CAR CLINIC: Car of the year 2018


We close what has been one very hectic year with the latest instalment of our Car of the Year Award. Here are the nominees:

1. Jaguar E Pace

This was the car that curtain-raised the test drive season of 2018 in what was one of the shortest out-of-country trips I have ever been on. Things were so tight the vehicles were delivered to OR Tambo International Airport to guarantee that the test drives ensued not very far from the aircraft that dropped us off. Talk about cutting it close.

What stood out: all crossovers are cash printers so of course they have to get the Golden Goose treatment from their oversight authorities. It was designed with car which makes it eye candy, summarily put.

The steering wheel is nice and chunky which makes the car a pleasure to drive. It has a brilliant head-up display, one of the best I have come across, and for those who like throwbacks, it has an actual gear lever like the F Type sports car rather than that Panasonic-boombox-from-the-late-80s rotary dial that festoons fellow “Jaaaags”.

A panoramic moon-roof is an option that you should go for and keep it open every time the vehicle is in use. There is also the fact that the car is a modem with a leather interior; a turbocharged Ingenium router, an all-wheel drive internet hotspot. Connectivity is the new black.

Why it doesn’t win: for what it costs, it should have been made out of aluminium, at least partly. The vehicle is made of steel. It may also be the cheapest Jaguar, but it is not actually cheap, more so for something Juke-sized.

Also, Jaguars are supposed to be premium cars that induce a feeling of being special. This one is a derivative of the Range Rover Evoque; which is an impeccable genealogy in itself, but is still derivative at the end of the day.

The last derivative car Jaguar sold was the X Type (with the not-so-earth-shattering Ford Mondeo providing the source material) and how did that go?

Still on the same note of premium niceness is the noise that the four-cylinder engines in the E Pace make… and it is noise. Uncharismatic and almost belligerent, it is quite an unbecoming sound, particularly the diesel one. Is this still a Jaguar?

The car weighs 1700kg, which is encroaching on Nissan GTR territory, but the GTR has a high-strung 3.8-litre twin turbo V6 with a drivetrain developed using alien technology so it goes like a heavily caffeinated flea. The E Pace isn’t; it’s simply too heavy and therefore its driving dynamics are compromised. At the end of the day it suffers the disease I like to call “X6-siosis”: where one tries to embrace both sport and utility but both shots land in the water.

2. BMW X5

This is a last minute entry since the car snuck into this list just a few days ago by way of a test drive in George, South Africa, and this too turned out to be a very short outing, just like with the Jaguar. Signs of hard economic times?

If that is the case, then it sure is an odd time to release the most technologically advanced - and therefore most expensive - BMW X5 ever made. How advanced? The X5 M50d has four turbochargers. FOUR! The only other production car with a quartet of tin snails per vehicle is the Bugatti Chiron (and its now-defunct predecessor, the Veyron).

What stood out: those four turbos in the M50d. Then, in a George Bush-esque turn of events (“You are either with us or against us”), the non-M vehicle has just a single turbo. I don’t know; but I am sure I have heard of such things as “twin turbos” and the outgoing M50d had three turbos.

That being said, the new X5 follows in the steps of the new 5 Series (G30) in heralding a renaissance for BMW as makers of the Ultimate Driving Machine. The car drives well. It drives very well. The responsiveness of the M car under duress is glee-inducing while still maintaining the ability to be discreet at less than enthusiastic operating conditions. I like it. I like it very much.

Also noteworthy is the advent of air suspension - which also implies adjustable ride height - in the new unit. Air suspension has its advantages, and it has its disadvantages; but the takeaway here is the next X5 is more off-road capable than before; you can actually drive on a surface more challenging than grass without fear of failure. Not, it is not at Range Rover level yet, and may never be since that is not its raison d’être but all the same: nice try, Herr Motoren Werke.

Why it doesn’t win: speaking of Range Rovers, the X5 costs as much as a Sport, or thereabouts; and that is a strike against it. I have long admired BMW for their price restraint as far as their tall cars go (the X6 cost about the same as an Evoque, which is a lot smaller and less powerful, for instance), but despite the fact that we were not given a definitive price list, estimations placed the new X5 right in the Range Rover Sport’s firing line. That cannot be good, more so now that they are sold by the same people here in Kenya.

“But it has four turbos and air suspension” you may counter. Yes it does, and that is both a star and a black mark against it. It’s one thing to clock 210km/h on a lonely back road in South Africa using a borrowed demonstrator with such overachieving credentials but it is quite another having to buy and maintain that car, especially as a second or third user. Four turbos? Do you know how much a new turbo costs? Or how much it is to replace an air suspension that feels deflated from the constant pounding that is life on the road?

Reputations are built or destroyed on the second hand market, and the prognosis here is not good but let’s wait and see. Fortunately, for those who share my degree of reliability paranoia, there are lesser models with standard springs and struts and fewer turbos.

3. Volkswagen Amarok

The more things change the more they stay the same. Say hello to the new Amarok, same as the old one. It may sound familiar because it has featured here several times, but I promise you this was a new car.

What stood out: quite a number of things to be honest. First off is the 2.0-litre four that acts like a V6 twice as big. It still boggles the mind how Volkswagen squeezed that kind of torque from a big soda bottle, especially given the fact that there isn’t the advantage of having numerous turbos under the bonnet (just one or two, depending on how much you are spending - but both versions are still insanely capable).

New to the model is the eight-speed automatic which was a wonder in itself too. 2 litres is two litres at the end of the day, so first gear is so barrel-scrapingly low it could tug a high-rise building clean off its foundations. So 95 per cent of the time the car takes off in second gear. Neat. 8th gear on the other hand is stratospheric to the point that 200km/h is not only a possibility, it is also a probability if you are not circumspect with your hooves. And that is in a diesel pickup.

Case in point: during my test drive I had to keep up with a 4.7 litre petrol V8 and 3.0 litre turbodiesel four going up a very steep hill and the Amarok did not cede any ground to its monstrous brethren. The collateral damage was a W212 Mercedes Benz E350 that quickly surrendered after the impromptu showdown became a little too hot for comfort. (Public Service Announcement: Drive Carefully).

Then there is the interior which I have described before as exactly what you’d expect to find in a mid-level saloon car tending towards the premium. I do not need to repeat these details because now we come to the cherry on top: its off-road ability.

I showed up at the staging area in a shiny new pickup which quickly earned the moniker “slay queen”, and not unjustifiably so. The rest of the field comprised of rigs. There are SUVs, what you can buy from a shop, and there are rigs, what are built in secret and unleashed to prove a point. Giant knobby tyres, sky-high lift kits, aftermarket lockers, brush-guards, roll-cages, weight reduction, straight exhausts… there was no end to the variety of modifications these 4x4s had. Yet there I was, about to throw my lot in using what at first glance looked more like an accessory than an implement.

The hill we started off with made me look around the driver’s cabin for a low-range switch. There was none. Diff-lock? None. Riiiight… It was down to me, my talents and my road tyres. On a cold, wet Sunday morning, on the muddy slopes of Ngong Hills.

I won’t go into details but the car acquitted itself admirably and earned the respect of the hardcore off-roading crowd. We came out on the other side mud-splattered but unscathed, and with a hip-hop soundtrack blaring the car’s victory over the ill-advised preconceptions that threatened to mar its existence. What a vehicle!

Why it doesn’t win: there is no such thing as a free lunch, so all this goodness comes at a price: 6.8 million “bub”. For a 2.0-liter engine powering a giant pickup. That may not be such a criticism - though four hundred large shirt of seven mill is not exactly chump change; but another reason why the car doesn’t quite cut it is because it is aimed at a specific demographic: the lifestyle individual who likes to plough the clag once in a while.

Not everybody does that, same way not everybody wants a pickup. If you buy this vehicle for town running between your house and your office carrying nothing but a briefcase, then you are doing it wrong. Get an E Pace. or an X5. or something.

The size of the truck also makes it a bit of a trick to park if you lack situational awareness but for that 6.8 mike at least you get parking assistance, so there is that.

(Full disclosure: the Amarok could easily have won this year’s award but last year’s accolade was taken by yet another Volkswagen. My work is already difficult enough without having my relationships with car dealers investigated by skeptics and paranoiacs, so we were begrudgingly unforgiving with the pickup to specifically keep it out of the running, but credit where it is due, it put up a good fight. That was before we got to drive the winner over a weekend, which just simply laid waste to everything else.)

4. Scania S730 V8 “Truck-On-A-Truck” Tractor-Trailer Combination & All Its Relatives

Let’s just get things out of the way by saying no, the Scania doesn’t win; not this V8 and definitely not any of its lesser five- and six-cylinder brothers, the obvious reason being they’re lorries and buses, not cars. The V8 is even less eligible given that it is sold exclusively in Europe meaning there are chances most of you will never even see one, let alone buy it or drive it.

What stood out: Power! Mean face. Audi interior (and Audi makes the best interiors in the world, apart from Bentley). Engine note. Fuel economy. Product variety. Lovely hosts - rarely do I meet people I click with as easily I did the Swedes.

Social and environmental responsibility of the parent company. Technological development. The edification of this columnist (this can be read in another article I did discussing the sustainability of our country’s transport system). And because of Scania I got to stand in the very hall where the Nobel Prize is awarded to outstanding human beings. Try and beat that.

Why it doesn’t win: it is a lorry (and/or a bus). Just that, otherwise this was a clear win had it been a car.

The Winner: Toyota Fortuner
The famous slogan goes: “The car in front is always a Toyota”. Well, so is our Car of the Year for 2018.

There is something else about the Fortner that stands out besides its winning the CoTY Award. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that it is a repeat entry for this award. Well, who said one cannot resubmit an entry?

Also the initial entry was based on a brief trial over a few hours in a controlled environment. This year’s entry is based on real world use where two hours after I received the vehicle I was already in need of its low-range 4WD drivetrains capabilities because I had inadvertently driven into one of those fearsome gulleys that plagues Suswa/Narok earlier this year. The car’s performance in that situation was stellar.

So how did the Fortuner win? It’s stylish, economical, smooth, torquey, comfortable and contemporary without being too complex, but most interestingly (forgive me for saying this, Toyota Kenya, but it is inevitable), it will do everything the Prado will do but at half the price. At about seven and a half million, its pricing is at par with a large number of entries in this entire list (except the X5… and the Scania), but the interior screams Lexus (so does the exterior, somewhat, if you think about the LX570), the multimedia infotainment user interface is infinitely more friendly, it is shockingly smooth and quiet for a diesel, a lot easier to maneuverer, extremely capable, has realistic and usable seven-seat practicality and it’s so shiny, like a treasure from a sunken pirate’s wreck; scrub the deck and make it look shiny…It will sparkle like a wealthy woman’s neck; Just a sec…

Seriously, the brown metal flake paint on my test car is the stuff wish lists are made of, so in keeping with the Theme Of Shininess, here is something shiny in return to the Toyota Fortuner: The 2018 Motoring Press Agency Car of the Year Award.

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