SUV vs BAKKIE: how do you choose?

In a market with endless choices for larger family vehicles and littered with bakkies and SUVs, how do you balance the needs and wants when purchasing your 4×4, asks Angus Boswell.

We all know many car purchasing decisions are based on emotion. Buying a new 4×4 to head off into the bush is no different. You have a vision in your mind, and go out to make that vision happen. That’s all lekker, but you need to have a practical checklist on hand, or you might find the farm track you navigate every other weekend is killing the rims on that city slicker softroader. Or you bought a tough old Land Cruiser from a farmer, and now realise you need a kidney belt to drive any distance and your family refuses to share your dream vehicle.

When it comes to 4x4s, the major first step before scouring the market comes down to a body style choice. That’s right, even before opting for a name brand, you get to choose between a closed station wagon or an open-back bakkie (and even the latter offers the options of a single cab, extended cab or double cab).

Just to be clear, here we are talking about expedition-worthy 4x4s. Vehicles with a ladder-frame chassis, decent ground clearance, low-range gearing, and, at the very least, a rear differential lock. On the SUV front, that cuts out the softroaders which come in all sorts of sizes and boast plenty of clever technologies but are not in the same league when it comes to toughness.

The small SUVs we are talking about would include the Suzuki Jimny (and at a push the Suzuki Grand Vitara and Renault Duster). The mid-sized examples span all those raised station wagons based on bakkies, like the Toyota Fortuner, Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, Isuzu mu-X, and the Ford Everest. The Jeep Wrangler in all its formats sits somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, along with the Toyota FJ Cruiser, while the larger brethren embraces anything from the Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, through Toyota’s 60/80/100/200 Series, the Prado, the 76 Series Land Cruiser, Nissan’s Patrol, the now discontinued Mitsubishi Pajero, all the old 110 Defenders and the Land Rover Discovery, from Series 1 to “All-New”.

The same goes for 4×4 bakkies. The volume players include the Toyota Hilux, Ford Ranger, Isuzu D-Max, Volkswagen Amarok, Mitsubishi Triton, Nissan Navara and Mahindra Pik Up. Heavy hitters include such fare as the Nissan Patrol and Land Cruiser 76 Series.

Spoilt for choice

With so much potential choice out there, the best way to narrow things down is to ask yourself a few tough questions, starting with, “what do I need this vehicle for”? Don’t stop there. Where do you plan to go? A few trails and the odd camping weekend will throw up different needs to an epic cross-Africa trip. How many people will you typically carry? How much camping gear will you want to take along? What modifications will be needed to go to the places you are dreaming about? Will you use the vehicle only for trips and adventuring, or must it do double duty at home for the commute and school run?

The sensible thing is to get a clear picture of the running costs of the different vehicles too. A Jimny, for example, will present you with a far smaller fuel bill than a 200 Series Land Cruiser. While you are at it, check things like the cost of replacement parts, service intervals, and, if buying new, what’s covered by the service plan and warranty.

The usual rules about buying used or new apply. Sometimes a year-old vehicle that’s already taken a depreciation drop is a better choice than one right out of the box. Often this vehicle will have already been treated to some of the modifications you have in mind. A great second-hand price might also be a warning of expensive breakdowns to come. Choose reliability over the whims of brand passion, unless you rate your skills as a bush mechanic. Of course, when buying new, you start with a clean slate and can make exactly the changes required to suit your pocket and travel aspirations.

Utility or comfort?

At one end of the spectrum, a single cab bakkie will be best suited to a couple. It offers lots of load space and can easily be modified to take a full camper conversion. It’s a highly practical choice if it needs to carry different loads and work hard. The downsides are a harder ride and a cap on interior luxuries and driver aids.

The middling choice is a double cab. It can carry more passengers plus a decent load, and the high-spec versions nowadays offer a wealth of driver assistance systems and luxury trim. It will still be hard to park and use in a tight urban environment and ride comfort is never going to be pillow-soft.

Head over to the SUV side of things, and you have the ability to carry more passengers in greater comfort and ultimate safety. They are great to drive in town, are comfortable on the long road, and also excel on the trails. The engines and gearbox combinations are often more high-tech, 4×4 systems can be complex, and suspension set-ups are aimed at insulating the passengers from the conditions outside.

Typically NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) has been given more attention. A lot more driver assistance gadgets are offered as standard, and trim levels are more luxurious. 4×4 ability can be exceptional on the better SUVs. The downsides? Apart from the heftier price sticker, the load-carrying ability is reduced and there is less load area. The biggest SUVs such as the Land Cruiser 200 can take a punch and offer plenty of space, but most bakkie-based SUVs are compromised when the second row is full of passengers.

The pivot point

The ultimate choice pivots on what abilities you value the most. Does the vehicle need to be used to pick up the kids at school, and get about comfortably? Or do you need to carry heavy stuff about a lot, and plan some serious 4×4 expeditions where a tough and simple vehicle makes more sense?

It is also worth bearing in mind that every vehicle can be modified to meet specific needs, whether it is an SUV or bakkie. You can fit tougher, larger tyres and raise the suspension to improve ground clearance. A bullbar and aftermarket rear bumper will improve approach and departure angles and make driving through tight tracks less stressful, and potential animal strikes less hazardous. A roof rack will take some of the lighter, bulky camping gear (or a rooftop tent), freeing up interior space.

It is relatively easy to modify a bakkie to meet overlanding needs, while still ensuring the vehicle can be used for working duties. That said, some SUVs provide an exceptional starting point for a dedicated overlanding wagon. Who can argue with the potential of the new Suzuki Jimny if you think like a hiker and don’t expect to take many passengers? The larger SUVs include some seriously pedigreed go-anywhere 4×4 icons.

How to narrow down the choice? Go back to those initial questions. Do some research to establish the pros and cons of each vehicle. Check out the forums, and perhaps join a dedicated brand club. You could also offer to share a few beers with a trusted mechanic so he can talk about ownership costs and known issues, if any. Then take the plunge.

BY THE NUMBERS

To compare apples with apples, let’s take a look at the differences in dimensions and capacities between South Africa’s top-selling bakkie and its SUV derivative.

The Fortuner is shorter, by 550mm, making it the easier vehicle to get into and out of tight spaces, whether on the commute or the trail. It has far less rear overhang, though the stated departure angle for the Hilux is 26 degrees, little different from the Fortuner’s 25 degrees. With the same 2.8-litre turbodiesel engine, the bakkie claims a better fuel index of 7.6 litres/100km for the manual version, and matches the auto, which is logical given they share a drivetrain, though the real world might throw up differences when the bakkie is fitted with a canopy, for example.

A clear difference lies in the GVM (Gross Vehicle Mass) figure, which is a measure of the maximum payload and passenger load, with a full tank of fuel. Here the Hilux manages 160kg more, in addition to offering a larger load area. The Fortuner can take up to seven passengers, including two midgets in the rearmost row of seats, but this reduces the load area to some 200 litres. With those seats folded down, there’s just 1 080 litres of space – not much for a family overlanding trip.

Then there’s the suspension issue. The Hilux offers a firm ride quality, using a double-wishbone front with coil springs, allied to a solid rear axle bolted to semi-elliptical leaf springs. It’s the standard bakkie formula designed for carrying heavier loads. For optimal ride comfort, you need to put some weight in the load bin, and the weight distribution front to rear will be a moveable thing depending on what is being carried. The Fortuner’s front suspension is much the same, allied to an independent rear suspension which is a more sophisticated four-link set-up with a lateral control rod and coil springs. This is largely why the Fortuner offers a smoother, more compliant ride, but has less load-ability.

THE CHECKLIST

BAKKIES

PROS:

  • Tough and adaptable, with plenty of practical uses, from hauling garden refuse to moving furniture.
  • Designed to carry a higher payload than an SUV.
  • Easy to modify and fit aftermarket accessories to improve performance or ability, whether a suspension upgrade or a roof rack.
  • Usually supplied standard with sensibly sized rims (typically no more than 18-inch), and hardier tyres with thicker sidewalls.  

CONS:

  • Double cab can carry five, but four is better. Single or extended cab is only driver and passenger.
  • Ride can be on the harsh side. Put that down to a solid rear axle on elliptical leaf springs designed to carry a load. Nissan’s Navara is an exception – the top model has rear coil springs.  
  • Longer rear overhang, especially when fitted with a tow hitch.
  • Needs a canopy or secure loadbin cover to keep goods safe when travelling.
  • Can be Spartan in terms of driver/passenger comforts and driver assistance systems low down the trim grades. Range-topping models now offer plenty of gadgets with a price to match.
  • Can be less fuel efficient than an SUV due to the extra wind resistance of the loadbin (and often the added drag of a canopy).
  • Bakkie engine and gearbox choices tend to err towards torque delivery and load-carrying, usually mated to a manual gearbox (though autos are now widely available on the higher spec models).

SUV:

PROS:

  • Can carry more passengers, legally and in comfort.
  • Smoother ride due to sophisticated rear suspension.
  • Excellent handling. Good highway performance.
  • Secure – everything is locked inside.
  • May offer air suspension and various techy 4×4 traction systems.
  • Shorter, so easier to park, and better in traffic.
  • Less rear overhang, giving better departure angle, so often more capable off-road, out the box.
  • More driver aids standard and as options, along with plush often leather-clad interiors.
  • Wind-cheating shape improves fuel efficiency, often allied to high-tech engine choices and automatic gearboxes throughout the range.

CONS:

  • Best for carrying people, not doing hard, dirty work. You will also feel bad when that fancy paintwork gets scratched or bumped out in the bush.
  • Low loading capacity; smaller payload.
  • Complex tech means more can go wrong which implies higher long-term running costs.
  • Typically supplied standard with rims that are too large, and tyres better suited to highway driving, offering good braking and wet weather handling, but less protection off-road

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