The race for space

Mid-size Sports Utility Vehicles have come a long way in the last two decades, moving from crude conversions of ladder-frame bakkies to the sophisticated go-anywhere machines on the market today. Anton Willemse Snr takes a dive down memory lane and looks at the current crop of contenders

During the 1980s, larger families in South Africa did not have many choices when it came to leisure vehicles. You could buy a Hi-Ace, or more likely, a VW Kombi. The sliding door, many rows of seats and vast available space made it a great option for holiday adventures. There were also many Kombi engine conversions and camper conversions, plus the Synchro option driving all four wheels. It may have been an icon, but it was never the toughest vehicle out there.

South Africans were looking for a bigger family vehicle than the normal sedan or station wagon, but  did not want to pay the price of a full-size 4×4 like the Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols of the time. In the early nineties a small Durban company, Sani Industries, started cutting Nissan Hardbody bakkies and bonded fibreglass shells onto their internal steel frames. The combination was an overnight hit and soon there was an abundance of Nissan Sani SUVs on the road. A new segment was created in the process.

Of course, there were other SUVs already on the market, including the Jeep Cherokee, Land Rover 110 Station Wagon, and Land Cruiser 60 and 80 Series models. But these were larger, full-size SUVs, and South Africans were looking for something smaller, more affordable, but just as versatile. Coachbuilders such as Meano were converting a few Toyota Hiluxes, but these were never going to be mainstream.

1998 saw the local release of the first OEM-built mid-size SUV in the form of the Isuzu Frontier, spurring other manufacturers to adopt this popular trend. Still, it took another six years before another manufacturer saw fit to release an SUV based on their bakkie.

The local market really exploded in the mid-2000s with the arrival of the hugely successful Toyota Fortuner, followed by the somewhat disappointing Ranger-based Ford Everest. The next couple of years saw Mitsubishi release its Pajero Sport, based on the Triton.

Since then, the market has seen a new generation Fortuner, a completely revised and updated Ford Everest, an all-new Pajero Sport, and, late to the party, General Motor’s Chevrolet Trailblazer. The latter has since morphed into the Isuzu Mu-X.

There is no doubt that the mid-size SUV market is big in SA. What are the choices? This is a quick look at the top five contenders.

Mahindra Scorpio S11

At just on R375 000, the Scorpio is the most affordable SUV on the local market. In terms of styling, features and ability, the latest S11 version has come a long way compared to its predecessors. Tough and basic, it uses a ladder-frame chassis coupled to double wishbone front suspension and a multi-link coil-sprung rear. The drivetrain is a no-nonsense combination of the 2.2-litre M-Hawk turbodiesel pushing out 103kW and 320Nm of torque, coupled to a six-speed manual gearbox. It features seating for eight, a 7-inch infotainment/navigation screen, rear-view parking camera and cruise control. Sure, it lacks the refinement and long list of features now standard for the rivals, but at almost half the price, it makes a convincing case as a capable, back-to-basics overlander.

Our take

Two models are on offer: a rear-drive and a four-wheel drive version, both sharing the same engine and manual gearbox. The Mahindra dealer network is expanding locally, and their India-built vehicles are gaining a reputation for improved quality and reliability. This model has not yet been tested by Adventure Afrika.

Mitsubishi Pajero Sport

A superb SUV, the second-generation Pajero Sport – which was updated late in 2020 – is consistently underrated. At R705 000 the top Exceed model offers superb value for money, considering the appealing styling, good performance from its 2.4-litre turbodiesel (133kW/430Nm), and decent fuel consumption of 8.1 litres/100 km. All three models in the range run an eight-speed automatic gearbox, with the 4WD models using Mitsubishi’s excellent Super Select II transfer case and centre diff which allows the use of 4-High on sealed surfaces. There is also a rear diff lock. The plush leather-clad interior with seven seats is premium, allied to a full range of safety and driver aids, including a smartphone-link 8-inch colour touch screen.

Our take

A long feature list on all three Pajero Sport models belies the keen price. LED headlights, 18-inch wheels and decent off-road stats (30-degree approach/24.2-degree departure, 23.1-degree breakover angles), are allied to 218 mm ground clearance. Then there’s Hill Descent Control, and a range of selectable modes (Gravel/Mud/Sand/Rock) which work through the proven 4WD system. One letdown; it’s rated to tow only 2 700kg. But that’s quite enough.

Ford Everest

The latest Ford Everest is at the cutting edge of drivetrain technology and safety features, and the top models command the highest price tags in the segment – R835 800 for the LTD derivative. Styling is big and bold, and the suspension sophisticated, offering a plush ride even in harsh conditions. The headline tech is a 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbodiesel engine shunting out 157kW and 500Nm from 1 500-2 000rpm. It’s mated to a class-leading 10-speed auto gearbox, with proper low-range gearing and a Terrain Management system, plus an electronic rear diff lock. Going inside, to a particularly classy leathery cabin made for big-framed people, you find Ford’s SYNC3 infotainment and navigation system, an 8-inch colour touch screen, and premium driver aids including adaptive cruise control, a lane-keeping aid, and a self-parking system. The tech options are almost too much for the average user, though almost everyone appreciates how refined and responsive this vehicle is to drive. The Everest will tow 3 100kg, and with a light foot will return a claimed fuel consumption of 7.6 litres/100km. A key feature of every 4WD Everest purchase? A free off-road driver-training package.

Our take

The single turbo diesel on the XLT and Sport models offers 132 kW/420 Nm, also with a 10-speed auto gearbox. The older 3.2-litre five-cylinder is also an option for those who like higher-capacity engines. Read the spec sheets carefully for the best combination of options, features and price. On the LTD, for example, we would swap out the oversized 20-inch alloy wheels.

 Toyota Fortuner

The Fortuner is by far the best seller in this segment, based on its legacy of reliability, sheer ability, and the backing of a massive Toyota dealer network. Some of the styling elements of the second generation may not be to everyone’s taste, nor does it offer the best handling, but its superbly engineered drivetrain and simpler interior continue to win converts. The flagship VX model is priced near the top end, at R814 400, offering a 2.8-litre turbodiesel (now revised to punch out 150kW and 500Nm from 1600-2800rpm), coupled to a six-speed auto transmission. Fuel consumption is a decent 8.6 litres/100km, and it’ll tow 3 300kg. Lower models use a 2.4-litre turbodiesel with 110 kW/400 Nm, and add the option of a six-speed manual gearbox. Fortuners use a limited-slip rear differential, but the Toyota traction control system is the best in the segment.  The VX interior offers seven seats and full leather now in a classier black, with plenty of comforts but less flash than the Everest. An 8-inch TFT colour screen does infotainment duty, it links seamlessly to smartphones, and high-end safety tech includes adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and a pre-crash braking system.

Our take

If any vehicle has defined this segment locally, it is the Fortuner. Highly capable off-road, and ever more refined, it remains the benchmark for keeping on going. Toyota has done the right thing by keeping the tech simple and reliable. Not everyone likes the frontal overbite, but the classier interior and ergonomics are very easy to live with.

Isuzu mu-X

There is a lot riding on second-generation vehicles, which have to be bolder and better to get their fair share of attention. In this regard, it appears Isuzu has nailed the looks department of the newest mu-X. It’s based on the upcoming D-Max bakkie, and features a sharper shoulder line, a more prominent grille, and cleverly rearranged Bi-LED headlamps and LED taillights. Interior materials have been improved, particularly in the top models, and it is quieter, after paying attention to sound-deadening and uprating the chassis with high-tensile steel to dial in more stiffness and less weight. If you were expecting a massive drivetrain technology leap, then you will be disappointed. All four models in the new range make do with a fettled version of Isuzu’s venerable (and solidly engineered) 3.0-litre diesel four-pot, coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission. The engineers have apparently focused on engine noise, fuel economy (now 7.6 litres/100km), and power, ramping the output up to 140kW, with a torque figure of 450Nm.

Our take

We haven’t driven the new mu-X, but we expect it to be a massive step up from the previous generation which was a bit outdated to say the least. To make a splash in this segment can be a massive challenge thanks to the dominance of the Everest and the Fortuner. We are really eager to get behind the wheel of one.

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