Although it’s not the first bakkie of its kind, the arrival of the V6 turbo diesel Volkswagen Amarok marks the beginning of South Africa’s luxury double-cab era. With their asking prices swelling towards the R1-million mark, could “luxobakkies” curtail demand for full-sized SUVs?

Kids can’t get enough screen time. Adults can’t watch enough series. And private car customers, it would appear, can’t buy enough SUVs.

The most pronounced trend during this last decade of automotive design and customer demand has been the coming of SUVs. They are the industry’s profit ponies and considered so crucial, that Germans brands (who anchor global automotive business) have predicted, and are preparing, to furnish product portfolios with 50% SUV content in the near future.

Unlike congested European markets with virulently anti-car cities, South Africa’s situation is a rather different one. With our immense network of gravel roads and a keen sense of adventure, the requirement for vehicles with true utility has made the proliferation of SUVs a justifiable evolution. There’s a caveat, though. South Africans still love bakkies more.

The Merc X-Class is due at the end of 2017 and will be a test of how much SA is willing to pay for a luxury bakkie.

This year the limits of that desire, justifying the double-cab bakkie as an authentic SUV alternative, will be tested. Towards the end of 2017, the brand which represents luxury motoring with a greater lineage and variety of offerings than any other – Mercedes – will bring to market its first 4×4 double-cab bakkie.

As with all things Mercedes, X-Class will certainly price handsomely – at a level which represents value to those who can understand the merit of a Mercedes bakkie; but also a level which will be particularly ambitious.

How ambitious?

Mercedes remains understandably coy about X-Class pricing, but the promise of C-Class cabin bits and 3-litre V6 turbodiesel power mean it will be quite a bit dearer than Nissan’s Navara, which it shares a chassis and suspension configuration with. Fortunately, there is a product which can assist in understanding the marketing logic and possible price position of X-Class.

It’s German. It’s a double-cab. With passenger car ergonomics and cabin bits. Has a V6 engine too. And gives us the closest clue to where X-Class will price and why it’s happening. This tool of analysis is Amarok.

Japanese idea. German execution.

South Africa has had V6 turbo diesel double-cabs before. Most people, including the marketing staff at German brands, forget this. Late in 2010, Nissan did something quite courageous and delivered to the local market, Navara V6 dCi.

Not only was it immensely powerful for its time, with outputs of 170 kW and 550 Nm (credible even in 2017), but its cabin featured true SUV-grade infotainment equipment. Here was a vehicle with a load-bin and off-road ability (curiously without a rear differential lock), that passengers who weren’t wearing hardhats or hunting camo would feel comfortable travelling in.

The Navara V6 dCi was the first double-cab bakkie to break the R500k barrier back in 2010.

Nissan’s Navara V6 dCi double-cab also priced at a R100k premium to its rivals. It became the first bakkie to breach R500 000 – and not just slightly beyond that number. The price of R573 700 remains the only attribute of it people remember and in the fullness of time, it has become the somewhat forgotten double-cab of South African bakkie history.

New Amarok is prophetically the second coming of Nissan’s Navara V6 dCi idea: SUV cabin comfort, V6 diesel power and 1-tonne load capacity. The difference is that VW has executed it with greater aplomb. Amarok’s V6 turbodiesel is sourced from Audi – Navara’s was a Renault – and the ZF 8-speed automatic transmission, delivers unparalleled drivetrain adaptability.

VW’s double-cab V6 will crawl up-and-over the most technical off-road terrain, is always in the appropriate gear when hunting for that gap in traffic and cruises effortlessly at near autobahn speeds, with the least volume of acoustic intrusion possible. The VW passenger car cabin components also mean it’s no more intimidating to drive than an oversized Polo.

The Amarok V6 is over R700k for certain models, it will no doubt be a useful acid test of the market for the Merc X-Class.

Perhaps more than anything else, Amarok demonstrates that double-cab bakkies are now approaching, and possibly cannibalising, the bottom-end of South Africa’s off-road-capable SUV market. By off-road capable SUVs, we’re referring to Touareg, Pathfinder, Discovery, Prado, Pajero and GLE (the non-AMGs). All credible off-roaders, with spacious car-like interior architecture, but crucially, without overt high-performance 0-100kph credentials or ‘40-profile tyres.

An Amarok mirrors the off-road ability of Touareg, with entirely acceptable cabin comfort, and although its rear suspension isn’t as sophisticated, the bakkie’s ability to carry 1010 kg is well worth the sacrifice. As a lifestyle vehicle, it’s much better than an SUV for a customer profile which appears to mirror the requirements of most South Africans.

Better than SUVs in surprising ways

The double-cab bakkies of 2017 are in surprising ways superior to SUVs for travelling and adventure. Loading an SUV to the where your kit meets the roof trim is foolish and dangerous. If any of the fluids you packed start leaking, upholstery’s ruined and during an emergency brake application, you have objects that become cabin missiles.

With a bakkie, passengers and kit are separated. There’s a tonneau cover limiting the height at which you can load and no risk of objects flying about the cabin when you pulse that ABS pump to stop short of a Gemsbok en route your favourite Namibian wildlife reserve. Best of all, if you are returning from a weekend away, and your outdoor gear is muddy, or there are fluid containers with the risk of spill or seepage, a bakkie load-bin requires only a minute of high-pressure hosing to clean and a few minutes of sun to dry.

Modern safety features, a decent infotainment system and a 1-tonne loadbay. Could this be the perfect combination for the South African?

Nimble steering and clever suspension calibration imbue Amarok with great high-speed cruising confidence, and with that Audi V6 turbodiesel running at 580 Nm on overboost, it’s faster than any other double-cab bakkie South Africans have ever had the option on. With the grade of stability systems and tyre technology on offer a decade ago, a bakkie of Amarok’s performance could have been classed as an irresponsible product offering. In 2017, it feels right. In fact, it feels so right, you’d consider it as being priced fairly compared to several SUVs of comparable size.

R700 000 bakkies are the new ‘normal’

Much as Navara V6 dCi challenged double-cab pricing perceptions, Amarok V6 has done the same in 2017: shattering the R700k price ceiling for a South African double-cab. For the blend of traditional workhorse carrying ability, open-road cruising performance and cabin comfort it’s a natural evolution of price inflation.

Think double-cab bakkies have suddenly become alarmingly expensive? If you track V6 turbodiesel double-cab bakkie pricing against a performance car benchmark, such as BMW’s 1M, for instance, the bakkies haven’t radically escalated. In 2011, BMW’s 1M retailed for R537k. In 2017, it successor, M2, has a sticker price closer to R900k. Navara V6 dCi was R573k back in 2011 and Amarok V6 is just beyond R700k in 2017.

When compared to passenger cars, bakkies have not actually grown in price nearly as much.

The Germans have formulated bakkies which are what South Africans long for from their SUVs. Sensible ergonomics, intuitive infotainment and quality seats inside. Sophisticated automatic transmissions to exploit the performance and refinement potential of what is fuelled under the bonnet… All whilst retaining the traditional bakkie load-bin, which can cope with every South African leisure or labour eventuality. After 100 000 km of gravel travel commuting, a heavy-duty bakkie tailgate, with its oversized hinges, is less likely to develop some shutline play, manifesting as a maddening rattle – something which afflicts the strut supported hatch doors on some SUVs.

VW has effectively opened the path for X-Class price acceptance with its V6 Amarok. Considering the parallels in configuration there’s little doubt the Mercedes bakkie will move us to a new price point for South African double-cabs. A price point beyond R800k.

*We’ve omitted Land Cruiser’s V8 double-cab for the good reason that it is not a V6 turbodiesel, nor particularly sophisticated in any possible way. It does retail for R734k, however.

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