KEEP ON TRUCKING - JSE MAGAZINE

KEEP ON TRUCKING

The raft of new premium pick-ups underlines the everlasting popularity of the bakkie

KEEP ON TRUCKING

A spin-off from the most recent energy crisis has been a spike in technology advancement, particularly in the area of engine development. Indeed, few periods in motoring history have seen such progress.

Today, smaller engines combined with efficient turbochargers are producing astonishing outputs and excellent efficiency, allowing manufacturers to return to larger vehicles, despite wider global environmental pressure.

Riding this wave are a host of models, soon to be released in SA – cars that just three years ago would have seemed as unlikely as Heinrich Brüssow returning to the Springbok team.

Ford Ranger
No story has had quite as sweet an ending as Ford’s reinvigoration. Here was a company suffering under the burden of huge debt, a draining, splinter amalgam of disparate businesses and no identifiable direction or future. Yet in five short years, Dearborn – under the guidance of Alan Mulally and Mark Fields – has turned it all around. And no product underscores the success of ‘the way forward’ quite like the Ranger.

It has been an unqualified success from the outset. So much so that as the reinvigorated next- generation vehicle drew closer, anxiety was high – how to maintain the key elements of a winning formula while at the same time seeing off the renewed challenge from Toyota and Isuzu?

The answer was to increase its sophistication and beef up its ability. The 2015 Ford Ranger takes much from its SUV sister, the soon-to-be-released Everest, which is light years away from its clunky behemoth predecessor. Much work and energy has gone into the Everest and it is no surprise that some of that has been fed across to the Ranger. So it is that Ranger gets a redesigned, more angular face, an upgraded interior, much improved connectivity via Ford’s Sync system and upgraded engines.

The latest look is particularly successful, most of the work being done at the front. A trapezoidal grille and very handsome projector beam headlights are the main focus, with fog lights and chrome accents that extend backwards to the side vents, mirror caps, side steps, door handles and bed-mounted roll bar.

The bonnet and creasing ahead of the A-pillar is now more sculptured, giving the double cab a fuller, more meaningful stance, yet steering clear of the current Japanese trend of over-emphasising that aggression.

Inside, the Ranger borrows not just from Everest but Fusion too, which is a good thing as the large sedan is as successful an ergonomic exercise as Ford have undertaken in years. A new gauge cluster dominates the driver’s lower view, similar to the Fusion. The analogue speedometer is the primary central gauge, with information on either side offering digital readouts of various functions, such as distance to empty, fuel level and connectivity.

It’s customisable and easily the best solution to the increasingly difficult balance of information and attention. The centre console plays host to an eight-inch infotainment screen with SYNC 2, the latest version of Microsoft’s software. The system now incorporates improved voice-command listening, giving the driver the ability to simply speak a prompt.

Technology aside, the interior is now far more car-like, with handsome wheels, seats and doors all referencing the latest Ford design ethos, seen in both the Focus and Fusion. Even in base-model spec, the Ranger is a solid, well-appointed, premium space – the latest Hilux, Triton and Isuzu are going to have to be very good to win friends.

Under the bonnet things are less extreme. Ford has chosen to tweak what are essentially new-technology engines anyway. The 2.2l TDCi turbo diesel gets a slight boost in power, as does the 3.2l TDCi five-cylinder turbo diesel.

The 2.5l Duratec four-cylinder petrol engine stays much the same. So too does the off-road component, administered from the cockpit via a rotary knob on the centre console. Ranger’s 4×4 system is electronic, a part-time system with choices for two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive low and four-wheel drive high range, with the latter accessible on the move. In addition, an electronic locking rear differential is available for really difficult terrains.

On the road it is easy to see why the Ranger has had such success – the elegance of the design carries through to the on-road characteristics. It is weighty, certainly, but far more manageable than it should be, considering the mass.

Steering, gear shifts and sound insulation are all excellent, making for a very relaxed, pleasant experience – as far from hay bales and dorpers as it is possible to be.

Toyota Hilux
It’s fair to say that Ford’s success with the Ranger has put Toyota’s nose out of joint, especially in Australia and SA, where the rivalry has always been intense.

In May last year when Ranger sales in the latter finally outstripped Hilux, there was astonishment. Now Toyota is fighting back. Notoriously slow with new model development, the redesigned Hilux  – and Fortuner – are being touted as the product of years of work. All well and good but does it make the grade?

From the outside, the double cab looks better balanced than the previous model, with less-pronounced wheel arches and a streamlined flow from headlights across to the updated grille. There is a certain exaggerated angularity that is entirely Japanese but this is countered – successfully – with a strong, almost bulbous front bumper and classy alloy wheel designs.

Inside the changes are the most obvious, Toyota finally understanding that comfort and features doesn’t mean weak and puny. Still, compared to the VW Amarok or new Ranger, the accent is once again on the traditional.

Two conventional dials sit ahead of the wheel, with the digital computer screen between them, for readouts about fuel, range and all sorts of other sub-folders. If the system seems familiar that’s because it is essentially the Lexus/Toyota configuration. Left of the wheel is the iPad-style infotainment screen, again taken over from the Lexus system with its characteristic blue hues and touchscreen functionality. The wider cockpit is smart too, car-like in character, emphasising the organically curved dash. It is less angular than the Ranger, and personal taste will dictate which is most successful. Suffice to say neither owner will be able to laugh at the other – these are pleasant places to be.

Motoring2
If Ford’s Ranger redefined the Hilux’s role, Volkswagen’s game-changing Amarok rewrote the rule book

However, if design is important, then under-the-skin changes are crucial, and Hilux rings in a great number of them. Indeed, Ranger’s update is just that, while Hilux is genuinely new… A new engine, gearbox, stronger frame and greater off-road ability mark the latest vehicle.

Most important are the two turbo-diesel engines. The GD-series four-cylinder common-rail turbo-diesel engines are notable for their low-end punch and develop substantially more torque than the current model’s 3.0l unit.

The 2.8l version offers 450 Nm of torque, a gain of 25%, while its 2.4l sibling generates up to 400 Nm. In both cases, fuel use has been reduced by around 10%. Bolted to the engines are new manual and automatic gearboxes, both six-speed and featuring an intelligent system on the manual that minimises shift shock, a common complaint in big double cabs.

All this is laid on a thicker, stronger frame with better off-road protection underneath. It’s obvious that Hilux – if it can’t compete with Ranger in the sophistication stakes – is aiming for the title of toughest double cab. That’s probably a good idea, given the clientele and history in SA. And to underline that, for those fearing total capitulation in the face of shouts for luxury and features, at least there’s still no vanity mirror for the driver…

Mitsubishi Triton
Against the backdrop of the Ranger/Hilux bunfight, Mitsubishi’s new Triton, launching in 2016, will be a genuinely capable contender, as ever, in the field even if it doesn’t always get the credit from all quarters that it deserves.

Put that down to some unpardonably awful looks in the past and, it must be said, things have not been put entirely to rights yet.

That dubious rear three-quarter window remains, although it is better integrated in the design for 2015. Overall the double cab now looks considerably more like its sister SUV, the Pajero and less like a pterodactyl that has escaped from Jurassic Park.

There is a new 133 kW/430 Nm 2.4l four-cylinder turbo diesel engine for the Triton, as well as either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic gearbox.

The Triton’s trump card is its manoeuvrability. With a chassis that is shorter than all its competitors and an enviable ride height, it has a tight turning circle and is genuinely astonishing on the really treacherous stuff. On the road too it is now a far better cruiser, with tweaks to suspension and dampening. It will never match the Ranger/Hilux/Navara/Amarok quad but as an easy-to-drive, dual-use work vehicle, it is admirable.

VW Amarok
If Ford’s Ranger redefined the Hilux’s role, then Volkswagen’s game-changing Amarok rewrote the entire segment’s rule book. Unashamedly luxurious and bigger by far than its competitors, it foresaw back in 2010 a future where a large double cab with a small though powerful engine would be acceptable to a traditionally conservative market.

Motoring

Today it has stayed the course and remains the choice of many who would not otherwise have chosen a double cab. And new for 2015 is the announcement that the popular 132 kW 2.0l BiTDI diesel engine with the eight-speed automatic gearbox is now available on a 4×2 chassis. Until now, the popular gearbox was only available on the 4×4.

Double cabs – like their SUV stable mates – are having a stellar 2015, and by the time the new year rolls in, the segment will be almost wholly renewed – an astonishing achievement in a traditionally slow developing niche. The ladder frame bakkie derivative is almost a thing of the past; today’s double cabs owing far more to their carefully engineered, very efficient sedan brethren.

For Joe Public that means added ability, economy, luxury and kudos. Expect great things next from Nissan and Isuzu.

By Peter Frost
Images: QuickPic