Isuzu, the Chuck Norris of bakkies

One of the consequences of a stagnant or, worse, shrinking economy is that consumers become more conscious of how they spend their rands. Value for money and practicality, whether one is working class or filthy rich, takes over, denying us the frivolous or nice to haves.

In the car world, harsh lessons are being learned, with the example being the Mercedes Benz X-class, which has already been discontinued 24 months after its launch in the country.

There could be other reasons as well, but far too many people apparently felt that paying up to R1-million for a pimped-out Nissan Navara bakkie is too much, no matter how exciting the drivetrain and suspension. Apparently only about 500 South Africans felt it was worth their while last year, and that’s a really poor number in a bakkie-obsessed country like South Africa.

In contrast, about 16000 vehicles in Isuzu KB Series — now referred to as D-Max, in line with the rest of the world territories where it is sold — were sold last year, coming in third place to Toyota’s Hilux (more than 40000 sold) and Ford’s Ranger (about 25000 sold). The D-Max actually comes in fourth if you include the Nissan NP200 in the list, although it’s a half tonner.

For Isuzu it was just over 4.2% growth in a sector that declined by 4.8%, Dominic Rimmer, the vice-president for technical operations, said at the launch of the auto box in the Cape winelands recently.

The introduction of the 250 auto, which follows a similar introduction of an automatic transmission in the 3.0 two years ago, is one more step further into the luxury and leisure markets. Depending on which angle you look at it, Isuzu is either cautiously moving into this segment or they are taking their sweet time about it.

Similar to the Hilux, this bakkie has always been associated with hardiness, dependability, durability and a go anywhere, carry anything ability. It’s kind of like playing the Chuck Norris role in farming or industry.

As a result it still feels a couple of years behind its main competitors when it comes to ride comfort, responsiveness of the engine and even the interior. Granted, it too now has sports stylish rims (painted black in the case of the X-Rider), a touch screen infotainment system, soft leather seats, as well as more cup holders and charging ports than one will ever need in a bakkie.

It still felt more comfortable handling the back gravel roads that meander through winelands than speeding on the freeway, giving one the idea that it’s perhaps more cosmetic than really geared towards the leisure market.

The touchscreen radio is a perfect example of this. While competitors have even incorporated phone apps on their systems, the touchscreen in the X-Rider we tested only offered radio functions and precious little else.

So, maybe it’s sticking to the old Isuzu DNA and not trying to be everything to everyone — or perhaps it’s realising the times we’re in and

trying to offer a bit more of a fun package without blowing the budget.

In the end, it works for a guy like me who is price sensitive and works in Johannesburg, but makes the pilgrimage to rural Eastern Cape at least twice a year.

Prices for the new 2.5 litre D-Max range from R403200 for the extended cab to R474700 for the premium double cab X-Rider. The double cab has three other variants, starting with the entry level Hi-Ride that retails for R435300.

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Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

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