I blame the Americans.
For Trump. For R Kelly. For the Kardashians. But mostly for spreading the gospel of “Big is Better!” across the automotive world.
Okay – not the entire world of vehicles … just the pick-up (or bakkie) sector.
The irony of American car design is that, since the ’60s and ’70s, its cars have got a lot smaller (thanks to Japanese and European influence) but their commercial vehicles, bakkies and SUVs (Sport Utility Vehicle was a phrase first coined by the Yanks) have got more and more bloated.
And, instead of allowing the Americans to wallow in their conspicuous, gas-guzzling consumption (and send aircraft carriers and troops all over the planet to secure oil supplies), the rest of the world’s car makers have been following suit.
In the bakkie sector, the small, lithe bakkies, which were firm favourites among farmers and hardworking outdoors people in SA, have now become the “trucks” which America labels as pickups and SUVs.
In this country, the advent of the double-cab bakkie, back in the early ’80s, presaged the fullon family SUVs which have become so popular on our roads.
Double cabs themselves have become even more successful, offering a tempting compromise between the ability to haul loads, travel difficult roads and still be used as daily transport in town.
But, put an ’80s model Toyota Hilux up against its current counterpart, and the earlier car will look malnourished.
The question seldom asked – by either buyers of bakkies and, indeed by journalists who write about them – is: why?
The additional space could have been achieved without the sort of macho bulking up that all current medium bakkies have been saddled with.
Bigger frontal area, bigger overall weight, bigger tyres don’t do anything for real-world performance, on or off-road.
So again: why? Here’s my answer: no bakkie will pass “the manne will buy this” test (and men are by far the majority of bakkie buyers) unless it has the sort of appearance which will intimidate other motorists when it looms in their rear-view mirror.
And loom it will do, because these days bakkie drivers (again – mainly men) are using these vehicles as extensions of their personalities … or to make up gaps in their own masculinity.
Hence, they will roar up behind you (and most of the diesel-driven double cabs these days will pull almost 200km/h – a far cry from 30 years ago) and force you to pull over.
I saw plenty of this sort of behaviour on our recent trip back from the coast and I can quite confidently say that bakkies have replaced BMWs as the road hog’s new weapon of choice.
So, I was quite prepared to be negative about the Nissan Navara 4×2 we had on test.
First, it is a good example of a “what’s the point?” vehicle.
It looks Camel Man-rugged, but it is still a heavy rear-wheel-drive which, despite a diff lock on those driven wheels, will get into trouble off-road quicker than a 4×4 version – and certainly much quicker than my All Wheel Drive Subaru Forester.
So, in effect it is a bit of a poser vehicle. Yet, behind the wheel, as urban transport – and on the long run – it fared very well.
Its 2.3 litre twin turbo diesel engine cranks out 140kW of power and 450Nm of torque, which are seriously good figures.
You require only modest throttle inputs to get moving quite quickly – and have the oomph needed for overtaking.
The power steering is light. Bakkies can often be bouncy when they’re not loaded, but the softly-sprung Navara didn’t display that trait and offered a really comfortable ride.
Inside the well-equipped cabin (all the bells and whistles, including Satnav in our top range version), the powerful aircon keeps the elements at bay, the decent sound system soothes the soul and there is added peace of mind in having seven airbags for front and rear occupants.
(Talking of which, this vehicle is not related, design-wise, to the Nissan NP300, which was rated unsafe in reputable tests.)
The compromises of a double cab bakkie are still there – like the rear passenger floor being quite high and thus forcing backseat passengers into an uncomfortable “knees up” position on long trips – but overall, it feels, from behind the wheel particularly, very much like a medium executive saloon.
It’s still not cheap, though – but I suppose nothing is these days.
Our top spec version goes for just under R580 000 and, for that sort of money, I’d still rather get a new Forester and go on an expensive overseas holiday with the change.