Supersized tyres and elevated ride height deliver enhanced off-roading skills and an aggressive look. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
Supersized tyres and elevated ride height deliver enhanced off-roading skills and an aggressive look. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Isuzu has launched a more extreme off-road version of its D-Max bakkie, called the Arctic AT35, in SA.

The low-volume Isuzu is built in conjunction with Arctic Trucks, the Icelandic company that re-engineers four-wheel drive vehicles for challenging off-road conditions and has supplied vehicles for a number of expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Isuzu’s new flagship bakkie is based on a regular D-Max 3.0 4x4 LX six-speed auto double cab (priced at R627,900) but acquires improved turf-tackling ability by means of a significantly raised ride height, Fox performance suspension and big “balloon” tyres. It is pitched directly against Ford’s recently-launched Ranger Raptor in SA’s adventure bakkie segment.

The Arctic AT35 is available through Isuzu dealers on an order only basis with a projected 50 units to be made annually at Isuzu’s Struandale plant in Port Elizabeth, where it is built alongside the regular D-Max bakkie range. The R785,000 price comes with Isuzu’s standard five-year/120,000km warranty and five-year/90,000km maintenance plan.

Initially the vehicle will be sold locally, with a view to possible future expansion into neighbouring African countries.

THE TOWERING GROUND CLEARANCE KEPT THE AT35’S BELLY AND BUMPERS OUT OF HARM’S WAY

The Arctic Trucks package doles out some impressive numbers that will excite weekend warriors who like to spend their free time wading through mud and duelling dongas, including an increase in ground clearance from 220mm to 268mm, and wading depth improved from 600mm to 718mm.

To help prevent any scraping of the undersides, the additional height increases the breakover angle from 22.4° to 31.4°, while the 36° approach angle and 28° departure angle are also huge improvements over the standard D-Max.

The massive 35-inch tyres (for which the vehicle is named) are housed in widened wheel arches that make this one of the meanest-looking 4x4s in the sand pit.

Mechanically the Arctic AT 35 is identical to its donor D-Max, with the powertrain comprising the regular 130kW/380Nm 3.0l turbo diesel engine paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. Switching from rear- to four-wheel drive is done by a dial-twist at driving speeds of up to 100km/h, and a low range transfer case and rear diff lock complete the all-terrain credentials.

Isuzu Arctic AT35 eats steep sand dunes for breakfast. Picture: SUPPLIED
 Isuzu Arctic AT35 eats steep sand dunes for breakfast. Picture: SUPPLIED

Specification levels are also the same as the standard D-Max 4x4 LX, including six airbags, stability control, ABS brakes, leather interior, a touchscreen infotainment system with navigation and a rear-view camera, to name a few.

The Arctic Trucks conversion adds about 40kg but the engine didn’t feel overburdened by the extra weight when I drove the bakkie at its media launch in the Eastern Cape last week.

The Isuzu made an easygoing cruiser on the freeway from Port Elizabeth towards an off-road playground near Oyster Bay some 140km down the coast. The wide BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres add some extra drag and therefore increased fuel consumption, but they didn’t negatively affect the vehicle’s manoeuvrability and it has the same turning circle as the regular D-Max.

When the route switched from tar to gravel, the ride quality became very jittery, particularly on rippled surfaces, as if the suspension was set too firm —and it isn’t adjustable. I felt the standard D-Max bakkie, which we also drove on the same roads, felt more comfortable and settled on rough, hard-packed gravel.

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The Arctic AT35 came into its own in the sand dunes, however, where the extra surface area of the wide tyres delivered plenty of traction to ascend soft, steep slopes without requiring as much momentum as the normal D-Max.

The towering ground clearance also kept the AT35’s belly and bumpers out of harm’s way while charging at steep slopes. It is a formidably capable adventure vehicle in extreme off-road terrain, for people who regularly drive in such conditions.

At R785,000 the range-topping Isuzu faces a tough challenge from the much more powerful (157kW/500Nm) and better-equipped Ranger Raptor, however, which sells for only a slightly more expensive R786,400.