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Fighting fires in bakkies – and the new Isuzu Arctic AT35

Fighting fires in bakkies – and the new Isuzu Arctic AT35
The all-new Isuzu Arctic AT35. (Photo: Isuzu SA)

‘As I got nearer to the smoked-up barely visible terrain, I saw a long line of bakkies belonging to farm and land owners who were there as volunteer firefighters.’

The bakkie market is pumping in South Africa, and it’s not only Ford and Toyota that are experiencing double-digit growth but also Isuzu that recently launched the massive off-roader D-MAX Arctic AT35, which I got to test drive during the recent devastating Winelands fires.

At the end of 2020 I was fortunate enough to purchase a wooden cabin that was going for a song in the Breedekloof/Winelands region. An elderly Dutch woman was selling in a panic as the world went into its second year of Covid lockdowns and heavy travel restrictions prevented many from moving. 

Two weeks ago, when the Wolseley fire had licked its way across the mountains into the Bainskloof region, we homeowners in the area watched in mounting horror as huge orange flames consumed the tinder-dry fynbos, threatening to incinerate our houses. 

During this time, I was test driving the new Isuzu AT35 Arctic Truck, a customised derivative of the top-of-the-range Isuzu D-Max. 

We’d been told via the neighbourhood WhatsApp group that firefighters were in desperate need of bottled water. Feeling compelled to do my bit, I loaded my “truck” with aqua supplies and headed into the valley. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cape Winelands blazes rip through thousands of hectares, people evacuated

Fires raging in Bainskloof/Slanghoek. (Photo: Breerivier WhatsApp Group)

As I got nearer to the smoked-up barely visible terrain, I saw a long line of bakkies belonging to farm and land owners who were there as volunteer firefighters – there must have been at least 40 of them; Toyota Hiluxes, Ford Rangers and Isuzu D-Maxes. 

For a moment I thought I was at Nampo, the annual agricultural expo. The parked bakkies represented a pretty accurate picture of the current top three bakkie brands in South Africa. 

White Hiluxes outnumbered the rest. 

According to Naamsa figures for 2023, the Hilux outsold its competitors by a country mile, selling 37,382 units and showing an increase of 16.1% year on year. 

In second place was Ford’s Ranger, boasting a whopping 42% year-on-year increase, with 24,618 of its blue oval bakkies finding new homes. The Isuzu D-Max bagged third place with an increase of 11.1% and 18,962 units sold.

I got a couple of approving nods from some of the farmers as I swooped in close to the fire line in my massive AT35 with its bulging fender flares, ginormous tyres and brutish visage. 

When it came to wheels, my Isuzu undoubtedly had the largest set of tyres – 35-inch BF Goodrich all-terrains, made all the more macho by huge flared wheel arches.

The Isuzu Arctic Truck is built locally at Isuzu’s Gqeberha plant, where there’s a dedicated body shop that fits special off-road styling components that are imported from Arctic Trucks, based in Iceland. 

The company was established in 2016 to create bakkies (or trucks) for extreme Icelandic conditions like snow, ice, mountains and rock and it has become renowned for producing some of the most capable overlanding vehicles on the planet. 

The local Struandale plant is the only Isuzu facility in the world accredited by Arctic Trucks to produce the D-MAX AT35. 

The imposing rear end of the Isuzu AT35. (Photo: Isuzu SA)

Price-wise, it sits at the top of the D-Max range and shares the latest D-Max’s 3.0-litre turbo diesel 4-cylinder engine, producing 140kWs and 450Nm of torque, underpinned by a 6-speed auto gearbox. 

When it comes to looks and pricing, the only double cab that can really be viewed as the AT35’s competitor is the mighty Ford Raptor. 

While the Raptor is slightly longer, the AT35 is 12mm wider, and while the Isuzu double cab has a ground clearance of 266mm in the front and 290mm in the rear, the Raptor offers a straight 272mm. 

Price-wise, they are both in the million-plus rand bracket: the Raptor costs R1,184,100 while the AT35 is about R65K cheaper.  

But that’s kind of where comparisons end. 

The Raptor, with its 3.0 V6 EcoBoost engine producing a massive 292kW of power and 583Nm of torque, is a thoroughbred on and off-road petrol performance bakkie, while the AT35, with its diesel setup, has 150kWs less power and can be regarded as an extreme terrain vehicle.

And while it’s hugely capable off-road, it will fail dismally trying to beat a Raptor in a shootout. Additionally, the Raptor has a 10-speed auto gearbox in comparison to Isuzu’s pretty pedestrian 6-speed auto one. 

Where the Raptor scores low in points is when it comes to its excessive thirst, slugging around 13 litres/100km, while the Arctic’s diesel engine is much more considerate with consumption at around 9 litres/100km.

The plush cabin. (Photo: Isuzu SA)

I found the AT35’s drive to be solid, albeit a tad slow. Being the kind of person who has a need for speed, if I had the means I would opt for the speedy Ford Raptor, but for those who want to be in a ridiculously capable all terrain off-roader that’s not going to break the bank at the tanks, the AT35 might be the biz.

Isuzu has beefed up the suspension with Bilstein dampers via a specially designed lift kit that improves ground clearance and approach and departure angles which will definitely please off-road enthusiasts. Those Goodrich massive tyres really do stand out but they also create a fair amount of road noise on tar. 

It’s pretty premium in the cabin, with leather and all. Tech-wise, there’s a medium-sized 9-inch touchscreen infotainment system that supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. 

I did find some of the AT35’s drive info, like “fuel range”, nigh impossible to access, but was impressed with its vast array of safety systems like Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Monitor and  Autonomous Emergency Braking. It also has seven airbags.

While this enormous “truck” has a handy rearview camera, it is not a walk in the park to nudge it into standard sized parking bays, especially in underground shopping parking lots. I landed up aborting my visit to Willowbridge with its thick pillared parking bays because I simply couldn’t find a spot wide enough to plant this beast.

Sunset and fire. (Photo: Breerivier WhatsApp Group)

Bakkies are becoming more and more popular, and in the Breedekloof, they appear to be de rigueur. The firefighters were grateful for the water that I dropped off, and for the next few days I got to watch the mammoth efforts of the community and emergency services come together to fight the raging fires. 

In recent days, a new blaze has broken out in Bainskloof, and while I am now back in Cape Town, I have no doubt that the local bakkie brigade is once again out there in full force. 

Pricing

Isuzu D-Max Arctic AT35: R1,120,620. DM

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