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West Africans have outclassed us in the race for home-made cars

At the close of 2014, I took a brief look at the goings-on within the local automotive industry — and in Uganda — but, unknown to me, things were happening on a much grander scale in West Africa.

Ghana and Nigeria also have homegrown motoring scenes.

Unlike the Ugandans, they are not dealing in futuristic, technology-soaked, flamboyantly styled prototypes.

Unlike us, they are not trying to make an “African” car.  No,  they have an entire industry, a whole line of cars that run the gamut, from regular pint-sized saloons to full-on SUVs to ready-to-work commercial vehicles. Here is part of the lineup:

Kantanka

A Ghanaian apostle is behind this one. In addition, he has some aeronautic prototypes in the pipeline. Talk about ambition.

The Katanka line-up is publicised by two vehicles.  One is an SUV of indeterminate size. The photos on the Internet all lack reference points from which to deduce the actual size of the car.

Given the design characteristics, I’d say it lies somewhere between an X-Trail and a Landcruiser Prado, with the bias being more towards the Prado.

It has a whiff of the Prado J150 about its countenance, what with the toothy grin and slightly Mongoloid, slightly off-square headlamps.

But it also has the very square corners around the bonnet leading edge and fender tops which typify the Nissan X-Trail. From the A pillar rearwards, it starts to look a little like an Isuzu Wizard.

There are roof rails to complete the SUV-ness of it all.

It might sound like a mess, but it actually isn’t. The whole car somehow seems to gel together in an inoffensive, pseudo-Chinese, lightly “I’d-expect-this-from-TATA-on-a-good-day” manner.

There is no word on engines, suspension or transmissions, but expect something generic, possibly crate-borne from General Motors or Japan.

Spec levels are not indicated, but judging from the external cues — mirror-mounted repeater lamps, roof rails, alloy rims, fat tyres, colour-coded bumpers and mirrors, fog lamps, rubbing strips and side-steps — I’d say the specification inside must be generous too.

Oddly enough, I did not see sun-roofs in any of the photos, and yet as a trend, a large number of cars sold in West Africa come with sun-roofs. Maybe it is an optional extra.

There is also a double-cab pick-up, which is clearly an Isuzu DMAX. I mean it; it IS a DMAX without the “Isuzu” name on the grille; instead, it has the Kantanka logo: a circle circumscribing a filled-out 5-pointed star.

What did I say about copying the hell out of existing vehicles?

Innoson

You cannot leave Nigeria out of any action that goes down in West Africa, and they throw their hat in the ring with the Innoson. While Kantanka’s cars are expected to hit the streets sometime this month, Innoson already have units on sale, and they have the widest range of cars, and also the most Chinese-looking.

Their fanciest filly is an SUV which, oddly enough, only appeared in black in photos. Maybe there are other colours available.

It looks like what the Toyota Fortuner should look like. The overall appearance is even better resolved than the Kantanka, and one would be forgiven for assuming that it not locally made. I especially liked the rear; it wears that chunky and butch SUV uniform of roof spoiler, vertical tailgate, large lamps, fat bumpers complete with integrated reflectors and rear screen wiper with considerable aplomb.

But admittedly, it also comes off as being a bit too cliché. In a parking lot game of spot-that-rear, expect any of these answers: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota Fortuner, Chevrolet Trailblazer or some Ford something-or-other.

The interior smacks of General Motors too. Dual tone plastics, buttons festooned all over the centre console, a few million cubbyholes and a thick-rimmed, three-spoke steering wheel, which I also swear, is straight off the new DMAX.

The Nigerian Road Safety Corps, among other clients, get a double-cab iteration of the Innoson, and well, it is a Grand Tiger (Chinese double-cab), like the ones our policemen use. The resemblance is uncanny.

Rounding up the line-up is the IVM Fox, the only car identified by name. It looks like yet another Chinese copy of a European econo-box from the late 90s or early 2000s, a Ford Fiesta/Citroen Saxo kind of thing; or maybe a KIA… nowadays Korean cars are barely distinguishable from their European rivals.

 

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The future of the auto industry in West Africa looks promising, and for two very good reasons:

  1. West Africans are fiercely patriotic. They go everywhere in their national dress, come out in full force to cheer their national sports teams, and they strongly support their local producers.

It, therefore, follows that these cars will most likely move units. Innoson and Kantanka will shift metal in numbers that Mobius can only dream about, and they will be cheered on by opinion shapers in their communities.

That is not what one would expect around here. I don’t see an “opinion leader” selling his gold-plated Landcruiser VX in exchange for a gold-plated Mobius II.

  1. They have numbers on their side. They have the massive populations necessary for breaking even — if not making outright profit — sales levels, and they have giant economies to back it all up, with oil fields and sizeable export quotas as an added bonus. There is plenty of money in West Africa and they are not afraid to spend it. To make money, you must spend money. Expect to see massive investmentbeing channelled in Innoson’s and Kantanka’s directions.

A third, not so important reason:  West Africans will get one up on East Africa just to rub our noses in it. Anybody remember #KOT vs #NOT?

To the south

Tanzania has been at it too, although they decided to go the commercial way and not spend too much effort coming up with their own thing.

They have is a truck line called the Nyumbu.  Their Ministry of Defence and National Service apparently “developed” a truck (they clearly didn’t) and the result is an Ashok Leyland Stallion/G-90/U Truck/e-Comet (they all look the same), which in itself was a derivative from IVECO (Fiat) or British Leyland.

All they did was change the headlamps from single squares to double round, then change the name from “Ashok Leyland” to “Nyumbu”. Lower down the hierarchy is another Nyumbu.

It is hard to describe without sounding nasty, but if it were painted a dull green and sent back in time to the Soviet Union during the Second World War, it wouldn’t be out of place.

Their final entry in this list is a tractor, which is… very basic, and is also called a Nyumbu. Sadly, the website I visited did not distinguish these vehicles properly by model.

 

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It is clear from the visions of West Africa — and Tanzania, we’ll give them that too for now —  that  setting a milestone, more so in the motoring industry, does not necessarily call for a dramatic paradigm shift in existing frameworks.

It might not even be necessary to set a milestone at all. Our  Mobius has been roundly outclassed from all directions, Mr Joel Jackson is not setting new production standards like Henry Ford did with the Model T, he is not introducing new technology like Elon Musk with his Tesla cars; and, admittedly, the Mobius II is not going to conquer any markets like the Toyota Hilux, unless, of course, we go the South East Asian way and make importation of motor vehicles prohibitively difficult, if not downright impossible.

But then again, neither is the apostle from Ghana or the brains behind Innoson.

Some of the techniques necessary to push sales might seem a little underhanded (plagiarism) and/or unfair (punitive import tariffs on foreign cars), but look where it got Hyundai and KIA – where they are right now, worrying Toyota and Peugeot.

Ford… again

Speaking of Henry Ford, he is the man who created FoMoCo, the Ford Motor Company, the same company that told us they would bring in the Mustang in the last quarter of 2014.

I’m yet to see a contemporary Mustang in the country. If they exist, I’d also like to take one on a road test, thank you.

Ford also wants us to be Focused. They are not accusing us of being scatter-brained, no. They want us to drive Ford Focuses, Foci, Foca, or whatever you call more thanone Ford Focus.  It is with this in mind that they chose to announce the presence of the new Ford Focus in their showrooms.

Anyway, the car in question is the new Ford Focus, and FoMoCo says a lot of things about it, most of which I choose to ignore until further notice. However, one or two things I pay attention to.

The Ford Focus has mostly been a driver’s car in spite of, or because of, it’s front-drive platform.

It is, or was, a fun handler: easy to chuck into a corner, fiddle around with throttle and steering to create various levels of understeer and bite, all the while staying safely out of the undergrowth.

The compact dimensions ensured its responsiveness and ease of handling, and a small, naturally aspirated engine created both  fuel economy and smile-worthy maintenance costs. No wonder it became a successful rally car.

The words I paid attention to in Ford’s press release were about it having a lower, wider stance than the outgoing car, which in turn had a lower, wider stance than the Mk I model before it.

How much lower and wider is the current Focus, which I have not driven, compared to the original model, which I have driven? And how much more fun is the new one than the one before it? The answer lies in a road test.

One question, though: We know there exists a vehicle such as a Ford Focus RS, where is it?

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Can I drive my Toyota Mark X without the oxygen sensors?

Hi Barasa,

I have owned a Toyota Mark X, 2005 model for six months. Last week, it started showing the check engine light. A diagnostic revealed one of its oxygen sensors had stopped functioning. Is it ok to still drive it?

A lot of Mark X have these problems. Also, when I press on the brakes, it makes a ticking noise. I have put genuine brake pads but the problem persists. A mechanic told me it is the front shocks that have leaked and are causing the noise. Please advise,

Mark X owner

It is not okay to keep driving when one or more of the oxygen sensors is malfunctioning. There is the real and present danger of the catalytic convertor getting damaged or clogged in the process.

When you finally have to replace one of these, you will wish that you had taken care of the oxygen sensors.

With a failed sensor, the engine control unit (ECU) can’t tell whether or not the car is effectively burning its fuel and cannot thus adjust the timing accordingly.

What happens is that a good amount of unburnt hydrocarbons make their way to the cat and from there… clogging. Premature replacement or unclogging, can cost a pretty figure.

Just get a new sensor. Maintenance, replacements and repairs are part of motor vehicle ownership, much in the same way that when one has a child, school fees and medical bills are part of the deal.

The ticking noise under braking could be anything. A more definitive description would make it easier to narrow down on probable causes.

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Hi Baraza,

My car has been consuming vast amounts of coolant lately. I thought it was normal until one evening when the fan belt refused to stop. My mechanic advised me to disconnect the battery terminal.

The next day as I was driving to the mechanic at CMC, I noticed cloudy substance spewing out. I stopped and checked. The coolant container was empty, with the lid thrown out.

Surprisingly, the temperature gauge on the dashboard was reading normal. I let it cool, poured lots of water and drove to the mechanic, who on inspection said the coolant was leaking from the thermostat and some other pipes. I am about to replace the thermostat, but I wish to know the following:

1. How could this leakage have started?

2. What would have been the likely outcome if I never discovered the leakage early enough?

3. What are the possible remedies to prevent future leaks?

4. Water, red or green coolant; which one is preferred?

5. Could the tempereture gauge on the dashboard have been faulty and the reason it didn’t show that the engine was heating up?

Ben

Let me guess, the vehicle in question is a MK 1 Freelander, right? The very early pre-facelift examples, right? They were not a manifestation of Land Rover’s finest moment, having come into production when the Rover Group was facing imminent death (and was subsequently rescued by BMW). Anyway:

1. This is a CSI-type question because the exact source of the problem cannot be determined without dismantling the cooling system. However, the Freelander MK 1 was engineered in a hurry and on a shoestring budget, so build quality was not one of its strong points. Nor was reliability.

The research that went into material science is sketchy at best, and attention to detail must have been placed under a management team full of ADHD sufferers.

About 136 different faults were discernible on any car that left the factory, ranging from searing drive-shafts that rendered the car FWD only, to seizing power-steering pumps and upholstery that somebody forgot to drill HVAC holes into.

UK dealers were secretly asked to take a knife and cut holes into the fabric/leather dashboard and panel linings for the front and rear windscreens. Otherwise, the demisters would not work. If such an obvious thing as an outlet for the heater/AC was forgotten or shoddily executed, what then would you expect to happen when the engineering team started handling complex systems like the cooling and transmission?

The cause could be a blockage, a poorly strapped cooling pipe, a circlip that was left unfastened, a bolt omitted, a hole somewhere… or they simply did not take time to find out how long the cooling system would last before the fan got a mind of its own and blew the coolant cap off its moorings. It is really is hard to tell.

2. Overheating is what would have occurred, and from there it is a probability tree of various disasters depending on your luck. Your menu would have had options like blown head gaskets, warped cylinder heads and compression leakage. Further down the tree, you would be facing an engine seizure or a bonnet fire that could easily consume your vehicle if it went on long enough.

3. You need a complete overhaul of your cooling system. This is where I’ll ask you to subscribe to Land Rover Owner magazine because there is a wealth of information in there, specific to your vehicle. I have never overhauled the cooling system of a Freelander before, and even if I had, the process is too long and detailed to get into here. The general exercise involves replacing OEM hoses and pipes with units that are:

i) Made of better material and,

ii) possibly of larger diameter.

A new water pump is also typically added to the list as might a radiator core, and of course the offending thermostat replaced with something more trustworthy.

If there are any modifications to be made, that LRO magazine from the UK will be of more help than me.

4. The colour of coolant is hardly a selling point of any brand. Just use manufacturer-recommended coolant mixed with water.

5. About the temperature guage, the answer is yes, and also no. The temperature gauge is calibrated to indicate a certain range of temperature. There is a slight possibility that the car boiled away its coolant at temperatures within the “normal” range. With the filler cap blown off and the thermostat leaking, you don’t need a hot engine to quickly run out of coolant.

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Hi Baraza,

Your column is a must read for me.

Thanks for the good work. I am want to my first car and due to budgetary constraints, I am focusing on a used subcompact. My top considerations are fuel efficiency, reliability, longevity and ease of maintenance.

With these factors in mind, please help me choose between Mazda Demio, Honda Fit and Mitsubishi Colt, all 2006, 1300cc engines.

If you were in my shoes which of the three would you buy? What other small cars would you recommend? Finally, is it possible to get locally assembled, tropicalised versions of the three cars?

John

There is not much to split these three cars on whatever criteria you are asking about. However, if I was in your shoes, I’d buy a Colt R, simply because that thing is very, very quick. With that haste, away goes comfort and fuel economy.

The Demio is also a joy to drive, but I’ve tried the punchy 1.5cc. The 1.3cc could be underwhelming.

An untuned Honda Fit is the car for a person who lacks imagination. I know, I have not really answered your question but refer to my first statement: cars of this size are very similar irrespective of manufacturer.

Another way of looking at them, if you really have to pick one, is this: the Colt shares a platform with the Smart car, which in turn is a joint project between Mercedes-Benz and Swatch, the Swiss chronometer assembly masters. So you could cheat yourself that it is a Benz. However distant the relationship (and it is very, very distant). The Mazda Demio also has some Ford DNA in it. The Honda is a Honda, full stop.

Again, I know this is of no help at all, but for the third time: it is not easy to split these cars on characteristics other than pricing and specs. And the fact that you are looking at vehicles built seven years ago, these are moot points.

Those two qualities will vary greatly depending on who is selling them to you and where that person got them in the first place.

A small car I would recommend is even more irrelevant than the useless nuggets of information I have just given above.

A Fiat 500 looks like a good drive, and a Mini is most definitely a hoot to drive, but these will cost you, and I may not have an answer when you inevitably come back asking where to get spares for them.

Unfortunately for you, none of these cars were assembled locally, nor was there any franchise that sold them new in Kenya. So forget about tropicalisation.

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Hi Baraza,

Thanks for the very informative responses that you give every week about motoring. Between an Isuzu TFR single cab and a Toyota Hilux single cab, which has lower maintenance costs and would be best suited in an agricultural business? And which one would be advisable to purchase between petrol engine and diesel engine?

Which of the two is more durable and has better resale value in the event that I considered reselling at a later date.

Andrew
Any of the two pick-ups would do well in agri-business. They are both powerful. They will both lug heavy loads. They have good ground clearance, large payload areas and are both available in either 2WD or 4WD.Maintenance: If we are strictly referring to a TFR, then it will cost more to run because it is an older vehicle and is more likely to break down because it will be used.

However, if you are referring to the DMAX, then as new vehicles, both that and the Hilux will be covered by warranty. If and when the warranty runs out, then word on the street is that Hilux parts cost more but break less often. Do the math.

I advise in favour of a petrol engine simply because they last longer. Diesel engines are a bit fragile, especially with poor care; and these two pickups are nowadays available with turbodiesel engines, which require special handling to avoid early failures. If you can get a naturally aspirated diesel Hilux, go for that one. The advantage of diesel engines is that the fuel economy is amazing…. in a good way.

Durability is relative: This depends on how you treat the vehicle. But by sheer force of reputation, the Hilux wins this. The car will simply not break. This also applies to resale value.

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Hi Baraza,

I am interested in buying a car for personal use. I do about 400km a week. I am interested in a fuel efficient, easy to maintain and comfortable car to ride in. I have identified two cars, a VW Golf plus 2006 1.6 FSI and Toyota Corolla NZE 1500cc in terms of build quality, reliability, safety, comfort, fuel consumption and ease of maintenance. which of the two cars do you recommend.

In addition any suggestion of an alternative to the above cars is welcome. My friends are urging me to consider the Toyota Avensis or Premio, but I do not fancy them. I would like an expert opinion.

Douglas

Golf Plus vs NZE Corolla, eh? From your first requirements (fuel efficient, affordable and comfortable), the vote swings to Golf (but this depends on driving style and environment).

The NZE, while not exactly a bed of rocks, lacks the refinement of the German hatchback and crashes a bit over potholes, so it loses out on comfort. It is, however, cheaper (or easier) to buy and maintain.

Your other requirements are more about expounding of those three. Build quality is unmatched in Volkswagen products, ever since one can remember. The Japanese simply cannot hold a candle to the Germans when it comes to building solid, well-put-together cars.

Incidentally, both these vehicles started out as “world cars” for their respective manufacturers, but while the Corolla stayed true to its roots, the Golf has been inching steadily upmarket with every model change. You cannot creep upwards without raising your standards respectively.

Reliability would also theoretically look like an even split between the two, but the complaints against the Golf, more so regarding the automatic gearbox, are coming thick and fast. You might be better off with the manual.

Fuel economy depends on how you drive, and where. And what you carry in the car with you. Both engines have clever-clever tech, Toyota brags with its VVT-i system while VW’s Fuel Stratified Injection (the FSI in the name) is as close to magic as one can possibly come. It works wonders. In a controlled environment, the NZE would win because it has a smaller engine and it is lighter. Ease of maintenance: The Corolla, obviously.

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Hi Baraza,

I bought it recently from a friend. It’s a 2000cc YOM 2005, VVTi engine and fully loaded. Its from Japan but seems intended for European Market since my friend shipped it from Germany, where he was working.

I’m comfortable with its performance especially on the highways, but I believe it is not economical on shorter distances and in the Nairobi jams.

Kindly advice on the following:

1. Does this model of Toyota rank as a hybrid,

2. How would you compare its performance and features to the Fielder, Caldina and Premio within the same cc range in terms of maintenance?

3. It has a GPS mechanism with a display unit programmed in Japanese. Is there a place in Kenya (preferably in Nairobi) where this can be re-programmed to the local co-ordinates?

Eric

The subject field in your e-mail says Toyota Avensis, so I am guessing this is the car in question, and not a Toyota Prius. So:1. No, it is not a hybrid. Hybrid cars have more than one type of propulsion system/power source in them, hence the term hybrid.

In most cases it is fossil fuel and electricity — for example an electric motor that is either charged or supplemented by a small petrol/diesel engine.2. Performance and features are very similar to the others, especially the Premio.

The Fielder may be just a little bit more basic than the Avensis. Maintenance is also broadly similar.3. I am still looking for someone competent enough to do the installation.

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Is the Nissan NP300 Hardbody really new?

There has been a flurry of activity going down on Koinange Street, and no, it is not what you are thinking; please get your minds out of the gutter, this is a motoring column.

There has been talk and action surrounding the latest Jeep Cherokee, something called a Nissan Cash-and-Carry (actually Qashqai, but forgive my poor grasp of exotic nomenclature), some new Benz cars (latest CLS and E-Class coupés), and, naturally, a new vehicle launch.

The brief was simple — Ring-ring. Hello, Baraza. We are launching the new Nissan NP300 Hardbody pickup. Would you be so kind as to make an appearance? Yes I would. So I donned by best and walked into College House.

The affair was textbook and low key — a podium where grey-suited executive types would stand and remind us motoring hacks what we were there for and some cars kept undercover (literally) to increase the element of surprise and boost excitement.

And the excitement was there alright, at least for me, given how fired up I was when the NP200 came out, so I was sure the NP300 would be a pleasant surprise. It was a surprise, yes, but not the kind that makes one giddy.

I first became suspicious that I was going to be disappointed during one speech (I never listen to these speeches, by the way), in which there was talk of TD27s and QD32s.

This was supposed to be a new line of cars, but those two engine codes sounded awfully familiar, and they should be. If you have travelled in a 14-seater matatu that was not a Toyota, then it more likely than not had one of these two engines.

Confirmation of my suspicion (to my utter surprise) came when the cars were unveiled under a barrage of flashing cameras and half-hearted clapping (we motoring hacks tend to be arrogant and unappreciative of other people’s efforts).

The new Nissan NP300 Hardbody is exactly the same as the old one.

What is it?

It is the Nissan Hardbody as you have always known it. The only difference is that it is now called the NP300 Hardbody, unlike before when we simply called it the Hardbody.

The NP300 name smacks of pandering to American tastes, where a good number of car companies have realised that evocative names don’t go far with the Yanks; they seem to prefer a combination of letters and numbers.

That is why Lexus has been so successful there, and why Land Rover are ditching their Discovery and Freelander labels for LR3, LR4 and what not.

Available permutations

The NP300 can be had in 2WD or 4WD, single-cab or double-cab, or in Atoti form: the flagship Double Cab High Grade (that is what it is called in the brochure).

There are two naturally aspirated diesel engines: a 2.7 and a 3.2, both 4-cylinder and both having seen service in the E24 van, what we commonly refer to as the Nissan matatu.

The 3.2 only comes with 4WD for both single and double cab, while the 2.7 is for 2WD. Also available is a 2.4 litre petrol engine for the 2WD single-cab.

The High Grade has only one engine, a turbo-intercooled 2.5 litre, and no, this is not the engine in the Navara.

It is available as either 2WD or 4WD, and this puts it squarely within its big brother’s playing field, a fiercely contested segment that has already seen a few casualties so far; remember the Ranger XLT?

What are its abilities?

The van engines develop 85 hp (64kW) and 18kgm of torque for the 2.7 and 100 hp (76kW) and 22 kgm for the 3.2.

Now, these are just numbers on a page, and frankly, they look a little underwhelming, but get behind the wheel of a Hardbody pickup and you will understand what all the talk about torque really is. I have.

The power is nothing you are likely to dream about, but the torque is massive. I have driven the 2.7 before, and I was astonished.

You can take off in first, second or third if the vehicle is empty, even fourth if you are a bit special. No judder. No strain.

No bogging down and no stalling. The last time this happened I was trying my hand on a Massey-Ferguson cane tractor, without the cane.

You can crawl along in first, off-throttle, like you would an automatic, and when in second, if you brake without clutching in, you can actually feel the engine tugging against the anchors. That is how good the torque is.

Nissan prides itself with the tagline “Built Tough”. The NP300 is the embodiment of this claim, and again, no, the free branded hat (and key-chain) I received for my trouble has nothing to do with my saying that.

It is as rugged as they come, built using the crude but effective 18th century mangle technology of steel ladder frames and leaf springs.

Five cross-members ensure that the ladder chassis won’t flex when the NP300 is used as most Kenyans are wont to use them: grossly overloaded and crawling down a barely tractable goat path.

Ruggedness forms part of the NP300 picture, what with double-walled rear side panels, double-walled tailgate and extra-strong tailgate chains.

These features really encourage overloading, and some people I talked to (not DT Dobie) say when they buy a Hardbody, they double the number of slats on the rear leaf springs, and coupled with the torquey engine, the car can now bear a load double its intended capacity. Kenyans.

Behind the wheel

For that same 2.7, I had some issues with the interior. It was as usefully simple as it was greyly naff. I may have said that the base Ford Ranger XLT was Spartan, but this Nissan’s interior is what the Spartans would call Spartan.

Radio (tape) and air-con; that’s your lot, no power windows. The bench (that is what it is, a flat, unsculpted bench that sits three: the driver and two uncomfortable passengers) is covered in grey cloth and is barely adjustable.

Oh, and airbags now enter the picture (at least for the 4WD diesel). The rest of the specs remain the same. Driving it is not that much fun, unless you play around with the torque.

It is not an exercise in masochism either; the heavily assisted steering is now finger-light and the four-spoke tiller can be twirled like a baton with minimum effort.

The pedals are nicely weighted, the throttle is smooth and easy to modulate, as is the clutch pedal, which is sweetly progressive and can be mastered by anyone, even those who failed in driving school.

The problem is the brakes. They work fine but the pedal requires a lengthy tread before the callipers bite, and they can cause you quite some alarm the first time you step on it and nothing happens.

It is not that the pedal is stiff, but you need to push a long way before actuation occurs. Seeing that the NP300 is a mass-produced robot-assembled white good, I sincerely hope the problem was peculiar to the vehicle I drove.

The gear selector lever is long and angled backwards for ergonomic reasons. The shift action is fine, but close placement means second-to-fifth or first-to-fourth shifts are a common occurrence, which is just as well given how much torque these engines develop.

The light commercial vehicle sector is quite competitive. Almost every entrant has their own unique characteristic, which is also their selling point.

Toyota and the Hilux depend on their reliability and after sales maintenance record, as well as the carrying capacity (expansive load bay) but their untrustworthy D4 technology is not winning them many fans.

Isuzu’s DMAX is named like a hip-hop artist, and the turbocharged engine pushes it to incredible speeds, but a video clip showing one spilling its human cargo all over the road (in Kenya, no less) exposed issues with its stability and has seen prospective buyers turn wary.

Turbocharged cars also have cooling complications, especially the oil, and the diesel versions require extra care if you seek longevity.

Mitsubishi L200: the less said the better. The Chinese? Their biggest claim to fame is strong vehicle resemblance to existing market players and a price tag that is hard to walk away from.

That leaves Nissan. You will not find them powering their way to Wilson Airport from Meru like the Hilux, nor will you find them delivering newspapers in the wee hours like the DMAX, so what is their role in life?

The double-cab is a common sight at roadwork sites, and it is used as an ambulance in a good number of (remote) hospitals, while the single-cab has fans among contractors and builders.

It looks like the NP300s are good for carrying cement and rocks, but I am not one to judge.

Fellow long-timers

Just because Nissan is using power and suspension from back when Formula 1 cars ran on vodka and methylated spirit does not make the NP300 a weak entry.

Some engines have proved themselves impeccably. The Peugeot 504 ceased production worldwide a long time ago, but Kenya and Nigeria continued assembly up to as late as 2004.

The Isuzu MV118 bus used the same 13.7 litre engine for close to 30 years before it was superseded by the 9.8 litre MV123.

And CMC will tell you that one of their products, the Nissan Diesel UD CB31 SXN, uses a powerplant that dates back to before I was born, yet it still stays competitive against modern entries.

Don’t be so quick to write off the NP, even if its re-launch is something that needs to be looked into.

Change is the only constant

The flagship of the brand, the 2.5 litre turbo-diesel double-cab, is lovingly referred to as “Atoti” by DT Dobie.

Now I get it; remember Gidi Gidi Maji Maji singing “Atoti this way, Atoti that way”? What they meant was Atoti looks this way now, and Atoti has looked that way since time began.

The blurb on the NP300’s brochure reads in part: “It’s a dedication to looking at the familiar in a different way…”, which is dodgy PR-talk for “we have not really done much, and the little we have done you probably won’t notice, so here is a reminder that what you are looking at is actually different from what you saw on the road last week.”

This is a rare occasion when I have little to recommend. I would have suggested turbocharging the two diesel mills, but no, their attraction lies in their simplicity, and they are already handy enough as it is.

What I’d say is maybe DT Dobie should sell the 2WD cars with bigger wheels, because they look woefully undershod in those puny 14-inch steel dinner plates wrapped with narrow rubbers.

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All looks but no oomph: The warrior from the Mitsubishi regiments

Here is my latest victim in our 4WD utility free-for-all. Let me kill the suspense right off the bat: this car is not worthy of any boxing analogies, the kind that defined the Ranger-Navara-Ranger-again reviews that preceded this one.

Maybe it is the fact that it is outdated (production run was between 2000 and 2006), but its replacement, called Sportero, is nothing to write home about either. We will discover why shortly. I am, of course, talking about the Mitsubishi L200 Warrior, also called the Storm in some other places.

What is it?

Same old formula: selectable 4WD, 2.5-litre 4-cylinder diesel engine, turbocharged with intercooler, and wrapped in a tall, off-grey-off-beige double-cabin garb — just like the main protagonist in this commercial, suburban-housewife transport drama — the Navara, and its biggest antagonists the Ranger, the DMAX, and the Vigo.

Outside

You cannot hope to make any sales in this sector unless you garnish your product in the most macho, in-your-face, unsubtle visual addenda, and Mitsubishi stuck to form. It has big wheels shod in big rims, body-colour wheel arch extensions, a huge toothy grin up front, a fat bumper, side steps, the lot.

All these combine to yield Arnold Schwarzenegger: not exactly an underwear model, but the massive musculature does provide a certain brutish charm that cannot be defined exactly.

This charm is further enhanced by the presence of a bonnet scoop that is off-set slightly to the nearside and a sporty scaffolding in the payload area. That bonnet scoop, by the way, does not feed the turbo, as many are wont to believe; it feeds the heat exchanger, which nestles at the top of the engine, just above the cylinder head, like a tray of cookies on a kitchen counter.

The version I drove was the face-lifted one. The result of the facelift was to further mar a visage that was hardly pageant-worthy to begin with.

The early versions had sunken headlamps that gelled well with the slight swoops of the bonnet’s leading edge, but the later versions got flush headlamps that gave the car a pinched, pointy frontal appearance, not entirely dissimilar to that despicable, dreadlocked monstrosity from the Predator movie franchise. Arnold Schwarzenegger indeed.

The inside

It is a bit of a love-hate mix inside. I loved the leather adornment that covered the door panels, seats, dashboard top, steering wheel, gear levers, handbrake, and grab handles (some of these smacked of aftermarket installation).

I also loved the elephant-ear side mirrors, the ensconced driver’s seat, and the space up front. It was cossetting, a feature that lacks in most cars of this size. It felt like one was seated in the chair rather than on it, increasing the comfort levels.

But I hated the fact that there was no rear-view mirror. What gives, Mitsubishi? I hated the driving position too, which is not a contradiction to the enjoyment of sitting in the driver’s seat. It is fun sitting there, yes, until you start driving, at which point it becomes an exercise in endurance.

The pedal/steering wheel arrangement is better suited to a lower primate rather than a human. I particularly despised the rear bench, which has little headroom, even less shoulder room and non-existent legroom.

Other dislikes stretch to the rungu-type 4WD selector lever in an era when the rest of the world has moved to a rotary-switch electronically-operated setup. I also did not like the fact that the electric windows at the back had gone on the fritz, responding to instructions that only they knew from whence they came.

Oddly, this car should be a range-topper and yet it was devoid of kit. The inside reminded me of the base XLT that was killed by the Nissan in our first round. Air-con, electric windows, and radio, and that is your lot. To make matters worse, some of these things looked like afterthoughts, like the dash-top incline-o-meter and outside temperature gauge, which was dishonest (when it was freezing cold, it told us that outside temperature stood at 24C).

The demist button also looked like a late addition, standing lonely on the aluminium-effect surface next to the steering wheel. Get this; getting the demister to actually work involved working out a certain permutation that involved the fan (get the speed just right), the air-flow (circulate or flow-through?), the ambient temperature (hot, cold, or in between?), and whether or not the climate-control button was on or off.

Naturally, you must have pressed the demist button before working all this out. My degree in mathematics and physics did not help me here.

Driving

The primary controls felt different from the kits normally found in SUVs. The steering wheel, for example, offered slightly stiffer resistance, like that in a hatchback with an unassisted system.

The brake pedal was not mushy (thank God), and the throttle pedal travelled in a long satisfying arc, as did the lightweight clutch pedal, making modulation easy and enjoyable. If you ever leave driving school before mastering how to balance the clutch, maybe you should practise on this car.

It felt so much better, especially because the car I had tried my hand at just before this was, incidentally, another Mitsubishi L200 pickup — a petrol-powered, carb-fed 2.0 litre 2WD car from the mid-nineties with a mousetrap clutch action.

The Warrior comes with a 5-speed manual transmission. Long in the throw, it was fairly easy to slide the gears into position when shifting upwards, but the downshift from 5th to 4th was a touch awkward, and was the only fly in the ointment for what was clearly the L200’s only strong point: the fact that double-declutching and heel-and-toe were an absolute doddle.

So easy was it, and so much fun, that I found myself doing these two shifting techniques even when it was not necessary. And necessary the double-clutch shift was, because the long-throw shift action sometimes let the revs decay a bit too much before the clutch was re-engaged.

Ride and handling

An independent front suspension and a leaf-spring rear stilt makes for an interesting combo. The front works hard to engage the driver while the rear does its best hop-skip-and-jump impression. This effect was felt best on the gnarled stretch of road between Nakuru and Eldoret, near the Kapsabet turn-off, where the smallest twitch of the wheel caused alarming results out back.

On smooth roads, the massive bucket that serves as the payload was also an aerodynamic fiend: not only did it hold the vehicle back at speed, it also caused a tendency to swing from one side to the other.

But the surprising thing was, if you get your line right, the car actually corners quite well, with minimal body roll, despite the tall height, with little sign of understeer (I suspect this thing would oversteer like crazy on loose surfaces).

And here is some shocking news: It has no ABS! Thankfully, I did not have to find this out the hard way.

So why no boxing comparison?

Ah, but to be a boxer, you must have power. The Warrior has none. Low-end torque is also sorely missing.

The engine was weak to start with and the gear ratios were poorly selected. Actually, they went opposite to what is typically expected from these kinds of vehicles. First, second, and third gears were too high, so take-off and pick-up were pathetic, to say the least.

As for the low-end torque required to launch a car, you needed to really give it the beans (thus engaging the turbo), up to about 2500 rpm before any sense of poke was felt. The result of this effort was a noisy, banshee-scream launch that would cause outsiders to judge you and your driving skills unfavourably.

Fourth and fifth gear, on the other hand, were too low. Trying for outright speed on the highway found me in either fourth or fifth, with the engine wailing its heart out, only to discover I could not inch much past 110km/h irrespective of gear.

It made no difference whether I was in fourth or fifth, they both felt like the same cog. I think the transmission, with its wafer-thin power band, is more biased towards lugging loads and a bit of off-road work, which should really be the primary purpose for these cars.

The overall result was this: the drive turned into a noisy orgy of revs and gear-stirring, topped off with several visits to the black pump that revealed we were averaging less than 7 kpl — on the highway. What was going to happen when we got into town? It did not help that the engine was a bit off-colour and badly in need of a tune-up, and an oil change.

Parting shot

This car is one of a pair of weak links in Mitsubishi’s otherwise impressive vehicle lineup. The other is the Pajero Sport/Shogun or Sport/Challenger (the name depends on where you buy it from). Both cars suffer the same faults: little thought went into specifications, overall design, and engine development.

They both have noisy, weak, thirsty, revvy, and smoky 2.5 litre diesel engines that hark back to the time when Cain decimated a quarter of the world’s population (his brother Abel).

Why did they not just install the Pajero’s engine into this one, the way Nissan did with the Navara/Pathfinder? Incidentally, Mitsubishi also makes television sets. Maybe they got the TV guys to make a car, and this was it. Warrior? Maybe of the Lilliputian sort. Storm? Must be the kind that comes in a teacup.

What you probably didn’t know: Despite its failings, this car was Britain’s best-selling pickup for most of its production run (2000-2005). Just goes to show how looking the part can compensate for major weaknesses. This also explains why anyone with half a brain would ever think of buying a Hummer.