I can't help wondering about the advantages of a diesel engine in a small bakkie. Yes, it's very light on fuel - but how much does that mean in a world where the efficiency of small petrol engines is improving all the time?

My conclusion? Not much. Especially considering the disadvantages of diesel. I had plenty of opportunity to ponder this recently when a Ford Bantam 1.4 diesel arrived for review.

The Bantam is something of a legend. The original was one of the first front-wheel drive half-tonners on the SA market and among the first to offer the relative comfort of a small car (the Ford Escort, from which it was derived).

Its only opposition was the Nissan 1400 bakkie, a tough workhorse based on older technology with a rather uncomfortable cab.

In the Nissan taller drivers were apt to feel their knees knock the fascia, steering wheel, handbrake lever - even maybe their own chins when they let out the clutch. OK, not their chins, but you know what I mean.

Since then other driver-friendly half-tonners have arrived. The Opel Corsa and Fiat Strada are both very modern little pick-ups with comfortable interiors and good head and legroom.

Most recently, Nissan replaced the venerable 1400 with the NP200. It's easy to be the best when you are the last in with a new product and the NP200 certainly improved on most aspects of the small-bakkie category.

But somewhere in all this Ford seems to have been left behind. The Bantam might have been a great little contender initially but the latest incarnation doesn't quite cut it in the comfort stakes any more.

It soon became clear that my (admittedly sensitive) spine was not going to be happy with the Bantam's seat. The backrest was too flat, probably for people broader than me, while the squab slanted too much to the rear with its leading edge too high under my knees. I felt the cab as a whole could have done with an extensive update.

Then, there was the ride. Ride comfort is relative in a bakkie. The rear end has to be stiffly sprung or it's unusable for the purpose intended. The Bantam doesn't fail in that department and I am sure this little bakkie will carry its half-ton with ease.

However, it's to be expected that the suspension would be rather jittery when running without a load, and it is. Be careful of its handling on a wet road and keep an eye on the load sensor to ensure the rear brakes are always on the right setting.

The load sensor shouldn't be a concern on a new vehicle but regular maintenance is essential if the vehicle is driven extensively on dirt roads, to prevent rear brakes locking under hard braking or on wet roads. And this may well make the vehicle's rear end, which is already very light, go places you don't want it to.

HILL DETECTOR

The Bantam's front end was also quite stiffly sprung t match the rear which made for a harsh ride. The crux with this particular vehicle, however, was the diesel engine. A 1400cc diesel. Hmmm.

Ford's DuraTorq TDCi engine uses a turbocharger and electronically controlled direct injection system to deliver a claimed 50kW at 4000rpm and 160Nm at 2000rpm - not too shabby for such a small oiler.

Look, this is no pocket rocket and in some cases it could even be a bit of a hill detector but, considering the engine and the purpose, that shouldn't be construed as criticism.

Ford's noise reduction technology makes the 1.4 TDCi one of the smoothest and quietest diesels I've driven. It includes a system called "accelerometer pilot control" that monitors combustion noise and adjusts the pilot injectors every 0.3 milliseconds (that's 3300 times a second!) to ensure a surprisingly quiet drive.

Additional body sealing contributes to the hush and I sometimes had to remind myself that I was driving a diesel.

LOCAL FLAVOUR

These little bakkies are built specifically for South African requirements, which makes parts readily available and may allow for lower running costs in general. Services intervals are 15 000km, the same as the petrol derivatives - that used to be of the downside of diesel.

The real problem is it simply doesn't perform as well as its 1300cc petrol stablemate and that it is rather more expensive.

The diesel range starts at R141 251 for the 1.4 TDCi and ends at R171 750 for the TDCi XLT, the one I had on test.

The petrol Bantam 1.3i XLT with equivalent trim weighs in at R136 350 and the 1.6 XLT at R143 500. And diesels are more expensive to repair.

The 1.4 TDCi returned 5.4 litres/100km, which is good, but I can't imagine that the 1.3i would do much worse than seven/100km. So you'd have to do a lot of driving to make up the R34 500 price difference between the 1.3i and the diesel.

All Bantams, however, come with a four-year or 120 000km warranty and three-year roadside assistance plan. - Cape Argus