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21 November 2014 00:26 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Isuzu KB: Return of the smooth operator?

  • Deon Schoeman
  • Life, etc
Isuzu KB 300 LX DC_01 465 270.jpg

No other country idolises the humble one-ton pick-up with such fervour as South Africa. Despite is unmistakably utilitarian roots, the bakkie is much more than a load-carrying beast in the local context: it’s also a small business transporter, family commuter, agricultural workhorse, and leisure machine for holiday travel. In short, it’s a true jack-of-all-trades. Does the sixth-generation Isuzu KB range make the grade? By DEON SCHOEMAN.

Last month, Toyota sold 3,500 examples of its Hilux one-ton pick up in South Africa, and exported a further 7,146 units. Between them, Ford’s Ranger and the Mazda BT-50 (essentially the same vehicle) accounted for another 2, 074 local and 1, 742 export sales. Nissan’s local Hardbody sales tally came to 714 units, but it exported just short of 2,000 units.

If anything, these statistics show the massive sales potential for one-ton bakkies on local and African soil, and just how important the one-ton segment is to the South African motor industry.

The Isuzu KB has always been a significant player in the one-ton arena. But until last week, it had to rely on an ageing model to counter the strong retail push from rivals like Toyota and Ford, in particular. The fifth-generation KB has been around since 2004, and even a 2007 facelift wasn’t enough to properly challenge the latest contenders from the Hilux and, more recently, the Ranger stables.

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No wonder then that the arrival of the all-new, sixth-generation Isuzu KB has been eagerly awaited by Isuzu fans – and the brand’s dealers. While the 1,000 or so KB sales reflected in February confirm strong brand loyalty (and a successful run-out incentive programme), it’s also true that Isuzu has been losing support, with Ford’s bold and contemporary Ranger the most obvious beneficiary.

Well, the Isuzu faithful will rejoice in the news that the new, sixth-generation Isuzu finally made its debut last week. And after spending some time behind the wheel of a 4x4 double cab example while traversing a variety of routes and tracks in and around the Thornybush Private Game Reserve near Hoedspruit, it would appear that the wait has been worth it.

Those who expected the new Isuzu to be even bigger, even taller, even more aggressive than its rivals might be disappointed. While the sixth-generation KB has grown in every dimension, it’s not an imposing bakkie – and I mean that in the best possible way.

Remember, the majority of one-tonners will spend much of their time in urban conditions, where extreme size and elevation are hardly conducive to squeezing into tight shopping mall parking lots, or negotiating narrow security complex lanes. In fact, that also goes for some of the twisty dirt tracks we traversed during the launch event.

isuzu 5

So, the new Isuzu KB is beefy, but not in the pumped-up-on-steroids kind of way. The proportions are nicely balanced, and there is a sleekness to the design that speaks of aerodynamic circumspection – quite unusual in the bakkie context.
The basic shape is pretty much what you’d expect of a bakkie: a cab in front, a load bay at the rear. The front-end is dominated by a bold, broad-framed grille, finished in contrasting black, in more subtle colour-coded form, or in eye-searing, blingy chrome, depending on the model. A lower air intake provides further visual aggression.

The extended wheel arches add muscle and dimension to the otherwise functional profile, while also providing plenty of space for the various wheel and tyre combinations – and the extended suspension travel of the 4x4 models.

The rear features a single, central latch, a bumper with an integrated step, and tail light clusters that wrap around the edges of the load box for enhanced visibility. On top-end models, the front’s chrome finishes are mirrored by the end-piece brightwork of the rear bumper.

Interesting from a bakkie perspective is GMSA’s assertion that the shape of the KB has been aerodynamically honed in the interests of reduced drag – and thus improved efficiency. It also tends to help in tackling wind noise, which benefits comfort levels, especially when travelling long distances at relatively high speeds.

And while we’re on the subject of comfort: exceptional ride refinement has been an established attribute, and therefore selling point, of the Isuzu KB models for decades now. With customers expecting the Gen 6 model to up the ride comfort ante yet again, it’s understandable that the development engineers spent a significant amount of time and effort fine-tuning the suspension in the interests of smooth ride characteristics.

The problem, of course, is the multiplicity of roles that bakkies have to fulfil. They have to cope with a full one-ton load when required, yet customers expect ride and handling traits akin to those of a regular sedan.

And here’s the rub: tune the suspension for comfort, and it will be too soft to cope with a heavy load on the back. Beef up the rear springs in the interests of cargo-carrying capability, and the vehicle will bounce around like an ox cart when there’s no load on board.

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The trick is to find just the right compromise between these extremes, while also recognising the specific application scope of the particular model – and in this instance, the KB is offered in no less than 21 different variants.

That line-up includes single-cab workhorses focussed primarily on carrying cargo, extended cab models that offer the bonus of a more spacious cab, but still only two seats, and the versatile and popular double cabs, which straddle both utility and family transport roles.

Isuzu clearly believes that KB buyers prefer diesel to petrol engines, as only seven of the 21 models on offer are petrol-powered – all by the same 2,4-litre four-cylinder petrol unit. By comparison, there are three turbodiesel units, of which the 3.0-litre D-TEQ is the most powerful, and also the most advanced.

With only a few hours on either side of an overnight stay to spend behind the wheel of the latest Isuzu, we opted for the KB 300 Double Cab LX 4x4 – which, as it happens, is also the flagship of the range.

It links the aforementioned 3.0-litre turbodiesel engine to a five-speed manual gearbox, low-range transfer case and selectable four-wheel drive. An electrically actuated diff lock adds even more traction, should the going get really tough.

With 130kW of maximum power and 380Nm of torque, this double cab has plenty of poke, and most of it low down in the rev range, which is just where you need it. In bakkie terms, it gets off the mark with a fair amount of enthusiasm, easily spinning the rear wheels if you treat the throttle and clutch with contempt.

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We started our introduction to the KB double cab’s talents by traversing a short but testing off-road track, including some steep inclines and equally steep descents – the kind of conditions 4x4 enthusiasts revel in, but make normal folk twitch nervously.

The Isuzu clambered up what looked like a near-vertical quarry wall with almost laughable ease, utilising its low-range urge and four-wheel drive traction to good effect, before easing down an equally daunting descent with similar decorum.

A series of obstacles showed off the extended wheel travel, allowing the Isuzu to retain traction through deep hollows and ruts. Sticky mud and some deceptive sand troughs were conquered in a flash – proving, in less than 20 minutes or so, that the KB is at least as good as its predecessor when it comes to serious 4x4 terrain.

But perhaps more telling was the time we spent on Thornybush’s narrow game viewing tracks, as well as the gravel farm roads and secondary tar routes in the immediate vicinity of Hoedspruit. These are the conditions more typical of what the KB double cab will face in the real world – and it passed muster without a hiccup.

In the tight, the combination of fairly quick steering and good visibility, linked to decent throttle response, meant that the Isuzu always felt wieldy and controllable – impressive for a vehicle weighing around two tons. Shifting to 4x4 mode can be done on the fly at speeds of up to 100km/h, which is really useful if conditions suddenly deteriorate.

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On the open road, the Isuzu proved that comfort and composure are still key selling points of the KB range, easily coping with indifferent road surfaces, while comfortably cruising at the legal speed limit – and beyond.

It’s hardly put out by sudden steering inputs or hard braking, delivering a level of composure that will come as a surprise to those who think of pick-ups (even double cab derivatives) as second-class citizens of the motoring universe.

Inside, the cabin finds a good balance between smart and practical. The dashboard layout is modern and accessible, with just enough tech to remind you that this is a 21st-century bakkie. The surfaces and textures are both attractive and durable, and there’s an overall sense of reassuring longevity.

I’m not sure that the brown leather upholstery will be to everyone’s taste, and the embossed pattern adds an unnecessary element of kitsch. But ergonomically, there’s little to fault here, and combined with a long standard features list, life behind the wheel of the new KB is a pleasure.

It’s debatable whether a double cab bakkie needs park distance control (in off-road conditions, that beeping will drive you batty), but given its frequent deployment in the urban jungle, perhaps it will come in handy when trying to impress your 18-year-old with a perfect parallel parking manoeuvre.

But much more pertinent in the modern motoring context are the likes of Bluetooth for audio and cellular communication, all-important climate control, and USB-based iPod connectivity. Reassuringly, the KB 300 LX is fitted with no less than six airbags (front, side and curtain), as well as ABS brakes.

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The almost obsessive emphasis on durability shines through in the way the KB negotiates ruts, corrugations and sudden bumps without complaint: no creaks, no rattles, no resonances. It always feels solid and composed, while soaking up much of the rough stuff.

For all its muscle and sophistication, that D-TEQ engine still sounds a little rough around the edges, which may be forgivable in the bakkie context, but then, the KB 300 LX is far too sophisticated a machine to be saddled with an agricultural soundtrack...

The new Isuzu KB won’t find the going easy in a segment already contested by some very talented players. But while this sixth-generation range has joined the fray later than expected, the vehicle itself stands up to even the closest scrutiny, and is likely to please not only loyal brand supporters, but also those shopping the segment with a less brand-conscious mind.

Vital also will be the acceptance of the newcomer north of our borders, with GMSA producing the latest KB in both right and left-hand drive versions for export far up into the African continent for the first time.

While local sales should provide a firm foundation, it’s the KB’s leap into Africa that will determine its ultimate success. DM

VITAL STATISTICS

  • Isuzu KB 300 D-TEQ LX 4x4 Double Cab
  • Engine In-line four-cylinder, 2,999cc, turbodiesel
  • Gearbox Five-speed manual
  • Power 130kW @ 3,600rpm
  • Torque 380Nm @ 1,800rpm
  • 0-100km/h 11,0sec (est)
  • Top speed 175km/h (est)
  • Fuel consumption 7.9 l/100km (combined cycle)
  • CO2 emissions 209 g/km
  • Retail price R464,400
  • Deon Schoeman
  • Life, etc


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