Off-road test: Isuzu D-Max 3.0 DT 4 × 4 LX AT35
Limited edition bakkies with suitably exclusive price tags are very much in vogue at the moment. Think Ford Ranger Raptor, Toyota Hilux GR Sport, VW Amarok Dark Label, Nissan Navara Stealth, and so on. Now Isuzu has added to the list, with the upsized D-Max 3.0DT 4×4 LX Arctic Trucks, running on 35-inch wheels. We put the new AT35 through its paces.
It’s a brave move: introducing a D-Max double cab 4×4 with a price tag of nearly R800 000, in a tough, competitive and some-may-claim oversaturated leisure bakkie market. Yet it also seems to be an inspired move. Isuzu says it has increased the production run of its new Arctic Trucks 35-inch D-Max, the first batch of big-wheeled bakkies already accounted for. Clearly there is a demand for an Isuzu double cab bakkie running on huge 35-inch BFGoodrich KM2 all-terrain tyres and featuring custom suspension parts, Fox Performance Series shock absorbers (quite the fashionable item these days) and custom-made Arctic Trucks parts like the extended wheel arches, rims and side-mirror extensions. Our test unit was replenished in ‘Pull Me Over Red’ and rounded off with black 17-inch Arctic Trucks rims and the chunky BFGoodrich KM2 all-terrains, complete with the obligatory white lettering. The result is a really eye-catching machine. It’s one that draws a crowd in a shopping centre’s parking lot, complete strangers getting all giddy about the big red Isuzu, wanting to know all the details. But the big question on everyone’s lips was: is this Isuzu all show, and not so much go?
The mechanical parts, and some numbers
At the base of the conversion is a custom Arctic Trucks 30mm body lift, and together with the addition of the coil over Fox Performance Series shocks (the rear leaf springs remain stock), the big 35-inch wheels fit the D-Max with no body cutting required. The flared wheel arch extensions, branded mud flaps, extended side mirrors and discreet AT35 branding are added, to complete the transformation. The six-speed automatic gearbox (with transfer case) remains stock, so the ratios have not been altered to compensate for the bigger diameter wheels. Ditto with the engine, and the familiar three-litre turbodiesel mill delivers its stock 130kW and 380Nm, the latter available from 1 800 to 2 800r/min. With those wheel arches added, the AT35 is all of 2 040mm wide, 180mm wider than a stock D-Max 3.0DT 4×4 LX. The vehicle’s overall height has increased substantially to 1 980mm, 190mm up from the stock model’s 1 790mm. Many underground parking areas are limited to 2.2 metres… so this Isuzu will be a tight fit. The bigger wheels and extended arches have added some kilograms to the deal, too, and the AT35 tips the scale at 2.2-tons, only about 100kg heavier than the stock D-Max.
Interestingly, the AT35 D-Max has its own ‘line’ in Isuzu’s manufacturing plant in Struandale, Port Elizabeth. So instead of modifying a brand new D-Max, the suspension parts and wheel arches are installed on the line. There’s certainly a reassuring element about that.
The on-road performance
The AT35 is only available with Isuzu’s six-speed automatic gearbox and the well-proven four-cylinder turbodiesel engine. The clutch in a manual gearbox set-up would take too big a pounding if the gear ratios are unaltered but changing the ratios would result in additional costs, hiking the price even closer to the R1-million mark. With the automatic gearbox’s torque converter smoothing things out, the AT35 feels surprisingly brisk off the line, in spite of those big 35-inch wheels. Measured against the clock, the 0–60km/h sprint comes up in a handy 5.4 seconds. However, the Isuzu requires 13.6 seconds to sprint from standstill to 100km/h as the extra weight and wind drag take effect so it’s no dragster between the traffic lights. In-gear acceleration remains good but don’t expect your neck muscles to get a workout when you floor the accelerator. Even though the six-speed auto ’box is on the ball with downshifts, the AT35 feels slightly more lethargic than the standard bakkie during overtaking manoeuvres. The D-Max easily maintains 120km/h on the highway, the revs lounging at a low 1 500r/min (thanks to the larger wheels that ensure less revs at higher speeds). Driven in a relaxed fashion around town and on the open road – and with some low-range 4×4 driving included – we achieved an average consumption (measured) of 11.6 litres/100km. In the braking department, the big red lorry features discs at the front and drums at the rear, assisted by an anti brake-lock system (ABS). Even with the extra weight of the conversion, as well the BFGoodrich all-terrain tyres – which offer great off-road traction but are less grippy on tar than highway terrain items – the Isuzu stops in a solid, no-fade fashion. If you are travelling at a true 120km/h in the Isuzu and you hit the brakes, the big red lorry will require 71.3m (or 4.3 seconds) to come to a stop.
The ride stuff
Isuzu’s bakkie range has never had a reputation for offering a truly plush ride. Tough, hard as nails and with the ability to carry its 945kg payload all day without any ill effects, yes. But a ‘plush’ and ‘comfortable’ ride are not two qualities the Isuzu praise singers would normally highlight in their D-Max press releases. In the case of the Arctic Trucks AT35 version though, those singers best get their best praise on. This version, with the uprated Fox suspension and other AT bits and bobs, dishes up a really comfortable and plush ride. In a stock D-Max bakkie, speed bumps normally require a slow and steady approach if you don’t want to upset the kidneys. In the AT35 you hardly bother slowing down… the combination of the higher profile BFGs and the Fox shocks absorb the impact of the speed bumps much better than the set-up in a standard D-Max does. That combination means the AT35 is also not scared of corners. In fact, it actually likes them, a lot. You can chuck the Isuzu into a corner at speed and it will turn on your chosen line, the tail following obediently and not threatening to overtake the front wheels. Body lean is minimal. This D-Max is equally impressive on dirt. Some drivers claim the stock Isuzu bakkie’s tail is on the bouncy and loose side on a fast, rough gravel road, especially without a significant load on the bak. In the AT35, the ride always remains solid and stable, the tail content to follow the front wheels without causing a scene. As an extra safety net, the Isuzu’s standard stability and traction control system is also on standby. For the record, the D-Max double cab’s payload rating of 945kg remains unchanged in the AT35 application.
4×4 for snow only?
It’s interesting to note some writings claim this Isuzu is only suited to the snow and glacier conditions of Iceland, where Arctic Trucks’ head office is based. Fact is, in Iceland the snow is only around for about six months of the year. Volcanic rock, extremely tricky river crossings, sand and mud are on the menu for the remainder. So it’s not like owners of these vehicles only take them out of the shed when the first snow starts to fall, and return them to the shed when winter is done. In fact, a typical Arctic Trucks vehicle will probably see more 4×4 action in the summer months than in winter. So they are engineered to handle a variety of extreme 4×4 conditions, and certainly not only snow or ice. Furthermore, the D-Max AT35 was put through an extensive local testing process to ensure it can handle any African challenge, just like a standard Isuzu. This includes heat, dust, water, rocks, sand… you name it. But what is it really like on a 4×4 track? At the Gerotek Vehicle Testing Facility’s 4×4 tracks it is, well, nigh unstoppable. With low range selected via the dial between the front seats (no more kort stokkie in the Isuzu bakkie, of course), you only need watch the sheer girth of the bakkie, remember it’s a considerable 180mm wider than a stock D-Max. Lifting a wheel off the ground was no easy feat, such is the articulation of especially the rear wheels. Combined with the grip from the BFGoodrich tyres, the Isuzu AT35 proved so capable we eventually resorted to tackling obstacles on the worst lines we could, just to give it a sort of workout. With 310mm clearance at the front and 280mm at the back (as measured), inappropriate lines through difficult obstacles hardly mattered. You just point the Isuzu any way you like and the drivetrain will sort out the details. Only in the most extreme cases were the rear differential lock called into action, and up she’d go. About that drivetrain: the three-litre turbodesel engine doesn’t have the most horses in the double cab bakkie stables but its low-rev tractability, lack of turbo lag and the smooth automatic gearbox ensure the AT35 can crawl over those big boulders with consummate ease. Engine braking on steep descents is, as expected with the bigger wheels and automatic gearbox, less impressive. You can either add a bit of brake pedal to the deal, or there is a hill descent control system. We preferred the tried-and-tested brake pedal method, which allowed more control. All in all, this Isuzu is a formidable 4×4 machine.
The fancy (interior) bits
The D-Max cabin remains stock standard so there’s no la-di-da red stitching, or expansive embroideries on the seat backs. Instead, you get full leather for the comfortable pews, climate control, a keyless stop-start system, electric windows all round, and a leather-covered steering wheel with controls for the sound system and cruise control. Our AT35 test unit was fitted with the optional Alpine touchscreen radio and navigation system that adds another R14 000 to the price. The system features a nine-inch LCD screen in the centre console, and has Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, GPS navigation, iPod control and USB ports. The AT35 also has LED daytime running lights, and Bi-LED headlights. These units not only provide excellent lighting at night, but are height adjustable, too: handy when you consider these lights preside higher than a standard bakkie’s lights, and can become an issue, blinding oncoming traffic or causing motorists driving in front of you to raise a finger salute in their rearview mirror.
It’s clear Isuzu’s engineers have done their homework on this Arctic Trucks AT35 project. Not only was it tested to local extremes to ensure it could handle tough African conditions, it even has its own assembly line in the manufacturing plant. As we’ve mentioned earlier, this is no backyard hack job in an iffy workshop in Bitterbessiefontein. This is a properly engineered and highly capable vehicle. That’s also why the company’s Isuzu Complete Care remains valid for the AT35. That includes a fiveyear/120 000km bumper-tobumper warranty and Isuzu Roadside assistance, and a five-year/90 000km service plan. But let’s not beat around the bush: R785 000 is a heck of lot of money for a bakkie. Still, this is no ordinary bakkie, and Isuzu fans seem to agree. Apparently the initial production run for the AT35 has already been doubled to satisfy dealer demand, after the first batch was sold out in a short time. Clearly there is a market for such a vehicle. We must admit we fell for the unique charms of this Isuzu. It may not be the fastest, plushest nor the most modern, but it feels as if it was cast from rock, and it is absolutely inconceivable that this bakkie will ever leave you stranded next to a road or track. You certainly stand out in the crowd driving a big red lorry like this. There’s so much more to the AT35 than just a specialised snow mobile. It will actually go anywhere, no matter the terrain. And it will do it anytime, any day, every day. It’s interesting to note the amazing support the Isuzu brand enjoys in South Africa, which in a large part explains why the older D-Max remains the third best-selling bakkie in the country. Returning from a quick outing to our local shopping centre, we found two security guards in deep technical conversation next to the D-Max, one on all fours, examining the Isuzu’s suspension. “This one,” started the one man, smiling from ear to ear, “Now this one is a bakkie for Africa. It will go everywhere in the Eastern Cape where I come from, even in the mountains.” The man on all fours pitched in. “Yoh! Now this is a bakkie. Even better than my grandfather’s old Isuzu in Limpopo.” It’s indeed a living legend, is this Isuzu.