Johannesburg - The world trend is moving more and more towards SUVs but here, in South Africa, bakkies still rule the roost.

Witness the monthly vehicle sales records, Ford’s recent upgrade to their Ranger range and launch of the Raptor, and this week Toyota are launching their Legend 50 range celebrating 50 years of Hilux sales.

In the background, meanwhile, Isuzu have been in the process of quietly getting on, doing their own thing, and after much research and development with the guys at Arctic Trucks, last week launched the Isuzu Arctic AT35, based on the standard 3.0 litre D-MAX double cab. AT35 incidentally stands for All Terrain 35-inch tyres.

Arctic Trucks are the guys who build expedition-ready vehicles with big tyres, flared wheel arches and offroad suspensions. Because this was a collaboration with the factory in Struandale, Port Elizabeth, the conversion is factory fitted and not an after market bolt-on option, so prospective owners have full peace of mind when it comes to warranties and quality control.

At this stage, Isuzu envisage 50 units to be built annually - which doesn’t sound like a lot but does make it fairly exclusive and the dealer network already have a waiting list of people who either want to use it for its intended purpose or just want to look like a “Camel-man” poser. Either way it’s an imposing piece of metal to look at.

How it's built

The process starts very much in the same vein as the D-MAX; once all the welding and tooling has been done, it’s diverted to the Arctic Truck conversion area in the body shop. Here specialists cut, grind and weld, to allow the fitting of the 35-inch tyres and the Fox performance suspension.

From here, it’s put back on the production line for its e-coat, painting and general assembly, before it’s moved off again for the special fitting of wheels, suspension, wheel arches and some other bits and bobs.

Once it’s gone through the final quality control, it’s ready for shipment to its new owner - who gets an increased vehicle height over the standard D-MAx from 1860mm to 1980mm, 268mm (220mm) of ground clearance, wading depth of 718mm (600mm), a breakover angle of 22.4 degress (31.4 degrees) and an improved approach angle of 36 degrees and departure angle of 28 degrees.

While the exterior conversion is radical compared to the standard D-MAX, everything else is standard.

That includes the interior, which remains functional and comfortable - with electric driver’s seat and easy to operate switches and dials.

Also standard is the power unit under the bonnet, with the 3.0 litre turbodiesel pushing out 130kW and 380Nm of torque, coupled to a six-speed automatic gearbox. The gear ratios stay the same and the odometer is recalibrated to accommodate the bigger tyres.

Let's hit the road (and dunes!)

I’m a sucker for a 4x4 with big tyres and attitude, and jumped behind the wheel as we headed towards Brakkeduine, just past Oyster Bay, for some fun in the dunes.

Pull off with the big tyres mounted on 17-inch black alloy rims is slightly slower than with standard tyres and it’s to be expected, considering their circumference and more rolling resistance. Cruising at highway speeds comes up without any effort but we did find that on long up-hills, the auto box tended to hunt a bit but, with pre-emptive throttle control, this can be minimised.

Once off the tar, the tyre pressures were adjusted accordingly as we headed towards the dunes on dirt roads. I suspect though that, as an owner, you’ll have to experiment with pressures mostly on the low side, particularly because of the tough BF Goodrich All Terrain sidewalls.

On corrugated pieces on the drive, it felt a bit unsure and tended to bounce around, even in 4H. I reckon though that, fully loaded with everything needed for an expedition, it will be a lot more sure-footed, because ultimately that’s what the bakkie was designed for and those 35-inch tyres make any road imperfections easily conquered.

This was confirmed on a similar route in the regular D-Max, with standard suspension and 18-inch tyres - where road manners tended to be more predictable. Once on the dunes though, the whole package comes together brilliantly.

Not that the standard D-MAX isn’t capable but the AT35 is in a different league entirely and, locked in manual second gear, gobbled up a well churned up dune towards the end of the day, with consummate ease, without having to use low range or diff lock.

That’s what a truck like the AT35 is made for. Difficult terrain, challenging obstacles and getting to places where standard vehicles become a burden.

So while you’ll have to adjust your driving accordingly on the black stuff, the moment you switch the dial to four wheel drive, the AT35 will reward you with everything you want, and more, from a big 4x4.

Coming in at R785 000, it sneaks in just under the Raptor’s price of R786 400 and, while the market is abuzz with Ford’s offering, there’s a very loyal Isuzu following in South Africa and the AT35 will be a popular addition to the range.

Drive360