Big Bakkie Business
Big bakkies are big business. This is as proven by the subject of this launch report, the Isuzu D-Max AT35's biggest rival, the Ford Ranger Raptor, which has seen nearly 2,000 units fly off dealership floors since its launch earlier in the year.
So, if we were to address the big-tyred elephant in the room, the Isuzu AT35 doesn't look to directly compete with the Ranger Raptor. It doesn't have to. Isuzu plans to only build 100 units of the jacked-up D-Max and in terms of demand, well, Isuzu says that since first unveiling it at this year's Nampo agricultural show, its phones have been ringing off the hook with interest.
What is it, and what makes it special? The pictures pretty much say it all: it's an oversized D-Max that oozes old-school cool. It's built at Isuzu's Struandale Plant in Gqeberha, which is also the only dedicated Arctic Trucks assembly outfit incorporated with a car manufacturer's facility in the world. What that means is you don't just buy a D-Max and get the components to supersize it. It's built and quality-checked by the same off-road specialists that built the iconic red Arctic Trucks Hilux that was featured in the 2007 episode of TopGear for a polar expedition.
Spot the Diffs
The Isuzu AT35 received some bigger wheels too, 35-inch diameter BF Goodrich knobblies to be precise, hence the name, in addition to raised and extended wheel arches. Completing the look are Arctic Trucks mud flaps and AT35 badging that's scattered around the exterior. It's all very subtle. The dead giveaways in the interior are embroidered AT35 headrests, a badge denoting this specification on the centre console, and a driving position that's more truck than bakkie. The rest is pretty much still V-Cross spec, on which the AT35 is built. Read more on the V-Cross here.
Mechanically speaking, the AT35 received a suspension upgrade, which includes Bilstein dampers and a lift kit developed by Arctic Trucks that improves upon the standard V-Cross ground clearance from 232mm to 266mm. This upped the wading depth from 800mm to 865mm and improved the 30-degree approach angle to 33 degrees and a 5-degree departure angle improvement from the standard 18 degrees. Most impressively, though, is the break-over angle improvement that's rated at 34 degrees from the standard 22.5 degrees from the V-Cross edition.
Where the gravel road ends, and the tough stuff looms, this added capability, though seemingly negligible on paper, shines through with rock-climbing ability that would pretty much shame any garden-variety bakkie. It's helped by the added instilment of confidence thanks to improved clearance and departure angles. Engaging 4-Low with its gearing ratio of 2.49 (one turn of the input shaft translates to 2.49 turns of the output shaft) proves effective at distributing added torque to all four corners albeit overriding the gearbox to manual proves to be a bit touchy-feely. I reckon it's better to leave it to its own devices.
On the gravel, though, the AT35's rear gets too nervous for my liking, even when the services of 4-High were called into action. Yes, one could argue that it wasn't laden at the rear, but the standard rebound rate for less-than-ideal gravel roads was a bit rapid, aggressively compensating for the bumps in the road. On the blacktop, where these big bakkies will no doubt also spend a good chunk of their lives, everything is peachy with its well-composed disposition. The gearbox ratios to compensate for the 35-inch wheels have also seen a considerable improvement over and above the first-gen AT35 which, while mighty capable, felt a bit cornershop-oversized-bakkie compared to the newest edition.
The inevitable question, then… Is it better than a Ford Ranger Raptor, which costs R63,000 and some change more? No. But it's also not trying to be. The AT35 is more geared to buyers who appreciate an old-school-cool approach to their off-roading with the proven dependability of the Isuzu AT35's 3.0-litre turbodiesel oil burner. Then there's also the exclusivity factor of the AT35 that almost makes the price tag worth it. Almost.
- Power still comes from the trusty 3.0-litre turbodiesel in the Isuzu D-Max V-Cross, rated at 140kW and 450Nm.
- It costs R1,120,620; a pretty penny considering the Ford Ranger Raptor, which has moved the off-road goalposts, is a bargain at R1,184,100.
- Unlike the Ranger Raptor, Isuzu plans on building only 100 units. That alone is cooler than any V6 soundtrack.
- On-road driving is significantly improved over the previous AT35.
- On the gravel, it's imperative not to become overconfident. Consider that our road safety contribution of the week.