It’s about far more than just the bakkie

Just before I sat down to write this story, news came of the Toyota Hilux breaking the all-time record for the number of units of a particular new vehicle model ever to sell in South Africa in a single month. Interesting that, even without it, the conclusion would have been pretty much the same.

The gist of this shootout is not only to figure which of these bakkies are best, but to also try figure how the dynamic of this hugely influential market niche works. Is it really possible that the bestselling vehicle in SA may not be the best at its game…?

Well, there’s far more to selling a bakkie than just a damn good vehicle – in fact it seems the bakkie has far less to do with it than initially meets the eye…

For starters, the light commercial vehicle market is a most complicated place – still totally dominated by bakkies in this country, where other markets may favour panel vans, bakkies also need to address so many different South African owner types – from the basic workhorse right through to leisure machinery that make this trio of vehicles approaching two-thirds of a million rand, seem pretty tame.
Meet the Contestants
Getting down to brass tacks, we have three most interesting bakkies on test here. First and foremost, that top-selling Hilux – this one is the top of the range Raider 2.8GD-6 DC 4x4 auto, not the all-new Legend 50 being launched this week to celebrate fifty years of mostly Hilux SA market leadership.

For reasons of compliance, we will bring the relevant and appropriate Legend 50 model into the reckoning too – the Legend is after all based on this Raider and indeed addresses some of our market intrigue, but at what cost?

To make it pop, we added the two bakkies that we feel ask this particular Hilux its biggest questions – the Ford Ranger XLT 2.0T DC 4x4 auto is the Toyota’s biggest sales rival and the Mitsubishi’s sexy new Triton 2.4DI-D DC 4x4 auto is not just a most interesting newcomer, but it is also the best performer out there.

As you will read, this is a most intriguing comparison. Take the market and sales away and everything changes. That anomaly is what we are trying to get to the bottom of. So let’s just start by looking at these bakkies as bakkies…

States of Change
There’s not much new about the Hilux Raider beyond that grille and scowl that the previous Dakar special edition snuck onto the market. Of course this all new Legend 50’s grille gets a coat of matt black to set it a bit further apart – we reckon Toyota think tanks rated the other bakkies more macho and while the new look divides as much as it conquers, it’s handsome and brings those twinkling daylight running LED headlights to the party too.

By-the-by, the new Legend 50 also adds a redesigned front bumper and door mouldings, a fresh 18-inch alloy wheel design, a black styling bar, roof rails and side-steps versus this common garden version, while a tow bar and mudguards come for free too. But that special edition comes at a pretty premium too.

The Mitsubishi is however completely different – not just from the bakkie it replaces, but also versus anything else on the pick-up market. Futuristic, edgy and daring, it certainly marches to the beat of its own drum.

On the contrary, there’s not much difference in looks at all between the old Ranger and this new one, although its fans will gladly show you the slight tweaks. Ranger rather stars in its huge under the skin improvements – not least Ford’s all-new downsized 2-litre turbodiesel engine and that game changing ten-speed autobox.

A Matter of Specification
Stepping inside, being a Hilux, there is no reason to flaunt on unnecessary hide and seek – even at Raider level, cloth manual pews suffice where Toyota’s rivals throw spec, convenience and value at their bakkies in a vain effort to steal more sales. 

But to fire Raider up, you need to fiddle around to get that old fashioned fob into the keyhole and then you must still turn it like a classic car, where to fire the others up it’s just a matter of sauntering up to the bakkie, hopping in, pressing the button and making off. Lo and behold, this new Legend 50 adds keyless entry with push-button start to the Hilux kit list.

Not that Hilux is at all under-equipped – it packs a cool blue themed infotainment system, a reverse camera, automatic climate, cruise, traction, stability, traction control and trailer sway controls and seven airbags among many other trinkets. Not that the other two lack any of the above – both offer their own unique highlights too. 

Talking infotainment, we like these modern touch screens on all three bakkies for their display and interactivity. We would however far prefer a knob to tweak onboard essentials like audio volume. Try change the audio volume or select another pane by fingering that wide flat screen while motoring on a good old SA rutted regional dirt road, where you’d first expect to encounter a bakkie like any of these. 

Let me tell you, that is almost impossible – all pretty frustrating as you end up adjusting everything else except what you want to while your finger bounces around touching the boxes for the radio tuner, making a pocket call or selecting AM while the volume stays exactly where it was! Keep the screen, but rather give us buttons for the main tasks!

All that said, Hilux Legend 50 upgrades to an eight-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation at this level, along with partial leather trim and a gloss-black instrument cluster. At a pretty premium, of course.

The Mitsubishi boasts a modern and robust high-quality soft-touch material-rich cabin packed with latest tech from a comfy leather-clad tilt and telescopic multifunction steering wheel – the only one of the three to be stretch adjustable, mind you. Triton also a similarly colourful and interactive voice-controlled touch-screen infotainment, Bluetooth Radio/CD and an MP3 player that’s just as confounding to operate on the move.

Ford meanwhile leads the way in bakkie infotainment - latest SYNC technology brings gesture, voice or touch control of all infotainment functions, Smartphone integration comes via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and there are also Waze real-time traffic and navigation services with Bluetooth voice control and audio streaming. 

Performance to the People
Getting down to nuts and bolts, good old Hilux packs Toyota’s now venerable 2.8GD-6 Global Diesel lump bristling with common rail thermal combustion tech and intercooled variable nozzle turbocharging to deliver its routine in a burbling, friendly big brother style.

But is Hilux the best performer? Hell no! The 130kW 420Nm Toyota for instance is close to a second slower than the 2.4-litre Triton – our bakkie road test acceleration king right now, while this new 10-speed auto 2-litre turbodiesel Ranger XLT is quicker too, despite both of them being considerably downsized versus the now clumsy 2.8-litre Toyota.  

While the 133kW 430Nm Triton’s DI-D lump remains unchanged this time around, its performance step is more attributable to its all-new, quiet and smooth-shifting Intelligent Shift Control 6-speed auto versus the old five-cog gear set. Perhaps not as trick as a ten-speed auto, that extra cog clearly earns its keep, while Triton also packs enhanced Super Select II 4x4, a rear diff lock, electronic off-road and hill descent control and five driving modes.

Technically however, the biggest news among this trio of bakkies lies under the Ford’s bonnet – its 132kW 420Nm single turbo diesel is of course not the Ranger flagship – its even more able biturbo sibling is, but this single turbo lump is not long way off — likely closer to the flagship twin turbo than the price discount suggests.

Of course this single-snail version also comes with Ford’s new ten-hooker auto with its wider spread of ratios and high-tech, including real-time adaptive shift-scheduling for that optimal gear for better performance, efficiency or refinement, depending how you drive it.

But it’s how this downsized engine works together with that sophisticated 10-speed automatic that really impresses – it’s quite pleasing to play the throttle and feel the combined effects of the gearbox seamlessly engaging the ideal cog for your current speed and pedal position. Floor it and the box skips a few cogs down to greet a creamy dollop of turbodiesel power with precisely the right ratio selected for quickest acceleration.

On the Road
Cruising the freeway, Ranger pulls strong in top, secretly dropping a gear or two as the incline increases against you and shifting back up as the road level drops away, but always in almost effortless comfort, sipping in the sevens per hundred, where I know the old 3.2 would struggle to find the nines.

For a 4x4, the Hilux is smooth on the road with decent road holding and fine handling qualities, while steering feel is positive, quick and responsive and its off-road and 4x4 credentials are pretty well impeccable.  It’s quiet on the road too. 

The Triton is very good on tarred surfaces where it delivers car-like performance and excellent ride and comfort. We found Mitsubishi’s frugal 8.3/100km fuel consumption claim to be quite reasonable too — certainly very good for a bakkie of any description, but then both the Hilux and the Ranger are said to be a tad more frugal.

The new Ranger brings significantly improved SUV-like ride quality to the party thanks to a new aft-axle mounted anti-roll bar for improved roll control, the use of softer front spring rates, lower tyre pressures and specific 4x4 damper rates for a plusher ride, especially over rougher road surfaces. Ranger’s directional stability also improves over rutted or corrugated surfaces, especially when heavily laden and towing.

Talking towing, the Mitsubishi makes a significant step forward as it addresses its previous lack of lugging ability – now rated to tug a 3.1 tonne trailer, Triton is in the bakkie towing ballpark, albeit still 400kg off its two rivals here in that critical bakkie capability. 

Tallying it up
All of which makes for very interesting reading and it gets even more interesting when you consider price. The technology-rich Ford Ranger and best performing and plausibly best equipped Mitsubishi Triton come very close in pricing and both undercut the under-specced, technically outmoded and slower Hilux by around thirty grand.

Of course your Legend Fifty will address some of those Raider trim and gadget shortcomings, but then your premium more than doubles too – at this level, a Hilux Legend 50 is close to ninety grand more expensive than the other two and still lacking in spec, power and performance.

Yet Toyota continues to get away with not building the best of bakkies to way outsell the rest. Last month’s 4,770 Hiluxes sold represent more than one Hilux driving out the showroom for every ten of all other new vehicles of any description in South Africa. That’s pretty astounding. Especially considering that we prefer both its cheaper, quicker and more supremely equipped rivals here.

So what is it that makes Hilux such a success – it’s been the best seller for ever and it’s only getting better? For starters, go try buy a used Hilux. You will struggle – never very many out there and then they demand almost ridiculously impressive returns on investment – no matter how long you have owned, or how far you have driven your Hilux.

Why is that? Why is the Hilux such a sales success? We like to call it ‘Toyotaness’ – a virtue built up over fifty years of consistent supreme customer service that spreads far further than the company’s famed South African Quality, Durability and Reliability reputation. Traits that spread to rock solid dealer dependability, being a member of a most powerful club and what your bakkie will muster when you ultimately put it to pasture.

It’s What You Get Back
So no, the Hilux is not the best bakkie here. The best of this trio is a toss-up between the sexy quick Triton and the sophisticated Ranger. But the Hilux still represents the best investment to the people that need to buy a new bakkie and that’s why the Toyota will just keep on outselling those better bakkie rivals, no matter how much better their pricing is, bells and whistles or how big, deep or broad the kitchen sink is.

So there you have it, Triton has evolved from a bloody good bakkie into a quite brilliant one to go toe to toe with the Ranger that has itself moved up a gear or four. Yet the Hilux just keeps on selling more and more units every month, every year and every decade. 

All for very good reasons, well beyond just the pretty average bakkie it actually is. – Michele Lupini.