ROAD TEST: Tata Xenon XT 2.2L DC
There's no denying that the latest crop of Japanese bakkies have really moved the game to another level of performance and sophistication, but in doing so they've also lifted the price ceiling to often prohibitive levels.
This is where bakkies like the Tata Xenon come under the spotlight for tempting buyers who don't want to go the second hand route. Like the GWM Steed, the latest Tata Xenon XT double cab 4x2 undercuts the high-spec Japanese double cabs by well over R100 000 and even comes in R150K cheaper than the VW Amarok.
But is the Indian-built Xenon a bargain or a case of paying for what you get?
It gets off to a good enough start in the parking lot, with a chunky design that's standing the test of time. In fact I find it refreshingly unique compared to all of the Isuzu-cloned Chinese offerings in the bakkie bargain bin. I particularly like the Xenon's bulging wheel arches, which give it a muscular appearance.
It doesn't look so modern on the inside though, although the bits and bobs have a generally sturdy feel to them. The dashboard has an old-fashioned look about it, although there is a modern touch in the form of a touch-screen-operated audio and navigation system.
Ergonomically the Xenon leaves room for improvement, however. For starters, the driver's seat has no height adjustment, which prevented me from getting really comfortable behind the wheel. It forces you to sit really low, which would be great in a sports car but not so cool in a bakkie. The steering wheel does adjust for height, but not for reach and there are no audio controls on it - a feature we've become accustomed to in the latest batch of bakkies.
Another annoyance is the positioning of the electric window controls on the centre console tunnel.
The cabin feels roomy enough and rear legroom is reasonable, although far from class-leading. The basic luxury features are in place, such as air conditioning and electric windows, and Tata has even thrown in central arm rests for the driver and front passenger.
VERY DECENT DIESEL
Turn the key and Tata's recently revised 2.2-litre Dicor turbodiesel engine clatters into life and it's a surprisingly sophisticated common rail turbodiesel motor that delivers decent outputs for its size - 110kW at 4000rpm and peak torque of 320Nm between 1500 and 3000rpm.
The motor also features variable turbine technology to counter lag, and this seems to have done the trick as the Xenon pulls off the mark with ease and offers reasonably strong performance in any context.
In fact, this torquey diesel feels particularly gutsy at low revs and has a willingness to chug along very enthusiastically at the lower end of the rev range. It can be a bit on the noisy side though, especially at highway speeds.
Compared to earlier versions of the Xenon that I drove years ago, the latest version's driving controls have an altogether more solid feel in that the gearshift feels relatively smooth and the steering wheel hardly has any play.
Key safety features are limited to dual front airbags and ABS brakes. Of concern here is that (as with its rivals and even some of the pricier bakkies) no form of traction control is fitted. As far as I'm concerned, that safety net for emergency situations should be in place in big rear-wheel driven, ladder-frame bakkies that tower high above the ground. That said, the Xenon's level of grip, stability and general road holding ability is really not bad by bakkie standards.
As for ride comfort, the Tata Xenon, well… feels very much like a 'bakkie'. It's not altogether uncomfortable by any means, but the ride is rather bouncy.
The latest Xenon XT certainly has character; it's also got a strong engine and comes in at the lower end of the price continuum at R241 995 for the 4x2 featured here and R271 995 for the 4x4. It’s well backed-up too, with a four-year/120 000km warranty and five-year/90 000km service plan.
Yet you need to balance that against the fact that, overall, the Tata is nowhere near as sophisticated as modern Japanese bakkies. It's worth a look in at the price, but keep your options open here. The GWM Steed has a more refined feel and if there was any way in which I could stretch the budget by R60 000, I'd certainly be swayed by the low-spec Ford Ranger, which still has all the basic comfort amenities.
Engine: 4-cyl, 2.2-litre turbodiesel
Gearbox: 5-speed manual
Power: 110kW @ 4000rpm
Torque: 320Nm @ 1500 - 3000rpm
Top speed (claimed): 160km/h
Consumption (claimed): N/A
Price: R241 995
Warranty: 4-year/120 000km
Service plan: 5-year/90 000km
Ford Ranger 2.2 XL DC (110kW/375Nm) - R301 100
Foton Tunland 2.8 Comfort DC (120kW/360Nm) - R294 950
GWM Steed 5 2.0 VGT Lux DC (110kW/310Nm) - R245 900
Isuzu KB250 D-Teq LE DC (85kW/280Nm) - R363 200
Mahindra Scorpio 2.2 CRDe DC (89kW/290Nm) - R241 995
Nissan NP300 2.5 TDi DC (98kW/304Nm) - R354 000
Toyota Hilux 2.5 D-4D Raider DC (106kW/343Nm) - R382 700
VW Amarok 2.0 TDI Trendline DC (103kW/340Nm) - R396 000