Ours is a business where true professionals are few and far between, self-declared experts are a dime a dozen, subjectivity is high, irrationality is the rule of law and money talks. Yes, this is a criticism of the automotive industry drawn from more than 11 years of writing this column.
In spite of the challenges, I soldier on, and continue to do my job with utmost professionalism, professionalism that was applied in our annual prize-giving jamboree: the Motoring Press Agency Car of The Year Award - a rotating accolade that has been dished out to various forms of automotive “solutions”, with 11 winners over the years. The criteria for nomination are very simple and straightforward: to qualify, the vehicle nominated must first be officially on sale in Kenya, brand new, from a recognised franchise.
That means out-of-production models do not qualify, existence of surplus inventory notwithstanding, and that also means “special orders” do not qualify either. Special orders the vehicles purchasable via official franchise but only under bespoke circumstances, one cannot walk into a showroom and drop a pile of money on the sales manager’s desk and expect a key in exchange.
The outgoing Landcruiser 202 Series by Toyota Kenya falls into the first category, while the Mercedes-AMG Maybach by DT Dobie falls into the second. It’s not really much of a spoiler when we declare none of these two vehicles will be bagging an accolade this year...
To sift through the rubble in search of a gem means there is another criterion that must be obeyed, and like the preceding one, it too is simple and straightforward: the vehicle must have been submitted for review in the year of nomination.
We haven’t driven a 202 Series or a Maybach this year, so they’re really out of contention here. You also cannot expect the new Nissan Navara to qualify for nomination when we haven’t even sat in it, let alone driven it. A press release does not make a review, neither does it equate to a road test
This year, we will do as we have always done and narrow down our list of suspects based on what we have driven and how the experience was.
Please note: we maintain objectivity by basing our selection process purely on the merits of the motor vehicle in question while overlooking the shenanigans pulled by the companies selling these vehicles, from banning public participation in my events, to my having to secure a cloak-and-dagger test drive via less-than-honest channels to withdrawing sponsorship from an empowerment program I created simply because I wrote the word “haha” in a comparison one random Wednesday, there is enough fodder in my dossier to get me (justifiably?) assassinated should I decide to write a tell-all book (I won’t), but in the interests of national development and the positive progress of society as a whole, we will not stoop to snitching.
No, we are bigger than that.
And now, the vehicles. To maintain suspense, we won’t submit the entire list of entries beforehand, we will instead work our way through the honour roll from the bottom up through this week and the next. Without further ado, let’s start with:
Bubbling Under: Sagak Tech Automakers BJ50 Rickshaw
This vehicle is bubbling under for obvious reasons which may be painful for the creators to relive if we keep rubbing them in, so we won't go too deep into the details, and at the end of the day, I still admire the spunk and the motivation behind it.
The upsides are exactly two in number:
1. the rickshaw is yet another attempt at developing a homegrown vehicle, the only difference being this attempt eventually earned itself approval for usage on public roads by the National Transport and Safety Authority: the infamous NTSA. The criteria used, the approval process and everything that happened in between is yet again another chapter from the book "How To Get Yourself Murdered By Talking Too Much", but the approval was given and we count that as a plus. Moving on...
2. Fun to drive: yes, believe it or not, there is a certain charm to driving the BJ50 despite the hostile ergonomics and infantile stage of development. I mean, it ticks all the right petrolhead enthusiast boxes: front-engine, rear-wheel drive, few frills (e.g no power steering), and a five-speed sequential transmission derived from a motorcycle.
Driving it (briefly) is a cheeky, gleeful exercise that will have you giggling for a few minutes before you remember that age is catching up with you, your skeleton is no longer made of rubber and magic like it used to be in your 20s and spending lengthy periods driving this rig will earn you an unplanned visit to the bone doctor. Aw, shucks.
[Video footage of the BJ50 test drive is available on our YouTube channel. Just search for Motoring Press Agency and scroll through our library of films at your pleasure]
The downsides are the vehicle is still a work in progress so we are not sure it should be on sale yet. That just about sums up all its problems in one sentence. The biggest gripe we have against it is the fact that behind its genesis, the intentions are honourable but the execution is incompetent, for lack of a better descriptor.
There is a battle between nationalistic fervor versus rational thought that explains the existence of this vehicle and sadly, we must report that the former carries more weight, which does not bode well for motor vehicle manufacture in the 21st century.
Now, for those who think my work is solely to undermine that of others, let me clarify. In my 11 years as Africa's most incisive automotive authority, I have been exposed to a lot of things. The inner workings of major car manufacturers. Brand establishment and market penetration strategies (and no, belligerence against motoring journalists is not a successful strategy).
How to extensively test a vehicle while still in the prototype stage. The manufacturing and assembly processes in car factories. How to maximise productivity while minimising overheads. How to balance value addition against price increase, plus a lot more - I had the honour of being among the first few people on earth to drive the L405 Range Rover Autobiography in prototypical form, ahead of BBC's famous Top Gear team and the queen's (of England) driver who was due to begin training the week after I put the vehicle through its paces in Morocco.
There is a wealth of knowledge I carry in my head, and shortly after test-driving the BJ50, I threw in with the project and offered my services as consultant and technical advisor to Sagak Tech Automakers. Yes, I actually want to work on the BJ50 project and see it succeed. I am yet to receive a response...
[A full article on my BJ50 experience and what I think of the project, as well as my ad hoc job application was published in the Sunday Nation of August 29, 2021.]
Eagle-eyed readers will note that nowhere have I referred to the BJ50 as a "car". That's because it isn't, and no, I am not being acerbic about it: the BJ50 is registered as a rickshaw or a tuktuk and part of the reason it took the NTSA so long to give it type approval for road use was because they kept reviewing it as a car despite the insistence of Sagak Tech Auto that it wasn't a car. Once the NTSA internalised the fact that the BJ50 is a tuktuk, things started falling into place. This is one project to look out for, I do not think Sagak Tech Automakers will go away quietly into the night.
ISUZU MU-X = 4x4
The vehicle whose test drive took three years to finally materialise. In an unpublished film I made about the MU-X, I introduced it as the vehicle named after a linear mathematical equation: MU minus X equals four times four. This is a vehicle of many calculations.
The summary of this vehicle is not a complex one: it offers Prado talents (full-on off-roading hardware gubbins, seven-seat practicality) and rugged dependability (another Toyota forte) at a lot less than Prado money, but that is because the segment it occupies does not include the Prado, it is one rank lower.
That makes it a good Prado alternative, and it has the added bonus of having much safer and better handling than the Prado's legendary mid-corner, top-heavy, leg-lifting tendency to keel over and execute its occupants in the hands of an unprofessional helmsman (this last modifier is critical, do not overlook it). That is a very big plus.
Another big plus was the pricing, the key word here being was. At birth, the MU-X was very competitively priced, which is marketing parlance for "cheaper than the competition", but remember, the MU-X occupies a class one rank lower than that of the Prado. This is where things begin to fall apart...
The class the MU-X fits into comprises vehicles such as the Ford Everest (more handsome), the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (looks sharper), the Nissan Pathfinder (heh!) and of course the Toyota Fortuner, the Isuzu's nemesis and winner of our Car of The Year Award in 2018. That the MU-X slots in at No. 5 means it is not this year's winner and we need to see why by comparing it against a former champion...
There is the comparison by numbers that I did recently (the one with the "haha" comment) in which the Fortuner soundly and roundly trounced everything else in the list. In the interests of insistence, I will repeat: this was a comparison by numbers, not personal opinion. You cannot change numerical facts. Strike one.
There is the build quality and overall finish of the vehicle. The Fortuner had me quoting Tamatoa the King Crab's lyrics from the animated film Moana to bring out the sheer gleam and shine that the SUV boasts of. The MU-X we had was the same colour as our winning Fortuner but had none of the drip (piga luku!). I'm literally talking about the paintwork, but I am also metaphorically referring to the overall construction. The MU-X is agricultural to the feel and to the eye. The Fortuner is a Lexus with an unfortunate badge.
The Fortuner's interior feels premium while the MU-X feels like a tool, an instrument, a device for task completion. The Fortuner's exterior carries thoughtful design cues that hint at its origin (Hilux) without treading on another model's toes (Prado + Hilux). The MU-X is a Chevy Trailblazer with a DMAX nose-cut. Yeah, I said it. Strike two.
There are two strike threes, the first being something easily fixable by changing the spec. The MU-X demonstrator we had came with highway tyres. H/Ts with shallower tread than I have on the front axle rubbers running on my BMW 525i. On an off-road vehicle. What gives, Isuzu? Incidentally, the DMAX double cab comes fitted with all-terrain tyres that both look the part and act the role.
I was kicking up a lot of dust via unnecessary wheelspin when I took the MU-X on an expedition to some Mau Mau caves not far from where I live, something that shouldn't happen with the right kit. The H/Ts look and feel out of place on the MU-X, is what I'm saying. Fix it, Isuzu EA. Give the MU-X the running gear it deserves.
The second strike three is the pricing. The MU-X started off well as the thinking man's alternative to Toyota's overratedness as reflected on the sticker. Then came a price increase.
That the MU-X rivals the Fortuner does not mean it should be priced like a Fortuner, more so when the comparison by numbers, the build quality, the fit and finish, the specification levels, the overall design and the street cred mantles are all held by the Fortuner. Let us go back to competitive pricing, shall we, Isuzu?
That said, the MU-X is not bad at all. The brief comparison above may belie that fact, but this is a merit list where judgment is as brutal as it is decisive. The pricing is the nail in the MU-X's coffin, but all else considered, it is a worthy purchase. Penny-pinching thrifts will also be glad to hear that it is the only vehicle submitted for testing whose fuel tank we were unable to empty no matter how hard we tried, and try hard we did.
We even went for the WRC rally in Naivasha just to say hello to a friend, something we could have easily done on phone, but we chose to drive there instead. The fuel economy is outstanding and the tank is large, meaning this may just be the perfect road trip vehicle for those who love long-haul jaunts into uncharted territory. Small wonder then, that Maina Kageni has been using one for his Tembea Kenya project...
Thanks for tuning in. Next week we whittle down the list further with some very unexpected entries that are guaranteed to surprise you, particularly the vehicle that came in second. See you then...
Do you have a question for Baraza? Email [email protected]