What matters most: great product or great dealers?

Toyota's Riaan Esterhuysen collects the Fortuner's silverware. And yes, that's Victor Matfield with him, who is quite the celeb nowadays. The lady is event MC Pearl Thusi

That’s what I’m tinkering with in my mind in the aftermath of the cars.co.za awards, a COTY-type (Car Of The Year) competition which chooses winners in various categories and also chooses a brand of the year. The former is based on actual testing by a group of motoring journalists (with public input via an on-line voting system) while the latter is based exclusively on owner surveys.

The brands which dominate the South African market – Volkswagen and Toyota – dominated the awards too.

Volkswagen won four category prizes, so I’m assuming they have the best products and Toyota was the brand of the year (also winning a category). Toyota seems to take a more holistic approach and the aftersales experience is hugely important. Untroubled ownership is the essence of Toyota and while I don’t own one (and never have) I have experienced this philosophy in action both at a dealer and OE level.

Let’s face it, a Yaris isn’t a match for the very latest Polo (it was barely a match for the previous VW Supermini) and an Auris not the equal of a Golf but if you want a life partner that’s going to keep on giving, then a Toyota it must be.

In the (albeit short) history of the competition, VW tops the pile with 10 category wins but it has never won the Brand award. Toyota has now been Best Brand twice, as has upstart, Suzuki – this is a statistic which should worry local VW executives as this result is determined entirely by market and customer data.

Other stand-outs from the evening were two awards for Merc - which is crafting fantastic interiors and exteriors nowadays – and the Honda Civic Type R winning the hot hatch category, recording the brand’s first cars.co.za award in the process.

Ultimately, it is interesting that the ownership experience plays such an important role and once the new car thrill has worn off all most people want is a reliable car that is affordable to own, and when something goes wrong, a dealership nearby that doesn’t make you feel like you’re being a nuisance. Interestingly, in no fewer than 5 out of the 13 categories the judges’ favourites did not win, due to the impact of the ownership satisfaction aspect.

This of course is not unique to franchised dealers, where it can make or break a brand and applies to all products and most services. I’m sure every reader of this will have a story – or many stories – to tell in this regard!

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Toyota find the hatch “G” spot

Response – it is more important than outright power. We’re talking cars here, but it applies to many sport disciplines too. Sometimes in life as well.

I loved the Yaris GRMN for that more than anything else – the immediacy of its response. A 1.8-litre that feels twice that size when you punch the throttle in second or third, and heads straight for where you want to go.

Within a couple of hundred metres you realise that Toyota has worked hard to get their hot little Yaris sizzling and it is such a shame they won’t bring the car here. This despite having a media launch and then dropping a few of these into their press test fleet.

The objective is that: “…it will serve as a demonstration of Toyota’s sporting direction and signify the evolution of performance-minded Toyota products...”

Only 400 will be built globally so I should be grateful to be in a driver’s seat with more curves than the Nurburgring and on William Nicol in a quiet spell. Which nowadays is between 11 pm and 4 am.

At that time of the morning the car is a lot more alert than I am. It’s supercharged, so there’s none of this “wake me up before you go-go business” either. Freshly compressed air needs no encouragement to arrive at the inlet valves and into the heart of the beast. This is materially different from a turbocharger, which no matter what anyone says, takes time to get air moving. Even with all the clever anti-lag tech in the world, physics dictates that a forced induction system working straight off the engine is going to respond quicker than one that uses exhaust gas pressure to make something turn.

Those who live at sea level do not always appreciate just what an impact the air up here has. But assuming the lag issue is overcome (and thin Highveld in 35-degree plus ambient brings out lag in the very best), there will be a cost and complexity penalty somewhere.

I’m awake now, and the Yaris is making me grin: it is worth going out at some ungodly hour to drive a car that is designed with sensory pleasure in mind. So rather than being distracted by the traffic and the peripheral issues that come with it, you can use the opportunity to indulge your senses.

Those first acquaintances confirm the clutch is moderately heavy, the gearlever short and pleasingly mechanical in action, the throttle sharp. These are things you want in a car like this.

Drive it a bit more and you’ll appreciate the directness of the steering and the way the car seems to shrink around you. It feels lithe and nimble and you can place either front wheel where you want it with confidence. It weighs in at 1 135 kilos compared to a Polo GTI at just over 1 300…that’s a big difference.

The ride is firm in terms of compression damping and – comparatively speaking – less well controlled in rebound. But I didn’t do the mileage their test team did so maybe I’m a bit picky. Or just plain wrong.

The Nurburgring was mentioned earlier and needless to say, some of the development work was done there. It must be like rush hour on the Nordschleife, because every manufacturer on the planet seems to be there all the time! In fact, the little car’s name spelt out is “Gazoo Racing” tuned by the “Meister” of the “Nurburgring”. And that folks, has to be among the most unusual ways in which a car company arrived at a nomenclature…

Never mind amusing badging, for me this car is about the 2ZR-FE engine and you’ll want to play tunes on it all day. You’ll want to press it to the seven-thousand redline (peak power is as 6 800) and enjoy the sensation of the urgency not tapering off from about 5 000 – instead of a sense of it being all over prematurely, there’s just an ongoing rush until the limiter call time. It’s wonderfully progressive and the raspy exhaust note is delightful. Again, nothing like what you get from a turbo.

The need for another gear is something you wait for keenly: watching the red tacho needle out the corner of your eye and getting left foot and arm ready for a swift motion to the next cog. Bam! The revs drop but the momentum continues. Expect a decent chirp from the front rubber first to second, which is a bit of a naughty treat nowadays.

The GRMN has a limited slip diff and it is worth mentioning that there’s some torque steer when piling it on in the low gears. The tugging is well masked, but it’s there. Four-pot front brake calipers are clearly visible through the slender wheel and being painted in Toyota Gazoo Racing white, good luck to anyone tasked with keeping them clean! The stoppers are seriously good though with an action which gels with the rest of the changes to turn a humble family hatch into something memorable.

If, but, maybe…how much would it cost to buy one in SA if you could?

Natural rivals would be the R375K Polo GTI (a 2.0-litre DSG only package) and the R450K Clio RS 18F1 (a 1.6-turbo). With 156kW the Toyota falls between them power-wise but its 250Nm is well shy of either. Toyota claim a 6.3 second zero to 100 km/h and South Africa CAR tested the GTI at 6.65 and estimate 6.7 for the Renault – with its weight advantage Toyota may be fastest but we’ll never know. Of course, VW could always do a Clubsport version of a Polo GTI, but it’ll still be turbocharged.

Bottom line? Personally, I think what the world needs is more superchargers and fewer turbochargers: in this instance it is key to the car’s character. Response…you don’t know you haven’t got it - until you haven’t got it…

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Some say you need to be crazy to own one!

Being a petrolhead and not loving Alfa Romeos is a bit of a contradiction in terms. Well, maybe.

For us of the older generation Alfa always have been special. Their overt sportiness is undeniable and even through ups and downs, that remains. A company with a chequered past and hits and misses on a business level, the Milan-based manufacturer mostly delivered the goods when it comes to product. But maybe that needs to be qualified: the styling has almost always been spot on (certainly in the case of every GTV ever), the road manners have been a sheer pleasure and the way they make a driver feel emotionally is without peer in mass market cars. These are sweeping statements of course and there have been exceptions.

Alfa Romeo have kept their iconic grille design over the years, one that immediately tells you what car it is.

But even the big cars – the 164 and the 159 for example – left a driver feeling highly satisfied.

Quality-wise…hmmm, a lot of them have been about as consistent as Donald Trump on Twitter.

Alfa Romeo Cuore Sportivo, the Alfa history by Lorenzo Ardizio, includes a foreword by Nick Mason of Pink Floyd. Mason is a passionate car collector and can talk with authority about cars old and new and has also driven many cars in his expansive stable in anger.

In his missive he makes a comparison between cars and animals and points out that there’s little in common between a leopard in a zoo and one in the natural world. True beauty comes in seeing it in action, rather than static, he says.

Alfas are very much like that. They do look good static but they look much better on the move! And of course movement brings with it other sensory pleasure, like sound.

As a teenager I can remember sitting on the cheap seats at Kyalami, with a train of GTVs coming through Crowthorne, multiple 3.0-litre V6s at full chat still a sharp memory. Motorsport has been part of Alfa’s heritage forever though sometimes also a hit and miss affair, from Formula one down. Remarkably, Alfas have only won 10 F1 races.

Nowadays we see Alfa Romeo in F1 via Sauber, an outfit that has had more partners than Liz Taylor. Could 2019 be a significant year for Alfa Rome Sauber F1 with Kimi Raikkonen joining them until the end of 2020? Or is he just slowly winding down into retirement?

Whatever comes to pass on the tracks, there is no doubt that there are still plenty of special Alfa Romeo road cars. Witness the Giulietta, Giulia and the 4C…all three striking, exciting offerings in their segment with a unique flavour. And judging by the number of Alfa customers who make contact with RGMotorsport, there are still plenty of owners who want to make their one more special than the next! There have been special versions of all three to come out of the Motorsport workshop at RGM.

That in itself is an endorsement of the brand – people don’t just buy it and feel the job is done. There’s a constant hunger, a need to feel how changes will enhance the performance and overall driving experience still further…it’s a bit like an addiction – but a good one!