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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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Automatic diffs, wipers, transmissions… boy, aren’t we all getting lazy!

Hi JM,

Could you please explain to us this small mystery… Many versatile 4x4s like the (police) Landcruisers have free-spinning front hubs which you must physically get out into the mud to lock before engaging four-wheel drive.

This free-wheeling, we were told long ago, enhances fuel consumption on tarmac by reducing drag on the front diff. But how come SUVs do not have this feature and one can engage various 4×4 modes from the comfort of one’s leather seat?

Maddo, “Car Clinic fan”

Greetings, cartoonist,

It has been a while since I heard from you. The first part of your query is true: Front-axle free-wheeling does save on consumption by reducing drag and/or rolling resistance occasioned by heavy transmission. It also makes the car easier to turn and reduces wear on the running gear during these turning manoeuvres.

The reason modern (and expensive) SUVs do not have this feature is convenience. In an era where you can get massaged by your own car, doors unlock themselves, wipers activate themselves, as do headlamps and tailgates when needed, the cost of cars shoot skywards.

Premium brands such as the Landcruiser VX and the Range Rover in all its three forms are bought by individuals who live a pampered life and do off-roading out of boredom or curiosity rather than necessity.

When this highly pampered person gets mired in the clag during his weekend adventures, he will not ruin his expensive shoes wallowing through swamp mud to engage the hub locks on his highly engineered front axle. Why go through all that and yet you could just press a button on the dashboard and the car will think things out for you…

I know this is a motoring column, but please allow me to do a bit of social commentary. Society is getting lazier and more reliant on assistance from machines. This explains the imminent death of manual transmission, the existence of smart phones, and the proliferation of the internet.

You could choose to cut costs as a manufacturer and do a basic vehicle like the police Landcruisers, then sell them cheaply. Cheap always sells… well, almost.

But your competitor will add conveniences to his car and sell it at a slightly higher price. Humanity will pay that little bit extra if it makes life easier. That also explains why manual winding windows are nearly extinct. To stay competitive, you have to shape up by adding even more convenience. This is also why power-steering systems are now standard. You can see where this is going.

Even if you do not live a highly pampered life and you do drive in bad conditions as a necessity, which would you rather have? A car that necessitates you stepping out into the rain and sinking knee-deep in malodorous quagmire to turn knobs on the front axle or one where you simply press a button, unseen mechanicals mesh and mate quietly beneath you, and suddenly your mode of transport acquires the surefootedness of a mountain goat escaping a determined predator?

Convenience by automation due to market — and social — pressure. That is the answer to your question.

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Dr Magari,

I was reading your article on 26 March, 2014, and you described your Mazda Demio as quite the car. Personally, I have always thought it is like a pitbull; tiny but will chomp your behind off without you even realising it, hence my love for it. As a professional “job-seeker”, I love to dream of the time I will get mine before moving on up to STi’s then M5s. So, on to my questions,

1) Did your Demio (I would like to know the year and make) come stock as you described it or did you mod it slightly?

2) How would you compare similar cars in its class in terms of performance and availability in our market?

3) Totally unrelated: What do you think of setting up a drag strip à la Kiambu Ring locally… possible locations? Cost? Licences? Appeal?
Jake

Hi,

1. The car is dead stock. The only mod it has is me behind the wheel. All that I described, namely the alloy rims, body kit, spoiler… It is all factory-spec. However, this will not stop me from experimenting with it once the money comes right…

2. Well, the Demio is a bit revvy: 3000 rpm in 5th at 100 km/h. Compare this to the automatic iST, which is essentially ticking over at slightly below 2,500 rpm at roughly the same speed.

It has very good torque too; I sometimes get wheelspin in second gear, or even third, when the road is wet — the key word here is sometimes. This is a Mazda, not a Corvette. It is pretty quick too, for a 1300; I have wound it up to the giddy side of 175 km/h but I will not say where and when lest a keen traffic officer lay a trap for me. This is not saying much since a lot of hatchbacks/superminis nowadays will do 180, but I doubt they will get there as quickly as the Demio Sport (with a manual gearbox) does, more so if they, too, are of 1300cc engine capacity.

Availability: There are very many Demios around, and this includes the Sport version, the likes of which I now drive. Getting one with a manual gearbox, however, calls for real connoisseurship and keenness in searching. You might have to do a DIY import if you are very particular. There is also the “new shape”coming soon (where soon is in a few years’ time) as a used car.

It looks too much like the current effeminate Vitz and might not be available with a manual transmission, so grab this model while you still can. Similar cars would be maybe the Vitz RS (sprightly and unsightly) or a Mitsubishi Colt at a stretch.

3. I think that is a good idea. A very good one. Given the kind of driving mettle I have seen among Kenyans when taking corners, they are better off going in a straight line. The major reason we have only one vehicle on the road at a time during “Kiamburing” is that not everybody knows what to do when you get to a turn and either a) there is a slowpoke in front of you or b) You are the slowpoke and The Paji is tailgating you, looking to pass.

There is such a thing as track decorum and a) we do not have the time to teach it to everybody and b) some people will ignore it anyway. The result would be disastrous and expensive.

So, one person at a time. That way, if you also crash, you will be on your own; you will not take someone out with you. With a drag strip, we could have two, or maybe even three, cars facing off at the same time with no risk of an unplanned coming together.

The tension quotient goes up, along with entertainment value, participant rivalry, and emotions, which should make for good entertainment for those watching. If you know of a disused airstrip with a serviceable tarmac runway, by all means let us know; it would be a good place to start…

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Hi Baraza,

I am an addict (yes, addict) of your Wednesday articles in the Daily Nation. I have been going through them for a very long time now and I have also filed the pages and really appreciate your work.

Now, I got employed two years ago by a private company in Nairobi. My boss says it is time I got myself a car because of the nature of my work and the hurdles I go through trying to use our limited company transport.

My company pays out mileage at the rate of Sh40/km. I have about Sh 1 million in savings and would like to get a car I love: The BMW 318i or 320i. I know I can get either of these second-hand at about Sh800,000.

However, my concern is that most people I talk to are talking me off getting this machine. I know I am a very careful driver and I love my electronics/machines. I have kept my Nintendo game in working condition to date.

Kindly advise on the merits and demerits of this car, including fuel consumption and servicing and overall maintenance cost.

Omega

Hi Omega,

How old is that Nintendo game of yours? You might maintain a gaming console for a long time, but maintaining a car is a different kettle of fish. The principles are the same but execution is different: House-bound electronics do not drive through puddles or over bumps or on dusty roads or get filled with fuel of indeterminate provenance. There is a lot to watch out for when maintaining a car.

So, merits and demerits. The merits are: BMWs make good driver’s cars, so you will enjoy driving it. The 318 and/or 320 have relatively small engines, so fuel economy will not scare you.

But again, these engines are highly developed with enough under-bonnet boffinry to make them quick enough when the situation demands it. Comfort is at a high level, as are NVH, handling, braking, looks and, do not forget: This is a German marque that comes with its own thick shroud of street-cred.

The demerits are this is a high-end German marque, so expect high-end German invoices when the undesirable happens. Repairs will be costly, as will be parts. This is particularly worrisome, because a Sh800,000 3 Series will more likely than not be in a less-than-factory condition.

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Hi,

I will not start by paying you compliments like other readers. I am not a fan of soaps. All these questions your readers ask about fuel economy, availability of spares, maintenance cost, and so on really suck the life out of your column.

For the first time in years, I picked up a copy of the DN2 (the one about the Hiace vs the Caravan), and could not finish it.

It was (and I can hardly believe this), boring! I remember back when it was called Behind The Wheel, you used to preach how it was not about spare part availability or fuel economy, but rather, about the driving feel and pleasure you get behind the wheel (see what I did there? ) How hard it is to wipe that grin off your face when you shift down, give it the beans, and feel like The Stig… on heat.

I used to live vicariously through your experiences you know, because I did not, and still do not, own a car. Now it is just gone.

Allan

Well, well, well! We cannot allow this to happen now, can we? You actually did not finish reading that piece? It must have been really bad.

I know all the questions about spares, economy, and maintenance get really old really fast, but it is not entirely my doing. The reading culture is almost dead: The longest articles young people read nowadays are Facebook posts by celebrities who are not celebrities.

Nobody appreciates the entertainment value of witty wordplay anymore, so all my attempts at humour, alliteration, consonance, metaphors, and hyperbole blow ineffectively past their eyes and ears like the Harmattan would a covered Fulani tribesman’s head. Worse still is when some people take things literally or out of context – “…the silly Prius…” on April 9 actually drew an emotional response from quite a number of people, one of whom wrote, “How can a car be silly? Then tell me of a clever car…” This is what I have to deal with every week.

Demand: This is what drives Car Clinic, not the quality of writing or whatever obscure motoring facts I might have hidden away in the dark corners of my mind. I could do a proper article then along comes someone saying “We are not interested in your personal adventures, fool, we want to read about spares and economy and maintenance.”

Good examples are my experience on a go-kart, the Old Evolution vs New Impreza showdown, and the 2013 Range Rover Vogue review. Intellectual discourse, along with the appreciation of an intricately woven word scarf, is also dead, which is why I rarely discuss industry matters any more. Nobody is interested. What is a man to do? Man must live. If I do not do it, someone else will.

I, too, am getting sick and tired of comparing Foresters to RAV4s, CRVs and X-Trails week in, week out. I have answered this particular question in one form or other more than 10 times now, it is as if people do not read what I write and keep asking the same questions over and over again.

The advice I give, however questionable it may seem at times, is free (for now), but this does not make Car Clinic an avenue of convenience or a personalised service. Some people need to learn that.

However, all is not lost. I am still active in the road test world; all I have to do is find other outlets for my lengthy writings. And find them I will.