Built tough… in South Africa

Text: GG van Rooyen

Australia’s love affair with the bakkie (or ute, as it is called down under) rivals our own. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the vehicle responsible for causing the most excitement during the recent Australian International Motor Show was the brand new Ford Ranger. Of course, the fact that it had been developed by Ford Australia probably also had something to do with it.

But all the excitement wasn’t completely unwarranted, because the new Ranger is a very big deal. How so? Well, it forms part of the company’s new “One Ford” strategy — an attempt to simplify its international vehicle range and unify its global production operations.

Instead of tailoring vehicles to different markets, Ford now intends to sell the same products all over the world. The Ranger, for instance, will be sold in more than 180 countries on five continents. So what is needed is a vehicle that is distinctive and attractive, but still has the broad appeal needed to perform well in divergent markets.

Can the Ranger succeed in this difficult task? We’ll have to wait and see what happens once it goes on sale, but Ford appears confident that it has a winner.

“We know trucks, so we leveraged our best expertise from around the globe to create the all-new Ford Ranger,” said Derrick Kuzak, group vice president of global product development, at the unveiling. “Focusing our global resources on a single new compact pickup truck platform meant we could deliver significant improvements, technologies and features that owners will value, along with impressive fuel economy that alone will be a reason to buy.”

The first clear improvement can be found under the bonnet. The new Ranger will offer a choice of three engines that provide improved performance. There’s a 2,2-litre diesel powerplant that generates 110 kW of power and 375 Nm of torque, and a 3,2-litre oilburner that produces 147 kW of power and 470 Nm of torque. A 2,5-litre petrol engine that creates 122 kW and 226 Nm of torque will also be made available. Although fuel consumption figures have not been released yet, Ford says all three engines will boast impressive economy.

The new Ranger also sees the introduction of six-speed transmissions into the range. In addition to a manual six-shooter, there will be a six-speed auto shifter that has sequential manual shifting and a gadget called grade control logic that automatically downshifts on descents to improve braking. Special driver recognition software will also allow the gearbox to adapt to the owner’s specific driving style.

As these innovations suggest, Ford’s new bakkie will be one of the most technologically advanced in the segment. In fact, it has a lot of gadgets you’d expect to find only in a luxury SUV. There’s traction control, electronic brakeforce distribution, adaptive load control and trailer sway control, as well as a reverse camera and rear park assist.

The model unveiled in Sydney was the flagship XLT double cab with all the bells and whistles, but Ford will offer the Ranger in a host of other configurations. And in line with the “One Ford” strategy, a modular design was used that allows the company to easily produce 4×2 workhorses and double cab 4x4s from the same mould.

“Look closely and you’ll see that regardless of the model, we didn’t stray from the basic layout and design,” says the bakkie’s chief designer, Craig Metros. “All the exterior and interior shapes and panels are identical.”

Indeed, for the company’s “One Ford” strategy to succeed, production needs to be very simple and efficient. And for this reason, the 180 markets that the Ranger is destined for will be supplied by just three plants specially geared towards producing the vehicle. Global production will start at a plant in Rayong, Thailand. As production ramps up, however, Rangers will also be built in South Africa and Argentina. According to FMCSA, local production of the bakkie will take place at Ford’s assembly plant in Silverton, Pretoria.

To prepare for this, the company plans to invest more than R3 billion to upgrade facilities and increase production capacity. By the time assembly on the Ranger kicks off, the Silverton plant’s capacity will have grown to 110 000 units to accommodate production of the platform that underpins the new bakkie.

Roughly 25% of vehicles produced will be earmarked for the local market, while the rest will be exported to Europe and other parts of Africa. The engine plant in Struandale, Port Elizabeth, will be able to produce 220 000 machined components for use in Ford’s Duratorq diesel engines. Around 75 000 of those components will be used for assembly at Silverton, while the rest will be exported.

FMCSA is depending on the Ranger doing well, not only locally, but in overseas markets. So has the company erred by putting so many eggs in one basket? After all, the new Ranger will go up against the dominant Hilux, as well as impressive newcomers like the Navara V9X and VW Amarok. Well, it certainly seems like a very impressive vehicle. If it is competitively priced, it might just be a serious double cab contender.

Unfortunately, Ford won’t give us an official release date. However, they say the engine plant will start production in the first half of 2011 and the assembly plant in the second half. So expect to the Ranger on South African roads towards the end of next year.


Sophisticated beast

The BT-50 may look like a standard double cab bakkie, but it’s not. According to Mazda, it is an active lifestyle vehicle. And it represents a brave new direction in the commercial vehicle market

Text: GG van Rooyen

“We had a photograph of a lion,” says Ryo Yanagisawa, chief designer of the all-new BT-50. “He looked like a magnificent predator with his muscles all bunching up as though he was about to pounce on his prey. His sinews were stretched taut, ready to strike, and his mane framed a sharp, masculine countenance that seemed to say, ‘I am the proud king of the beasts!’ In profile, that lion appeared to be both intelligent and powerful.

I really wanted the design of the truck to project that kind of image. This kind of inspiration was the basis of the emotional design that we worked so hard to achieve with the all-new BT-50.”
Yanagisawa and his design team wanted to create a vehicle that suggests the same combination of intelligence, elegance and brute strength as a lion.

Did they succeed? They definitely managed to create a unique double cab. Place the new Ford Ranger next to the Navara, Hilux or Amarok, and it fits in nicely. The BT-50, however, looks like a bit of a rebel. It doesn’t conform to typical double cab design cues.

And the front end is indeed quite catlike. There is something about the contoured lines, hulking stance and wedge-shaped proportions that conjure up images of a lion. The lights in particular look like a cat’s eyes.

The interior looks spacious and modern. According to Mazda, the cabin was designed to wrap around the driver, thereby encouraging enthusiastic driving. The dashboard is asymmetrical to increase space.

Unfortunately, Mazda hasn’t revealed any details about what’s lurking underneath all that metal. But it’s safe to assume that there will be quite a number of similarities with the Ford Ranger, so expect powerful and frugal engines, an electronic 4×4 system, impressive safety features and all sorts of driver assists.

It is true that the BT-50 represents a new direction in the commercial vehicle market. But this is also true of every other new double cab on the market. The days of basic workhorses are behind us. Like the Navara, Ranger and Amarok, the BT-50 is a new breed of bakkie that attempts to combine power and practicality with comfort and luxury. Mazda’s bakkie, however, has a style all its own.