Review: The new Isuzu DMAX

There is sand everywhere. Surrounded by sand, sand in my teeth, sand in my throat, sand in my eyes, sand in the air; but most importantly, there is what looks like all the sand in the world under my press demonstrator. I’m not moving, and the sand in the air is the direct result of the rooster tails I shoot up as I try to unweld myself from the uncompromising desert environment. I am well and truly stuck; and wheelspin is not helping me any. Neal, my upbeat co-driver and budding cameraman, cheerfully gets on the gong to let our hosts know that this motor vehicle is going nowhere fast.

Do not adjust your newspaper pages, this is not a repeat of the Morocco test from three years ago; this is a whole new one. I am in a fleet of Isuzu KB300 DTEQ LX cars; what we call the DMAX, somewhere on the western coast of Africa, a place called Walvis Bay right at the point where the Namib Desert meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is quite a sight and quite a feeling being here, I tell you: to the left is nothing but miles and miles of empty desert; to the right is nothing but miles and miles of open sea. There may be oil rigs and the odd ship. To the front is a road that may or may not be tarmac (speed limit: 100km/h), and to the back is the rest of the convoy. We are threading our way through the biggest sandstorm I have ever seen in my life. It feels like I have woken up in a Frank Herbert novel.

Q. Enough with the Geography! The car?

Ah, the new DMAX which is not so new. It is new to these pages, but not new to the market. The reason I was in the desert was because the car has just received a facelift (already) which goes to show how behind the times this column has fallen lately; and we were there to try the new look (new foglamps, addition of daytime running lights). That seems like a pretty flimsy excuse for one to go on a bucket-list busting trip across Africa’s waistline, but hey; who’s complaining?

Q. So? Does the facelift work?

Only if you stare hard enough. The DRLs are what you’ll notice first because… ummm… they glow during the day. The bumper calls for a keener eye to notice the changes, and in the process you may notice that the headlamps, though similar in appearance, are actually quite different. In short, yes the facelift works.

Q. Instead of going down the well-trodden path of listing specs readily available on the internet as done by lazy automotive writers everywhere, how about we summarize it into this: what did you like about the car?

  1. I like the new look. It moves forward GM’s traditionally conservative design language without treading on anyone’s toes. Or does it? More than once I have been told that the Toyota Hilux blazed the trail (see if you notice a pun here) for the swoopy lines that were quickly adopted by the Mitsubishi L200 (looks odd), a slew of Chinese pickups (who don’t understand what “copyright” means) and now the DMAX. So what? Does the DMAX look good or not? I think it does, for what it is. Leave the flashy bodywork for mall-crawling saloon cars, this is meant to be a work truck.
  2. The car is a lot more comfortable. For starters it is quite roomy inside, a lot more than the previous generation DMAX. Rear legroom in particular is very impressive and the seats are not as hard as they used to be. I could do a painless Great Run in this (see the archives for clarification on what happened during the Great Run 4X4 back in 2013, which I did in the old DMAX). Suspension optimization is also at a higher level such that bumps, rumble strips and the general unevenness of the ground is better isolated from the occupants’ skeletons. It may not be at Navara-levels of smooth but it is smooth all the same. It is so much better than the previous model that we had to physically confirm it still stood on leaf springs at the back and not coils.
  3. Refinement: the DMAX/KB feels a lot less lorry-like than before. Don’t get me wrong: the engine is still gruff to the point of raucousness at 3000 rpm and beyond; but keep it below 3k and all will be well. You won’t even need more than that unless you are dune-bashing (to be explained shortly). Fit and finish is also improved and for the first time in history the interior of the DMAX looks like something out of the 21st Century… not necessarily 2016, but the 21st Century all the same. There is a screen. There is Bluetooth connectivity. There is a USB port and an iPod dock; hell, there is even a slot for your micro SD card, if your fingers are deft enough to wiggle it into the nook. The instrument cluster is a mesh of analog and digital: the clocks are analog (speedo and tach) while the fuel gauge and gear indicator are digitally displayed on a tiny little screen in the center of the cluster. In what looks like a Range Rover knock-off, the markings in the clocks have glass inserts which are strongly reminiscent of the Evoque’s own bejeweled diamond dash.
  4. Sound system: this was unexpected -and a pleasant surprise- but the thumping stereo really does thump. It is miles ahead of what I have experienced in any other pickup, up to and including but not limited to the ridiculously expensive Amarok (from which I expected better). Combine this with ease of use of the entire system via the touch-screen interface and any trip inside this car becomes enjoyable for all aboard.
  5. Fuel economy: driving in the desert is a thirsty exercise, and not just for the driver, but for the car too. Average figures were quoted at 14-15 km/l, though it was not easy to get an accurate return while thrashing across the sand with no top-ups. What I know is: roughly 200km most of which were spent spinning wheels, in 4WD and at high revs only yielded the smallest of dips in the fuel gauge level. There goes one of the biggest pains ever for the Kenyan motorist alleviated.
  6. Pricing; another pain to the Kenyan motorist. The DMAX undercuts the competition at the moment by something close to a million, which are very many shillings. Is the difference justifiable? No. This was best expressed by a South African colleague whose shock was palpable after we told him exactly how much a million Kenya shillings translates to in Rands.
  7. Perfect mesh of the old and the new: there is this mindset that the more mechanical and analog the automotive experience, the better. I don’t necessarily agree: I still believe an autobox is the best for off-roading over a manual. I however agree with the fact that less electronic intrusiveness and computer gimmickry makes for a better overall driving experience, especially when it comes to locking your own diffs. The DMAX covers all this. You can have it with either a manual transmission or a traditional auto with manual override (which I recommend). While costlier fare comes with preset parameters (called Terrain Response, wink, wink), in the DMAX you still have to select between 2WD and 4WD yourself; and high range and low range. No need for a lever (too analog, and too 1960s), there is a rotary dial in the center console for that. It increases the sense of involvement in the exercise while simplifying it at the same time, as opposed to simply pushing buttons and waiting for the car to drive itself. The beauty of the system is one can shift from 2WD to 4WD at speeds as high as 115km/h, but only for high range. To engage low range you need to stop, and that will never change. Throttle response is more immediate too, which may indicate the lack of an electronic throttle. The DMAX is quite good off-road, as we found out in Port Elizabeth back in 2012 (see archives); but with nothing more than chunky rubber and a lift kit, it will transform into one of the most veritable of Rhino Charge-class off-road vehicles at par with Landcruisers and Land Rovers, I kid you not.

Quite a list. So, what did you not like?

  1. Improvements in refinement aside, the car still feels agricultural to some extent. There is no mistaking its genealogy; like father, like son. The noise becomes really egregious above 3000rpm, and if you use the vehicle as it was intended, you may stray to that engine speed or more once in a while, in which case prepare for some irritation. The manual option, while creamed with the oiliest clutch action one’s left foot could ever desire, is marred by a slightly ropey gear change especially going into first. Snapshifts will not exactly be your friend unless and until you get used to the car. The automatic really is the better transmission here.
  2. There may be USB porting and iPod docking but it took us a while to locate them. They have been squirreled away in some deep recess at the bottom of the center console with no clear markings unless you really squint (and know where to squint), and to make matters worse, they have these silly plastic covers that require a fish hook to disengage. Nobody told me to bring a fish hook with me; nor can you readily find a fish hook randomly lying about on the desert sand so the trip was spent with my music stick bouncing around uselessly in my trouser pockets. The micro SD slot is also fairly pointless. I can see the need for it (utilization as a surrogate hard drive, which other cars have inbuilt in them but the DMAX doesn’t); but who in the world of today actually owns a standalone SD card except for dedicated photographers? These are found in phones and cameras, and I doubt anyone would be disassembling their phone just to get at the memory card to push into the dashboard. My suggestion would be to shift the USB port to where the SD card slot is and forget the whole SD thing. Speaking of phones, the perennial pain that is Bluetooth connection is present here too; connecting your phone is still a bit of a hit-and-miss; though to GM’s credit, this was a lot less of a hassle in their KB as compared to other (*cough, cough) more expensive vehicles.
  3. The rear doors: they are weighted for some reason that is not immediately apparent and shut with a heavily damped and muffled thud which is quite impressive and evocative of a top-of-the-line Mercedes Benz, until you realize they are not actually shut; in which case you have to slam them. That is counter-intuitive to some of us who spend work hours doing road tests in expensive vehicles away from home and drive Subarus with frameless doors when home. Slamming doors is not really our thing. We may have spent a considerable amount of time driving in the desert with doors that were almost ajar, which is fine when belted up and driving in a sea of sand but could pose as a hazard in the more realistic world of narrow streets and two-way traffic.

Q. Interesting. So what is your summary?

My summary is this. Toyota rules the roost in terms of sales and kerb appeal by virtue of reputation. The Ford Ranger comes a close second and is about to overthrow the Japanese truck as king of the hill. The Mitsubishi L200 was and still is anonymous as to get skipped in almost every conversation involving double-cab pickups. The Volkswagen Amarok still sports the new-kid-on-the-block patina that keeps the wary at arm’s length. The Nissan Navara… well, let me stop here for a moment and change tack.

All this means nothing because the double-cab war that surfaces every now and then in this column just shifted gear. All these pickups now have new versions; or are about to. With the exception of the new DMAX, which has been around for some time, Toyota has a new Hilux (whose launch they keep promising to invite us to but nothing seems to be happening), Ford has a new Ranger (but for some reason they have sworn I will never touch any of their cars; I don’t know why), Volkswagen has a new Amarok with a more realistic 3.0 liter engine (the 2.0 liter sounds like the work of fiction) and is yet to reach these shores and Nissan will launch a new Navara in November; in which I will get first dibs in yet another desert, way up in the northwest corner of the continent. I will be visiting Morocco again. So that means we will not be doing a comparison just yet unless and until all the new vehicles are sampled. For now, let the DMAX be the standard against which the rest will be measured.

That being said, there are projections that can be made. Expect the DMAX to undercut the field in price, with the probable exception of the L200 and of course the Chinese. Expect the new Amarok to have the classiest interior of the pack, and probably pack the meanest punch in terms of engine output while costing as much as a BMW SUV. Expect the new Hilux to be unbreakable (they say they have strengthened the frame), a trait it shares with the DMAX though no one wants to say it out loud; while costing seven figures more (really, Toyota, you are killing us with your price tags). Finally, expect the Navara to bring more of what it already sports: comfort and handling like an executive saloon, with just a touch of flimsiness. This is especially likely because rumors abound that Mercedes-Benz is entering the double-cab game too and theirs will be nothing different from a reskinned Navara: same car, different badge; so it follows that the engineering Nissan puts into it has to be worthy of German scrutiny. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

Q. So, would one buy one?

Buy a what? A DMAX? Hells, yeah! Why not? The simple reason can best be summarized thus: there is nothing the Hilux will do that the DMAX won’t. But the price difference between the two is massive: the Hilux just seems to get more and more expensive as its fans get more and more vocal; while the DMAX maintains its understated, open-secret, smart-choice status. I could easily live with this car, and then some; especially once I buy a fish hook and manage to plug in my USB music stick.

Q. OK, thanks. That was really…

Hold on a minute, I’m not done yet. Remember some of my earlier observations about the DMAX over its stability or the lack thereof? There was a video clip of one toppling over on live television and another one threw me into the undergrowth during the Great Run 4X4. These issues have been addressed with the introduction of traction control and stability management systems which are on by default, making the car as tractable as you’d like it to be. To disengage the traction control, just tap the button (conveniently located near the steering column where only the driver can reach it) once; to disengage both traction control and stability management, you have to tap and hold the button for a clean eight seconds. No room for mistakes here. Once off, and with the transfer case in 2 High, it is a case of wheeee!!…. wheelspin and sideways action on a loose surface. Fun; if you know what you are doing.

How To Drive On Sand

The Namib Desert was my third major sandpit ever, after the Sahara and the Kalahari in that order. While I have done sand driving before, as well as dune-climbing, none of it has been to this scale. To tackle it, one needed preparation.

  1. Your apparel: you are better off in a Gideon boot rather than a sports shoe. Fortunately, a Gideon boot (or something similar) is what my landing gear was shod in; because the alternative is a lot more idyllic for the romantic at heart but makes for an ignominious return to the hotel lobby in the evening: going barefoot. Ordinary shoes tend to sink in the sand, which makes walking tiring and the sand gets in your shoes making you uncomfortable. Of course you need sunglasses too to battle the glare of the sun and its reflection, particularly in a sand storm where everything goes white and you get dazzled in short order. I learnt this the hard way. For most deserts, you need light, bright clothing to keep cool; but in the Namib close to the coast you may wind up in a jumper; there is a gale that feels like the sort of Harmattan which hardens foofoo much further to the north of this place: very cold, very strong and unrelenting.
  2. The car: Deflate the tyres. Drop the standard tarmac pressures to less than half what you normally use: in our case, it was down from 1.8 psi to 0.8. The thinking behind this is that a slightly deflated tyre has a longer footprint that increases its contact area enabling it to float on the sand. To the off-roading know-it-alls out there: lowering tyre pressure does not widen the tyre footprint, it lengthens it. It’s the sidewalls that bulge, meaning the width of the tyre is unaffected, bit along with the sidewalls, the effective length of the tyre circumference in contact with the ground also increases, and this is what we are interested in. You will also need the car to be in 4WD the entire time (4-Hi mostly unless you get stuck in which case 4-Lo comes in handy). Most interestingly, one wants the traction control off, because
  3. Make Yourself Uncomfortable: Literally, you have to. Move your seat forward until you feel like you are too close to the wheel. You’ll need to because when ascending a 1:1 slope at wide open throttle the last thing you want is to slide back into your seat like you are riding a cheap roller-coaster and thus cede control of your little off-roader. You don’t want to cede control at that moment. Both hands on the wheel, elbows at a 90-degree angle.

*Next time: what happened on the dunes

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