Why the Mazda Swaraj was banned… and conditions given for its comeback

Buses chassis. PHOTO| FOTOSEARCH

What you need to know:

  • That ban entailed the curtailing of any further sales or imports, but did not expand to include a mop up of existing units.
  • The problem areas identified were starter failures, ineffective engine, brakes and accelerated wear and tear on the king pins.
  • These were found to be caused by overloading of the vehicles and, or usage beyond recommended weight limits.

Hello JM,

I am glad for your compelling articles, and as a ‘man child’, I can finally relate to a father figure in motoring.

Sometimes back the government of Kenya banned Mazda Swaraj from Kenyan market. Did it involve a mop up of landed units or how do such bans work out? What issues precipitated such a move and what arm of the government was involved? Is it still in place and why has that arm not evolved to deal with currently challenged models with bad emissions, safety and questionable bodies built in Kenya?

Something else, since your following rivals that of a prophet, encourage drivers of laden trucks to rev up during clutching and gearing- that moment between pressing the clutch, selecting and moving the gear lever. There is an art of revving that takes me to the moon and back.

R. Mwangi

Greetings, Man-child,

I remember that ban on the Swaraj. It was an interesting development because up to that point, many of us didn’t think the government even cared. Since then, we are still not sure that it cares, given the existence, sale and licensing of the Mobius and Rongai matatus.

That ban entailed the curtailing of any further sales or imports, but did not expand to include a mop up of existing units. Those continued to slog away in their short unproductive lives until untimely death. There has been one operating in my home village as a school bus until as recently as a few months ago. I'm not sure if it still lives.

The ban was rather odd. It did not stem from the perceived low quality of the product as much as the blatant misuse of it by distributors and end users.

The problem areas identified were starter failures, ineffective engine, brakes and accelerated wear and tear on the king pins. These were found to be caused by overloading of the vehicles and, or usage beyond recommended weight limits. They were thus patently unsafe, unreliable and undependable through no fault of their own. This was in 2008.

Fast-forward two years and it was 10 days before my birthday in 2010 (and two months before the advent of this column) when the government confessed to giving the matter a bit more thought and capitulated on the pleas of Alfa Motors Limited, known dealers and peddlers of the controversial vehicle, to reinstate the Mazda's position on the local motoring shelf. Of course the government can never just say "Oops, my bad"; so it had to twist and mangle this about-face into something that looked more like a threat than an apology.

“Do not fit bus bodies with a seating capacity exceeding 34 on this chassis”, they growled. “Stick to prescribed weight limits”, they roared. Then, in a time-bending, reverse-chronology, Twilight Zone-emulating metaphysical plot development, they actually quoted this column even before it existed: Read the manual and follow instructions as given by the car maker, not your capitalist employers.

Then the ban was lifted. The Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) is the culprit behind the initial ban, but to their credit, they did not just wake up one morning in 2008 and said "today we feel like banning something"; then inky-pinky-pon-keyed their way to the Mazda T3500 donkey that Father had and was overloading to the detriment of king pins and starter assemblies. There had been complaints that precipitated this ban, 40 of them in fact — or that we know of, as presented to an inter-ministerial task force that investigated this problem.

Naturally, Alfa Motors cried foul, ashed their hair, gnashed their teeth and wore sackcloth until the then minister of Industrialisation, Henry Kosgey, said "okay, we will revisit the matter".

The inter-ministerial task force revisited the matter and found that the Swaraj was not actually junk as owner-operators alleged, the junk was to be found in the space between those owner-operators' ears. People were misusing these vehicles and straining them leading to premature failures. Someone told someone that turbos add power to an engine, and once a business man hears "more power", his mind translates it to "more load", forgetting that there exist deeper automotive engineering tenets such as "performance", "fuel economy" and "altitude compensation".

Once it was apparent that owners were in fact not reading their owner's manuals as prescribed by Car Clinic in the not-too-distant future, cases filed by disgruntled customers started getting the boot out from the country's hallowed judicial corridors on grounds of frivolity and vexation.

Mr Kosgey had to flex his government-mandated muscle. Of course it was unfair that the same buyers of the vehicles either did not know how to use them or blatantly refused to heed to the laws of physics (anyone who has described a Prado as a deathtrap or unstable belongs to this class), then proceeded to cast aspersions on the build quality.

Mazda Swaraj Bus. PHOTO| COURTESY

We have trade relations to maintain with many countries — one of which is India, where the Swaraj hailed from, itself being a detour from Japan where the Swaraj's Zinjanthropus ancestor was the T3500 truck. That interministerial task force unearthed the sad truth and realised that perhaps the bureau of standards may have jumped the gun in the face of a proliferating ‘List of Lamentations’.

There is no single government on earth that will admit to being wrong and say sorry. Ours is no exception. If the government issues a non-apology to you, take it as it comes; do not expect flowers, dinner and a movie followed by a steamy night on rose-tinted silk bedclothes. The government lifted the ban on the Swaraj on April 8, 2010, but watered down its white flag with a long list of conditions as a caveat that had to be met by both Alfa Motors and its customers:

1. Alfa Motors must adhere to the conditions of proper use. The sale of Swaraj buses could only resume if, and only if the bodies fitted thereon did not exceed 34 passengers' seating capacity. They are free to import vehicles with bigger engines if they want to carry more passengers.

2. Alfa Motors must sign a memorandum of understanding with clients to ensure their drivers are edified on what turbochargers really are and their effects when installed in an engine.

3. Alfa Motors must provide the manufacturer's warranty; and trade shall continue provided the vehicles are maintained according to the vehicle manual.

4. Any future vehicles imported or built by Alfa Motors must be first inspected by KEBS or any otherwise specified government department before approval.

So, at the end of the day, the ban was lifted, nine years ago. Was that a happy ending for Alfa? I doubt. The damage was already done. The enterprise would never recover. Sales of the Swaraj dwindled to nothing after that furore and I'm not sure the company even exists anymore; at least not as an importer of buses. Having said all that, let me add the following:

If Alfa Motors still exists, feel free to reach out and add details to this little saga; but only Alfa Motors the importer, not Alfa Motors the garage against whom I still hold a grudge over a financial shakedown involving a blue Mazda Demio.

There has been a very similar case to the Mazda Swaraj involving the Hino 500 chassis, but that one has not resulted in a ban, however temporary.

The hyperactive KEBS and Mr Kosgey should perhaps return. I have little or no faith in the metal sheds that pass for locally-fabricated bus bodies nowadays; there is a focus on tastelessly overwrought bodywork looking like expensive fish bait with zero engineering sense at the expense of safety, comfort, handling and fuel economy.

Force these people to build buses designed to ferry human beings, not amuse goldfish in an aquarium using tendrils and gleam.


Before anything else, the Outback is an excellent family car


Hello JM,

You are doing great work. I am an ardent follower and reader since the inception of Car Clinic. That aside, kindly delve into the Everest versus Outback.

Cars in contention are a 2004 double cab, diesel, 2.5L, manual Ford Everest and a 05/06 year 2.5 auto or manual Outback. What can you say about their maintenance and their practicality, seeing as they will be farm run (not too bad roads, all weather but some sections will require these vehicles to behave like they were built for)?

Speed should not be a factor. I bet if it’s about comfort, the Outback comes out on top. Maintenance, daily use, off-road capabilities is what I need discernment on. Cost of both is the same, about Sh700,000.


Subaru Outback. PHOTO| FILE

Hello Bobby,

I think you may be referring to a Ford Ranger, because the Ford Everest is a station wagon SUV and not a “2004 double-cab” as stated in your e-mail.

The 2004 Ford Ranger (or the Everest, since the latter is a canopied derivative of the former) is not very good; worse so in the face of more modern hardware in general and what the Rangerest/Evanger has evolved into in particular.

Maintenance will be what it is — really hard to predict — but the Evenger will cost more generally compared to the big Subaru. The Rangerest is a big car at the end of the day and will carry big car bills, especially at the R. Kelly-esque age of fifteen. Thank goodness, then, that is built on a pickup and ruggedness is its forte, so it won’t break easily. Neither will the Subaru. What I know is when shopping for, and operating a Subaru, watch out for head gaskets (replacement is an engine-out operation) and timing belts whose failure would mean a replacement engine in short order. Bushes may or may not be an issue.

In terms of practicability, in the face of things the ‘Rangerestevenger’ is obviously more practical: increased ground clearance, bigger interior, dedicated off-road kit such as low range and locking diffs, a literally go-anywhere ability car; but it can be unwieldy in tight spots. The Outback is not a small vehicle either, it could be as long as the bigger wagon.

When you say “some sections will require these vehicles to behave like they were built for”, it sounds like you are describing the kind of intractable terrain into which pigs rush in where goats fear to tread; in which case get the ‘Evangelismestangerest’ with its overkill in off-tarmac instrumentation. Better have it and not need it, right? Outbacks are designed as lifestyle vehicles for adventuring by highly-paid late-twenties ‘yuppie’ types who like to “explore” virgin territory very loudly on weekends, armed with the latest and most expensive social media broadcasting equipment. Let’s just say the Outback is an excellent family car more than anything else.

Speed is never a factor whenever a cut-price ladder-frame SUV-pickup is discussed, so it obviously isn’t here, but it should be said that if you wind up in an Outback 3.6R, speed will be a factor. That car is fast.

It is also more comfortable, cheaper to own, a more sensible daily car but loses out on off-road ability to the 4x4.

An SUV costing Sh700,000 may not be what you think it is. Tone down on the off-roadiness as much as possible and the Outback is perfect. However, if off-roading is inevitable, shop for something a little higher than Sh700,000. That price point does not guarantee the quality of what you purchase. You seem to have identified a specific vehicle, though, I hope it’s in good condition.


Could you value for me a VW Jetta TSI 1.5L? 

Dear Baraza,

Thank you for the commendable job you are doing with Car Clinic.

I am planning to import a car by April this year, and I have been contemplating on a small engine sedan, then I came across the VW Jetta TSI, 1.4L.

I really like its interior and the exterior finishes, plus its low consumption. That aside, I am concerned by the huge value variation by KRA within the listed Jetta models.

My other problem is that I am not able to tell its CRSP. Could you assist me to determine its valuation cost by the KRA for purposes of budget planning?

George Kamau


Dear George,

This sounds like a job for the KRA, not Car Clinic. If there is a variation in CRSP, let them clear the air. I don’t know how they think over there, but I’m sure some actuaries concocted an elaborate formula to arrive at that discrepancy. That is how bureaucracies work.

You can arrive at a more specific CRSP by inputting as many details about your Jetta as possible: YOM, mileage, engine capacity, drive type and whatnot. I can’t do valuation on a car. I can only guess it’s pricing and/or tell you prevailing market values for that type of car, but there are other professional bodies equipped to give true valuation on individual motor vehicles. Bodies like the AA, insurance companies and of course KRA itself.