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OFF-ROAD TEST

Road Test: JMC Vigus





24 February 2015


JMC’s all-new Vigus was recently launched in SA and it’s the Chinese manufacturer’s first attempt at conquering the tough mainstream luxury double cab 4×4 bakkie segment. Does it have what it takes?

A few years ago the Chinese automakers decided to broaden their horizons by offering their vehicles in other countries. SA was part of the target market and in some cases the venture turned out to be huge success.

Take GWM as an example. Its first offerings were poor, but soon afterwards the manufacturer reached a turning point that made the consumer sit up and take notice. That crucial change came in the form of the H5, which turned out to be a good buy for customers who wanted an SUV the size of the Toyota Fortuner but couldn’t afford to pay more than R200 000.

GWM strengthened its reputation by adding newer and better vehicles to its stable. The Steed is a capable workhorse, while the M4 compact crossover is a cheeky and frugal urban runabout. The new Steed 6 seems like a decent bakkie as well.

The same is true of the Foton. We used to laugh at Chinese cars, but then the Tunland came along and the laughing stopped.

Leisure Wheels has had a long-term Tunland for a year now and we have put it through its paces. It’s had a tough life and yet it’s still running as smoothly as the day it arrived. Apart from a finicky front passenger door, it has been a joy to have around.

This brings us neatly to the new JMC Vigus, built by Jiangling Motors. In the past we’ve been less than kind about JMC’s products, but we were hopeful that the Vigus would be its turning point. If so, could it be considered a worthy competitor to the likes of GWM and Foton, or perhaps even – dare we say it – to the Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux?

 Exterior***

Vigus is a cool sounding word, so we were surprised to find out that it had no meaning whatsoever. The only other Vigus we could find on the Internet was Dylan Vigus, who is a fairly unsuccessful bit actor in the US. His most famous role was that of “bearded man” in an episode of Cougar Town, so there’s little doubt that the car was not named after him!

We’re not even sure the car’s name is Vigus, as it doesn’t seem to appear anywhere on the vehicle. In China it’s called the Pika, which sounds a bit soft for a bakkie in SA, so that’s probably why JMC SA came up with Vigus.

The styling is as inoffensive as it is forgettable. We’ve read reports suggesting that the Vigus turns heads wherever it goes, but that simply didn’t happen during the few days it spent with us.

There’s a bit of Mazda BT50 at the front and a slight resemblance to the Ranger when it’s viewed from the side. At least it’s not a replica of another manufacturer’s vehicle, which is a step in the right direction.

There were, however, a few glaring issues about the exterior. The side indicators are placed at a slight angle, which wouldn’t be a huge aesthetic faux pas but for the arrow straight 2,4D badges right on top of them. That’s something we can excuse, but the other lapses are more serious and raise a questions about durability.

The load bin tray, for example, was not properly aligned with the bin when it was closed, and the left headlamp had a few droplets of water in it after a night in the rain. These faults might be understandable in a 10-year old bakkie, but the Vigus test vehicle had just over 3 000km on the clock.

 Interior***

From the time we set foot inside the Vigus, the interior seemed familiar. In the first couple of days we couldn’t put a finger on it, and we only found the answer while browsing for news updates for our website. The interior is very close to being a replica of the new Jeep Cherokee’s cabin, with a bit of Opel Astra thrown in for good measure.

We don’t like this mimicking business, but at least JMC had the good sense to copy from decent interiors.

It certainly looks cool, but the plastic used in the Vigus is not of the highest quality – unlike that in the Jeep and Opel. It has to be said, however, that there were no rattles or panel gaps in the Vigus. So while the plastic may not be pleasing to touch, it is at least nailed in properly.

Noise and vibration levels were acceptable, with wind noise becoming a factor only at speeds far above the national limit.

Standard specification are rather good. The Vigus is equipped with almost all the luxuries you’d find in competitors like the Hilux, Ranger or Amarok. It has leather seats, a multifunctioning steering wheel and a touch-screen infotainment system that can play music from all the obligatory sources.

The unit also houses a DVD player, which we would gladly have sacrificed for cruise control. Not to have cruise control in any car costing more than R150 000 is a big no-no in our book, but it has to be said that the Vigus is not the only Chinese bakkie with this glaring omission.

The interior is certainly far ahead of anything JMC has produced before, and we wish we could end this part of this road test by saying that the Vigus was just a bit rough around the edges. Unfortunately, it has the feel of a vehicle that was rushed into production rather than one that was thoroughly tested to ensure optimal comfort and convenience.

The touch-screen, for example, is invisible to the driver most of the time because of glare from the sun. Whether sunlight was direct or indirect, the driver had to lean over to the left to see the screen clearly. The only time it was completely visible was when the weather was overcast or rainy. And when it did rain, the wipers made only a half-hearted attempt at sweeping the windscreen, and were fairly noisy when going about it.

Other than these glitches and the faint whiff of glue, which is something we haven’t experienced in a Chinese product for quite some time, the Vigus was adequate when it came to interior comfort.

 Performance and handling**

When it comes to the engine and handling, there are two ways we can look at the Vigus. We can either dismiss its mechanicals as being old and lacking compared to a modern Ford Ranger or Volkswagen Amarok, or we can defend it by stating that the Vigus is fairly basic, which means there’s very little that can go wrong.

The latter view would make sense if we were testing a hardcore overland vehicle such as the Toyota Land Cruiser, where durability is the key purchasing consideration, but the Vigus is supposed to be a rival for so-called leisure bakkies, so refinement and performance are, if anything, more important.

We’ll start by stating that the Vigus’s performance is far from disappointing. Its old school, Ford-based 2,4-litre diesel engine develops 90kW and 290Nm of torque. Those are not shoddy numbers when you view them in isolation, separated from the figures of its direct competitors.

The engine is mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, which felt slightly sticky, but not to the point that it ruined the driving experience. The vehicle did not feel underpowered, but it didn’t have that riding-a-wave-of-torque feeling you get in most modern bakkies.

There’s a good reason for that. The 290Nm of torque isn’t that bad when viewed in isolation, but since this is a road test, it has to be compared with that of at least one competitor. As we are familiar with the Foton Tunland, we’ll use this as the main rival.

The Tunland uses a 2,8-litre Cummins turbodiesel engine with 120kW and 360Nm on tap. The 30kW/70Nm difference between the two is immediately apparent, even when you account for the fact that we added at least 200kg worth of modifications to our long-term Tunland.

As for the quality of the ride on tar, its good news for the new model. The Vigus rides beautifully and body-roll is fairly limited. We would go so far as to say that it’s as good as its mainstream competitors.

Venturing off the beaten track was a more, shall we say, interesting experience. The Vigus, in two-wheel drive, has a penchant for oversteering on gravel and wet roads. One of our rear passengers commented that the ride felt quite firm, and this became noticeable in the front as well as soon as we hit the first gravel. A stiff suspension coupled to almost no weight on the rear axle makes for quite a wild ride.

We have to emphasise that at no point did the Vigus feel unsafe because of this characteristic. In fact, the oversteer was easily manageable by dialling in a bit of opposite lock, and this left us with a stupid, childish grin on our faces.

This somewhat irresponsible, yet “fun” characteristic is rendered irrelevant once you turn the dial next to the gear lever to 4H. In four-wheel drive the car felt “planted” at all times, but the stiff suspension still made itself known occasionally.

We’ll sum up by saying that on a gravel road the Vigus is happiest at 80km/h in four-wheel drive.

Our standard test route includes a small but technical off-road course, which quickly reveals any faults in a 4×4. This gave us the opportunity to try the Vigus in low-range and, once again, there were good and bad attributes.

With low-range engaged, the Vigus made light work of most of the obstacles, but when we pushed it a bit harder, things went a bit pear shaped.

We tried to complete a tough incline with slippery surfaces here and there, but the Vigus wouldn’t do it. With a diff-lock, it would probably have made it. We then tried the same incline without the slippery stuff, which highlighted a problem with the low-range gearing.

In first gear the Vigus is very aggressive, which makes it particularly difficult to drive when a bit of finesse is needed. Why not use second gear? Well, second gear proved the polar opposite. First gear was too aggressive and second simply wasn’t aggressive enough.

We tried to go up the slope in second gear with low-range engaged, but the Vigus ran out of steam halfway up. We completed the obstacle in first gear, but doing so bordered on abuse.

Crawling down obstacles using only compression was easy though, so we can give the Vigus good marks for that.

What really stood out was the Vigus’s impressive wheel articulation. We tried our best to catch it out, but the car simply wouldn’t lift its rear wheel more than a few centimetres off the ground.

This car definitely has the potential to be great off-road once the owner has taken the time to learn and understand its nuances.

 Safety features***

In this part of the test we normally rely on international automotive safety testing authorities, such as Euro NCAP, to supply us with crash test information, but as far as we can tell, the Vigus hasn’t been tested for safety yet. It is equipped with the latest active safety gadgets, including ABS with integrated electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD).

The rest of the safety features are pretty straightforward. It has a driver and front passenger airbag, seatbelts for all five seats and seatbelt indicator light. Also included as standard are rear parking sensors and an automatic door locking function.

Practicality and versatility***

The Vigus is a bakkie, which means it’s infinitely practical. A tonneau cover is not offered as standard, but the mountings are already in place.

We searched high and low for the load capacity figures, but they were nowhere to be found. Our best estimate, given the suspension set-up and power output, is somewhere between 500kg and 700kg. JMC couldn’t supply us with a braked towing capacity either,  but we feel sure it could easily tow the maximum unbraked weight of 750kg.

Interior space is very impressive. In fact, the Vigus is one of the most spacious bakkies we’ve tested. It can accommodate five adults with ease, so it would have no problems in meeting the needs of the average urban family.

 

Value for money***

There’s no denying that the JMC Vigus represents exceptional value for money. It retails at R355 990, and there’s only one double cab bakkie that can beat that price. The Tata Xenon sells for R279 495, but it still has some way to go before it can be labelled a luxury bakkie.

The Foton retails at R389 950, while a SsangYong Actyon Sports will set you back R359 995. You won’t find a direct competitor from Japan for much less than R400 000.

The gap in pricing between the Vigus and something like an entry-level Isuzu KB, Ford Ranger or Toyota Hilux double cab 4×4 can’t be ignored. It’s a huge chunk of money, but there are a few other things we should consider.

There’s always the option of buying a slightly used Isuzu KB, Ford Ranger or Toyota Hilux. A quick search on the internet turned up no less than 30 seemingly good options located less than 10km from our desks.

At the end of the day it all boils down to one question: Would we recommend a car to a family member? When it comes to the Vigus, that answer is unfortunately no. It’s definitely a turning point for JMC, but this vehicle is still too rough around the edges for our liking. It’s a perfectly adequate bakkie for a budget buyer, but the small dealer network and depreciation questions are a concern.

What we’d recommend is a second-hand Hilux, Ranger, Triton, KB or Foton Tunland. For R356 000, you’d easily find a double cab 4×4 with low mileage and still some time left on its warranty