Ford SA is clucking loudly about its just-hatched clutch of new and unique home-built but Australian-designed Bantam bakkies and, frankly, they ARE something to crow about.

I've just been driving them in the Land of the Rising Sun (no, that's Mpumalanga, not Japan) and I'm in love with the new 1.4-litre TDCi turbodiesel engine - if a bantam comes with cockerel-like spurs, then these half-tonners certainly deserve them.

Not many people realise it but the Bantam is exclusive to South Africa (though very close to Mazda's similar product here and to another assembled in Brazil). It's not even exported outside Africa so if you're into "Buy SA!" you'll be right on the button.

The last major update to the brand was in 1992 followed by a facelift in 2006 and the cheeky little half-tonner has sold more than 200 000 in SA over its 25-year life in both business and leisure guises.

The 2009 version has kept the XL, XLT and XLE badging and is available with 1.3 and 1.6 petrol and a new 1.4-litre turbodiesel. I liked the diesel best after free-ranging around Mpumalanga like 'Chickenman' on a mission for a couple of hundred kilometres this week.

(You don't remember 'Chickenman'? Tough, ask your granddad.)

There used to be a 1.8 diesel but even the Ford guys at the launch admitted that it didn't last very long; the 1.4 TCDi should do much better.

The major changes in the new models include engines, headlights, instrument clusters and tail lights and they're much quieter than the previous models. The diesel could easily be mistaken for a petrol unit; it's the same engine as used in the Ford Ikon sedan and from the same family as the Fiesta and much more drivable than the 1.6 petrol which needed a lot of gear-stirring up the hills of the green and beautiful Far East.

Ford calls it the DuraTorq TDCi.

Each standard model has the option of metallic paint, two crash bags and a radio/CD audio system and both types of engine require servicing every 15 000km - about a year's use for leisure and commuter driving. The 1.3 workhorse uses up about 60 percent of the factory build.

So, what's new in the henhouse…?

'ESTABLISHED PRODUCT

Mainly the diesel engine along with, according to Ford, a great improvement in NVH - that means the Bantams have raised themselves in the pecking order of noise, vibration and harshness. Ford SA says it's"tweaked certain aspects of the Bantam to make it relevant and up-to-date with current market requirements".

Ben Pillay, Ford's marketing manager in charge of new-laid products, said: "The Bantam is a well-established product in South Africa and we're pleased to have expanded the offering with diesel derivatives."

The engine has a turbo blowing through its electronic direct injection to make peak power of 50kW at 4000rpm. No, don't laugh - what really counts is its attainable torque of 160Nm at 2000rpm. This is a hauler, not a racer, and what counts is not punch but twist in the wrist.

It means fewer gear changes - shift-stirring is a bloody nuisance if you're driving your Bantam for deliveries or through the crush hour - but has also hatched yet another indecipherable motoring term: accelerometer pilot control (do auto companies have a special room in the PR department where these silly terms are coddled?).

Whatever, it translates by Ford into "an ingenious system that monitors combustion noise and makes adjustments every 0.3 milliseconds to the pilot main injectors to ensure an incredibly quiet drive". Don't care what they call it, it works and the turbodiesel is quiet-quiet.

ENGINES CARRIED OVER

Plainspeak tells us that the Bantam's restyling has brought a redesigned front bumper and bonnet and restyled headlights. The tail clusters have also been updated and new 14” alloy rims bolted on some models. The ride is good, but unchanged, with gas shocks and Macpherson struts; more car than bakkie.

The petrol engines have been carried over: a 1.3-litre RoCam producing 55kW at 5500rpm and 110Nm at 3000rpm and a 1.6 RoCam capable of 70kW at 5500rpm and 137Nm from 2500rpm.

The standard model comes with aircon but radio/CD is an extra-cost option. The XL adds two speakers, radio/CD, rear step bumper, cab protector and body mouldings.

The XLT gets the alloy rims, two more speakers, front fog lights, body colour bumpers and mirrors, power windows and mirrors, load box edge protectors and remote-controlled central locking. It also costs a lot of money - see the prices below.

Topping the range is the XLE with two crash bags, leather-clad gearshifter, leather steering wheel and body-colour door releases. That costs even more.

The new 1.4 TDCi comes with aircon and XLT equipment.

HOW ABOUT KENTUCKY?

Let Ben Pillay have the last words: "An extended range of models as well as some key enhancements make the Bantam an even more competitive offering for South African buyers looking for a capable, well-equipped and comfortable light commercial."

Hey Ben, how about throwing in a year's supply of Kentucky for a few plucky buyers? Or a discount for empty-nesters, a yellow paint job called 'Omlette Sunrise' or maybe a case of Red Bull… you know, the wings bit. In case the other ideas don't fly.

All Bantams come with a four-year or 120 000km warranty in their plumage along with a three-year unlimited distance roadside assistance plan.

2009 Ford Bantam prices (including the expected April price increase)

1.3i - R101 950

1.3i a/c - R109 800

1.3i XL - R121 050

1.3i XLT - R136 350

1.6i - R115 951

1.6i a/c -R124 300

1.6i XL - R135 750

1.6i XLT - R143 500

1.6i XLE - R163 050

1.4 TDCi - R141 251

1.4 TDCi - a/c R148 100

1.4 TDCi XLT - R171 750