Most pick-up trucks in the market today are well-appointed luxury barges when you consider how crude and simple they used to be at the turn of the 1990s. That said, for all these lovely lashings like multimedia entertainment systems, sound proofing, or a decent ride comfort that we can now enjoy on today’s pick-up trucks, the question has to asked if they are still the tough and dependable machines that they were made to be? Cars are nice and comfy, but they are weak and hopeless where roads are absent. The truest test of a pick-up truck is to send it to where the roads are as unforgiving as the jungles around it, and that is why we are here driving Isuzu’s new D-Max through the jungles of Sabah.
If you haven’t been to Sabah, you should. It is a magnificent and beautiful place that is largely untouched by the march of progress. Word of caution though, it is not suited for cars as the road network isn’t so much as being poorly maintained, but sporadic. Some stretches of roads are well built, laid with smooth tarmac and properly cambered, only for it to end abruptly and become a gravel track before you know it. And that is if you are lucky. Some sections there really isn’t any road at all. To get around Sabah, a pick-up truck is a necessity, but can the pick-up trucks of today survive the trials of off-road driving, or has it been soften by the demands of modernity?
With that in mind, Isuzu Malaysia prepared their most powerful D-Max model, the V-Cross 3.0L, which we would be driving on a 560km Dura-Mission expedition around Sabah. The trip would take us from the state capital, Kota Kinabalu, up to the northern most point of the island, the Tip of Borneo, down to the mountain town of Kundasang, and right back to the capital. For those who aren’t familiar with the 3-litre variant of the D-Max, here is a brief rundown of what it has in store.
Specifications of the Isuzu D-Max V-Cross 3.0L 4x4 AT
Engine: 2,999cc 4-cylinder, VGS Turbo Diesel
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power: 177PS @ 3,600rpm
Torque: 380Nm @ 1,800-2,800rpm
Considering that the route would take us on mountain roads and through muddy jungle paths, our D-Max was outfitted with chunky Viking off-road tyres, and large side steps to make it easier for us to get in and out of it. It might not sound like much but tyres do make a lot of difference in a vehicle’s performance, and a necessity considering how far deep into the jungle we would be driving the D-Max into. As the D-Max now comes with a larger cargo bed behind, its rear overhang has grown substantially, and to help it climb any steep inclines, Isuzu Malaysia has taken off the rear bumpers as well. Apart from those modifications, the D-Max is similar to the D-Max you can buy straight off the showroom floor, same drivetrain and stock standard features inside.
On paper the D-Max’s 3-litre 177PS turbocharged diesel engine sounds immense, but its power delivery doesn’t feel like a handful when you pin the throttle. Even though it has 380Nm on the cards, which is dealt out from 1,800rpm, the D-Max doesn’t accelerate off the line with any sort of urge. The power ramps up gradually rather than immediately. Despite its displacement, the 3-litre engine doesn’t feel all that more powerful from the more affordable and slightly less powerful 136PS/320Nm 2.5-litre variants. Though as it turns out, on some Sabah’s more mountainous roads and challenging terrain, the extra grunt to be had from its 3-litre engine does allow the D-Max to pull itself through sticky situations with better ease, which was a good thing as rain and mud were in no short supply on the day that we left Kota Kinabalu.
With heavy skies overhead, the weather was a full-on deluge, but that was of little consequence as all was well inside the D-Max. For a pick-up truck, the cabin is refinedand well-equipped with a whole host of features such as auto climate control, multimedia features, and even Bluetooth connectivity. And yet, as befitting of its kind,there is a robust feeling that it will withstand hard usage and wear its years well. Given its body-on-frame construction and leaf springs, it delivered a rather comfortable ride on the road, though that said, there was a huge amount of tyre roar from the off-road tyres, and around corners the huge tyre threads doesn’t offer much in the way of cornering stability. Nevertheless, on the road the D-Max had decent handling characteristics, not quite as sporty as the likes of the Mitsubishi Triton, but its road-holding qualities and ride comfort is good enough that any standard car driver wouldn’t feel too alienated when helming it. It is big on the outside, but behind the wheel the D-Max is easy to drive and thread through the narrow village roads.
But we didn’t travel over the South China Sea to assess the its on-road credentials, nor are we here for the roads, even though Sabah is home to some of the best roads in the country, like the majestic A150 highway that snakealong the Crocker mountain range. Instead we are here to get down and dirty off the beaten path with the D-Max, and in Sabah, you won’t have to travel far to find it. Just 30km out of Kota Kinabalu and we divert ourselves from the smooth hillside roads and straight onto a muddy trail that leads into the deep end of the jungle.
Though weighing nearly two and a half tonnes, it is remarkable to note that the D-Max is quite capable off road without having to resort to using its two 4WD modes. Its dirt crawling capability is of course helped by the off-road tyres, which can vastly alter its performance on rough terrain. As a general rule, if the trail you are on comprises of tarmac, gravel, or stable sand, even with a slight incline, you would be fine driving around in 2WD mode. It is only when the ground beneath is soft sand or thick mud that its 4WD mode is required as the rear wheels can easily sink into the soil, or the torque from the engine dig the rear wheels into trouble. With power distributed between the two axles, it is easy for the truck to pull itself out of a bind, unless of course there isn’t enough torque from the engine to overcome the terrain. For that you need to resort to the last setting, 4WD low-range.
“4L” mode on the D-Max is only reserved for the most challenging conditions, such as rocks and steep unstable terrain. In this mode, power is transferred to all four wheels through a low-range gearbox, which enables you to rev the engine without having to build up speed. This would be useful to get bursts of torque from the engine to steadily pull yourself out of situations, as well as induce engine braking to keep your speed under control when descending steep and slippery slopes.
Through the pouring rain, muddy slopes, rocky escarpments, flooded rivers, and sweltering swamps, the D-Max performed flawlessly. The only moments where I found myself stuck were due to my own lack of experience in off-road driving. For most parts then the D-Max is well suited for off-road excursions and life away from the comforts and confines of the road.
Despite improving the interior refinement and making it all “car-like”, the D-Max is no less tough and dependable as its predecessors were. The extended load bed behind has also increased the D-Max’s carrying capacity by a huge degree as compared to its predecessor, making it just as big as the load beds you find on its contemporaries today. On top of that, Isuzu has certainly upheld the D-Max’s reputation for fuel efficiency with this generation. After 560km worth of fast on- and tough off-road driving, the D-Max with its 3-litre turbodiesel engine returned a fuel consumption figure of 10L/100km, which is a remarkable figure for an engine of such displacement. Though Isuzu only produces two passenger vehicles in their model line-up (with the MU7 seven-seater SUV based on the D-Max slated to be introduced in Malaysia later this year) the Japanese company’s primary business is engineering and supplying diesel engines for other clients, and that shows in the D-Max. For its smoothness, power delivery, and fuel efficiency, the D-Max’s engine is a fine example of their engineering expertise.
Although the D-Max has adopted more “car-like” qualities, it hasn’t forgotten that the great majority of pick-up truck buyers aren’t easily swayed by what is fancy and snazzy. Despite the praise these new car-like pick-up trucks have been receiving, and the laurels that have heaped upon their shoulders, the best selling pick-up truck in the country is still the relatively simple and crude Toyota Hilux.
What most ordinary car buyers forget is that the Hilux is mostly bought by business owners and as far as they are concerned, it is all about the dollars and sense, and the Hilux’s cheap servicing costs plays a big factor in this end of the market. In a previous motoring publication I tabulated the ownership costs (taking into account servicing and spare parts)of a Hilux, and discovered that the difference in costs between a Hilux and its better equipped and fancier rivals wasn’t so much a gap, but a gorge. There was one exception, and that was the Isuzu D-Max. The D-Max’s cost of ownership was closely similar to that of the Hilux.
So all things considered then the D-Max truly excels at being an all-round competent truck that brings together the “car-like” qualities that many desire, but keeps its low ownership costs and robustness that everyone needs. And in our vocabulary, that is what we would call a “win-win” scenario.