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Car of the year 2018: The ones that did not make it

Wednesday January 9 2019

A look at the models that missed in last week's Car of the year ranking.

A look at the models that missed in last week's Car of the year ranking. PHOTO| FOTOSEARCH 

BARAZA JM
By BARAZA JM
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Toyota Rush

Word count limits in last week’s presentation precluded a final entrant in the nominee entry list; and it, like the Volkswagen Amarok, came dangerously close to walking home with the crown.

We'll get to why not in a second; but first, we have to explain why it didn't appear last week — besides the space constraints, that is.

We had to balance out the brand presence as well; otherwise we'd have had three Toyotas putting up a show (there is a Prado coming up in later paragraphs) at the expense of almost everything else.

There may or may not be issues with that; but any competition that has 66 per cent of its contestants from one team is immediately looked upon with suspicion.

And that is why the latest Toyota Rush gets its 15 minutes today. It is a seven-seat crossover costing a few grand less than Sh4 million, which is exactly half of what last week's crossovers cost apiece, (except the X5, which costs just about four times as much, with two fewer seats).

Those two attributes already put the Rush far ahead in the running, before adding the fact that it is a Toyota, and with a 1.5 litre straight four engine, fuel economy is guaranteed as well.

However, one can’t win that easily. A car can only be two of these three: cheap, fast and reliable; or a balanced blend thereof, with a bias towards one or two traits. We have already established that the Rush is cheap (relatively) and reliable; it would be safe to assume that it isn't fast.

We don't need to assume anything; we actually drove it and no, it isn't fast, at all. I don't mean race car fast; I mean you need to wring its neck a bit to attain legally mandated highway velocities. That 1.5 litre engine may not be the most appropriate for a 7-seat crossover edging in size towards the now-defunct Vanguard and/or Kluger/Highlander especially when those two vodka bottles worth of volumetric corkage come unattached to any form of forced induction.

Toyota engineers, of course, knew this — they are among the best on the globe — so they countered it using more physics, specifically Newton’s Laws of Motion.

The second law implies that getting something moving (overcoming initial friction) takes a lot more effort than keeping something moving (maintaining a certain speed). That is why the engine/transmission interface has been mapped such that the first-to-second-gear shift point is at a stratospheric 4200rpm on part throttle; and no, you cannot short-shift, this is an automatic that chooses its own ratios.

It takes a lot of breath to get the Rush going, after which things settle to a sort of normalcy from second gear upwards, but then again, at highway speeds, your tache' needle is still a lot higher in the rev-counting sector compared to the more powerful fare I had started getting used to.

This makes for ignominious and injudicious progress if you ever choose to wander into the well-off, high net worth, high climatic certainty areas populated by the only people, who buy zero mileage cars, and just prefer quiet.

Toyota Rush.

Toyota Rush. PHOTO| FILE

(You can also trundle about in the Rush steering clear of that 4200rpm mark and it may go into second and third gears, but this kind of driving is recommended for estate use only; otherwise on public roads, you become an obstruction; a rolling chicane, which is a major hazard to other road users. So better get used to hearing a 1.5 litre engine revving beyond 4000rpm on take-off. Fortunately, this aural assault can be mitigated by use of the radio.)

So we gave it a slow, heavy-breathing car. That's not enough to demote it from the pantheon of MPA COTY winners; meaning there is more.

The vehicle is narrow, so intimacy with your fellow passengers is guaranteed. Shoulder room is not generous in the second and third rows. The narrow size, jacked up running gear (good ground clearance, yea!) and slab-sidedness of the thing means that when you (finally) attain triple-digit speeds, you have one more thing to worry about besides the usual road hazards: the unrelenting crosswinds.

I changed lanes more times than I intended when I put the Rush on the Southern Bypass with a friend in a Subaru amusedly supervising my drunken staggering from behind. The car will not hold its lane if the geography is flat and the wind sock isn’t.

Does it sound like I am bashing the Rush? I am not. It really is a worthy buy, especially at its breadline asking price of about Sh3.8 million, but this is not a review (per se) or a comparison test; this is a Car of The Year Award and the criteria is as brutal as it’s dynamic.

We ditched the Amarok simply for being a Volkswagen (which won last year in Polo guise, so could not be easily admitted into the fold to take the trophy two years on the trot in the face of competition from other manufacturers), so the Rush should expect no mercy. Go hard or go home.

This is what I summarised; and it is also the primary reason the Rush doesn't get the award: the new Rush has a more specific target market at the expense of the talents its predecessor possessed.

The small engine, compact size (in terms of width) and massive glasswork (mirrors and windows) for maximum visibility mean it’s for one thing only: city use.

The narrowness is for manoeuvrability on crowded streets (of which a lot are cropping up lately) with the increased all-round vision as tag team partners on that front.

The 1.5 litre engine is just enough to trundle about the city at low speeds (where the gearbox may explore higher gears without the engine first having to sing for its supper) while returning outstanding fuel economy figures even when seven deep in the cloth-lined pews (you cannot expect leather at what you’re paying for this car … realistically you just can't).

Selling like hot cake

That is why it is selling like hotcake. It is a perfect city car and it is city dwellers who are ponying up for it. There is actually a waiting list now. That’s good enough for it; it doesn't need an award to justify its existence, much as I, in particular, judge it a lot harsher than I even did the Amarok. Why, I hear you ask?

In growing up, it let go a specific skill set that I valued a lot — and was the only saving grace — in its former iteration: off-road ability. The outgoing model was an actual off-road car, a fleet-footed billy goat that could dice with the best of them owing to its ample ground clearance, compact dimensions, short wheelbase and nonexistent overhangs.

The new one sacrifices one ability: ‘goating’, for another: carrying capacity. Gone is the 4WD — my test car was RWD — and the wheelbase has gained several inches to accommodate one more row of seats.

There is quite the overhang at the back meaning departure and break-over angles are now compromised. This is most definitely not an off-road car and should not be viewed as such. Aw, shucks.

I haven't forgotten to mention what specific market the new Rush is for; don't panic. This is an ideal shuttle for staff or hotel use; or even airport services. It may serve as a school van of sorts; not operated by a school, but by either a family as a third car after his and hers; or as a carpool utility.

Basically it does what it says on the tin: it is a people-mover (most commonly called an MPV in the UK) without resorting to the commercial appearance that a van silhouette imbues one with. This too serves as a strike against it in the quest for COTY glory.

But would I buy one?

Yes. As a school van once my offspring’s numbers start to swell … or I could buy it as a Motoring Press Agency staff car to carry the logistics team once we have an actual awards ceremony for the Car Of The Year decoration.

(Note: This may increase the Rush’s price, but I really think it would work very well as a plug-in hybrid. Also, I believe a 5-seater Rush with low-range and/or diff-locks would not be unwelcome; if only to cater for the initial cut-price mud-plugging enthusiast crowd it was previously supposed to cater for — and was instead bought by newly employed women on the up-and-up — and to give the new Suzuki Jimny a reality-based sock right in the kisser. This is where the Rush belonged before and should belong; because the test unit I had drew a lot of scepticism and nay-saying from observers once they learnt that it only packed one and a half litres under the bonnet …)

2018 Toyota Landcruiser Prado

Essentially, the second facelift of the J150 platform, the latest version of Toyota’s roly-poly off-roader is what the car should probably have looked like at the very beginning.

It is unclear why it took several years and two facelifts to get the countenance right — the previous visage has been polarising — but here we are now: one very comely Toyota SUV, test drive pending.

Toyota Land Cruiser Prado TZ.

Toyota Land Cruiser Prado TZ. PHOTO| COURTESY

Suzuki Jimny

We were speaking of Jimnys as we signed off the previous section, so let’s stay on topic. The car was greeted excitedly by the world’s motoring press, only to have that glee summarily doused by the cold, hard facts of a Global NCAP safety rating saying “Poor”.

Well, road safety leadership certification aside (thanks, Johns Hopkins!), I really don’t care; I want to try one anyway. Badly. That car looks like a lot of fun especially when used exactly as it should. And it is cheaper than a Rush (ha! ha!); though asking it to accommodate more than four people will be testing the limits of human contact to its very end.

The last time I mentioned this car, there was word that we would have locally available units by November. It is now the January after. If there is one in the country, get in touch pronto; we should work something out.

Volkswagen Tiguan

Volkswagen’s second entry into this year’s contest, and third overall submission (last year’s winner was the Polo Vivo) does not get cast in a starring role because it is yet to reach my hands.

Sure, I got a feel of it earlier, but that was not a test. Such a pity because it is one handsome little brute and the one I’m most likely to buy in this entire entry list (last week’s honour roll included) after the Jimny; if I don’t get the Fortuner first. The two are not priced very differently anyway.

Renault Kwid Climber.

Renault Kwid Climber. PHOTO| ALVIN KIBET

Renault Kwid Climber

This one’s failure to make the honour roll is mostly my fault, not the dealer’s. Yes, I was invited for the launch — which in general should be a preamble to a follow-up test-drive — but no, I never attended the event, because calendars can sometimes get really crowded. Mine did, before the invite.

Other priorities carried the day and the release party lost to much heavier obligations. Sorry, Renault; I have had a very busy year.

Anyway, the celebrity who accompanied me to wring the four turbocharged necks of the X5 M50d has had its sibling, the Kadjar diesel, for a bit now and he says the Kadjar diesel is the knees of the bee.

Vindication for its brother’s poor safety showing, perhaps? I don’t know. I am available for tests now; I am a little less busy than I was in 2018 …

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