Toyota dominates South Africa's bakkie market, so why hasn't the Prospecton-based firm produced a 3-quarter-tonne bakkie since the demise of the Stallion 30 years ago? Apparently, there have been quiet attempts to do just that...
Nobody needs to tell Toyota how to run its global bakkie business, especially not in South Africa! The world’s most valuable automotive company, if you measure by market capitalisation, is inarguably dominant in the local market.
Despite South Africa currently navigating a very testing economic environment, Toyota has set all-time sales records this year. And most of those sales are bakkies – instead of cheap entry-level cars.
To give you some indication of how strong Toyota’s South African bakkie business is, consider this: if Hilux was an independent entity, it would be the country’s 5th-biggest automotive brand – more popular than all of Hyundai…
Lots of Toyota bakkies – but no small ones
The Toyota Stallion was the last Toyota to compete in the 3/4 tonne bakkie market.
Toyota outsells all rivals by an embarrassing margin, but there is one bakkie segment in which it does not compete and that has left the door open for Nissan to run some very handy sales numbers.
For decades South Africa had a healthy half-tonne bakkie market. It was sustained by the reputation Nissan established with its 1400. Although it looked like a toy vehicle, the 1400 (also known as the Champ, but later on in its production life) had those a fundamental mechanical feature that all true bakkie followers hold dear: it was rear-wheel drive.
Nissan’s 1400 was tough and could work under significant loads, at a fraction of the price you’d pay for a one-ton bakkie. Artisans and small-item logistic companies realised that its payload was all they required and, as the 1400’s popularity surged, Toyota devised a very cunning rival.
It launched the Stallion in the 1980s and this was a typically intuitive Toyota light commercial vehicle: a 3-quarter-tonne bakkie. The Stallion, which was based on the Kijang, looked odd, but it was enough of a miniaturised Hilux to be successful.
As the full-specification Hilux gained a stranglehold over the South African market in the 1990s, Toyota exited the 3-quarter-tonne bakkie market, leaving Ford (Bantam, and in Mazda guise, Rustler), Opel (Corsa bakkie, later Chevrolet Ute) and Nissan to do a robust trade in compact bakkies from the late 1990s until deep into the 2000s. The difference was most of those bakkies were neither rear-wheel drive, nor built on a ladder frame.
Boet, you need a Bantam. Ford's Fiesta-based bakkie was popular but mostly for light lifting.
The bakkies were based on compact hatchback platforms fitted with reconfigured bodywork and load boxes. For light items and adventure journeys with surfboards and mountain bikes on the back, these compact bakkies worked a charm. But they were never purposed for the dedicated work role that a 1400 or Stallion was capable of.
Where have all the small bakkies gone?
In 2019, Nissan owns the sub-1-tonne bakkie market, which it had such a significant share in creating, with NP200. Business is good, with Nissan selling in excess of 2 000 units in a strong month, but the market is nowhere near its peak of the mid-2000s.
Ford won’t bother to replace the Bantam and General Motors made such a mess of its Utility business in South Africa, that even if PSA has a future Opel Corsa bakkie concept – it would probably not successfully revive the model here.
The Nissan 1400 (or Champ) was a hero among the small bakkie competitors in the 90s.
The question is, why does the mighty Toyota allow Nissan to market and sell so many 3-quarter-tonne bakkies a month without opposition? Timing is everything and the NP200 was a happy coincidence at the peak of good relations between the Renault/Nissan Alliance partners.
Renault has skillfully developed a global emerging market platform, which was rugged enough to convert into a front-wheel-drive bakkie. The NP200 is essentially a Sandero/Logan bakkie and Nissan had the legacy bakkie brand cachet and local production facilities to make it work.
Could a Corolla bakkie work?
So, if Nissan can develop and market a utilitarian front-wheel-drive bakkie with such success in South Africa, why can’t Toyota?
The first issue is the platform. A bakkie version of the Rush rear-wheel-drive MPV would be ideal and the truest successor to the Stallion, but that is simply not going to happen. To make your local bakkie business work, with all the associated export credit incentives, you must assemble it domestically. And Toyota does not have a line dedicated to Rush production in South Africa.
The Rush could be a suitable candidate for a bakkie base, but local production would be required.
An option would be the Corolla Quest. The 10-generation Corolla has proven mechanicals and it is built in Durban. All Toyota would have to do is redesign the bodywork behind its B-pillar, add a load box, tailgate and reconfigure the rear-suspension for more load carrying.
It doesn’t seem as if it would require much in the way of R&D and there is no question that a Corolla Quest bakkie would be madly popular in South Africa. So why doesn’t Toyota produce one? Well, rumour has it the firm did attempt to develop a modern front-driven bakkie (the platform used was never divulged, but the Quest would be the most likely candidate) and got as far as prototype testing it before the problems arose.
The issue with passenger vehicle platform bakkies
There are 3 very substantial problems with the idea of a Toyota compact bakkie, especially one based on the Corolla.
The first issue is tooling. If Toyota was going to build a custom Corolla bakkie for the local market, they would have to produce the new stampings and body panels themselves. Not to mention redeveloping the rear-suspension and a commitment to overall validation engineering.
At a global scale, with shared resources, that would be cheap to do. But to amortise the cost of all that, given South Africa's modest sales volumes, would make it too expensive an undertaking. Ask any industrial engineer and they will tell you: it is remarkably easy to build a few prototypes, but an enormous challenge to build thousands of units a year, with perfect tolerances.
The 2nd issue is front-wheel drive. It is true that Nissan’s NP200 customers don’t appear to mind the fact that their 3-quarter-tonne bakkies don’t have a differential at the rear. It is also a fact, that they have no other choice, due to a lack of rear-wheel drive alternatives.
The NP200 has a monopoly and as a result, racks up close to 2 000 units a month.
For true utility, rear-wheel drive is best. Trying to climb a steep gravel gradient with 750 kg on the back and only the front wheels for propulsion is a formula for frustration. A front-wheel-drive Toyota bakkie could dilute the brand’s workhorse image; the firm would rather spare its loyal customers that annoyance.
The final engineering problem with a Corolla-based compact bakkie is structure. SUVs might have transitioned from ladder-frame to monocoque construction, but bakkies have not. With good reason.
If you need to carry weight in a load box, the separate construction of a rugged steel frame undercarriage and bodywork is best. For a compact or mid-size passenger car platform to carry 750 kg in a monocoque structure, is inviting premature fatigue and wear – especially if it is going to see a lot of gravel road use.
Crossovers are all the rage...
Beyond these fundamental engineering and configuration issues, which have perhaps convinced Toyota to not develop its own compact bakkie for South Africa, there is another, very fundamental, reason why the Japanese firm won't introduce a 3-quarter-tonne bakkie: marketing.
A decade ago, at the peak of South Africa’s compact bakkie market, there were no entry-level crossovers. If you were a young buyer with an adventurous lifestyle, you had to purchase a Ford Bantam or Corsa Utility to facilitate. Today there are a host of front-wheel-drive crossovers that perform do the same function, only better...
Toyota doesn’t build a Corolla Quest bakkie, because they know the local market better than anyone else. It’s still nice to dream, though….