The last 18 months have seen almost every bakkie manufacturer launch a special edition model, all in a quest to catch the public’s attention in a segment that makes up a large part of South Africa’s vehicle car park, but they are not all created equal.
It is all about standing out from the crowd, and bakkie manufacturers have gone to varying lengths to ensure that their bakkie is different to the next. Some chose to go the aesthetic route while others have added a combination of looks and 4×4 technology to their flagship models. There are also those that concentrated purely on a chassis package and others that are all about engine.
The Ford Ranger Raptor has captured the public’s attention as has the built in the factory Isuzu Arctic with its 35-inch wheels. In 2019 launched two special Hilux’s, celebrating their 50th anniversary as well as their success in motorsport. Mahindra is offering exceptional value with their locally built Karoo and the added specification that it offers. Both the Nissan Navara and Mercedes-Benz X-Class have had a tough time in the local market and in attempt to create some added allure these two manufacturers have gifted these bakkies with some unique aesthetic bits. And then there is VW who strapped an Audi derived V6 into their ageing bakkie, which gave the Amarok a new lease on life as it catapulted to the top of the bakkie power war.
Our mission was to try differentiate between those that are truly special and those that are simply for the person who is trying to show his neighbour how much cash he has.
With the eight special bakkies assembled and a variety of drivers ready to go we could have hit the N4 for an effortless drive to Dullstroom. But that is not our style, so we pulled out or Tracks 4 Africa map and plotted a route that traversed as many dirt roads as possible.
From Johannesburg, our route took us past Cullinan and towards Groblersdal before we hit the dirt proper, looping behind Loskop dam to Stofberg and then onwards to Tonteldoos and eventually Dullstroom. The best part is that these roads were basically deserted of other traffic and tollgates. Our decision also proved to offer the perfect mix of conditions to test our ensemble of bakkies, with good and not so good gravel roads, back roads and even a bit of highway. On the way home we headed towards Middelburg and onto Bronkhorstspruit for a visit to the Kungwini 4×4 facility.
Links to our Bakkie of the Year feature are also included underneath the relevant bakkies. Unlike this test, which was the Leisure Wheels team and a few friends driving and then choosing which bakkie we like most, the Bakkie of the Year test was based around trusted and repeatable testing methods, with only 20% of the final score being subjective.
Giving buyers what they want, Ford finally developed a proper Ranger Raptor. This is not simply a Ranger with some nice bits, this is the real thing, with genuine Ford Performance design and engineering.
The Raptor looks the part thanks to larger dimensions including a 150mm wider front track and flared wheel arches along with an imposing grille adorned with Ford block lettering. The striking, flared composite front fenders are designed to shrug off damage from off-road use and allow for longer suspension travel.
Under the mean exterior is a unique Ford Performance chassis optimised for high-speed off-road driving and go-anywhere ability. The Fox Performance shocks fitted to this bakkie are really something special. These high performance 2.5-inch dampers, which incorporate protruding shock absorber towers, feature twice the oil volume, an aluminium body for heat dissipation and internal bypass technology that allows the Raptor to really shine when the terrain gets rough. All the suspension components have been beefed up and include forged aluminium upper control arms and cast aluminium lower control arms, which are stronger and lighter. At the rear a bespoke coilover suspension arrangement features an integrated Watt’s linkage that allows the axle to move up and down with very little lateral movement. Specially developed BF Goodrich K02s match the suspension and drivetrain of the Raptor perfectly.
The performance DNA is clearly visible in the cabin. Unique off-road sport seats are specially designed for enhanced grip and high-speed support. Blue stitching and leather accents feature throughout including across the high-quality dashboard. Racing style-magnesium paddle shifters allow for crisp gear changes and are easily accessible behind the perforated leather steering wheel.
The fancy suspension system along with wider track and bespoke tyres give the Raptor a planted feel at high speeds which is confidence inspiring. The standout feature is without a doubt how far you can push it off-road. Speeds on gravel and over rough washaways are higher than anything we have ever experience while the ride remains more comfortable than any other bakkie on the market. And it is not scared of some air time.
The only problem is that at times it does feel slightly underpowered. It is powered by a Bi-Turbo version of Ford’s 2.0-litre diesel engine that delivers 157kW and 500Nm of torque and is mated to a 10-speed gearbox. But the Raptor weighs 2 430kg and has the added rolling resistance of all-terrain tyres, which does mean it lacks slightly in the acceleration and overtaking department.
The Raptor shines on flowing dirt roads, no matter the conditions and has everything to flatter the novice and genuinely reward the expert.
ISUZU ARCTIC TRUCK
In a tie up with Icelandic firm Arctic trucks, Isuzu South Africa have added a new flagship model, named the AT35, to their line-up. Built on the same production line as a regular D-Max, this bakkie features bigger wheel wells and arches in order to accommodate 35-inch tyres and beefed up suspension.
Based on the D-Max 3.0 Double Cab 4×4 LX Automatic, the Arctic Trucks package includes an increased vehicle height along with massively improved approach and departure angles.
At the base of the conversion is a custom Arctic Trucks 30mm body lift, and together with the addition of the coil over Fox Performance series shocks, the big 35-inch wheels fit the D-Max with no body cutting. With its own line in the Port Elizabeth plant, the D-Max is built as an Arctic from scratch.
With 310mm clearance at the front and 280mm at the back (as measured), inappropriate lines through difficult obstacles at the 4×4 track hardly mattered. You just point the Isuzu any way you like and the drivetrain will sort out the details. The three-litre turbodiesel engine doesn’t have the most horses in the double cab bakkie stable but its low-rev tractability, lack of turbo lag and the smooth automatic gearbox ensure the AT35 can crawl over those big boulders with ease. The big Isuzu is a formidable 4×4 machine.
Inside the D-Max cabin remains stock standard, you get full leather, climate control and a keyless stop-start system. Our test unit was also fitted with an optional Alpine touchscreen radio and navigation system that adds another R14 000 to the price.
As this Arctic conversion is done in the factory, Isuzu’s complete care remains valid for the AT35, including a five-year/120 000km warranty.
The AT35 might not be the fastest, plushest nor the most modern, but it feels as if it was cast from rock and it will most probably never leave you stranded next to a road or track. And you certainly stand out from the crowd. The end result is a vehicle that has the ability to traverse technical and soft terrain with minimal ground or vehicle impact.
The only downside is the weight, the Arctic is naturally a bit heavier, tipping the scales at 2 200 kilograms and you can feel it. The big 35-inch tyres are heavy too and when they choose to go in a direction, sent that way by rough roads for example, you can feel it through the steering wheel, maybe a steering damper should have been added top the kit.
Those big wheels do soften up the ride compared to a standard D-Max both on an off-road and even though you can feel that the centre of gravity has been raised, there is no denying that having this amount of ground clearance at the rear is never a bad thing.
HILUX GR SPORT
Gazoo Racing represents Toyota’s unified Motorsport arm, competing in various global motorsport disciplines like the Dakar rally.
GR Sport is Toyota’s second tier in the GR-product pyramid, which encompasses suspension upgrades and enhancements.
So to give customers a piece of this action, Toyota have added some GR magic to their ever popular Hilux. The major upgrades to the GR Sport over a standard Hilux are uprated and tuned suspension, the shock absorbers have been changed to a monotube design with revised damping, working in conjunction with increased front spring rates to offer a sportier ride. The rear leaf spring rates have been left unchanged to maintain the existing payload.
The exterior of the GR Sport distinguishes itself from its normal Hilux brethren with Gazoo Racing branding and is offered in white, red or black to match the Gazoo racing livery. The enlarged, honeycombe front grille features distinctive Toyota lettering, as first seen on the Dakar race car and a gloss black finish, accompanied by a GR badge. A vertical fog-lamp garnish features a red or white outline and all GR Sport models feature a black bonnet and roof. Black accents are extended to the side mirrors, GR-branded tubular side steps, over-fenders and GR-specific 17-inch alloy wheels shod with 265/65-17 tyres.
Inside, the black leather interior features red contrast stitching and GR logos embroidered on the headrests and carpets. A GR-branded push start button fires up the engine while each GR Sport is adorned with a production plate and serial number in the centre console.
Under the bonnet is the same 2.8 GD-6 turbodiesel engine, as found in the regular Hilux, delivering 130kW and 450Nm, paired exclusively to a six-speed automatic transmission.
The GR Sport is only offered in double-cab configuration and only 600 units will be built.
Although the styling changes certainly do set the GR Sport apart from a traditional Hilux, we unfortunately don’t believe that the changes to the underpinnings are enough to warrant spending an extra R38 000, but the limited number might mean that this Hilux will return a slightly better resale value in a few years’ time.
If it’s attention you seek, look no further than an X 250d Power 4×4 Automatic wrapped in highlighter yellow or bitter yellow as Mercedes call it. To say this car drew attention would be an understatement, which takes some doing in a convoy that also included an Arctic Truck Isuzu and a Toyota GR-Sport.
The upgrades to this particular X-Class are both cosmetic and functional.
The most obvious is the matte yellow wrap, which can also be found on the vent surrounds on the inside.
An advantage is that your original paint will remain well protected by the vinyl wrap and changing the colour is a fairly easy process, this is something that many manufacturers are starting to look at thanks to major advances in the vinyl materials.
In addition to that, Mercedes-Benz also included one of the more aggressive alloy wheel options from Merc’s own catalogue, a twin spoke black design with metallic accents. At the rear a black sports bar and soft loadbin cover has been added.
Apart from the wrapped interior vents the interior is fitted with a X-Class gear bag from the Mercedes accessories catalogue, that does a great job of rectifying on of the X-Class’s major faults, which is the lack of a proper cupholder.
On to the bits that are both cosmetic and functional – those all-terrain tyres.
It’s a set of BF Goodrich KO2s – basically the same tyre as found on the Ranger Raptor and Isuzu Arctic and they go a long way in amplifying the aggressive styling while also bolstering the off-road and 4×4 ability.
Many have said that the X-Class is a fancy Navara but driving them back to back the Mercedes actually felt considerably more refined. The interior seemed to be much quieter and is probably fitted with some of the legendary Mercedes sound insulation which went a long way in giving it a more premium feel. The seats in the X-Class were also considerably more comfortable and more adjustable, allowing all eight drivers of varying sizes to be able to get comfortable behind the wheel.
The upgrades to the X-Class are fairly minimal and are things that any owner can easily have do themselves. But it once again shows how a nice set of tyres and a vinyl wrap can quickly transform a fairly mundane vehicle into something that turns heads no matter the company it is in.
Unfortunately, the Mercedes-Benz did not prove special enough. After months of speculation and rumours, the German brand finally pulled the plug on the X-Class.
MAHINDRA PIK UP
The Karoo special edition is Mahindra’s way of celebrating the surge in sales it has seen over the last few years. Initially launched only as an add-on to the S6 specification, the Karoo upgrade was recently introduced on the top-of-the-line S10 model.
So, in addition to all of the additional kit, that means it already comes with satellite navigation, cruise control and a multi-function steering wheel.
The Karoo Edition is unique in the sense that the customer can choose what they want. It can be either a cosmetic package, or a colour-coded Beekman canopy. Either way, at just R5000 above sticker price, it offers exceptional value for money.
Ours was clearly equipped with the black cosmetic option, which includes blacked-out off-road alloy wheels, a dark nudge bar and a dark branded roll bar.
Mahindra also added a tonneau cover, flared rear wheel arches that complement the front arches, and a wind deflector kit on both the front and rear windows. The special edition is available in either white or silver.
You can tell it apart from the S6 Karoo Edition thanks to larger decals that run the length of the body between the wheel arches. The S10 derivative will also only be available in limited numbers, though no final figure has been mentioned.
Mahindra has confirmed that the first batch of S10 Karoo Edition Pik Ups have been completely taken up by dealers, but it will assemble a second consignment at its assembly facility in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal.
Speaking of said assembly facility, it has reached full capacity for phase one. There is room to build it out further, but there has been no official word on that yet.
Mechanically, the Karoo Edition is exactly the same as the standard S10.
It’s powered by a 2.2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine that delivers 103kW and 320Nm of torque. The only gearbox available is a six-speed manual.
Since it was introduced in February this year, the price has remained static at R374 999.
One of the secrets of the S10 Karoo Edition’s appeal is its price, which is a mere R5 000 more than the standard S10 model. It also costs around half of the other bakkies in this test.
The Karoo kept up with the convoy on tar and gravel and did everything that we asked of it. The only downside is that we once again struggled with the limited slip diff that is installed in place of a traditional rear diff lock, this means that tackling proper 4×4 obstacles does require a different approach but that is something that an owner will be able to overcome as they learn to live with the vehicle.
The Pik Up is a good bakkie even though the technology is one generation behind anything else here. But if you are looking for a dependable, robust double-cab at a bargain of a price, this is for you. By offering above- average cars at a reasonable price, Mahindra has managed to eclipse some big names in terms of sales.
Mahindra has since added an S11 automatic, also available in Karoo specification to its local line-up. It’s even better than the model mentioned above and you can read all about it by following the link below:
HILUX LEGEND 50
To celebrate 50 years of Hilux in South Africa, Toyota have launched the Legend 50 derivative across all three body shapes.
The front upper and lower grille has received the full black-out treatment, with matching stylised fog-lamp surrounds. A stylish silver accent line frames the vertical fog-lamp garnish with matching silver lower bumper guard. Legend 50 badging rounds off the front facade, complemented by the LED headlights incorporating daytime running lights.
The side profile is enhanced by black side protective mouldings, chrome exterior mirrors and door handles as well as black side steps. A customised rear styling bar with matching Legend 50 badging and a textured, heavy-duty tonneau cover add rugged appeal while leek satin-silver roof rails elevate the Legend 50’s presence. At the rear, a black bumper, smoked taillamps and tailgate badging complete the visual package. A low-profile towbar is fitted as standard, enhancing utility. The wheel and tyre package consists of Legend 50-specific two-tone 18-inch alloy wheels shod with 265/60-R18 all-terrain tyres.
Inside is black leather trim with blue perforation and stitching, a stylish chrome strip across the dashboard, offset by a gloss-black panel trim. Branded silver door scuff plates and carpet set, lend both a protective and aesthetic hand.
The infotainment system has also been upgraded, featuring a large eight-inch display, now flush mounted and integrated into the dashboard, with additional rotary dials for volume and tune functions. The unit also features key-function shortcut buttons, touchscreen interface, on-board satellite navigation, DVD, USB, Bluetooth and Aux interfaces.
All Legend models are based on Raider specification grade and therefore feature a comprehensive specification list. Smart entry (keyless) and push-start ignition functionality now join the specification inventory.
The drivetrain remains unchanged, all Double Cab Legend 50 models are available with either the 2.8 GD-6 or 4.0 V6 (exclusively 4×4 auto) powertrain.
The steering isn’t as direct as it is in other vehicles and it doesn’t ride as smoothly as some of its competitors but you know the chassis can take a beating so you don’t feel guilt when you do abuse it a bit.
It is very difficult to fault the Toyota Hilux and it is easy to see why it remains a top seller month after month. It doesn’t do one particular thing exceptionally well but it shines in every department, that is what happens when you spend 50 years perfecting your bakkie building recipe.
NISSAN NAVARA STEALTH
For a car that’s called Stealth, the Navara is not all that good at blending into the background thanks to a host of decidedly un-stealthy design mods.
This car is a celebration of Nissan’s 50-year heritage in South Africa and according to its marketing team, the Stealth is meant to cater to the needs of the average citizen and reflect a little about of who they are.
The design differences are easy to spot if you know the Navara. The standard silver and chrome detailing have been removed and replaced with black trimmings. To compliment the black trim, Nissan included orange accents on the grille, front bumper, side mirrors and side steps. To fully complete the rugged look, a roll bar, side steps and black alloy wheels were also included.
The style upgrades weren’t restricted to the exterior only. The orange and black two-tone effect is carried through to the interior, where the Stealth has black leather side bolsters and orange material inserts and stitching which both contrast and complement one another.
The Stealth package isn’t limited to the top-spec Navara either. It’s available in both 4×2 and 4×4, both featuring the twin-turbo diesel engine with 140kW and 450Nm on tap. Both a six-speed manual and seven-speed automatic transmission is available, but the five-link coil rear suspension is standard.
That rear suspension promises to offer superior ride quality to the traditional leaf spring setup, but that wasn’t our experience, especially on corrugated dirt roads.
The Stealth also serves as a showcase for Nissan’s Intelligent Mobility tech. It’s a host of advanced features aimed at improving the driving experience overall. One modest example is the keyless entry, while the intelligent 4×4 System is a bit more advanced. This system helps the driver corner smoothly by adjusting power output to the front and rear wheels.
The one feature that owners will likely enjoy on a daily basis is the Intelligent Around View Monitor, which uses four cameras positioned at different points around the pickup to give the driver a 360-degree, aerial view of the vehicle and its surrounds.
For a bakkie that was completely redesigned not too long ago the Navara felt slightly dated in terms of refinement and noise insulation with the intrusion of engine and road noise into the cabin.
The Nissan Navara does everything you ask of it, but it doesn’t do anything well. The added technology offered in the Stealth are items that, in this price segment, should be offered on the regular model already.
Our overall impression was that it is a good honest bakkie that should keep Nissan fans happy, but it’s not really anything special.
At the recent SA Festival of Motoring Volkswagen pulled the covers off the Amarok V6 Canyon, a special edition model of their V6 that features some unique alloys, black trim and a slightly funky interior. We tried our best to get our hands on a Canyon for this test, but to no avail, as that model only goes on sale towards the end of October 2019.
But it would have been a massive omission to not include the Amarok in this test as it is a very good bakkie in standard V6 trim, so we knew that it would do very well against the barrage of special edition models.
The addition of the V6 engine to the Amarok range gave new life to this model, with a big chunk of its sales now attributed to this powerplant. The 3.0 litre V6 under the bonnet is claimed to generate 165kW and 550Nm, which is channelled through the slick eight-speed automatic gearbox, and ensures the Amarok is almost always in the sweet spot.
Utilising 4Motion with permanent all-wheel drive and a Torsen differential to transfer its power to the road, some fancy electronics mean it is able to do without traditional low range. The weight saving is significant and the combination of a short first gear and these electronics mean it is more than capable in 99 percent of the situations that a bakkie might find itself. That lack of a transfer case is also a significant weight saving for the Amarok and gives it an added edge in the acceleration department.
The cabin of the Amarok is still very much traditional bakkie compared to some of its more modern compatriots who have gone the SUV route inside, the Amarok equipped with hardwearing plastics and less soft-touch materials. It does however have a roomy feel to it and there are plenty storage spots, including in front of the gearlever and on the dashboard. The dashboard incorporates Volkswagen’s modular infotainment system with touchscreen radio, App Connect, Bluetooth and USB interface.
The combination of independent suspension upfront and traditional leaf springs at the rear in combination with Volkswagen’s renowned 4Motion system means that the Amarok is extremely surefooted and is great at putting its power down, even on rough sections of road. The steering is direct and gives the driver a great idea of what the wheels are doing.
Despite the fact that the VW does not have a transfer case, its low first gear does endow it with great off-road manners. That off-road button, which improves braking performance on dirt and adjusts the drivetrain electronics mean that the Amarok idled over all the obstacles we threw at it and we believe it will do so in most off-road situations.
The acceleration and on-road manners of the V6 Amarok remain unrivalled, even though it has been around for some time now while the well-suited automatic gearbox means it is a pleasure to drive on a daily basis.
There can only be one
Much has been said about the X-Class across these pages. Justifying the standard X250d’s price tag is a tough old job. Instead of being practical and offering value for money and all that, the main selling point of the X is fashion appeal. And if that is what you are after, this interesting interpretation of the X250d actually does make sense. It drew bags of attention and that is what it is supposed to do. But our testers are bakkie guys and the matte black wrap did unfortunately not do enough to convince them that this Merc was something special. The global population seems to have agreed with us on this one, because the X-Class has since been discontinued.
The Nissan didn’t do anything wrong. But it also didn’t do anything well. It was probably the least memorable and talked about bakkie in the line-up and only bagged seventh place due to it being slightly more competitively priced than the Mercedes.
Initially we were very impressed with the Mahindra Pik Up Karoo and there is no doubt that it offers outstanding value for money. It offers a surprising turn of speed and even refinement, for the price. But spending a lot of time in the Karoo resulted in some back pains due to an uncomfortable driver seat, and an unhealthy noise from the front suspension also didn’t inspire confidence. Then on, on the 4×4 track, when the font dampers were compressed in a tight turn, the front tyres made contact with the bumper. The Karoo went from hero to zero, unfortunately. It ended in a tied sixth position with the Toyota Hilux GR Sport.
The testers battled to see the point of the Hilux GR Sport. Slightly updated dampers, some stickers and a few aesthetic details don’t warrant the inflated price. Hopefully in future Toyota can lean more heavily on Toyota Gazoo racing and build a bakkie that can take the Raptor head on with a properly engineered racing bakkie for the road.
The Isuzu D-Max adorned with the Arctic kit is arguably the best looking bakkie here, but dynamically it lags behind some of its rivals. The engine and drivetrain may be bulletproof but if you hop out of the Amarok into the AT35, the engine and gearbox’s dynamic ability and refinement clearly lags behind. If you are an Isuzu fan, of which there are many, it doesn’t get much better than this. Just missing out on the podium, the Isuzu secured fourth position.
The Toyota Hilux Legend 50 is a very solid all-rounder that feels strong and in this company, represents relatively good value. 50 years of building bakkies certainly shows. It was scored in the top three by all of our testers and in doing so secured third position against some stiff competition.
The Ranger Raptor is like unlike anything we have driven off-road before, it begs you, no teases you, to go faster and faster and explore the levels of grip that it offers, the limit of which is at speeds that were reserved for bespoke racing cars before. The suspension is a marvel and nothing, and I mean no other production vehicle, can demolish gravel, both rough and smooth like this machine. It does have some drawbacks but those are overlooked as you soar through the air and land softly or drift through sweeps at a hundred and plenty. How about a Ranger Raptor Plus with the 2.3 EcoBoost petrol engine or a Mustang V8, that would be the ultimate production bakkie. The Raptor impressed everyone and just narrowly missed out on taking the overall honours, securing second place.
The VW Amarok V6 is essentially a SUV in bakkie drag that offers excellent refinement and power. It too has its drawbacks, it is slightly out of its depth on a tough gravel road, mainly due to highway tyres and although it certainly has enough power, the lack of transfer case limits it on a very rough-and-tough 4×4 track.
The combination of an exceptional engine and gearbox, paired with superb refinement and real ability in all conditions thanks to some clever electronics make this the Amarok a formidable vehicle that is also very easy to live with on a daily basis.
The bottom line is that all these bakkies do certain things well, and some excel in more areas than others but if our testers had to pick just one, to live with everyday, drive on gravel and do the occasional rough 4x4ing, the scores show that the Volkswagen Amarok V6 comes out tops.
What’s that old saying, Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And if you think it looks a bit bland, the Special Edition Canyon is also available. As a matter of interest, we chose the Canyon for our Bakkie of the Year shoot-out a few months later, where, like this subjective driving test, it also came out tops.
The word special might be an overused cliché in some cases but there are a couple of amazing takes on the bakkie idea here. Choosing just one is a tricky job as many of these do exceptionally well in certain areas. If you do a lot of gravel road driving or are a person who places driving dynamics above all else, the Raptor is for you. If you are into making a statement or traversing rough trails where ground clearance and reliability are paramount, pick the Isuzu. If you want a dependable partner that will be with you through everything and blend into the parking lot, buy the Toyota Hilux. If you want a sportscar, with a loadbox on the back that is also an amazing daily driver, nothing can touch the Volkswagen Amarok V6.
Photographs: Rob Till