Swaziland is made for impromptu off road adventures and when it comes to getting lost out on the trails few vehicles can match the Isuzu. Picture: DEJAN JOVANOVIC
Swaziland is made for impromptu off road adventures and when it comes to getting lost out on the trails few vehicles can match the Isuzu. Picture: DEJAN JOVANOVIC

Funny, the officer never handed me a receipt, but the fine for some minor speeding in Swaziland is R50. It’s actually R60, except the officer couldn’t split a hundred.

Maybe inflation never got to Swaziland yet, but the N17 did, and it’s a smooth, quick drive through a lax border to this small kingdom of casinos and off-road trails. A hundred years ago the British conquered this place, and in 2019 it’s Isuzu territory. The Mbabane dealer is one of the most prominent buildings in the capital.

While ancient solutions like ladder frames and solid axles prevail, the segment is not immune to the global trend of dwindling engineering integrity — gone are the days when cars stood apart even on paper. As the others chase space in lifestyle magazines, the Isuzu still lurks among the traditionalists, the bakkie buyers who want a no-nonsense machine that remains rooted in a time and space they can understand. These people aren’t early adopters and their lives aren’t veiled behind snapchat filters.

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If the Isuzu D-Max was a shoe it would probably be one of those five-fingered rubber socks that strip the wearer of any elegance. But have you seen the confidence in their stride? Five-fingered shoe-wearers don’t give a toss.

When I first climbed in the radio station that came on was Jacaranda, appropriately playing hits from the 1990s. The Isuzu’s interior is of about the same vintage, which is surprisingly pleasing. Maybe it somehow heralds durability, like it’s been around for a while already so you expect the cabin to last another 20 years.

It looks like one of those alternative creations you can build with a Lego set, the one not in the scene on the box cover art. The D-Max is the same, seemingly a random collection of parts. Since the folk at Isuzu obviously don’t care much for styling, you’d think they’d have plenty of time left over to engineer this bakkie.

The front end is dominated by new projector-type LED headlamps and daytime running lights. Picture: DEJAN JOVANOVIC
The front end is dominated by new projector-type LED headlamps and daytime running lights. Picture: DEJAN JOVANOVIC

Isuzu recently updated the ageing machine with a new automatic transmission, new projector headlamps, new soft-touch materials, 20cm infotainment system, and trailer sway control. Most of these updates seem superficial except for the six-speed 'box, but Isuzu could’ve done something about the engine — in Europe they have moved on to a modern 1.9l diesel that’s not far off this old 3.0l.

With 130kW and 380Nm of torque the D-Max lurks near the bottom of the segment, and on the road it’s immediately evident this engine doesn’t live to rev. And anyway, Isuzu missed the mark with the infotainment unit too — the sat-nav isn’t the easiest to use, and a proper volume knob would’ve made more sense than the fiddly buttons. Physical switchgear seems so much more appropriate for a vehicle as rugged as this.

So the highlight is the six-speed as the only real advancement in here, but when it’s mated to such a gruff engine the driving technique becomes, let’s say, more involving. Despite the fact that you have an automatic to take care of things for you, there is still a responsibility for your right foot to get used to the shift map and manipulate upshifts with the throttle pedal.

Once you gel with the Isuzu, then you find yourself in the engine’s sweet spot more often and drive it in a manner similar to a normal car. Or close enough. It still feels decidedly commercial, and you’re mightily grateful there isn’t a manual gearbox in there to make it even more bothersome.

There are three USBs inside the D-Max, and one of them is a fast-charging USB. Picture: DEJAN JOVANOVIC
There are three USBs inside the D-Max, and one of them is a fast-charging USB. Picture: DEJAN JOVANOVIC

This press demonstrator came with a nicely scuffed loadbox for its first 10,000 kays on the clock — all the journalists that went before me must have found plenty of use out of that 1,485mm bed. You never know how much you need a proper bakkie until you have one at your disposal. Suddenly chores pop up all over the place — “Honey, I’m off, we need another half a ton of, err, dirt…” Anything for a bit of escapism. I wonder if I should get a cowboy hat?

I kind of want to knock the Isuzu only because of the context it’s in — against better-equipped, more refined rivals, the Isuzu stands out as a bit of a relic. But I love it for the same reason I adore the Suzuki Jimny: originality.

Truly independent — commercially and creatively — car manufacturers are rare these days. I think Suzuki is one, as well as Subaru, Mazda, and now, Isuzu. These companies seem to be going their own way, as much as any deviation is possible at all in the commoditised world of car manufacturing.

This authenticity throughout the Isuzu is what’s so endearing about the D-Max. The front end for example — they just chucked on as much chrome as they could, and then went back to stress testing a ball joint or something.

Off road, you get a sense of invulnerability, which is all the motivation you need to get this bakkie into an adventure. On huge all-terrain tyres mounted over 18-inch wheels, the D-Max keeps going over comically-sized boulders. When a car makes you smile this much, it’s hard to pick at its faults.

If your commute takes in plenty of dirt, the Isuzu is perfect. If you just like to wear cowboy hats and use your imagination then it’s good too.

Otherwise in urban environments and during the daily grind, there are much more refined bakkies out there. 

 

Tech Specs

Engine

Type: Four cylinder diesel turbo

Capacity: 2,999cc

Power: 130kW

Torque: 380Nm

Transmission

Type: Six-speed automatic

Drivetrain

Type: Part-time all-wheel drive

 

Performance

Top speed: NA

0-100km/h: NA

Fuel Consumption: 7.8l /100km (claimed); 11.0l/100km (as tested)

Standard Features

ESC, hill-start assist and hill descent control, trailer sway control, ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, brake-assist system, drivfer and passenger airbags, front seat side airbags, curtain airbags, Isofix child seat attachments, rear-view camera, remote controlled central locking, anti-theft alarm system, fog lamps, daytime running lights, heavy-duty towbar, power adjustable folding and heated side mirrors, power-assisted steering, leather interior, automatic climate control, cruise control, twin 12V power sockets, power windows, Bluetooth, 20cm touchscreen and satellite navigation, eight speakers.

Warranty: Five years/120,000km

Maintenance plan: Five years/90,000km

Price: R627,900

Lease*: R13,435

* at 10% interest over 60 months no deposit

 

Isuzu D-Max KB300 4x4 LX auto

WE LIKE: Off-road prowess, reputation and reliability, service and warranty plan

WE DISLIKE: Steering in tight spots; the Isuzu doesn’t love cities

VERDICT: It’s easy to fall for the Isuzu, just as long as you give it regular off-road exercise

Competition

Volkswagen Amarok 2.0BiTDI double cab Highline auto, 132kW/420Nm — R597,000

Mitsubishi Triton 2.4DI-D DC 4x4 auto, 133kW/430Nm — R589,995

Nissan Navara 2.3D LE 4x4, 140kW/450Nm — R626,500

Toyota Hilux  2.8 GD-6 4x4 Raider auto, 130kW/450Nm — R637,500

Ford Ranger 3.2 TDCi XLT auto, 147kW/470Nm — R617,300

Mazda BT-50 3.2 4x4 SLE auto, 147kW/470Nm — R575,400

Motor News star rating

Design * *

Performance * * *  

Economy * * *

Safety * * * *

Value for Money * * * *

Overall * * * *