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Datsun Go: Doing basics basically

CAR REVIEW

It’s been a largely eventless Saturday — and I plan to keep it that way — until my phone rings. A friend of mine is breathless on the other end. Clearly in distress, he manages to explain that he took a tumble on a mountain bike; he fears something might be broken — at the very least, there’s no way he’ll be able to drive home. 

I reach for the car keys as I rush to the door. I had been testing the Datsun Go over the past couple of days so my hands naturally reached for them until they were interrupted by a thought: “Nope … that’s not just going to do.”

Regardless of the quality of this car, and we’ll get to that soon, this is not the vehicle you want to have to depend on when urgency and/or distance become factors. Like driving 30 minutes out of Jo’burg in a hurry to fetch someone and take them to the hospital, for instance. Partly it’s a speed issue, but there are also some lingering perceptions about this car that won’t go away; perceptions that are kind of Datsun’s fault.

When it was first introduced to the South African market, the Go arrived rather short on safety features. No airbags, no stability control and no ABS. Considering its small frame, there was nothing short of a shopping trolley that you’d prefer less to provide the filling for a high-speed sandwich.

Fortunately, that’s changed. An airbag will now deploy should your new ABS not be enough to stop an unfortunate slide. The Datsun Go still might not earn the highest safety rating, but at least there’s a buffer preventing you from having a Fred Flintstone-esque connection with the road.

That improvement continues to the overall quality of the car too: it’s actually fairly competent. If, of course, you keep the price permanently at the back of your mind. That would always be a factor in any review but it has a special emphasis in this market. As one of the cheapest cars you could buy new in the country — it begins at R159 100 — it’s important to remember that the manufacturer would inevitably have had to make sacrifices to be able to earn that distinction. Its discretion in making the right sacrifices is how the manufacturer will be judged.

The Go seems to have most of them right. You could spend all day flicking at cheap plastics and basic finishings, but at the end of the day it works: you have a running automobile that will take you where you need to go. Perhaps not with a dollop of panache or pace, but there nonetheless. From A to B — the core function of jumping into a four-wheeled vehicle.

City driving is rather pleasant, too. With such a light body, the Go nips around in short bursts, ducking in between tight spaces that appear in traffic. If your plan is to drive around town, there’s little that you’d find wrong here, handling or otherwise. 

The problem comes on the ol’ open road. On the highway it rattles as outside noise floods the cabin. All the while the engine squeals, expressing its displeasure at the request to get it to the speed limit. Pushing for 120km/h is by no means a given — the 1.2-litre engine calling on every one of its pumped-out 50kW to lend a hand in the effort. It’ll get there, but it feels distinctly unnatural, as if it were designed to come to a halt every few minutes.

And that is why this car didn’t fell like a prudent option when a friend was in need. It’s not bad, just designed for a specific purpose.

If your mission is to get to and from work at the most affordable rate possible, you can’t really go wrong here — if you hadn’t already guessed, fuel consumption is ridiculously good. Datsun claims 5-litre per 100km, which is fairly easy to believe: this thing just goes and goes with the digital grey blocks of the petrol gauge remaining stationary. 

At the end of the day you have to ask yourself a simple question: just how often might you have to rescue someone with a broken arm?

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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