2016 Isuzu D-Max Arctic Trucks AT35 test & review – Monster Pick-Up Truck Rules Off-Road!

I’ve reviewed Isuzu’s pick-up truck in two guises up to now; the D-Max Eiger in 2013 and the limited-edition D-Max Fury on a long-term six-month test. While it has it’s good points and flaws, the overriding feeling I got from the D-Max was just how rugged, strong and reliable it was, something that it’s well-known for. People buy them for exactly that reason.

However, Isuzu decided that before this version is replaced by the new generation in August 2017, they’d offer something even more capable, by putting it in the hands of Arctic Trucks. If you haven’t heard of them, you might have seen what they’re capable of in one of the most memorable Top Gear episodes ever; the race to the North Pole using two Artic Trucks-built Toyota Hilux’.

I try to test anything with a decent 4×4/AWD system off road properly, and give them a real workout, usually exceeding what the average driver would put them through. I believe with a pick-up truck it’s pretty essential to have a good four-wheel-drive set-up, becuase here in the UK at least, the majority of owners will actually buy and use their truck for work.

After trying the first-generation Isuzu D-Max out both in winter conditions and on a fairly severe off-road course, it proved to be a really capable truck that pretty much ate up anything we threw at it. However, Isuzu decided that they wanted something even more hard-core, a real beast for those who needed to reach areas normally inaccessible to most pick-ups. Thus the D-Max Arctic Trucks AT35 was born.

Before I launch into the review of the D-Max AT35, a bit of info about the company behind its modifications. Artic Trucks was started in Iceland in 1990 and they specialise in converting and re-engineering various types of 4x4s (and even 6x6s!) for use in the most inhospitable environments on Earth, many of which are used on expeditions and by scientists. Their vehicles were even used in the 2010 record-setting fastest journey to the South Pole. To date Arctic Trucks have supplied over 7,000 vehicles to both private and commercial customers, so yes, one could say they’ve got some experience in building properly-capable 0ff-road vehicles.

Note; Isuzu are also launching the AT35 with their new-generation 2017 D-Max, so if you want the latest version as an AT35, it will happily be available.

Exterior

Over the week-long test period, the D-Max AT35 got easily as much attention as some of the more high-end sports and luxury cars I’ve reviewed. The majority of wide-eyed stares came from those driving vans and other pick-up trucks, and I don’t blame them, becuase this thing looks properly monstrous.

Available in either the extended-cab and double cab configuration, the exterior and overall look of the D-Max AT35 has been beefed up in a few ways, namely humongous extended arches to house the fat 135/70/R17 Nokian Rotiiva off-road tyres, which are fitted to a set of handsome 17″ x 10″ alloy wheels that are offset by 25 mm. Sat behind those are some high-quality Arctic-Trucks-labelled thick rubber mud flaps, which finish the look off nicely.

If that wasn’t enough to make other drivers gawp, Arctic Trucks have also lifted the D-Max 30mm on the body and 20mm via a suspension lift. With all this done, the D-Max AT35 cuts a very mean and menacing presence on the road, filling the rear-view and side mirrors of little city cars, towering above the average family saloon and makes other pick-up truck drivers more than a little jealous of this beast.

While it now looks properly beefy, I’ve got one slight issue; there are only a few clues that this has been modified by Arctic Trucks, namely a chrome badge on the tailgate, a small decal on each front wing and the mud flaps. Heck, if that was mine I’d want it absolutely glaring that one of the coolest 4×4 modifying companies on the planet has sprinkled their magic on my truck! I’d contact Artic Trucks or Isuzu to see if they supply decal kits for the sides of the D-Max.

Should you want to make the D-Max AT35 even cooler and more action-ready, there are a range of accessories available, including LED lights, underbody skid protector plates, a sports bar (faux rollover-type), and personally I’d also have the rear windows tinted for privacy, security and an even cooler appearance.

Interior

Up to now I’ve only ever tested the D-Max in the lower-spec versions, with their fairly utilitarian centre console and manual shifter. The D-Max AT35 is actually based on the higher-spec Utah, and therefore enjoys a more luxurious interior which includes better-looking switchgear and controls on the console, which are still really driver-and-glove-friendly but are rather ingenious in their simplistic layout.

Unfortunately you don’t have get a touchscreen system on this 2016 model, but instead there’s a stereo featuring FM radio, single CD slot and (micro) USB/Bluetooth connectivity. However, the speakers have been upgraded to include two ‘Exciter’ units mounted in the headliner, which give a more powerful and rounded sound. Personally, I’d be tempted to upgrade the stereo system by replacing it with the surprisingly-good Pioneer touchscreen which was in Fury edition I tested. However, at £1,200 (including VAT) fitted, it’s not exactly a cheap way to upgrade but if you can afford it, get one.

My gripes with the AT35 interior are that there’s no reverse camera – which is really quite daft as this is a huge beast to manoeuvre into parking spaces and because the tailgate is so high it’d be easy to miss a parked motorbike or city car, even with the sensors. Secondly, the USB slot is bizarrely a micro USB version which I’ve never seen on any car yet. Yes, micro USBs go into your tablet, phone etc, but not the other way around.

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Also standard on the D-Max AT35 is leather upholstery, driver’s electrically-adjustable seat, front heated seats, a height-adjustable leather steering wheel with controls, power-adjustable, folding and heated door mirrors, electric windows front, rear, rear parking sensors and front, side and curtain airbags plus a central LCD display in the driver binnacle featuring information for the instant/average fuel economy, gear selected, exterior temperature and more.

As with the other (now previous generation) D-Max’, both the front and rear seating is very comfortable, with plenty of leg, head and elbow room. As it’s exactly the same as the other D-Max’s, please follow this link to my other Isuzu articles for an in-depth tour, test and review of the cabin.

On the road

Climb up (literally) into the driver’s seat of the D-Max AT35, and you suddenly feel much more dominant on the road. The reasons for that are the massively wide arches poking out each side plus Arctic Trucks have added Fox suspension front and rear, which raises the truck by 20mm, and they’ve also given it a 30mm body lift for improved ground clearance. Add to that the 315/70 R17″ tyres and you’re more than set to dwarf even the larger SUVs. Good stuff!

The engine is the same 160 bhp, 295 lb/ft (400Nm) four-cylinder 2.5 litre twin-turbo diesel as the other 2016 (and previous) D-Max’. While it’s a strong, reliable unit with plenty of torque, it’s still quite agricultural, vibrating into the cabin somewhat and being noisy under acceleration until you reach your cruising speed. Again, I give all the in-depth information you need on that and other driving aspects in my other D-Max reviews, and also in my AT35 video review below.

Something I’d not had on previous D-Max test vehicles was the five-speed automatic, which comes standard on the AT35 double cabin version. While the 6-speed manual was actually a decent thing, I’ve got to say I much prefer the automatic as it makes for a far more relaxed and easy drive, and it absolutely suits the Isuzu perfectly. I really haven’t a clue why a lot of drivers in the UK still insist on having a manual gearbox, when an automatic is so much nicer to drive, a heck of a lot easier to handle when off-roading, and the loss of around 4 or 5 miles-per-gallon (UK) is worth it simply for the above benefits.

The 5-speed auto shifts when you expect it to, and changes are more than adequately smooth with the top gear easily being long enough to keep the revs down and relaxed for longer high-speed journeys. Should you want to change gears yourself for a more engaging drive, or are towing or off-roading, the automatic ‘box has sequential shift which works really well and doesn’t over-nanny things – in other words there’s no low-rev limiter stopping you from shifting down gears should you want to engine brake on steep hills, or keep it in a lower gear going up steep roads.

After testing the 2015/16 D-Max Fury for several months, my main bugbear was the ride quality which is really firm unless you have a load in the rear (Isuzu now sell an upgrade for softer suspension). The AT35 is slightly more forgiving, but only marginally. However, the back end is less skittish over sharp bumps at speed than the standard version, and while the truck sits a fair bit higher I found that it handles itself decently on sharper bends and longer high-speed ones, and there’s certainly no less confidence on the roads.

The 35″ Nokian Rotiiva tyres actually give much better grip in the wet than the awful Bridgestone Duellers – which are, quite frankly, dangerous on wet tarmac – that come standard on the normal D-Max, and another bonus is that while they’ve got a deep tread pattern for off-roading there’s no real difference in road noise into the cabin.

If you’re going to want to use your AT35 for towing, you’ll be happy to hear it has the same capacity as the standard D-Max; a payload of 1,050 kgs (2,314 lbs), a braked towing weight of 750 kgs (1,653 lbs) and a braked tow rate of 3,500 kgs (7,716 lbs).

Off road test

To show you the extra off-roading capability of the AT35, let’s compare the standard D-Max to the AT35. The D-Max has 235mm (9.25″) of ground clearance, a 500mm (20″) wade depth, 30˚ approach angle, 23˚ departure angle and 22˚ ramp angle. That’s already decent, and it was highly capable when I tested it in a tough quarry setting.

The D-Max AT35 has 315mm (12.4″) of ground clearance, a 650mm (25.6″) wade depth, 36˚ approach angle, 28˚ departure angle and 32˚ramp angle. Those are considerable differences, and makes the AT35 a formidable beast over rough terrain.

If you read any of my other 4×4 and SUV reviews, you’ll see that I love to test their off-road prowess properly. In the case of the AT35 I couldn’t wait to get it thoroughly muddy – after all, that’s what it was build for! The 4×4 system is the same as the normal D-Max, with a simple twist-dial to choose either 2-wheel-drive, 4-wheel-drive high ratio (4H) or 4WD low ratio (4L) for when the going gets really tough.

I’d been so impressed with the ‘stock’ D-Max on this particular play area (sorry, serious testing ground I mean), that I didn’t even feel the need to bring along a backup 4×4 – as I usually do – in case the AT35 got stuck.

The first challenge was just getting to the off-road area as especially-deep, boggy ruts had been dug by tractors and more extreme 4x4s passing that way previously. Selecting 4L mode, I drove the D-Max AT35 forward tentatively. Thankfully has an an extra 80mm (3.2″) ground clearance to play with, which allowed the D-Max to (just) clear the ruts, while the chunky Nokian Rotiiva tyres clawed their through the slippery mud and out the other side.

In this case I genuinely don’t think the standard D-Max would have made it, as with less ground clearance it would have bottomed out straight away, and once you’re beached on an area like that with a heavy pick-up truck, you’ll face the certain embarrassment of asking for a tow of a (hopefully) kindly farmer. No issues there though, and the AT35 breezed it.

After that, myself and another driver used the AT35 to tackle deep, marshy sections of water that have hidden dips underneath that you drop into without knowing where they’ll be, but again the D-Max wasn’t fazed, and that 650mm wading capability made for peace-of-mind.

With excellent articulation from the re-worked suspension, the Arctic Trucks D-Max made it pure fun tackling steep and muddy hills strewn with large rocks, all of which it brushed off as easily as it would driving on a city road.

Should you want to make the AT35 even more adroit off-road, something I would spec simply for the bragging rights alone would be the on-board tyre inflation/deflation kit. Awesome stuff. I would think Artic Trucks or Isuzu would also supply a front and rear differentials, and a snorkel kit for ultimate water wading always looks awesome too.

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Conclusion

I like the D-Max AT35. In a world mostly full of sensible-looking cars, Isuzu have provided us with something that looks like it’s just fought its way out of a volcano, across an icy tundra, through a swollen river, bashed its way through a jungle and straight into a showroom, such is the impact of its in-your-face appearance.

As good as it looks, it still has the same towing and hauling capacity as the standard D-Max, and at £33,999 for the manual and £34,999 for the automatic, you’re getting one heck of a capable truck for the money.

This 2016 model Isuzu D-Max is now being replaced with the new-generation version, and it does feel somewhat outdated next to the competition, which have more luxurious, better-driving and modern offerings. However, Isuzu builds trucks that are made – and expected – to work hard. The roomy, practical interior will take the beating of carrying a fully-kitted-up construction worker crew in all weathers, the agricultural-sounding twin-turbo diesel is as reliable as they come, and with a huge accessories list you can kit it out however you need for work or play.

I can’t find fault with the D-Max AT35 off-road, it is incredibly competent in this area and if you’re looking for something genuinely effective, rugged and useful for working in those normally-inaccessible areas or environments, then the Isuzu D-Max AT35 is the best pick-up truck to buy currently, even – I believe – beating the now-discontinued Land Rover Defender pick-up. That in itself is badge of honour.

Do you own an Isuzu D-Max, or have questions about this one? Share your thoughts and leave a comment below! 

Score & specs

Exterior looks & design  10
Cabin space  9
Seating comfort  8
Cabin practicality  9
 Equipment level (as tested)  6
Ride quality  6.5
Handling  7
Power & Torque  8
Safety tech  7.5
Off-road ability  10
Load & towing capacities  9
 Fuel economy  7
 NVH levels  6.5
Overall score  8.0 / 10 

Specs

Model (as tested)  2016 Isuzu D-Max Arctic Trucks AT35 automatic 
Standard spec includes  AT35-specific spec:  Fox dampers front & rear, 20mm suspension lift, 30mm body lift, extended profile Arctic Trucks (AT) side steps, extended wheel arches, AT mud flaps, AT decals & chrome badging, custom ‘receiver’ hitches front & rear, 135/70 R17 Nokian Rotiiva AT tyres, 17″ x 10″ alloy wheels |

Other spec includes: Leather upholstery, heated front seats, power drivers seat, power folding, adjusting and heated wing mirrors, Bluetooth for audio & phone, air conditioning, front & rear power windows, 6 speakers with two ‘Exciter’ headlining-mouned ones, 

Safety ABS + ESC + TCS, Front, side and curtain airbags, Security etched glass, Three-point rear seatbelts, Remote central locking, Door-open warning light, Height-adjustable front seatbelts, Insurance approved immobiliser, Locking wheel nuts
NA
Off-road information  Ground clearance: 315mm (12.4″) | Wading depth: 650mm (25.6″) | Approach angle: 36 | Departure angle: 28˚ departure angle | Ramp angle: 32˚
Price as tested  (correct Aug. 2017) £34,999
Engine  Diesel, 2.5 litres, 4-cylinders (in-line), 16-valves, twin-turbo, DOHC, CRDi, Euro Stage 5
Power, Torque  Power: 160 bhp (163PS) @ 3,600 rpm | 295 lb ft (400Nm) @ 1,400 and 2,000 rpm
Drive, Gears (as tested)  Rear wheel drive & selectable 4WD (4 High/4 Low) | 6-speed manual
Towing capacity, truck bed payload, bed dimensions  Towing: Braked: 3,500 kg (7,716 lbs) | Unbraked: 750 kg (1,653 lbs) | Bed payload: 1,050 kgs (2,314 lbs) | Bed dimensions: 1,552 x 1,530 x 465 mm
Top Speed, 0 – 60 mph, Euro NCAP  Max speed: 112 mph | 0 – 62 mph: Not stated | Euro NCAP rating: 4/5 stars
Fuel economy (UK mpg), CO2  Urban: 31.7, Extra urban: 44.1, Combined: 38.7 | CO2: 192 g/km
Weight (kerb)  2,110 kgs (4,651lbs)
Websites  Isuzu UK

Words: Chris Davies | Photography: Chris Davies, Patrick Davies | Film: Chris Davies

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