Early this year I drove in a particular model 4×4 pick-up for the first time in some years. It was a newish model. My first thoughts were, ‘This is an extremely boring bakkie.’ Not that it was bad, or noisy or rough or uncomfortable. It was just boring. March 2010
New vehicles are being introduced almost every month and the 4×4 community saw two decent vehicles being launched fairly recently. I call these two SUVs decent, because they both have low-range gearing and good clearance and therefore are both potential off-roaders. They have stepped one up from boring, unlike the vast majority of SUVs without low range, and are on the road to brilliant.
So, what makes a 4×4 boring and what makes it brilliant? For example: a BMW X3 is a cure for insomnia. It hasn’t the comfort of a 5-series, it hasn’t close to the handling, nor has it the looks and only marginally better clearance. The only thing it shares is the high price tag. But the 5-Series isn’t an SUV. True. But what’s the big attraction of an SUV if it isn’t as nice to, well, do anything as a similar priced sedan?
Now let’s take the pickup in question. It was a Ford Ranger. Now here is a vehicle with absolutely nothing to rave about. It seems well-built, has a fair ride, fair seats, fair performance, fair clearance (actually rather good), and fair styling. In a nutshell: boring. But then, just last week I drove another Ranger. My reaction: this is brilliant! It went like stink, I mean it really pulled well, and the ride was better than almost any bakkie I have ever driven. What happened? The owner of both bakkies happens to be the same person. Earlier, when I drove it, he told me he was unhappy with the vehicle, in that it did most things reasonably well, but shone at nothing. In other words, he was bored. But then he spent all of about R14 000 on it: A set of Koni shocks and he chipped the motor. Boring to brilliant.
The two recently-launched SUVS are the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport and new the Ford Everest, undoubtedly introduced in response to Toyota’s top-selling pick-up derivative, the Fortuner. As most of you know, I think the Fortuner is brilliant and while I have not given either of these two newcomers a thorough test, I believe that the Pajero Sport has everything going for it to make Toyota cry in pain. It’s styling, I think, is the best of the three, in and out, while Everest’s styling is nothing short of horrible – especially the rear end and the cavernous hole under the load bay. I know of a serious buyer who turned the Everest down even before driving it, just because of that.
Without an expedition to try out these two properly, it’s not possible for me to judge further, and after the recent Pajero issue I doubt if I am going to get an invitation from Mitsubishi soon. However, the Everest makes an interesting case. Don’t the makers, or at least the marketers, know that this vehicle is potentially brilliant? Probably not! They just think it’s another nice to sit in, nice to drive, nice to look-at SUV. Nice? Nice?? Nice it is not. It’s potentially very nice. But they don’t know this because on Ford’s website they have not even mentioned that the Everest 4×4 model has low-range gearing. This, don’t you know Mr.Ford, is the most significant advantage of your new SUV over dozens of other boring, nice but ordinary SUVs out there that are not off-roaders because they have no low range gearing? Showing it bruising rocks in an off-road setting in a TV commercial isn’t going to help get the message across either, because everybody realizes that it doesn’t take a true adventure-capable 4×4 to look tough and able for a camera. That ship has sailed.
Now take the average bakkie: Come on, face it, they are boring. Slap on an Alu-cab canopy, ARB bull bar and tweak the suspension and you’ve turned boring to nice. Now, from nice to brilliant needs some engineering changes. Some may say, don’t meddle with the suspension, especially if you intend to raise it, because it will become unstable. This is half true. Raise the suspension and leave the standard shock absorbers in place and yes, the suspension will be severely miss-matched. I drove a new Hilux the other day, off-road. While it was competent, it was nothing to rave about. The D4D engine is brilliant, but the Hilux chassis is not. It’s boring is what it is! Fit a set of Konis or OME shocks and it transports what is good but boring to the realms of brilliant. Something as simple as high-quality shocks makes a staggering difference to a vehicle’s ride. So much so, that by raising the suspension and fitting high-quality shocks, the vehicle is probably every bit as, if not more stable (as long as it is not raised too much) the standard vehicle.
There is one thing that many manufacturers skimp on, and it is particularly noticeable with pickups, and that is shock absorbers. Almost every vehicle is built with shock absorbers with the absolute minimum specification for the vehicle to do its job. Now this all begs the question, why don’t the manufacturers fit better shocks? When a vehicle is produced the bean counters calculate the cost of every component. If you were making a car and expected to sell 100 000 of them, would you fit shocks that cost R220 or ones that cost R800? There are four of them x 100 000 vehicles = 400 000 shocks = R2 260 000 less profit. Since both shocks do the job, and most buyers wouldn’t know the difference unless actually able to compare them, why spend the extra?
It is similar with engines. Why don’t the manufacturers remap all their engines to produce better power and torque? Same answer: money. This is why engine heads aren’t hand-grinded, exhausts hand-bent for better breathing, engine chips hand-programmed etc, etc. They are mass-produced and anything built for the masses must be made to fit average people. Not unlike a tee-shirt. If it’s made slightly too large, lots will buy it, Make it too small and only those who fit it perfectly will buy it. Chips, the good ones anyway, are like a tee-shirt made by a tailor, tuned and programmed for your particular vehicle. This is why they work so well.
Every modern engine has a computer management system controlling performance. If model GX has the similar engine to the more powerful GY model, you can be guaranteed that nine out of 10 times, the only difference will be a different computer program (sometimes called a map) running the engine and a muffler to make it sound different. How do you remap your GX’s engine to match the performance of the GY? Mostly, you can’t and the makers won’t do it for you. So you fit a chip. I have had several experiences with chips. There are good ones and bad ones. One of the very best is the Dastek Unichip. When I sold my 290GD G-Wagen, I took a G-Wagen fanatic for a test drive. “G-Wagens aren’t supposed to go like this!” he screamed as we sped up a steep hill and 150kph. He handed over the cash the same day. In the case of the G, with the chip, it went from brilliant to spectacular. Only the very few can reach this altitude. The 3.0 diesel Ranger’s standard performance is very respectable, but a chip, while not providing a considerable power increase, puts lots more torque down and the drive is so improved it was magical to experience.
From brilliant to brilliant
Some new heavyweight SUVs have recently been a plain disappointment. One such is Discovery-4. Discovery-3 was brilliant. The new one is, well, brilliant. No change there. So Disco-4 is a bit of a let down. They should have called it Discovery3, Series-2 – that would have confused everyone! Prado is similar. The old diesel Prado was erring on boring, but is now brilliant but the petrol model is, well, still brilliant. Maybe a bit more of an upgrade than Disco-4 is, but not really a reason to buy a new one if your old one still excites you (unless it’s a diesel). I anticipate the day when Pajero, having been recently left way behind its competitors, develop and build a great design again.
For those thinking about acquiring a 4×4 SUV and the choice remains, do you spend the extra and go for one with low range gearing?… listen closely: If there was ever anything that can change a SUV from boring to brilliant, it is the addition of low-range gearing. Don’t be fooled: without low range, you are driving a vehicle that is in, and will ever remain in, the boring category.
Don’t be boring! Be brilliant!