It’s been a long time coming, but the latest Isuzu KB has finally arrived in SA. For a lot of people this is very good news, since the Isuzu has no shortage of fans in this country. But how does the KB stack up to the competition?
Not even the greats can go on forever. They try, of course, but the effort usually ends in embarrassment.
At the age of 39, Muhammad Ali came out of retirement for a second time to take on Trevor Berbick. The fight was touted as the “Drama in the Bahamas”, but the fight was hardly dramatic. Indeed, it was an outright tragedy, with a conclusion that was predictable from the outset.
The ageing and out of shape Ali was simply no match for the younger Berbick. To be sure, Ali put up a good fight. He gave it his all, and Berbick was not able to knock him down, but Berbick won the fight on a unanimous decision.
So why mention Ali’s final fight in this road test? Well, like Ali, the fifth generation of the KB has been competing long past its prime. It was launched in 2004, and received a face-lift in 2007 so, essentially, the same KB has been with us for about a decade. In the automotive world, that is a long time.
To extend the sporting metaphor, the game has changed. The playing field has been altered, the players have evolved and the rules are different. In other words, it was high time a new KB joined the ranks of the local bakkie segment.
That said, replacing a tried and trusted vehicle such as the outgoing KB – and make no mistake, it was a much-loved vehicle that had earned its reputation as a capable, reliable and tough bakkie – can be difficult. It needs to be updated, but it should not be changed too much.
How does the latest KB perform in this regard? Does it have what it takes to compete against the latest bakkies from other manufacturers, without losing those elements that made the previous model so popular?
*** Features and Equipment
Whenever an all-new version of a vehicle is released, there is an expectation that the engine range will be altered significantly. In the new KB’s case, this hasn’t happened. Although there is a new 2,4-litre petrol mill that generates 112 kW of power and 233 Nm of torque, the flagship three-litre oilburner (found in the top-spec model we tested) has been carried over from the previous KB.
However, it has been improved on in a number of ways. For example, it has a new intercooler and better fuel injection. Engine friction has apparently also been reduced, and the turbocharger has been tweaked to offer better performance.
What does this mean in real terms? Power has been increased by 10 kW to 130 kW, and torque has been upped by 20 Nm to 380 Nm. On the road, this difference isn’t particularly perceptible, but it is difficult to complain about the 300 D-TEQ. The extra bit of power is welcome, and overall the engine feels as rugged and reliable as ever. It was a good engine in the previous KB and it remains a good one in this model. That said, it is undoubtedly a bit unrefined when compared to the engines offered by some of its competitors.
In the KB 300 D-TEQ 4×4 double cab, the engine is mated to a five-speed manual transmission (a three-litre 4×4 automatic model isn’t available). The gearbox works well with the engine but, like the oilburner, it feels a touch notchy and unrefined when compared with those in some other double cabs.
Overall, the KB still feels like an old-school bakkie. It is more refined than its predecessor (especially when it comes to noise, vibration and harshness levels in the cabin), but it doesn’t offer the SUV-like experience of some of its rivals.
Curiously, the KB also lacks some features and equipment that have largely become standard on top-spec double cabs. There is no hill descent control or off-road ABS. Most notably, however, there is no stability control. Considering that even the ageing Hilux has this, it is a rather surprising omission.
On the plus side, the local KB does sport a rear differential lock – something it lacks in other parts of the world.
The moment you get into the cabin of the new KB you will notice that it shares a number of design cues with the Chevrolet Trailblazer. Most noticeably, it has the same large central dial that controls the air-conditioning system and the same radio on high specification models, with the same dashboard layout as the fifth generation on lower specs.
Ergonomically, the KB’s interior is designed well. Everything is where you expect it to be, and the general design is clean and simple. As mentioned earlier, the noise, vibration and harshness levels in the cabin are excellent. Rear accommodation is more than adequate.
Where the KB falls short is in the quality of the finishes. While they are not terrible by any means, the Isuzu doesn’t boast the same standards as some other vehicles in its class. The cabin is filled with plenty of hard plastics that look a little cheap.
The KB 300 D-TEQ 4×4 double cab comes standard with leather upholstery (a no-cost cloth option will be made available later), and our test model sported chocolate-coloured leather seats that clashed with the dark interior and also looked a tad on the cheap side.
The KB’s steering column is only height adjustable, which is a shame. However, the vehicle does have other nice features such as cruise control, climate control, park distance control, and two 12V points.
**** Gravel Performance and Handling
The previous KB was renowned for its comfortable ride on dirt, and the latest model continues that tradition. If you’ll be tackling a lot of gravel roads, the Isuzu won’t disappoint you. Like all bakkies, it can feel a tad skittish when empty, but it definitely holds its own against the competition. It is just a shame that it doesn’t have any sort of stability control system, since this would have increased driver confidence and overall safety significantly on dirt.
Comfort on dirt is good. The suspension (coil over shock in the front and leaf spring at the rear) does an excellent job of smoothing out corrugated roads. Noise is also kept to a minimum. Of course, you’re not going to achieve SUV-like levels of noise, vibration and harshness, but for a bakkie, the KB does well.
One can see why the Isuzu KB has a reputation as a great gravel traveller. Its ride comfort on dirt was its standout feature during our test.
*** Trail Capability
The KB’s trail capability has always been good, and mechanical reliability feels no different in the new model. Once again the lack of creaks and rattles was apparent, aside for the mud flaps, of course.
The Isuzu’s increased size, however, is now comparable to its competitors, which is going to have implications on narrow trails. With double cab vehicles aimed at the leisure market getting wider and wider, they’re increasingly less suited to narrow bushveld tracks and tight turns. In this respect the Isuzu fared no worse than its rivals on our standard trail, and an easy-going approach to this type of driving should go a long way.
With an electronically engaged rear differential lock, the climbing ability of the KB is not hampered at all by the lack of traction control, and ascents shouldn’t be a problem with low-range engaged.
The old 3,0-litre diesel engine is great on the open road, but on the trail it isn’t as powerful as one would think. It won’t chug along on its own, for example, and compression on descents – despite low-range being engaged – isn’t quite enough to carry it down very steep declines under its own steam. The brake has to be worked a little.
On inclines, however, the KB is impressively powerful and this is possibly its strongest point off-road.
The increased wheel travel shows, and articulation is on a par with its competitors, while hill descent control is lacking. The throttle response in low-range in first gear is sensitive, and precarious rock crawling over longer distances can become tiresome as one battles to maintain a steady and safe crawl speed.
Overall, it’s as reliable as the previous model. There are slight improvements in suspension and articulation, but facing tough competition from the strong Ranger engine and feature-packed BT-50 won’t be easy.
*** Overlanding Suitability
Would the KB be a good overland vehicle? Well, it certainly boasts a lot of loading space. With the canopy on the back, it would undoubtedly be able to swallow all your overland equipment and camping gear.
It also has the off-roading ability to venture into the bundu. With a four-wheel-drive system, low-range gearing and a rear diff lock, not many obstacles will pose a problem. Wading depth, at 600mm, is also good, if not class leading.
The 300 D-TEQ is a tough and dependable oilburner that has proved its suitability for overlanding. Moreover, the latest version has been rated to tow 3500kg. During our towing test last year, the fifth-generation KB performed surprisingly well, so this new version promises to be a very capable tow vehicle.
Keep in mind that Isuzu recommends the use of 50ppm diesel. This could obviously be a problem north of our border.
The new KB is not a bad vehicle. Like its predecessor, it promises to be a tough and dependable bakkie. But the new KB does not push the boundaries in any way.
Had this KB been released three years ago, it would have been truly impressive. Now, however, it fails to distinguish itself.
There is also no getting around the fact that the engine technology is already a few years old. Its engine power and torque figures are respectable, but not in the league of those offered by the class leaders.
To make matters worse, the lack of features such as stability control and off-road ABS hasn’t resulted in a more affordable price tag.
The KB is an expensive bakkie, priced right up there with vehicles such as the Amarok, Ranger and BT-50.
The KB has a nice old-school feel about it. You get the sense that this is still a proper workhorse that can handle a tough task, but in terms of technical development, it is lagging behind a bit. The KB hasn’t rewritten any of the double cab rules.