These are the only three performance-orientated bakkies on sale and they offer varied propositions. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS
These are the only three performance-orientated bakkies on sale and they offer varied propositions. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS

I’m threading through Pretoria morning rush-hour, up and down inclines past industrial Tshwane, and still sporting morning red eye. The meeting time and point is 6.30am at Gerotek’s main entry gate, and I’m running a bit late.

This start time is quite normal in automotive journalism duty but the underpinning title of today’s slightly analytical three-vehicle group test is a bit unconventional: Performance Pick-ups. Is there even such a thing? The last vehicle that could justify such a tag line was the Corvette-engined Chevrolet Lumina SS. 

The Performance Blue Ford Ranger Raptor I’m driving is the protagonist that brings us to this vehicle testing facility so early in the morning.  Brenwin Naidu and Shaun Korsten are already waiting with a pair of well-considered rivals — the Mercedes-Benz X350d and Volkswagen’s Amarok V6 TDI.

None of us had really expected the new top line Ranger to first look like this tasty or challenge for honours for SA’s performance pick-up of choice. “How would Thursday suit?” Very nicely, was my reply to the initial request to join the Ignition TV team. Trouble is the Ford is powered by a 2.0l Bi-Turbo four-cylinder diesel engine. Is it fair to line it up against V6 power?

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The numbers add up though. The Raptor’s smaller capacity engine produces 157kW and 500Nm, which is a mere 8kW short of the Amarok’s 165kW. It’s totally outgunned by the 190kW X-Class. The Raptor’s 500Nm output is also in the ball park with the VW and Merc each wielding 550Nm. It’s the same on pricing too. At R786,400 the Raptor sits neatly between the two — the entry-level Amarok being the cheapest at R737,700. The Mercedes-Benz is expensive at R904,188. 

Interiors

All three were sufficiently specified but the Raptor has the most beautifully shaped sports seats and a red 12 o'clock marker on the steering wheel. But its cabin doesn’t reek with the smell of executive execution and it’s easy to understand why. It’s more performance orientated and thus where both the Teutons’ chairs are covered fully in quality hide the Ford makes do with a combo of leather and grippy suede in the middle.

The Raptor has the raciest interior of the three with its suede-covered sports seats, lightweight magnesium paddle shifters, and a red twelve-o-clock marker on the steering wheel. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS
The Raptor has the raciest interior of the three with its suede-covered sports seats, lightweight magnesium paddle shifters, and a red twelve-o-clock marker on the steering wheel. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS

All of the interiors are capacious as pick-ups are now commonly designed with family practicality in mind, and ditto the refinement. All three felt robustly built to filter out the agricultural din and road rumble which will emanate from their massive rubber.

Ride

It was the Raptor that passed the suspension test with flying colours thanks to its heavy-duty damping from bespoke Fox shocks. The Merc offered the second best performance here, its coil spring rear suspension doing an admirable job of soaking up the craggy surfaces which included a Belgian style pavement. The Amarok, one of the best rides on smooth tarmac, was quite shaken and stirred on the corrugations with its rear leaf-spring suspension.

Performance

Despite not a single ominous black cloud in site to offer relief from the scorching sun, overexuberance and a palpable sense of peril was at a high by the time we descended on the dynamic handling track.

Top half of X-class cabin is recognisably Mercedes, but the lower-dash plastics look quite cheap for the price. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS
Top half of X-class cabin is recognisably Mercedes, but the lower-dash plastics look quite cheap for the price. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS

It’s a short but incredibly engaging circuit in the correct car. In fast bakkies we were asking for trouble but thankfully run-off is plentiful and mostly courtesy of fields of grass. The pick-ups, more so the Raptor with its wayward handling, should be happy with such a cushion.

This Ranger’s bespoke BF Goodrich 285/70 R17, heavily knobbly and cartoonish big all-terrain tyres screeched and caused understeer mayhem all the way through the circuit. The lofty ground clearance certainly doesn’t help in these conditions. The effects of lesser power were also fanned as the Raptor showed it had no serious legs to charge at the few straights and milder corners. 

The Mercedes-Benz was a surprise act. The 25kW advantage it has over these two was put to good use and the poise of being closer to the ground than the other two (at 222mm vs the Amarok's 244mm and the Raptor's 283mm) worked excellently with the suspension agility.

But it certainly was no match for the pick-up with the second most power but also with the lightest kerb weight of the trio. At 2,053 kg versus the Merc’s 2,249kg and the Raptor’s 2,332kg, the Amarok’s power-to-weight ratio benefit saw it not only out accelerate both on the main straights, it was startlingly effective and dependable for the purpose of furiously fast transportation of lambs.

The Amarok’s cabin is all about understated class. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS
The Amarok’s cabin is all about understated class. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS

This above board dynamic performance envelope provides credence to the already bizarre suggestion that there exists such a thing as a performance bakkie as it hugged and clawed its way through gentle and sharp bends with amazing alacrity and its engine and gearbox Sport settings were the most willing to give a good account of this peculiarity, the up and down shifts intuitive and perfectly timed to ensure it hauls just about everywhere.  

The outcome

Top spot in this road-based test went to the Amarok and second to the X-Class. The Raptor is the one with the most aggressive and sporting looks yet it scored the lowest marks in the overall rankings for our three-challenge test of acceleration, handling and driving comfort.

It’s a foregone conclusion that the Raptor will clean up in a competition with off-road prowess included. It’s not a clinical speed generator as we found out but it has character in spades, some of which I wish to unleash in Baja mode.

Both Amarok and X-Class are single-minded and despite superior power and performance both struggle to feel quite as special next to the Ford. Where they are mere bakkies, the Raptor is the Bakkies Botha of the lot. By the end of business we entertained the thought of leaving Gerotek in the car we didn’t arrive in. That night as I went to sleep I clicked the lock button and said "goodnight, Ford Ranger Raptor" as I had done the previous two nights before this shootout and as I subsequently did four days in a row later.

Ford Ranger Raptor 2.0 BiT 4x4 auto

Tech Specs

ENGINE

Type: Biturbo four-cylinder

Capacity: 1,996cc

Power: 157kW

Torque: 500Nm

TRANSMISSION

Type: 10-speed auto

DRIVETRAIN

Type: Selectable 4x4 with low range

PERFORMANCE

Top speed: N/A

0-100km/h: N/A

Price: R786,400

 

Volkswagen Amarok 3.0 V6 TDI Double Cab Highline 4Motion auto

Tech Specs

ENGINE

Type: Turbocharged six-cylinder

Capacity: 2,970cc

Power: 165kW

Torque: 550Nm

TRANSMISSION

Type: Eight-speed auto

DRIVETRAIN

Type: Permanent 4x4 with low range

PERFORMANCE

Top speed: 193km/h (as claimed)

0-100km/h: 8.0 sec (as claimed)

Price: R737,700

Mercedes-Benz X350d 4Matic Progressive auto

Tech Specs

ENGINE

Type: Turbocharged six-cylinder

Capacity: 2,987cc

Power: 190kW

Torque: 550Nm

TRANSMISSION

Type: Seven-speed auto

DRIVETRAIN

Type: Permanent 4x4 with low range

PERFORMANCE

Top speed: 205km/h (as claimed)

0-100km/h: 7.9sec (as claimed)

Price: R904,188