Words by Francois Steyn | Photos by Francois Steyn & BMW by www.quickpic.co.za
'They don’t make them like they used to' is a phrase that couldn’t be more true of serious off-road vehicles, and here I’m thinking Willy’s Jeep, FJ45 Land Cruisers and Series I Land Rovers. They were simple, yet tough. They had solid front and rear axles and primitive suspension setups, much like an ox wagon. But due to safety and comfort concerns nowadays, almost all new 4x4s have independent front suspension low profile rubber on flashy rims.
Luckily these three hard core brands still sport models with solid front axles that are super capable. The Wrangler Rubicon probably edges ahead in off-road ability, thanks to front and rear diff-locks as standard, as well as a button on the dash that electronically releases the front sway bar for around 22% extra wheel articulation. This can only be done in low range four and below 29 km/h. Departure and approach angles are extreme thanks to a higher ground clearance and everything underneath is properly protected from protruding pieces of Earth.
The first two gear ratios are so low that you almost never have to switch to low range, done via an old-school second gear lever – no electronic wizardry here, but if you do you are able to literally crawl down any slope at 800 metres per hour as a result of a 4:1 low range ratio (the Sahara is 2.72:1). That’s near standstill and even a snail will have to maintain a safe following distance so as to not run into the back of you.
We visited the Anysberg Reserve for the weekend and the 3.6-litre V6 engine I was testing proved to be a gem getting there, via the R62. Delivering 209 kW and 347 Nm torque you don’t need a big gap to overtake the slower traffic. The Pentastar engine has 40% more power and a claimed 10% reduction in thirst from the old 3.7 mill. The six-speed manual ‘box feels solid, mechanical and like it doesn’t mind being used, and the ride is surprisingly comfortable for a vehicle of these dimensions. Going over the rocks on the 4x4 route I noticed that the throttle is less sensitive initially, for slow off-road driving, but once you push it in deeper the surge of power is instantaneous and the Jeep jumps forward like a frisky frog.
There is enough space in the rear for real people (two easily, three at a push) and the seats fold completely flat for a useable weekend-for-two-getaway load bay. The spare wheel is stored on the rear door to free up more space. Like the old Wranglers, the roof, wind screen and doors can still be removed completely by loosening just a few bolts. The roll bars inside are visible and covered in padding, yet you still have ABS, airbags and traction control. This is an amazingly capable vehicle and being brand new was the only thing stopping me from testing its limits. Doing so would have probably meant driving up the side of Table Mountain (from the Misty Cliffs side). The only complaint, if I had to mention one, would be that it is a tad unstable at higher speeds. This is due to the short wheelbase and solid axle suspension setup. But it's a small price to pay for a road-legal car that can go absolutely anywhere.
Nissan NP200 1.5 dCi vs. Chevrolet Corsa Ute 1.8i Sport
I love comparing two completely dissimilar vehicles and for this I chose two half-ton bakkies, each costing around R170 000. They might look fairly similar in appearance, except for Nissan’s square lines compared to the Chevy’s bulging curves.
Apart from the looks, the differences are more apparent when you step inside. The Nissan is all functional. Even though it also has power steering, ABS and airbags, there’s no on-board computer like in the Ute and the seats are fairly bland. There is not much to get excited about in the interior, but then again it won’t look kitsch in two months’ time. And it is this what I liked most about the little Nissan.
The Corsa on the other hand is packed with goodies. A flashy centre console houses the sound system and fuel consumption can be monitored on the futuristic digital display. The ride is much firmer than the NP200 and it feels more like a little hot hatch in the corners. The seats are sporty and the steering more direct, while the Nissan’s steering was a bit vague and much lighter at low speeds.
The engines couldn’t be further apart either, whilst still fitting the cosmetics perfectly. The NP200 has a 1.5 turbo diesel that puts out 63 kW as compared to the Chev’s 1.8 petrol’s 77 kW. Even though the diesel delivers 25% more torque than the Chev, it does not like to be revved and inspired a more relaxed driving style. This resulted in better fuel consumption. The sound of the Sport’s 1.8-litre petrol engine matched to the firmer suspension and slick five-speed gearbox had me accelerating harder than I needed to and you’d be forgiven for forgetting you’re carrying building material in the load bay (even though I didn’t, GM!). The NP’s load bay is deeper than the Chev’s and can carry about 5% more in weight. Both bakkies are very comfortable to drive around town and feel stable on the open road at 120, but the Chev has longer legs and is not nearly out of breath if you have to pass the car in front of you.
The 1.5 dCi NP200 base model, with air conditioning and safety pack, retails for R168 800 and the Corsa 1.8 Sport for R173 500. Both are at the upper end of the half-ton segment. The 10 grand higher price tag on the Chevy Sport seems justified if you consider the fancier interior and car-like driving qualities, so it looks like a perfect tie then. But as it always is with cars, in the end it comes down to personal choice. My wife picked the bakkie with the bow-tie badge on the grill, whereas I liked the Nissan’s simplicity, no-frills interior and diesel engine. Take your pick.
BMW G650GS Sertão Launch
Mid last year BMW launched, or re-launched, the single cylinder 650. Now called the G650GS, but sharing most of the important parts of the old F650GS, whose name was passed on to the F650GS which is an 800 twin, it's not an entirely new bike. Got all that? It still has the same bullet proof 652 cc Rotax engine and matching gearbox, but the biggest difference is the appearance, which has been updated so as to not shame the bigger GS family. The ABS system is also much lighter than the old one, but still needs to be switched off every time you leave the tar, as it resets to the on position each time you switch the bike off.
At the G650GS launch last year BMW was reluctant to let anything slip about a Dakar version, but earlier this year we received the invitation. Instead of Dakar it’s now called Sertão, meaning 'wilderness' in Portuguese and it also refers to the arid desert region of northern Brazil. We picked up the bikes in Johannesburg from where we dashed to a bushveld reserve north of Pretoria. On the highway it feels pretty much the same as the standard bike, but once on the dirt the longer travel suspension (210 mm front and rear) could be felt. We did some hard riding on corrugated roads and even though the bikes were shod with road biased tyres, the chassis and suspension were very reassuring. Some of us even had both wheels in the air over the cattle gates.
Later that afternoon we went out for a game ride. Crawling over rocks and through sandy patches looking for zebras and giraffes, the bike’s perfect balance became evident. The next day we did some more exploring in the area after a bird of prey demonstration, and filling up at a garage on our way back revealed a decent 24 km/l of 240 km of mixed riding and hard accelerations. With a fuel tank of 14-litres a range of 350 is not off the cards.
Apart from the tougher suspension, you also get spoked rims, a 21-inch front wheel and a 60 mm taller seat height over the standard GS. At R80 950 for the non-ABS and R89222 for the ABS version, this is a great buy for the beginner or a BM-fan not wanting to pay R100k plus for an 800. BMW openly admitted to targeting the entry level market, but I’d jump on one tomorrow and ride around the world if they’d let me.