Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The fight of the three 4x4 titans - Disco, Prado, Pajero

For decades, the three titans of the mid-range, luxury 4x4 off-road wagon market have beed the Land Rover Discovery, Mitsubishi Pajero and Toyota Prado. There are others in the segment, namely the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Hyundai Terracan, but they have not been fierce contenders, mainly because they aren’t very good. Some may suggest that vehicles like the Audi Q7 and BMW X5 should also mentioned, but they aren’t off roaders. They are just SUVs with four-wheel drive. There is a huge difference.

At first the Prado lead on-road, while the Discovery lead off-road. Then when the Discovery-2 was launched, it plummeted to the worst off-road, and it stayed worst on it. It’s fall from grace was due solely to some stupid person in the development team deciding to remove the centre diff lock and to force the vehicle to rely solely on its mostly pathetic traction-control for all its grip. The result was a vehicle that had pitifully poor traction off road. At this stage the Prado lead both off road and on it, the Pajero remaining steadfastly the middle runner.

Enter Discovery-3. When it arrived, so did its brand new traction control, which happily, worked. And it worked superbly. And with it, ride height control. It shot straight back to the leader in the off-road stakes, and amazingly, easily matched the Prado on-road. Mitsubishi, it seemed, had lost interest in its Pajero and did almost nothing. It fell to worst off road and worst on it - where it remains today. But the big question now is, how does the Prado stack up against the Discovery-4. It too has traction control, and the VX model has a lockable rear differential. Both vehicles have clever electronics and both are brilliant long-distance cruisers. Is there a winner? Yes I think there is, but it depends what you are looking for.

If you want long distance comfort and a diesel, the Discovery wins hands down. No contest. The Prado diesel is a lame horse by comparison. But the petrol model is a different story. The Toyota still doesn’t perform as well, performance and towing wise as the Discovery, but it’s great. Overall comfort, the VX Prado and the Discovery-4 are a tie. As vehicles to live with, day-by-day, I prefer the Discovery, for a few reasons. It’s very light and airy interior is a much more pleasant place to be, compared to the comparatively dark and gloomy Prado. Ride quality to, and the Disco is a bit better, but not much. On corrugations and a rough track, again, the Disco wins by a nose. But the Discovery’s split tailgate is, for me, a deal clincher. A drop-down tailgate is something that very few vehicles have, because it’s more expensive to make two doors and than one. The Range Rover has it, as does the Land Cruiser-200. But the Pajero, Prado and even the Range Rover Evoque, do not. I have lived with both, and it’s something that makes living with a station-wagon such a huge pleasure.

As an overland vehicle, the Discovery has only two downfalls, which are not shared by the Prado. The wheel size of 19” cannot be reduced to fit more practical tyres and, the ride height automatically drops to its ‘normal’ setting at only 55-kph, low enough to be very annoying at times. Are these two deal breakers? Maybe. As for the electronics; the Prado VX has just as much, so the two tie. However the Prado TX does not. Its suspension is old fashioned springs (not air-springs) and the chassis is the same as the old one, which means a good ride on most surfaces, very good off-road, you can modify it with smaller wheel rims and even give the clearance a bit of a lift. But alas, the D4D engine. It’s just too flat for that vehicle. Sure, you can live with it, but unfortunately for me, I’ve been driving in a diesel Discovery-4 these past few months, and I can confidently say, it’s even better that the V8 petrol version, for many reasons, not just economy.

So there it is. Soon, the Pajero, with its dated styling, even more dated engine and old fashioned ergonomics, is being left so far behind, I wander what will replace it?

As the shooting for my TV series comes to a close, the time to hand the Discovery back looms. Of the Prados, Pajeros, Jeeps, Porsche, Subarus, Land Cruisers, Fortuners, Hiluxes, Mahindras, Patrols, Fords and the rest, I can count on one hand the test vehicles that I’ve been truly disappointed to give back. Discovery-4 is near the top of that short list. What’s at the top? Porsche Cayenne, if you must know.

Monday, 18 June 2012

A roof tent or ground tent? A tough decision:

What’s good about a roof tent:

·      Secure from wild animals, to a point.
·      Secure from scorpions. Insect security varies with quality.
·      Takes a shorter time to erect than a ground tent, perhaps by 20%.
·      Some are awkward to pack up and return to its cover. Some are easier.
·      If the ground is not level, the vehicle can be made level with rocks etc.
·      If you move around a lot, the vehicle rocks to and fro.
·      The mattress and sleeping bags can be left inside as the tent is folded away, saving space in the vehicle. A huge advantage.
·      Some models of rigid (boxed) roof tents can be extremely easy to erect and pack away. Others are not, so insist you practice it in the shop!

What’s NOT good about a roof tent:

·      Must be collapsed and packed away fully before the vehicle can be moved, for a game drive etc.
·      You have to be a bit of a contortionist to get dressed and undressed inside.
·      Heavy. Reduces remaining weight permitted on roof. Lifts the centre of gravity.
·      Even the large ones can only sleep two adults, and even then it’s cramped. Leave the bags in the vehicle.
·      If you are getting on in age, you have to climb on the rack to unpack and repack, which on a slippery ladder in the early morning can be hazardous. Over 50s’ – take this seriously!

What’s good about a ground tent:

·      Tents advertised as 3-man bow tents can easily accommodate three adults and their bags. Others can barely fit two people, so don’t judge a tent by its packaging.
·      Often less effort to pack away, depending on the make.
·      Self-standing which means far more convenient.
·      You can almost stand up.
·      By comparison, far less weight and can be carried anywhere.

What’s NOT good about a ground tent:

·      Less secure from wild animals although they are not a real danger, more a perceived one.
·      Scorpions - keeping the flap zipped up is more important.
·      Tent must be emptied when packed away.
·      If there is no level ground or it’s covered with rocks, too bad! The ground can be very hard and cold.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Coincidence? I think not. More on Zimbabwe

Last week a met a man at my flying club who told me he was from Zimbabwe. I had told him that I had recently gone there on a look-and-see trip to find out if it was still as bad as people (including me) thought. I found out that he had lived there, when I did. That was back in 1966, when I was six. We had stayed just six months, living in a thatched cottage not far from what was then called Salisbury. Then he got talking about his primary school - Highlands. The coincidences came one on top the other. He also lived in Highlands. It turned out that not only did he live in the same suburb, he went to the same school and his sister was in my class. Not only that - he lived in the same street - on the same side of the road about ten houses apart. Now why am I telling you this, you may ask?

Because it’s my job to get things right, especially when people’s safety is at stake. This man was a blessing to many a would-be Zimbabwe visitor. He explained that he had travelled from Beit Bridge to Vic Falls, and onto northern Zambia in February this year. (Three months ago) And his story was the polar opposite from my own. It had taken more than US$1000 in bribes to get him through the country. The police would stop them, arrest them without even asking questions, and tell them they had to pay a spot fine or see a magistrate in three days, and while they waited, it would be in a jail cell. The offence was sometimes speeding, when in fact the radar camera was not on display and the actual speed bore no resemblance to that claimed. There were claims that the front reflectors were not the right size and others ridiculous charges. They had also been hijacked in Harare. This I am told (and was warned during my visit) is common practice. In the centre of Harare, gangs will spike a tyre and when you pull over to repair it, you are hijacked and your cameras, wallets and cell phones are taken. The warning is, even if you destroy a tyre – drive on! Even if you wait until the ‘coast is clear’, they wait, hidden and wait until your backs are turned.

So, my conclusions… would I take my family on a motoring holiday through Zimbabwe? I'm not that keen any more.