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Column: Ballistic bakkies

2010-07-08 11:35

Later this year Nissan will add 550Nm V6 turbodiesel power to its local Navara double-cab offering. Could you even have imagine such numbers five years ago?

Lance Branquinho

When the previous ballsport world cup event was hosted in South Africa, the double-cab turbodiesel bakkie, for all intents and purposes, did not exist.

South African suburbs and streets adjacent to stadiums were not lined with compression ignition bakkies of the double-cab variety.

Simply put, a decade and a half ago you could not buy a double-cab bakkie without having to explain to all and sundry that you were in fact not planning an expedition to the source(s) of the Nile.

Back then double-cab bakkies were crude and devoid of comfort and convenience features.

You either powered along in the V6 Ford and Nissan alternatives (which housewives hated due to the lack of a dual-pedal automatic option), or sacrificed two-thirds of your vacation driving to a destination with 2.4l Toyota Hilux petrol power.

Despite being robust enough for off-road use, the double-cab bakkie class of the early 1990s was in no way indicative of the burgeoning market for turbodiesel double-cabs retailing today.

The birth of the double-cab bakkie as we now know it

So what happened? How did the turbodiesel double-cab bakkie become an acceptable family vehicle in South Africa? Well, it is all thanks to Isuzu.

The world’s biggest manufacturer of diesel engines introduced a vehicle to the South African market back in early 1990s that revolutionised the perception of compression ignition power in a double-cab bakkie configuration.

Tally the original KB280’s outputs and they appear insignificant. The 2.8l four-cylinder engine produced a scant 64kW and 210Nm – laughable figures compared to a modern double-cab turbodiesel of similar capacity. By the time South Africa was making history winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, Isuzu had upgraded the KB280’s offering to 70kW and 220Nm. Considering the market alternatives, this was a cracking compression ignition deal.

Around the same time the Springboks were dismantling Jonah Lomu’s reputation, the KB280’s contemporaries included a range of rather uninspiring double-cab turbodiesels.

There was naturally-aspirated 2.8 diesel power from Toyota (which coped, barely, at the legal 120km/h speed limit), an absolute tractor of a blown 2.7 diesel in Nissan Hardbody double-cab and, of course, the 130-inch chassis Defender 2.5TDi. None of these engines could equal the blend of economy, refinement and performance of the Isuzu 2.8.

The carburettor-fed Ford and Mazda V6s (based on an ancient Essex design) and port-injected Nissan V6 engines were far thirstier (obviously) than the Isuzu 2.8 turbodiesel, yet could offer only between 10- and 20Nm more peak rotational force. For South African bakkie owners, keen to work their vehicles hard, the KB280’s offering of ample lugging power at modest crankspeeds and trifling consumption was a revelation.

By the turn of the millennium all other manufacturers who marketed a range of bakkies locally were offering turbodiesel double-cab 4x4s.

Evolution of the concept

Isuzu probably committed with the 2.8 engine for too long (it served with distinction for an entire decade), enabling other brands to catch-up and supplant the KB280. It remains an inarguable fact that the original KB280 double-cab was a landmark model along the (very important) timeline of local bakkie development. Ostensibly, it was the first double-cab turbodiesel bakkie you could take on vacation from Johannesburg to Margate and travel in satisfactory comfort. The era of the double-cab as an acceptable family vehicle germinated directly as a result of the KB280.

A decade and a half after the Springboks won the last World Cup event to be staged in South Africa we’re again hosting a sporting event of epic proportions. Quite fittingly, 2010 will also be marked as a critical date in evolution of the double-cab turbodiesel bakkie locally.

There are worrying trends in the double-cab turbodiesel market. A statistical state of affairs beyond even the wildest conjecture of KB280 owners who saw Pieter Hendriks best David Campese to score at Newlands in 1995. It has to do with power and peak rotational force outputs. Perhaps more pointedly, too much of both. 

Ballistic bakkies?

VW will soon introduce its first proper double-cab bakkie to the South African market. The Amarok will bring to bear an impressive suite of bakkie firsts to the local market. It will feature off-road graded ABS and ESP, both crucial life savers when navigating South Africa’s labyrinth of treacherous dirt roads. Upsettingly, these pulse-braking actuated features are missing on most local double-cab bakkies.

In terms of traditional go-anywhere hardware Amarok will feature a proper centre-differential actuated 4x4 system as an option too. Its interior architecture and acoustic cabin damping will be in line with VW passenger car standards, which means it should narrow the divide between bakkie and sedan comfort levels to a fraction of what they currently car. Compared to the Amarok, even the sweetest running KB280 double-cab will sound like a John Deere.

Amarok is only half of the 2010 bakkie revolution. Nissan’s recently upgraded Navara range is currently one model short of its Geneva auto show promise – the Renault-sourced 3l V6 turbodiesel.

When this headline engine derivative is brought to market in the third quarter of 2010 it will be the most powerful double-cab diesel bakkie ever retailed locally (discounting Ford’s truck-like F-250, which required special licensing to drive).

Extracting 173kW and 550Nm from a 3l swept capacity divided between six cylinders, the Navara 3.0l turbodiesel will have nearly three times the power and peak rotational force of Isuzu’s KB280.

The Navara 3l turbodiesel V6 will offer a remarkable ascent to the rarefied world of sportscar-swift overtaking and effortless towing for local bakkie buyers.

Are things getting out of hand?

There’s one thing which concerns me though, regarding both the Amarok and Navara 3l turbodiesel.

Boasting such health engine outputs these bakkies will be capable of travelling very quickly – even when burdened by significant loads.

Fundamentally though, they remain little different in terms of chassis architecture to the agricultural double-cabs that littered the local market when Isuzu debuted the breakthrough KB280. Rear wheels are still tracked by leaf springs supporting a live axle and the four-door body is still mounted on a ladder frame. Succinctly – it’s not a combination best suited to high-speed motoring.

The proliferation of chassis stability and braking assistance systems is now an absolute necessity in the local market as 2010 is set to become the year South African double-cab turbodiesel bakkies go ballistic. 

When I was a boy the idea of a double-cab diesel bakkie as the family vehicle was preposterous, unless you farmed in some nether region of the Kalahari and required a vehicle in which to religiously attend church each and every Sunday, even if it was a 300km round-trip.

After the KB280 came to market, double-cabs started contaminating the mainstream leisure/family vehicle market. Nowadays, you see many families travelling four- or five-up in double-cab turbodiesels everywhere. The abundance of two-pedal derivatives has made them increasingly tolerable to finessed and inexperienced drivers too.

My greatest concern is that we may now have surpassed the tipping point between useful turbodiesel power and economy (ensuring safe, frugal long distance motoring) and dangerously overpowered bakkies.

The headline Amarok and Navara double-cabs may have vastly more power than the original KB280, but are they three times as useful?

Then again, with 550Nm available you’ll never have to lease an airfield tug to move your private jet around when the ACSA staff go on strike…


Bullet: Name, set and match!

2012-04-16 16:47

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