At a base price of R440,000, the new BMW X1 should satisfy those who are being forced to tighten their belts, but still want class, comfort, perkiness — and that all-important status. Picture: BLOOMBERG/CHRIS RATCLIFFE
At a base price of R440,000, the new BMW X1 should satisfy those who are being forced to tighten their belts, but still want class, comfort, perkiness — and that all-important status. Picture: BLOOMBERG/CHRIS RATCLIFFE

THERE will come a time when we look back on this period with shivers down our spines. Let’s not make any bones about it: this is going to be a tough year.

We’re in the grips of a drought, which means we need to import tonnes of our staple foods into ports that are said to be unprepared to cope. Those staple foods have to be bought with a currency in freefall, which means food price inflation is about to become truly frightening — eroding the value of the meagre earnings of the working poor and the capacity of grants to offset the worst depredations of poverty.

Frighteningly, we have, to some extent, been shielded from the worst side effects of our currency’s debasement by the collapse in oil prices — as I type, just below $30 a barrel for Brent crude. A return to prices we’d have considered cheap just a year ago would have a drastic effect on the price of fuel in SA – presuming that the rand will not recover. And why would it?

...

AS A result of all this, we can expect a few interest rate rises this year, adding pressure to the over-burdened middle class, which the government seems to expect to be able to afford tax rises in addition to snowballing energy costs. We can presumably expect our credit rating to be junked this year too, increasing the cost of servicing existing debt and the vast amount required to build Russian nuclear power stations considerably.

This will be a pivotal year in SA. It will test us. From the comparatively mundane question of whether South African Airways can keep on flying to the greater question of whether our fraying social fabric can endure the economic tsunami that will engulf the poor, it looks as though it’s going to be a stern test.

Much has been made about incidents of racism on social media. Utterly egregious as they have been — and, in darker moments, crushingly disheartening to witness — they are a symptom of our greatest challenge: the continued racial divide in our economy.

The revelation that a certain kind of white person of a certain age once gainfully employed in a trade legendary for its affiliation to the inept and the dishonest is also a racist can surely not be a surprise to the intelligent observer of life. To hell with Penny Sparrow, to all who sail with her and, indeed, to whatever nag she rode in on too.

...

BUT all of this is just wealthy people yelling at each other on their iPhones — screaming into the echo chamber of their timelines and loving the sound of what comes back. I know I mustn’t diminish the awfulness of interpersonal racism as experienced especially, but not exclusively, by black people, or a mob of Facechats will twit me their insta-rage while drinking deep on their favourite cup of offendachino.

But if we want to tackle what is now commonly known as structural racism, we have to collectively look at the state of the economy and ask ourselves what to do.

What’s the plan, SA? I’ve not enjoyed the emergence of a false dichotomy between arguing for growth and arguing for transformation. They are easy companions, the green shoots of which we saw in the growth years of the Mbeki administration.

We can all look at our debt, and one place in which we could all save a bit of money is in the cars we choose to buy. I know it’s hard to hear, but South Africans will surely have no choice but to downgrade their appetites for posh cars.

A reasonably specced, mid-range Volkswagen Golf (a perennial yardstick by which I measure the cost of basic, quality, modern cars) is now R330,000 and I’m afraid that’s only going to get worse.

It’s a good time to buy a new car. But time is running out. Importers, especially, will struggle to keep a handle on their prices, but new-car inflation will be savage this year. Domestic manufacturers will have some benefits under government incentives, but the overall picture will be poor.

So then, how about that German sport utility vehicle (SUV)? BMW has been making two excellent cars for years — the X3 and the X5. Both models face tough competition and (again, mid-range, reasonably specced) go for R700,000 and R1m respectively.

A year ago, BMW SUV fans might have wondered what to do, because previously, the X1 wasn’t really an option. The previous generation X1 was a rare BMW in that I hated it — I described it as "awful" in this column.

...

WELL, that’s all changed. The new car isn’t an ugly hatchback on stilts, but rather has the dimensions of an SUV. Rather surprisingly, it shares a platform with the front-wheel-drive 2-Series Active Tourer and the current range of Minis.

The X1 is genuinely spacious and infinitely more comfortable and plush than the car it replaces. Rear seats slide to create more space and door apertures are improved, making access to the rear less undignified. You can even have one in 4x4 if you fancy towing or some light offroading.

A small criticism would be that the front seats are not the most cosseting for taller folks, but it’s as good to drive as it ought to be — reasonably pointy and vastly better sprung than before.

It’s a reflection of our times that a car like this is bog-standard at R440,000 with a (hugely clever) 100kW, 1.5-litre three-cylinder motor. The one you’d want, with a 141kW two-litre four-cylinder motor, 4x4 and automatic transmission is yours for R547,000 before you’ve gone near the options list.

It seems like last week that R500,000 bought a nice X3. But those days are gone for good and, when downsizing expectations, the X1 has, in the nick of time, become a car you can downsize to without any shame and has probably done enough to keep certain worried people in a German SUV when they might have considered, sniffily and with long teeth, surveying the offerings of certain Japanese or Korean manufacturers.

Times are tough indeed.