/ 6 August 2023

Bold bakkie with plenty of brawn

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Fat takkies: The Isuzu AT35 has 35-inch diameter BF Goodrich knobblies as well as raised and extended wheel arches.

Big bakkies are big business. This is proved by the subject of this launch report — the Isuzu D-Max AT35. Its biggest rival, the Ford Ranger Raptor, 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 isn’t looking to compete with the Ranger Raptor. It doesn’t have to. Isuzu plans to build only 100 units of the jacked-up D-Max. In terms of demand, well, Isuzu says since the vehicle was unveiled, its phones have been ringing off the hook.

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 is built at Isuzu’s Struandale plant in Gqeberha, in Eastern Cape. 

This is 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 super-size it. It’s built and quality-checked by the same off-road specialists who built the iconic red Arctic Trucks Hilux that was featured in a 2007 episode of TopGear on a polar expedition.

The Isuzu AT35 has been given bigger wheels — 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 mudflaps and AT35 badging 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, the model on which the AT35 is built.

Mechanically speaking, the AT35 has been given a suspension upgrade, which includes Bilstein dampers and a lift kit developed by Arctic Trucks that improves the standard V-Cross ground clearance from 232mm to 266mm. 

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Still pretty much V-Cross: Apart from a few tweaks the Isuzu AT35’s interior is the same as the model on which it was built.

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 impressive, 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 it seems negligible on paper, shines through with rock-climbing ability that would shame any garden-variety bakkie. The improved clearance and departure angles instil further confidence. 

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 a bit touchy-feely. I reckon it’s better to leave it to its own devices.

On gravel, the AT35 doesn’t exactly shine, with the rear end getting too nervous for my liking, even when the services of 4-High were called in. 

Yes, you 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 spend a good chunk of their lives, everything is peachy. 

The gearbox ratios to compensate for the 35-inch wheels have also seen a considerable improvement over the first-gen AT35 which, while mighty capable, felt a bit corner-shop-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 the exclusivity factor of the AT35, which almost makes the price tag worth it. Almost.

D-Max AT35 vital stats

 • 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 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 much better than the previous AT35.

• On gravel, it’s imperative not to become overconfident. Consider that our road safety contribution of the week.