PORT ELIZABETH – This is undoubtedly a very exciting time for bakkie enthusiasts in South Africa. Indeed, never before has there been such a wide variety of pick-up models in our market. There are turbocharged V6 derivatives (watch VW's Amarok V6 take on the Mercedes-Benz X350d in a drag race here) and even an OEM-engineered off-road performance bakkie in the form of the Ford Ranger Raptor. Isuzu is the latest local manufacturer to offer a special model at the summit of its line-up and we headed to the Eastern Cape to sample it.

What’s new?

Make no mistake, the Isuzu D-Max Arctic Trucks AT35 is not a kneejerk reaction to the current crop of flagship bakkies on the market. In fact, Isuzu South Africa says it has been working with Iceland's Arctic Trucks for the past couple of years to find a way for this kit to be offered and indeed built locally. Isuzu’s headquarters in Japan, of course, also had to give its approval.

So, what makes this model an AT35? Well, the special D-Max gains wider wheelarches, 17-inch wheels, 35-inch BFGoodrich tyres, heftier mudflaps and Fox dampers front and rear. All of these items are added to a 3,0-litre, 4x4 LX 6-spd AT variant ... and the result will set you back a total of R785 000.

In terms of off-roading ability, this bakkie is impressive. The ground clearance improves from 220 mm to 268 mm, the break-over angle jumps from 22,4 to 31,4 degrees, the approach angle is now 36 degrees and the departure angle comes in at 28 degrees (while fuel consumption has increased to a claimed 8,6 L/100 km). Then there's the way it looks, boasting a stance that lends it far more purpose than the standard D-Max.

On and off the road

With thick rubber at each corner, the AT35 rides quite well, and there are times when you can sense the tyres are absorbing minor bumps better than the standard items would. I was also impressed by the fact there was no noticeable tyre roar on tarmac, suggesting the engineers managed a great balance between on- and off-road behaviour.

Once we headed to the inland dunes of Brakkeduine, the AT35 did a sterling job in the sand, mostly thanks to its added ground clearance, wider tracks and those grippy tyres. However, on the undulated gravel roads, small bumps still filtered through to the cabin. As expected, there is extra friction (and weight) to overcome when pulling away from standstill (thanks to those heavy tyres), but once on the go this isn’t much of an issue. In fact, the moment you accept this is not a performance bakkie but rather a machine built to be enjoyed off the beaten track, the AT35 starts to make sense. 

Summary

As only one or two AT35s can be manufactured at the Struandale plant in PE per week, the allocation for the rest of the year has already been sold. While Isuzu buyers in particular and bakkie fans in general will be intrigued by the new AT35, there's no escaping the fact it is priced too close to the Ranger Raptor (the latter now costs R803 300 after Ford's recent price adjustment). The Blue Oval bakkie offers a better suspension setup, more power and torque as well as updates to its cabin. And that's a list of items many buyers will struggle to ignore.



FAST FACTS

Model: Isuzu D-Max Arctic Trucks AT35 4x4 Auto
Price: R785 000
Engine: 3,0-litre, four-cylinder, turbodiesel
Power: 130 kW at 3 600 r/min
Torque: 380 N.m at 1 800 r/min
0-100 km/h: N/A
Top Speed: N/A
Fuel consumption: 8,6 L/100 km
CO2: 227 g/km
Transmission: 6-spd AT
Service Plan: 5 years/90 000 km