The beloved bakkie genre has evolved. No longer do they exist solely to serve the needs of the agricultural fraternity. With every new pick-up released, automakers are quick to say their offerings boast car-like comfort, car-like road manners and all-round car-likeness.
We assembled four new models and put them through practical scenarios the average city-dweller will face. Off-road prowess was purposefully forgotten. We’ve experienced all but one of these machines on the rough stuff, and they are bona fide terrain-mashers.
In one corner we’ve got the sixth-generation Isuzu KB. It’s followed by the Teutonic Volkswagen Amarok. For a twist we’ve thrown in the Foton Tunland – whose makers say has what it takes to tackle the established players. Finally it’s everyone’s tough favourite; the Nissan Navara.
Test 1: Will I impress the dames?
Tunland: It looks fine in a generic sort of way. But you’ll always have to point out that it’s a Foton. Not a futon, the low and flat bed. And Chinese brands don’t yet have the level of appeal held by their established rivals. Your chances of leaving Liquid Chefs alone are pretty high.
Navara: Chiseled, square and and butch. Plus you can tell the ladies you live in Tough City – as seen in those Navara commercials with soap star Ashley Dowds.
Amarok: The most formidable rival to the Navara in the looks department. Then you’ve got the cachet and prestige of the Volkswagen badge. In the Toffee Brown colour sported by our test unit it looked like the right ride for Indiana Jones. Amarok and roll!
KB-Series: Isuzu has the whole Iron Man sponsorship going for them. But the new KB-Series just looks too similar to the common Hilux. “I saws you from across the room. Now hop into my Isuzu”. Try that out and let us know.
Test 2: Is it good in traffic?
Tunland: No. Its clutch is heavy with a springy feel. The gears don’t engage with the ease of the transmission in the Isuzu. It rocks back and forth clumsily.
Navara: The LE tested here has the benefit of an automatic transmission. Which made sitting on Jan Smuts Avenue in lunch-hour congestion fairly pleasant.
Amarok: Our test unit also featured an eight-speed automatic transmission. It should’ve been called the Amaleisure.
KB-Series: Despite its manual transmission, it’s really agreeable. The clutch pedal is light. Uptake is short and it doesn’t pitch and roll like it’s sister from Chevrolet, the Trailblazer.
Test 3: Am I going to look like a chop parking it?
Tunland: Highly likely. The rear window is way too narrow. And the jerky nature of its clutch is unnerving. It took 32 seconds to reverse it into our test bay. This entry-level model doesn’t have PDC.
Navara: We did the parking test in 26 seconds, while drinking a milkshake. It’s easy enough – but that steering wheel takes too many turns from lock-to-lock.
Amarok: Neatly slotted in just 17 seconds, with a small vanilla ice-cream cone in hand. PDC isn’t standard – at R5000 extra – but it’s well worth opting for. The mirrors don’t fold in though. Not so nice, since they’re about as big as Dumbo’s ears.
Isuzu: Probably the biggest surprise here. An impressive 22 seconds to park, all while negotiating one’s teeth around a spicy chicken wing. PDC is standard on the KB 300 we tested.
Test 4: How car-like is it, really?
Tunland: They tried their best. But it’s as car-like as a farm tractor. And it smells like a glue factory. The gearstick rattles terribly. Everything feels like it was made from melted Valpre bottles. Tawdry fake wood trim doesn’t help. And it’s deafeningly loud. Our nearly-new tester’s driver door lever gave up. So did the fuel-cap release. We’d like to see how one looks after 100 000 kilometres.
Navara: Those wide leather seats are awesome. And it’s the only bakkie here with proper door padding – so you don’t hurt your elbows. It’s a sea of black plastics, some nasty and coarse. But insulation is top-notch. The ride height is also car-like. Which is to say, it’s lower than the other bakkies.
Amarok: You guessed it. Done like only the Germans can. It’s just a Jetta with a beefier spin on the inside. The steering wheel is like a Golf’s in size and design. Classy silver accents adorn the switchgear. And the air of quality and solidity is near perfect.
KB-Series: A vast improvement over the old one. But still mildly Tupperware-ish. Sumptuous brown leather was a redemptive feature. Ergonomically it’s friendly too: everything’s in close range and the big displays are easy to read. The gearstick doesn’t vibrate like a Playstation controller. Car-like indeed.
Test 5: I like toys, will I be satisfied?
Tunland: No. You’re better off satisfying yourself. It’s got air-conditioning, a radio and central locking. But so did your mom’s 1995 Toyota Corolla GLE. Better audio quality can be had from a Nokia 5110. And those air-conditioning knobs are more brittle than a wooden doll house. Cloth fabric as standard.
Navara: Dual climate-control – which means one side hot, one side cold – is a major score. You also get standard Bluetooth, steering wheel controls for the audio system and cruise control. Leather seats are optional, embossed with “Navara” in case you forget.
Amarok: The essentials are there. Sound system, dual climate-control, cruise control and steering wheel buttons. But if you want Bluetooth, it’s R4000 extra. And there’s no USB port. Cars without USB ports are so 2002. Leather seats are around R10 000 extra.
Isuzu: Electric seats, USB and Bluetooth and voice control. Now we’re talking. This is all in addition to the standard fare – climate control, a decent audio system, cruise control and the lot. Delicious chocolate brown leather upholstery’s thrown in too.
Test 6: Can my tall mates come with?
Tunland: Would they want to?
Navara: The rear bench is commodious and legroom is reasonable even with tall passengers seated up front. They should be pleased.
Amarok: Even for a man of average height – like this scribe – the front seat-backs touch my knees when slid all the way back. Height-blessed travel companions won’t be smiling all the way to the Witbank.
KB-Series: Once again, the Isuzu surprises. A freakishly tall hitchhiker (see video assessment) gave his praise on the rear quarters of the KB-Series. And we agree.
Test 7: Will the power make me feel hairy-chested and manly?
Tunland: The best – and likely most durable part of this bakkie – is its 2.8-litre Cummins diesel engine. It roars along and pushes steadily towards the horizon. We think it could do with a sixth gear. Power is rated at 120kW and 360Nm.
Navara: Its 2.5-litre turbocharged diesel mill sounds gruff and masculine, but executes its power punch rather smoothly. The Kilowatts are the same as the Tunland, but this has more torque, at 403Nm. Spinning the rear wheels is easier than you’d think.
Amarok: This one’s the quietest, but the most powerful of the lot. All you hear as you surge forth is the whoosh of the turbocharger. It’s a 2-litre turbocharged engine, with 132kW and 430Nm. Much easier to use than the clumsy manual version.
KB-Series: With 130kW and 380Nm, this 3-litre KB-Series roars like a bakkie should. Overtaking prowess is supreme. But like the Foton, we think it would do well with an extra cog added to its five-speed manual ‘box.
Test 8: What’s the monetary damage?
Tunland: Our entry-level Tunland rung in at R269 950. You get a 2-year/40 000-kilometre service plan and a 5-year/100 000-kilometre warranty. It’s the cheapest one here, but with good reason.
Navara: You’ll pay R437 000 for the Navara 2.5 DCi LE Automatic. Plentiful standard kit, the weight of the Nissan badge and handsome looks help its cause. The standard service plan and warranties aren’t assuringly lengthy: 3-year/90 000 kilometres and three-year/100 000 kilometres.
Amarok: The “premium” truck gets a premium tag as you’d expect. It’ll cost R461 100 for the 2.0 BiTDI 4Motion Automatic tested here. With optional extras like Bluetooth, voice control, PDC and metallic paint, it tallied to R476 460. It has a 3-year/100 000-kilometre warranty and a 5-year/100 000-kilometre service plan.
KB-Series: This KB 300 is the most expensive here. But it also comes with the most standard kit. It costs slightly more than the Amarok, at R464 400. The KB also has the longest service plan (5-year/100 000 kilometres) and warranty (5-year/120 000 kilometres).
We concede: this shootout was flawed from the outset. Firstly because not every bakkie was present – namely the evergreen Hilux and lauded Ranger. And also because it’s really impossible to find an urban truck that ticks every single box.
Here we have four bakkies, on par in most areas. Both the Amarok and Navara are superb inside and on the road, delivering on the car-like character you’d want in a bakkie for urban use.
The Isuzu has the most generous amount of standard kit and even with a manual transmission, it’s easy to drive. While the Foton claims to have what it takes, it falls short in the areas of quality and refinement. Although in the power stakes it certainly does measure up. Of the four, we’d take home the Amarok and Navara.
Here’s the caveat with such comparisons. There’s no clear-cut winner that fits all lifestyles. At the end of it all, it’s bums in seats that influence ultimate decisions; particular features might resonate with and matter more to some buyers.
So the best urban bakkie you can buy? You’ll have to sample them and tell us which one you’ve chosen.