre between them — no racing lines here — with the blue pair indicating the next set you should go to. Once you drive through the green pair, the lights go off, the blue lights turn green and another pair lights up blue, and so on. The light distribution is completely random. This means no two drivers will drive the same course and no one has a chance to memorise the layout. It is equally difficult for everyone.

The outcome is just as convoluted. The results are based on three parameters: how long you take to drive through the entire set (the shortest time is the most desirable), how far you drive as you hunt cone pair after cone pair (the shortest distance gets most points) and how accurately you centre the car between the cones throughout (expressed as a percentage). This is a test of how keen you are about your surroundings (spotting the ever-changing sets of lights), how quickly you can think of a path to take through an obstacle course (minimising the distance you have to cover from cone to cone) and how well you judge gaps and distances (centring the car). Ambulance drivers belong here.

It was not easy, I will grant them that. I was pleased with my result: garnering 42,000-odd points and 84 per cent accuracy (oh yeah!) until I saw how far down the merit list I was placed. Someone had gathered 46,911 points with 87.49 per cent accuracy. Drat!

Self-awarded result: B+

***

 

ROAD SAFETY

It’s not all fun and games out here. Jaguar Land Rover were really serious about the road safety thing, and they could not stress enough the important role we writers play as ambassadors thereof, and in good time too: the Saturday night traffic disaster in which dozens of Kenyans lost their lives is evidence enough that we are still wildly adrift when it comes to minding our welfare on the highways.

My social media is chock-full of people deriding the Landcruiser Prado for its lack of stability when driven fast. Who asked you to drive fast, Hamilton-Rosberg-Vettel wannabe, more so in an off-road vehicle optimised for crawling over large rocks rather than ripping up asphalt?

If you cut yourself in the kitchen, do we blame the knife for its sharpness or does the culpability lie in your own carelessness?

Arrive alive, geniuses; take your foot off the accelerator if you feel the car might be a handful. Look around you constantly, watching for potential hazards. Adhere to road signs and traffic ordinances, even when you sincerely believe they might not make much sense.

Please, let’s take care of ourselves. See you next week…

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Review: Chinese Invasion 101 – Start With A Great Wall

This is one for the history books as we finally get our hands on a Chinese vehicle. It is not what you think it is, unless you have operated one of these before, in which case it is exactly what you think it is, and that is “a pleasant surprise”.

Now, by virtue of my job description, I am not one to approach a motor vehicle with strong preconceived notions, but I am only human and I do have expectations. That explains why I am harsh on some otherwise excellent cars and very accommodating on what my colleagues would consider unforgivable. There are not too many instances of the latter, and this Chinese pickup is one rare instance of falling in both categories.

I chose to be accommodating because my work demands objectivity despite the very high odds that giving a Chinese car a chance would be looked at askance by those who claim to know better (but really don’t). The reputation of Chinese products in general precedes these cars. Longevity is not one of their claims to fame, nor is quality or, in some cases, even legitimacy. Such is the disparaging they receive that some jokes border on callousness as they allude to certain deaths as due to the ephemeral nature of anything coming out of the Far East. This could be the first disposable car I have ever reviewed.

I also chose to be harsh on this rather excellent (explanation to follow) vehicle because like I said, sometimes legitimacy is in question. This is where my subjective side comes out: as a creative, I abhor plagiarism of any kind, and as far as China goes, “copyright infringement” is an expression that does not translate well into Mandarin or Cantonese.

They have got under the skin of many by replicating anything that takes their fancy, be it a Rolls-Royce Phantom saloon or a McLaren P1 children’s pedal-car or a World Heritage Site; yes, China went as far as “copying” an Austrian town, rebuilding it down to street sign level of accuracy and thus robbing it of the very uniqueness that made it special in the first place. That little underhanded act of neo-subterfuge left the Europeans seething and demanding blood (not literally) in retribution. At first glance, this Asian truck looks exactly like you’d imagine the result would be if someone described an Isuzu DMAX to a car designer over the phone. Being the shameless copycats they are, they should not expect any mercy from me.

The result of this dual-toned, yin-yang angst casting its shadow over this road test is that this is the most comprehensive list of observations I have ever made for a single vehicle.

EXTERIOR: WIN

Pros: The car is handsome; after all, it is a DMAX in a kimono (bad pun, I know). When decked out in bull-bars, sidesteps, roll-bar and sports wheels like my test vehicle was, it really is fetching. The ground clearance is excellent: tall enough not to scrape any underbelly essentials, but not so tall as to make it difficult to load, enter or handle passably.

Cons: Fail to opt for the makeup kit and the front of the car reveals itself as the nearly ghost-faced apparition that its predecessor was. The Chinese had to leave a homegrown design footprint on it, after all. Also, if you stare at it long enough, you might notice that some of the proportions seem a little off; but then again, you are not buying a commercial vehicle to park under a tree and try to make a watercolour painting out of it, are you?

INTERIOR: DRAW

Pros: The cabin is light and airy. All-round visibility is excellent from the generous glasshouse flanked by large mirrors. The fact that it is a pickup also helps; the open payload area means you can easily see a lot of what is going on around you. The radio has nice sound for a car at this price level and comes with USB and SD card slots for those of the new age. No cassette options here: what are you, a 19th Century fossil? Get with the times. This car has a fearsome air conditioning unit, and by fearsome I mean brutally effective.

Temperature ranges are selected via a rotary dial with no calibrations beyond the blue and red colour codes and given the speed with which it works, you might find yourself moving from an icy alpine snow environment to a steamy Swedish sauna and back in the space of a few seconds.

The immediacy with which it works is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and that includes Jaguars, Range Rovers and the like. The instrument cluster is clear and easy to read, the controls are intuitive and exactly where you expect them to be (read Japanese-style with lights on the right stalk and wipers on the left) and the seat and wheel adjustment (rake only, no reach) means you can find a comfortable position to be in.

Cons: You might  find a comfortable position but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be comfortable. The seats are a bit hard and you sit on them rather than in them. There is no power assistance for the windows, so Popeye’s forearms may be a requisite.

IRKSOME

This is especially irksome because to open and shut the passenger window when flying solo means you have to lean over to reach the opposite winder, which is both irritating and dangerous if you are on the move.

There are no power mirrors either: strong but accurate fingers deftly applied to the glass surface will do the trick. To reach the left mirror, you will have to pull over, park, get out of the car and… it really is a bother. Worst of all, the mirrors might be manually adjustable but their housings are rigid. They don’t retract. Cue an errant motorcycle or a naughty child breaking it off when you are not looking…

The cup-holders are useless. They have a diameter specifically chosen not to match any single existing drink container, there aren’t any spring-loaded retainer clips to your hold cups/bottles/flasks in place and they are buried under the AC controls, so a soda bottle like the one I tried to shoehorn into that cavity will sit at an awkward angle and dance around every time you hit a bump.

The cluster might be clear and easy to read but with the steering wheel at its highest position (which is where I like it), it might obscure the dials a bit on part lock.

*Note: En route to giving back the car, the wipers wouldn’t react at all. A rapidly darkening windscreen in inclement weather made me nervous to the point of opting for the default first step in troubleshooting an electrical problem: restart. Switching off the vehicle and back on again on the bypass while shuttling with neither brake servos nor power steering between 22-wheelers is an activity I don’t plan to repeat, but neither is driving with a muddy windscreen as transparent as the dealings at NYS and Afya House. Thankfully, the restart solved the problem and the back-and-forth swish of the wiper blades before my face has never felt more welcome.

DRIVING: WIN

Pros: The primary controls are finger-light and very direct, which makes this car easy to drive. The long travel clutch pedal with its high-biting point does take some getting used to, but once adapted, is as faultless as one can hope. The gear-shift action is direct (but notchy in third) and satisfyingly long in the throw, which should be pleasing to my small clique of commercial vehicle pundits. It almost feels like driving a lorry from the mid-’90s, and makes it easy for needless double-declutching just for the fun of it.

The throttle response is immediate, brake bite happens low in pedal travel but is positive enough not to cause panic. The engine is surprisingly smooth for what is: 1. A commercial vehicle and 2. Chinese; and with the windows shut, noise, vibration harshness (NVH) levels are at a premium. As with most other commercial vehicles, the ride is a trifle bouncy when unladen. This is a pleasing vehicle to drive.

Cons: Not so pleasing is the petrol-powered 2.4 litre Mitsubishi engine it is saddled with. I have not spoken highly of the L200 in recent times, and the L200 is where the Wingle gets its engine from.

The power plant lacks torque so much so that even when empty, you still need to rev it a bit hard to go up a slope, otherwise it will stall with a shudder. 200Nm is not a lot by commercial vehicle standards; it is the kind of torque I would expect from a Stage 1 tuned Honda Civic.

In low gears, the engine is a bit buzzy and revvy; it only settles down quietly from third gear onwards. They have had to design the transmission that way: very low first and second to compensate for the lack of initial torque, with taller third, fourth and fifth gears for quieter highway operation and good fuel economy.

The finger-light controls might at some points come off as a bit over-servoed. While this is a good thing in a commercial vehicle in which the driver will most likely spend endless hours, it does make for some overwrought actions: sometimes you steer too much, sometimes you brake too hard, sometimes you stomp the clutch too violently and yank the gear lever too roughly. Either that or my daily driver needs softening up a little.

CONSTRUCTION: WIN (PROBABLY?)

Pros: The sales guy who walked me through the car before handing over the keys said a lot of things, some of them not very accurate (this car does not, in fact, have a supercharger, though for a moment there I was about to consider drag racing anybody I came across after he said it did). He said the payload is longer than in all competing vehicles, but at second glance, I think not. I have seen a Hilux and a Ford Ranger, and those vehicles have soccer fields out back. I lost my tape measure, so I have no figures at my fingertips. The depth seemed just about standard. He also said that the frame is made from 6mm thick steel, as opposed to the industry standard of 4mm steel.

I have to take his word for it — and this robust construction means that one can get away with ferrying 1.5 tonnes, which is half as much again over the vehicle’s standard 1 -tonne rating — on a regular basis without the risk of bending the chassis. Sure you could, just not with that torqueless 4-cylinder Mitsubishi 4G64 engine. Perhaps it does need a supercharger after all, the available 136hp notwithstanding….

The cabin is also mostly plastic, with fabric appearing only on the seats. No leather – you don’t need it. Hosing it down after a filthy operation should be a breeze: all you need is soap and a jet stream of water.

Cons: None immediately come to mind. Those who mourn the death of rudimentary, basic, no-frills workhorses like the Land Rover Defender should take a look at this. It even comes with a manual transmission.

SUMMARY

So what do you think? Is this a worthy — if poorly spec’d — pickup, or is it a flimsy, parts-bin facsimile of obsolete Japanese trucks? Is it even poorly spec’d to begin with? Apart from the lack of power windows and mirrors which really are a prerequisite in any car, almost every other foible is forgivable. After all, the vehicle costs less than Sh2 million off the showroom floor.

Yes, at Sh1,995,000 without VAT, this is the cheapest, realistically usable 1-tonne pickup truck you will find in the market, unless Mobius lengthens their chassis and divests their car of the canvas hat it sports. That price hovers around halfway between zero and the competition, but is the Great Wall only half as good? It is better than that: it is almost as good as.

The Mitsubishi engine, weak though it might be, is still a Japanese engine in a country that worships Japanese cars, so what exactly, is wrong with that? The frame is half as thick again as normal frames go, meaning you can 1. Overload it and 2. Stop worrying about what the car will look like six months down the line: the two things most Kenyan entrepreneurs worry about whenever anything Chinese is under discussion.

RECOMMENDATION

There is a Euro-spec version of the Great Wall pickup. While our breadline version is called the Wingle (also sold in Australia, where they seem to like it), theirs is called the Steed and it comes with a lot more features, most important of which is 4WD. For now, all DT Dobie will sell you is a 2WD Wingle in either single-cab — the one I had — or double-cab (for about Sh200,000 more) iterations. I would prefer the double-cab for obvious reasons.

Also notably missing is  a diesel engine, turbocharged. There is a good reason for this: DT Dobie tried it and the lack of power was shocking, which says something. Perhaps another Japanese engine is in order?

VERDICT: OUTRIGHT WIN

Would one buy one? Why not? It is dirt cheap, it is as good as anything else out there and there is the option of easy financing, depending on your credit rating– as high as 90 per cent  via CFC Bank if they like the look of your face.

That means you will be paying a monthly installment of about Sh45,000 until long after the next general elections and for that you will have yourself a brand new, not-necessarily disposable pickup. If that doesn’t make business sense, I don’t know what does.

No more jokes about Chinese cars lasting only a few hours; if the Great Wall is good enough for Europe and Australia, it is good enough for us.

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Review: The New Chevy Trailblazer

The 2017 Chevrolet Trailblazer

What is it?

This is the second time I’m driving a facelifted General Motors (GM)product through dry and somewhat dusty environments in the space of a month.

No, silly, what is the 2017 Chevrolet Trailblazer?

This is yet another response from General Motors to a question that was answered a while back by Japan’s finest, and Ford. It is a rugged, seven-seat SUV complete with selectable 4WD and chunky tyres, which means it is a car that not only ferries families, but can also be used with considerable peace of mind in the clag.

 

So that means it is essentially a DMAX longroof, a là Everest/Pajero Sport/Fortuner; or what exactly are you saying?

Yes, and no. Yes, because that is what this wagon is intended to be in concept. Its placement in the market lies right in the firing line of the aforementioned vehicles, which are, as stated, 7-seat covered versions of their respective double-cab pickup stablemates.

However, while the Everest, Pajero Sport, Fortuner — and Nissan Pathfinder — are obviously related to their truck versions, the Trailblazer is not immediately recognisable as a covered DMAX. And it actually isn’t. The similarities go only as far as using torquey turbodiesel engines and having a body-on-frame construction are concerned.

 

The creep sheet

Engine: A 2.8 litre diesel turbo with intercooler that is  good for 192hp and 500Nm. Oddly enough, this is a Euro 2 standard engine, which means you should have no qualms about fuelling it with the so-called local diesel, which is allegedly mud. If you do, expect consumption figures of about 12km/l. There is a petrol engine available elsewhere in the world but GM East Africa will not sell it here, so there really is no point in going into that.

Transmission: 6-speed automatic with manual override called Active Select. Again, there is a more manly manual transmission available elsewhere but in the interest of softness, that option has been intentionally overlooked for this market. The autobox comes with something called a Centrifugal Pendulum Absorber  (CPA), which reduces noise and vibrations, particularly during shifts. The CPA is located within the transmission and basically acts as a very heavy flywheel to damp shift shocks and transmission vibrations, but unlike a heavy flywheel, this one does not compromise the engine’s ability to gain and lose revs.

The 4WD transfer case (high and low range, 2WD and 4WD, all selectable) allows for shift-on-the-fly ability from 2 High to 4 High  at speeds as high as 120km/h, which is mightily impressive.

Steering: It is now gets electric power assistance rather than hydraulic. I was on the verge of throwing a wobbly castigating the new system which has been reputed to suffer from lack of feel in the past but then again, this is an off-road vehicle.

Steering “feel” mostly consists of getting your thumbs dislocated if you hold the wheel wrong when driving over rocks. Electric power steering is your friend. If you are understeering and can’t feel the instance the front tyres lose traction like you do in sports cars, then perhaps you should slow down.

Oh, and that EPAS makes for finger-light tiller-twirling at parking speeds while being reassuringly direct out on the open road. For an SUV, that steering is pretty sharp and accurate with it.

More fancy stuff: Push-to-start is the new must-have accessory on any pretender to whichever automotive throne they are pretending. You’ll find it here too, just like you will in the new DMAX. The party piece is that you can now scare everybody on Halloween  by hiding behind a tree and starting the car remotely, in which case they will think of ghosts.

Here is a less ghostly suggestion, though, GM. My car has a timer and it works excellently. Why not fit one as standard to the heavily boosted diesel engine? Extending the engine run time by pressing the lock button twice and then pressing and holding the start button sounds convoluted and like something one is likely to forget. A turbo timer is automatic and self-regulating, depending on the settings; why not just do away with the button-prodding (how long should I hold the start button? How fast should the double-tap on the lock button be for the car to know that I am actually extending the engine run time and not being an indecisive, butter-fingered, manly Trailblazer driver?)

Keeping you upright: In the light of recent discoveries and as a probable follow-up to questions about rollover safety, the Trailblazer is now armed with a raft of electronic driver aids. There is the forward collision alert (FCA)) that lets you know when you are about to flatten whatever is in front of you. It starts with a beep, followed by a warning light in the instrument cluster that goes from green to yellow depending on proximity (measured using a windscreen-mounted camera and an algorithm that uses your current speed to determine how fast you are going to crash). If that distance can be covered in about two-and-a-half seconds, you get to see a head-up display: a bright red light flashes on the bottom right corner of the windscreen. The first time you see it you will undoubtedly think you are hallucinating, and you will ask “What on earth was that?” 2.4 seconds before having your accident.

The accident is preventable by the use of ABS and electronic brake force distribution (EBD). These are now backed up by panic break assist (PBA), which works by calculating how fast you move your foot from the throttle to the brake and how hard you stomp the brake. Once the odds are that you are coming to a panicky halt, full braking efficiency will be applied. You will not be having that accident after all.

Traction control (TCS), electronic stability control (ESC), hill start assist (HSA), hill descent control (HDC), trailer sway control (TSC, not to be confused with TCS), tyre pressure monitoring (TPMS) and anti-rolling protection (ARP) are more of the alphabet soup necessary to keep you from trouble helming this vehicle.

For the really inept driver, or if you are just prone to bad luck, there are side blind zone alerts (manifest as LED symbols on the side mirrors) and rear cross traffic alert will let you know who is behind you when reversing.

 

Although it remains largely manly, the 2017 Chevy Trailblazer has been given a more pleasant visage and a pretty nice interior, the 2014 vehicle has a better feel.

jm2

Straight to the chase: did you like it?

Yes. The blurb did promise ruggedness and manliness, and both are here in large quantities. Disregard the lack of gender sensitivity, and the oxymoron that appears if you read that same blurb in greater detail – the one where they say the facelift car has been “softened” to appeal more to the fairer ones while in the same breath broadcasting its steadfast participation in what is the festival of manliness currently manifest as No-Shave November. It behooves you to be more circumspect as far as belief in PR spiel goes, anyway; but they are right: this car is as manly as opening a beer bottle with your eyelids while spitting raw tobacco out of the side of your mouth.

But it has been softened, as far as external aesthetics go. Its countenance now boasts a more welcoming eye-and-smile collaboration that makes for a comely visage, but that’s it. Every other panel, glass pane, design feature, crease and fold is exactly the same as it was in the 2014 car, which we, incidentally, had with us too for comparative purposes, and also, I suspect, because there were not enough demo vehicles to divide among the throng of highly entitled auto journos who woke up early on a Saturday morning to drive a free car. When they say facelift, they really do mean facelift only.

One could say the interior has been softened as well but semantics aside, I’ll be honest: the new interior is quite good and intuitive to engage, but I think the 2014 car, with its piano black inserts around the centre console, had a better feel. A better stereo too, allegedly (word from my fellow freeloaders), but in retrospect, the instrument cluster in the 2014 model harked back to other GM cars I drove four  years ago in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The 2017 car moves things along: you give some (dials), you take some (console design). This is kind of a 50:50 split between father and son.

Speaking of the interior, it is quite beguiling. At first sight, it is quite natural to let suspicion creep in that the middle row of seats will not be as accommodating as they should, but that is until you share seat space with a more substantially-built colleague. What a surprise! We both fit in it.

“Spread yourself like you are in the boudoir,” I bark harshly.

“That is not very appropriate,” is the retort shot back at me.

“Shut up and do it”

No degree of ludicrousness in whatever absurd lounge-lizard posture you choose to adopt will make you occupy all the available space in the back seats. The car is as roomy as the skulls of those Internet commenters who type in all caps, trashing other people’s opinions just because they differ.  There is no differing here: the car can legitimately seat seven and go on a road trip.

One thing, though: this is the second GM car I am driving in a lunar month and this is the second GM car in which I have failed to find the ideal driving position. I did find a position, yes, but I wanted the steering wheel to inch just a touch higher than its preset maximum height. Others didn’t seem to suffer such complications (even with the KB300 in Namibia), which leads me to think that I am probably the one with a problem; after all, my physical structure is unique in that 46 per cent of it comprises my head and neck. It can’t be easy designing a car for someone built like that.

Noise, vibration and harshness are banished to the past.

The suspension, too, has been softened. No, softened is the wrong word here, optimized is more like it. The rough road from Kimana to Amboseli — and within Amboseli — was dealt with summarily with no complaint, even from back-seat passengers, even at speed (somewhat). The car will do well on the bad roads for which it was designed, but what about on tarmac, on which it will have to be more often than not?

Not so good. Not bad, either, but still not so good. There is a hint of bounciness going over speed bumps. Just a hint. The car is prone to crosswind interference; it wanders a lot on the open road, and begins to feel floaty at speeds above 150km/h. Constant steering adjustment on a straight road was a problem I thought was confined only to the Landcruiser Prado but I find it here too, although on a lower scale.

The brakes work well, but that suspension optimization and NVH containment means your spatial awareness is compromised and you might find yourself needing to brake in short order within a very short distance. Then you’ll remember that you are, in fact, not driving a Nissan GTR; you are in an SUV that weighs as much as the showroom you got it from. Cue the sweaty palms.

Would you buy it?

Even more yes. At a hair over Sh5 million, it looks like incredibly good value, especially when we again glance surreptitiously at Toyota and what they have to offer.

Name one GM product that is not good at what it is meant to do. One. I’ll wait.

Any downsides to buying it?

Yes, I can think of one. You will look like you are driving a county government staff car.

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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

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Review: The Jaguar F Pace

When you walk up to the Jaguar F Pace, you can’t help feeling that there is something cat-like about it, something feline. Perhaps it’s the intricacies of design. After all, the folks who pen these silhouettes tend to have very complicated briefs from which to derive inspiration and style direction. But then again, perhaps it’s your own subconscious consulting your onboard thesaurus to find that a Jaguar really is a cat, albeit a big, wild and dangerous one. I’m not going to wander down this oft-mistrodden path of incomprehensible metaphors and/or weak analogies, but I will say this: the F Pace is a cat, but it is not that big, nor is it wild or dangerous. It is just a cat.

A brief pow-wow in private with our host revealed that from rest, the AWD system in the F Pace starts off in RWD by default before channelling power forward, depending on the traction at each axle… or lack thereof. All I heard was the Jaguar is RWD“until otherwise”, and the first thing to cross my mind was perhaps not to find out what “until otherwise” actually meant.

A LOT OF WILLPOWER TO BEHAVE MYSELF

You see, “until otherwise” means the point at which the rear tyres start sliding, and that, in my world, is what we call drifting. I was very tempted to throw out the back end of the little crossover either at a T-junction or on one of the dirt roads we powered through. But this kind of manoeuvre is a wordless method of stating that I am tired of driving expensive cars in foreign lands and sleeping in nice hotels and eating exotic food; I’d much rather be hunched over my keyboard as usual in the hoary hovel of a rat’s nest that I call my dwelling, subsisting on soggy noodles and tap water, so please don’t ever call me out here again. Of course, I want to drive more Jags in future, so no drifting. It took a lot of willpower to behave myself, and it didn’t help matters that this little tidbit of AWD information came to me just as I was about to step into the 3.0 litre, 340hp supercharged car.  So that is the one we are going to start off with today.

It had a black interior with red highlights on the seats and red stitching along all the seams where leather meets leather. There was Alcantara lining from the shoulder line upwards, which reminded me of the interior of a Jaguar XKR I once drove.

This, unmistakably, is the colour scheme you will find in most sporty vehicles – from Ferraris to McLarens to BMW M5s to this black SUV with a blower under the bonnet.

This, also unmistakably, feels good and puts you in the mood for some right foot flexing. The red and black theme continues into the instrument cluster: engage the computers into race mode and the instrument cluster goes from black-and-white to black-and- red.

You almost expect to hear a little red-and-black demon on your shoulder whispering malevolently: “Go out there and get ticketed; you petrolhead, you!” So you go out there.

There is a clearly discernible difference between normal driving and race mode – what JLR prefers to call “dynamic”, but they aren’t fooling anyone: to engage it, press a button with a little chequered flag on it. A chequered flag means “race”, even the Martians know that. In race mode, the car feels eager without being jumpy.

Everything tightens up somewhat, and the transmission keeps the engine at comparatively higher revs. The vehicle is still tractable though, unlike German interpretations of race mode, which leave you feeling like you are trying to reel in a Rottweiler that has just seen a cat (no pun intended) it doesn’t particularly like and will launch itself at  any second, taking you with it if you are not too careful.

Tractability is not lethargy: an inordinate prod of the hot pedal will lead to a snarl emanating from the engine bay, a roar from below the rear bumper and your mind asking itself why the speedometer is rotating almost as fast as the rev counter. You need to watch out with this car, an aluminium chassis tasked with corralling 340hp equals an object that gains speed really, really fast.

The handling is awesome. Throw the F Pace into a corner and it stays flat, mostly. The steering, feather-light and wonderfully direct at human speeds, weights up ever so slightly when you start chasing the wind. It feels like you are in a sports car, only slightly higher up. You have eight speeds in the gearbox to play with, which you can do using the paddles behind the steering wheel.

The one aspect for which I respect and love Jaguar is the lack of hesitation on the downshift: click on the left paddle and the revs jump up immediately, accompanied by a surge in acceleration and the desperate wish that whoever is driving the grey F Pace directly in front of me. please get out of the way because now I am cooking and this chef needs no rolling roadblocks. After five seconds of tailgating, a stern voice comes through the walkie-talkie firmly asking me to fall back and stay off the other guy’s rear bumper.

TRUE SUBARU OWNER

I have been spotted driving like a true Subaru owner, and my hosts will be having none of it. Oh, well! I might as well pass the time by gazing at the landscape. It does not escape my notice that to my left is a nuclear power plant. South Africa is a land of many sights.

So, the supercharged F Pace is basically a four-door, high-riding sports car. However, last week, I mentioned that in a strange twist of events, I came out of this drive with a preference for the diesel engine, the one they will not sell to us… yet.

This is not a black mark against the petrol engine: the supercharged car is highly desirable and it could easily bankrupt me with fuel bills and probably break up my family because I’d never be home; I’d always be out somewhere dodging speed guns, but the 3.0 litre diesel is so good that I can’t believe I’m actually typing these words.

There is plenty to enamour one with the 3.0 litre diesel powerplant. There is the obvious economy. There is the way it thrums at idle, a low frequency vibration— heavy but muted, subtle and charismatic — that broadcasts to nearby people the fact that your car feeds off the black pump in a fuel forecourt. And then there is this number: 700Nm.

That torque is not to be trifled with. It transforms what would otherwise be yet another sluggish oilburner into an Addams’ Family dragster that doesn’t yield an inch to its petrol variants, save, probably, for the supercharged vehicle.

The whole idea behind diesel is nowhere near thrashability, but at least there is the reassurance that there is enough firepower to summarily dispatch any overambitious bottom-feeding member of the proletariat who might dare think they could take you on in their well-used, cut-price Japanese saloon.

NOT ALL GLORY

It’s not all glory, though. There is yet another diesel engine, with a litre less of capacity  There is nothing particularly wrong with it, but coming from the 3.0 litre torque monster, one does tend to notice little things. You might notice the spec levels have dipped ever so slightly. The tyre profiles have gone up (with a corresponding reduction in rim size).

Then you will notice you need much bigger throttle openings just to maintain your slot in the convoy; nay, you actually have to go flat out to avoid getting gapped by your colleagues and having to cry out loud on the radio begging the rest would they please, please slow down because you can’t see them anymore. This may sound sacrilegious, but the 2.0 litre diesel feels ordinary in comparison.

And Jaguars are  not supposed to feel ordinary.

THE BIG QUESTION

To buy or not to buy? To buy, because yes. Also, more. Jaguar has built their most practical car to date: who wouldn’t want in on that action? Combine its versatility, its close-to-go-anywhere ability and the fact that there is something for everyone in the line-up: 2.0 litre engines for the thrifty at heart, a supercharged engine for the hot-footed and because it is not a Jaguar if it is not supercharged, with a few other options in between (these details can easily be pulled off the Internet).

The Jaguar is powerful, comfortable and drives well: grace, pace and space, the mantra by which the company lives.

But when I say there is something for everyone, I don’t actually mean everyone: prices will start at around Sh11 million and this is the point where the typical Kenyan starts talking about land in Syokimau,  flats and supermarkets.

You go build a supermarket if you want one, I’d rather have the Jag. The company pedigree dictates that they do not cater to the close-fisted or the financially inadequate; it’s not arrogance, that is just how things are.

That level of sophistication and engineering comes at a price and in my analysis that price seems fair enough. It might be out of reach for the majority of us, but then the majority of us are going to wait six years to start importing used ex-UK examples at less

than half that price, and that is off the assumption that in the long term the F Pace proves not to be a lemon.

SUMMARY

The F Pace may be the knees of the bee, but its biggest hurdle it that it is a late entrant into what is already a crowded field. While cheaper Japanese competition doesn’t really count; zere are ze Chermans to sink about ven it comes to zis kind of automotive

showdown, and these Teutons are quite a pack. Mercedes has its GLA, GLC and probably the ML-Class. BMW has the X3, which the Jaguar shouldn’t worry about too much. Audi has the Q5 and the other axis power, Japan, fields a Lexus RX into the mix.

And then there is the nemesis: the Porsche Macan. It will be interesting to see how well the F Pace stacks up against the establishment.

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Arrival In Johannesburg, After A Sketchy Flight… And Straight On To A Racetrack

KQ 760 is a Kenya Airways sunrise flight shuttling from Nairobi to Johannesburg. On the morning of 31st August – a week ago, to the day – the flight scheduled for 7.35 a.m. departed Jomo Kenyatta Airport half an hour late and powered south towards its Mzansi destination, only for it to hang a U-turn somewhere in the skies over Tanzania and return to home base an hour after it took off. The reason? “Mechanical difficulties”, the media said afterwards. We (the passengers) never noticed any difficulties, mechanical or otherwise, but then again we are not the pilot, so we wouldn’t know, would we? In fact, the pilot did the turnaround so skillfully we didn’t even notice we had changed direction until when she got on the gong and her voice piped into our ears telling us we had to go back because maybe the doors were coming off, or something like that. I didn’t know Peugeot supplied door mechanisms for Boeing. Maybe they don’t.

Yes, readers; I was on that flight that made the news, and I was seated at the back, right next to the toilets. Also, I was furious.

This is not an airline review column, so enough about the plane. The reason I was furious was because I had been invited on the shortest international trip of my career so far, and the invite contained words and expressions like “SVR”, “Jaguar”, “supercharged” and “racetrack”. In fact the trip was so short that the itinerary said I’d be heading from the airport straight to the racetrack to initiate proceedings that involved said terms. When one’s flight goes two hours beyond schedule, by extension that means two fewer hours spent at the racetrack. That made me livid. And what a racetrack it is…

Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit

This is South Africa’s best known racetrack, which played host to a large number of international events up to and including but not limited to Formula One some decades back. It is also where Top Gear Live sometimes takes place. Located at sea level, 3.2km long and having little if any elevation changes, Kyalami is a racing complex that was on the brink of takeover by private developers with capitalist intentions along the lines of housing projects; but Porsche AG stepped up at the last minute and snatched it up as their own and did some renovations. The result is beautiful to behold. So, tired and sleepy from the four-hour Boeing-powered hop from home, it was with some excitement that I was greeted by the roar of scores of cylinders and a few thousand horsepower as the race versions of a Porsche 911 GT2 diced with a BMW M6 Gran Coupe and Mercedes-Benz AMG GT; with maybe a Mini thrown in the mix. There was also a Lamborghini Huracan and an Audi R8. There were also Ford Mustangs, some Nissan GTRs and various other cars from the German powerhouses of Mercedes-AMG, BMW M Division and Audi’s RennSport. So much power. So much noise. So much speed. So much… I knew I was in the right place. And why was I there? There is this little event called the South Africa Festival Of Motoring…

South Africa Festival Of Motoring

Think of this as the true enthusiast’s replacement to JIMS – the Johannesburg International Motor Show (and no relation to the fictional Jim that people always address in emails written to DN2 under the tagline “Car Clinic”). While JIMS was seen as a stuffy, overly formal motorshow for people obsessed with numbers and product positioning, FoM is more informal and targeted more towards real lovers of motoring; hence its location at a newly refurbished racetrack. This is the first ever FoM. JIMS is dead, so expect to see more of FoM. As is typical with first-time events, teething problems abound and there is the nervous concern over the feasibility of future events, but perhaps the organizers shouldn’t worry so much; because I think they are onto something good here…

The real reason I went to South Africa…

So, you thought that the Range Rover Evoque was polarizing, huh? Some of you may have called it a “girly” car. Well, Jaguar Land Rover proved all you chauvinistic critics out there wrong by unveiling a proper girly Range Rover in the middle of the racing complex: an Evoque with the roof lopped off. The car looks like it was driven off the set of Glee, by one of its acerbic lead actresses all decked out in bejeweled tights, bangs and a pink iPhone. It is hard to stress just how girly that convertible is; and I’ll be honest: I don’t much care for it. Sure it’s pretty, just like a yellow sleeveless summer dress is pretty; it’s just that I don’t want one; and unlike the summer dress, its real purpose is hard to pinpoint. That is probably why the PR blurb steered clear of that topic and focused more on the F Type SVR (550hp supercharged V8 engine) than on the baby Rover with a thatched roof. Less pretty are the gaping holes and panel gaps around the fabric convertible roof mechanism when it has been folded away. They take away what little dignity is left after much of it was lost when a company that basically invented the topless Jeep almost 70 years ago (let’s ignore the Willys for a moment here) then proceeds to lay waste to the meaning of that entire concept by making a convertible Range Rover Evoque! What the hell, Solihull? I still don’t get it. Who, exactly, is this car for; and how many units are you expecting to sell between now and December?

Now that Land Rover Range Rover decided to not only break tradition with the kerbcrawling, mall attack Evoque but shatter it completely with a spyder version of said Evoque, what next should we expect? Are Jaguar going to also break tradition too and build an SUV?

Well, actually yes. They did. And unlike the Range Rover that I believe is not one of JLR’s finest moments, the Jaguar utility is a proper honest-to-goodness broadside hit. Jaguar scored; and they scored properly.

It’s called the F Pace, and driving it (however briefly) was the primary reason I flew in that loopy, time-wasting national carrier Boeing. Driving it was as revealing as it was extreme fun; and in a strange twist in the natural order of things, I came out of the experience preferring the turbocharged diesel iteration of the car over one of the other more obvious options: the supercharged petrol car. Yes, you read that right.

To understand it well, let us quickly take it through a quick standardized Motoring Press Agency Test:

  1. What is it?

It is called the Jaguar F Pace. It looks like a longroof version of the XE with a few extra inches in height and bodywork. It can be viewed as Jaguar taking the smart road and harvesting the potential in the highly profitable (and patently useless, I insist, to the disagreement of many) crossover utility segment as invented by the Toyota RAV4 22 years ago. This car is important because a) it should sell, given what it is and b) it really needs to sell, because if it does, then Jaguar will finally have a pot of money to play with and typically when they have this pot, we tend to see very interesting things coming out of Coventry.

It is hewn out of JLR’s modular aluminium framework, a fact that lends further mileage to my suspicion that it may in fact be an XE Longroof. The use of aluminium and steel in the chassis and panels creates perfect 50:50 weight distribution, which is very ideal when driving dynamics come into the equation.

  1. Exterior

I just said it looks like a longroof XE. What more do I need to explain? The car is pretty. Not pretty-dainty like an Evoque convertible, but pretty-beautiful like something you gaze at the first time and can’t stop staring at for a long time afterwards. The size is hard to discern in the photos; I was expecting something Cayenne-sized but it turns out the vehicle is a lot more compact than that. It is just about the size of a Toyota RAV4. And it really is a looker.

  1. Interior

Typical new age Jaguar with circular gear knob, big touchscreen infotainment setup, circular steering boss embossed with a chrome Jaguar logo and thick, easy-to-grip rim bent into a smallish circle that begs for some back-road, open-throttle antics. More on this later.

The interior is just like the one in Jaguar’s saloons, the difference with the XE being this time they paid closer attention to the use of materials. It is extremely difficult to criticize this interior, but this column was not created from limp-wristed indolence; look hard enough and you are bound to find something. And I did.

The window switches are on the inside sill of the door frame, as opposed to having the electrical panel mounted on the door handle itself (or somewhere nearby). While this is not specifically an F Pace quirk (it actually applies across almost the entirety of Land Rover products), it may still become a considerable cross to bear after a while. This is how:

JLR products are bought by adventurous (and well-off) types who may, against their better judgment, probably wind up in a wet environment of one kind or the other. It could be a puddle they are splashing through or driving in heavy rain… or maybe even a car wash. Water does tend to collect in some quantity along the frames/edges of doors, so when you crack open that window, guess what the water will drip onto? Yes, you are right: the electrical panel that houses the mirror and window controls. Water plus electricity equals something not so good; so when you combine that design flaw with the possibility of a wet environment and a probable need to crack open the window, you can see where this is going. Might I add that using those controls is not as intuitive as it may appear at first?

  1. Engines

Now we come to the interesting part. During the pre-drive briefing, we were given iPads to edify ourselves on some details on the F Pace, and I do recall with some certainty there being something about not getting an F Pace diesel in our markets for the moment. So it came as a bit of a surprise that the first car I got into was a diesel-powered F Pace, the 3.0 liter twin turbo.

Let’s just say that a car of that size with an engine of that capacity burning fuel of that type has no business developing more torque than a Landcruiser VX; but somehow it does. 700Nm is what you get when you start spooling up those turbos, a clean 50Nm more than the 4.5 liter diesel twin-turbo V8 engine in the 200 Series Landcruiser. That will have a huge role to play in later developments…

There is also the option of a 2.0 liter diesel turbo, which I drove next, and which may objectively have its own merits but subjectively was a bit of a downer. Blame the fact that I started the day off with the more powerful vehicle before slinging myself into the breadline version.

Then there is the 3.0 liter supercharged petrol engine. Engage the vehicle dynamics control system into Race mode and blip the throttle. Listen to the crackle and pop of the exhaust on the overrun. Watch the dials glow red in response to the Dynamic setting of the car’s computers. Grin stupidly. Snick the rotary selector into D (or S) and stomp the throttle. A lot of things then start happening….

*There is more to come. Tune in same time next week for an account of what the F Pace is like out on the road as well as the interesting things I observed and witnessed at the Festival Of Motoring…

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The VW Amarok is in a class of its own

Commercial vehicles are boring. It is hard to spruce up a lorry within taste or reason, or to make a van look attractive beyond considerations like carrying capacity and fuel consumption. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

The results are diverse, limited and often impractical outright. For instance, we have things like a Ford Transit Rally and the fastest production pick-up truck in the world: the Holden Maloo. It seems like the only way to make a car exciting is to make it fast. Or is it? But why would you want to tart up an object used for carrying stuff?

One of the most intense battles in this column has been in the field of double-cab pick-ups. They are commercial vehicles and were taken as such until recently, when insistent use on personal matters led the authorities to reclassify it as a family car. And with good cause too: look at the Ford Ranger’s recent manifestations and the Nissan Navara.

They look and feel more like SUVs than as transport solutions for the entrepreneur whose payload rarely exceeds a tonne. And then entered a young upstart that overturned everything we thought we knew about double-cab pickups: the Volkswagen Amarok.

WHAT IS THE VW AMAROK?

It is one of  Volkswagen’s list  light commercial vehicles, fielded alongside the microscopic Caddy and the Transporter. It is a huge, double-cab pick-up that  comes with either manual or automatic transmission. If you buy one from DT Dobie, you are limited to a manual transmission; they don’t sell lazymatic slushbox versions of this vehicle. If you buy it where automatics are available, you will find the automatic transmission only in the higher-spec cars.

The exclusive availability of a row-your-own six-on-the-floor cogbox may sound like good news to hardened petrophiles but not so fast. Let’s first look at this car.

EXTERIOR: 91 PER CENT

Such a high score. Why? The Amarok’s external appearance is the most inoffensive car design imaginable. What should be straight is straight (panels, grilles, windows and edges). What should be big is big (bumpers, lamps, mirrors and bed).

What should be semi-circular is rectangular. What? Aah, you might  not have noticed one of the more clever design cues on the Amarok. To further accentuate the hugeness of this vehicle and possibly either aggravate or tone down the chances of the whole thing looking under-shod, the wheelarchs are square.

It might seem odd in theory, but it works in practice. It’s also a relief from the swoopy curves on the Mitsubishi L200 and the previous Hilux, which seemed a bit strange at first and took some getting used to; and maybe just a little bit desperate. In retrospect, maybe the swoopy lines were not a misplaced fantasy on the designer’s part: double-cabs are less of pukka commercial vans and more of lifestyling, offroading, overlanding, Rubicon-crossing posemobiles.

Now, the patrician Canyon model comes with that garish burnt-orange colour scheme, along with a black roll bar atop which is mounted a light cluster. Seventeen-inch rims are standard, as is chunky rubber and a colour-coded front bumper and side mirrors.

For some reason, the rear bumper stays black, decked out in high-gloss paint  (It later transpires that it actually is a colour scheme). There is a black strip running on the underside of the side mirrors and the lower peripheries of the doors. Round this off with a chrome grille and the result is quite fetching.

INTERIOR: 75 PER CENT

Another high score. Of all the double-cabs currently on sale, I’d say the Amarok’s interior leads, but this, again, is specific to the top-line Canyon. It looks and feels like a saloon car inside.  You can only tell you are in a large car because it really feels big when driving it in the early stages, but the mirrors counteract this by giving passable view rearwards. The biggest highlight of the interior is the same, burnt orange colour stitching on the leather seats, steering wheel and leather boot around the gear knob; as well as on the edges of the air vents. It makes this interior feel expensive and sporty.

The reason it doesn’t score higher is because on the rare occasion that the driver is tall, rear legroom does take a beating. Fore-and-aft seat adjustment is mechanical via a set of levers.

I also noticed we don’t get many local versions of new cars with infotainment screens: the Amarok comes with a stereo that supports USB and Bluetooth but does not support easy use. It  takes some fiddling to understand it. It seriously needs improvement. Put a screen there, Volkswagen and/or DT Dobie, and get rid of that cheap-looking sound source. Speaking of cheap, the stereo sounds clean but could do with a bit more bass enhancement. A sub-woofer wouldn’t hurt.

ACCELERATION: 85 PER CENT

This car pulls. In any gear, foot down and there will be a brief moment of hesitation (turbo lag) before torque is poured out in a relentless torrent that results in properly quick acceleration. The vehicle might be diesel-powered but off the line over some distance it might embarrass many smaller petrol-powered saloon cars. The way the Amarok gathers pace beggars belief, more so when one takes a peek in the engine bay and sees more air than substance.

BRAKING: 80 PER CENT

This car stops, it really does. Never mind the sheer bulk or its porky nature; never mind the all-terrain running gear; when asked to drop anchor, speed is shed with alacrity courtesy of a list of acronyms: Hydraulic braking system with inside ventilated disc brakes front, ABS, EBD (Electronic Brake force Distribution) and ASR (anti-spin regulation) Make no mistake: the driving position will not fool anyone into carrying more speed than they need to, but should the need for speed overcome common sense, there is the reassurance that the car will stop on demand. However, there is a small caveat: you need a pretty heavy prod of the middle pedal to wind things down a little.

HANDLING: 95 PER CENT

Flying colours are what this car is passing our test with. Flying colours are also what people will see thundering round a steady-corner once the driver gets used to the Canyon’s dimensions and driving dynamics.

The suspension is expertly set up, so much so that body roll typically associated with lofty rides is patently absent from the driving experience.

With skill and confidence, this car can be threaded neatly into a series of sweeping bends, but it pays to remember that much as it looks like one on the inside, this is not a Golf.

Corners of reducing radii are best taken by the slow-in fast-out technique or slow all through because piling into the bend at full tilt hoping to trail brake your way through it will lead to nothing but several yards of understeer and, possibly, a crash. Remember that luxury and looks aside, this is still a truck at the end of the day.

That said, understeer is not as rampant as it is in competing vehicles. The Amarok is not nose-heavy; the small engine reduces weight over the front axle. This might  reduce front end grip under hard acceleration, but it improves the responsiveness of the front end, which in turn improves quality of the drive. It is easy to enjoy wheel-time in the Amarok.

THE ENGINE

It is a 1968 cc turbodiesel mill developing 140hp at 3,500 rpm and good for 340 Nm at 1,600 – 2,250 rpm. Yes, you read that right: this massive double-cab pick-up has a microscopic, little diesel engine that doesn’t even hit the 2.0 litre mark. The figures seem fine on paper, but driving the car causes many thoughts, especially about  the torque and power figures.

VW may be underquoting outputs: this truck feels torquier and more powerful compared to its rivals. I have scrutinized competing fare in the 160-180hp range and the Amarok doesn’t yield them an inch. The level of engineering in this powerplant is insane.

THE GEARBOX

The Canyon I drove came with a six-speed manual gearbox, and of course to engage reverse, I had to smother the lever and shove it next to first gear. Six-speed manuals are a joy to use, except for the fact that with this one, there were one or two foibles.

The first gear is a bit too low, especially given that the Amarok comes with a low-range transfer case.

Taking off in first creates a high revving noise, little movement, a nose-dive on throttle off and a jerk as second clunks in and the driver declutches, which highlights just about everything that is wrong with this transmission.

It is clunky when balancing the clutch; the clutch itself has a very narrow biting point, which means taking off in first results either in stalling or in hopping, if you are not very deft. Using second is no better: the car bogs down a bit and you will need a bit of revving and even defter balancing to secure a smooth launch. The good thing is, this is doable. The bad thing is, it kills the transmission.

Once in motion, things go beautifully until you get to fourth gear and realise you are right on the edge of legality. Just one more rpm and the NTSA will be on your back  the car does 100km/h in 4th without hitting the rev ceiling.

One could short-shift into fifth for a much quieter cruise, or even sixth, for extremely low fuel consumption as the engine tugs at speeds barely a breath over tick-over.

CONSUMPTION

Speaking of consumption: one of the typically Germanic and quite nifty details in the Amarok’s instrument cluster is the fuel consumption metre. It gives consumption in litres per 100km until you come to a stop, where the units change to litres per hour.  If you are pedantic enough,  you can calculate the exact amount of fuel used over a certain period. Which brings us to the fly in the ointment: the fuel gauge.

It is not analogue, but it looks analogue. It is also very misleading; it takes a while to update itself unless you shut off the engine and restart the car. If this goes on long enough, you could easily burn through a quarter tank without knowing it. Maybe a normal analogue gauge will suffice.

SUMMARY

This is an attractive car. The looks, dynamics and  engineering behind it all appeal to different car buffs on different levels, so  would one have one?

Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know. Yes. Definitely yes. I have driven two Amaroks, and they happen to be the extreme ends of the model range. I tried a Baseline model four years ago and it felt exactly like it looked: very boring.

It was also tricky to drive  and the engine was peaky with a narrow torque band, making it even trickier to drive properly. It’s USP was its absurdly low price of Sh3.4 million (then), compared to the establishment who were edging close to the Sh5 million mark. Then the other weekend I drove the high-spec Canyon for The Great Run, which I liked very much, until I heard how much it costs. w So, no: I don’t want the Breadline model, cheap as it is (Sh 4.9 million).

I want the Canyon but I cannot afford it (Sh 6.6 million, which is ridiculous for a pick-up with a 2.0 litre engine). So what to do?

There is something called a Trendline, which is the average of the two ends and the one spec level I have not experienced. Why not get a Trendline? Besides colour and rim diameter, it is the same car as the Canyon right down to the spec.

And it costs the same as its rivals: Sh5.5 million. Would you pay an extra 1.3 million for one more inch of rim diameter and orange paint, or would you rather save that money and make the car look like a pumpkin yourself?

I want one, and so do you. Trust me.