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Friday, February 29, 2008

Review: 2008 Isuzu Alterra and D-Max

Isuzu has always been a force to be reckoned with when it comes to diesel engines.  Their formidable direct-injection lean burners have always been the first choice when it comes to reliability and dependability.  Tune into the news, and chances are, you’ll see an Isuzu truck delivering relief aid to typhoon victims.  This unparalleled reputation has translated well to their passenger vehicle line as well.  The Alterra, D-MAX and Crosswind have been continuously selling strong despite the stiff competition it’s been facing of late.  Not wanting to rest simply on its diesel superiority, Isuzu has been continuously upgrading its products, all to cater to the ever finicky buying public.  Coming from the same basic gene pool, the 2008 Alterra and D-MAX represent the newest offerings from the world’s diesel leader.

Those familiar with both the Alterra and D-MAX will note that it has been a while since their debut locally.  Despite this, both manage to remain up-to-date.  First seen in the Alterra, the sharp and angular headlamps represent the main highlight of the D-MAX’s front facia.  Both vehicles have projector-type low-beam units, which are, sadly fitted with halogen lamps only.  Oddly enough, they have rather poor throw, especially during bad weather.  It’s a good thing that front fog lamps are there to supplement them.  From there, the luxurious Alterra goes the subdued route with curvier wheel arches and less pronounced fender flares.  The D-MAX is chunkier—with its squared off arches and wider fender flares.  In both cases, chrome has been liberally applied, to point you can use them as bathroom mirrors.  The bright work stretches from the grille to the door handles and even to the rear plate garnish on the Alterra.  If you’re keeping score, the D-MAX has more bright stuff found on the side mirrors, rear bumper and alloy wheels.  And this isn’t even counting the available gold paint job for Isuzu’s venerable pick-up.

In terms of interior design, both Isuzus offer simple and no-nonsense layouts.  However, their treatment is as different as their target markets.  The D-MAX is filled by a handsome black-and-silver motif that’s both attractive and much more practical to keep clean during everyday use.  The seats are finished in a grippy material called “Sports Jersey”.  On the other hand, the Alterra is decisively more upscale with its homey café colored leather seats and beige plastics.  Even the aluminum accents have been replaced by matte wood paneling (though they definitely look fake).  Both of these Isuzus feature revised instruments with electroluminescent lighting.  They do a unique “aircraft-type” sweep every time the vehicle starts up.  A small multi-function trip meter is incorporated.

Because the Alterra and the D-MAX are catering towards different markets, the story is completely different from the B-pillar onwards.  Whereas the D-MAX offers simply a livable rear seat, the second row on the Alterra feels first-class.  There’s more than enough space to actually cross your legs and still have breathing room during long distance driving.  If there are occupants on the third row, they even slide forward to split the knee room.  Unfortunately, because of the shallow floor, it’s a knees-up affair in the Alterra.  Despite being merely ‘livable’, the D-MAX’s rear bench is way better than most pick-ups thanks to a small recline plus height adjustable outboard seatbelts and a 3-point seatbelt for the middle passenger.  The Alterra makes do with a 2-point belt for the middle occupant.

Isuzu is known for being generous with their sound systems, and the D-MAX and Alterra are no different.  In the D-MAX, the fancy head unit can play CDs including those filled with MP3s.  There’s even an included USB and Apple iPod connector hidden in the glove box.  Once connected, the iPod’s playlist can be controlled (and re-charged) by the head unit.  If the six speakers on the D-MAX are luxurious enough, then the Alterra’s is simply kingly.  With its standard 5.1-channel Dolby Digital amplifier and 11-speaker system, it brings mobile entertainment to life.  Two headrest mounted widescreen LCDs show off the Alterra’s movie capability—from VCDs to DVDs and even DIVX digital files.  And it doesn’t stop there.  New for the 2008 is a Bluetooth hands-free phone system plus a rear back-up camera (which oddly operates when the radio is on) complimenting its standard reverse sensors.  Both head units require a thorough manual read-thru to understand.

It maybe a bit late to the market, but at least the D-MAX finally receives a common-rail direct injection diesel engine under the hood.  Signifying the biggest change in Isuzu’s pick-up, it’s been the trusted powertrain introduced in the Alterra.  The 3.0-liter i-TEQ engine cranks out 145 horsepower and 294 Nm of torque from as low as 1,400 rpm.  In both applications, the engine is high on refinement, but there’s a certain rev range (usually between 2,500-3,000) where the clatter a lot—usually making you think twice whether these are genuine CRDi engines.

Both of these vehicles are available with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox.  With the manual, the engine exhibits a newfound smoothness and is all but stall-proof.  The gearshift has a long throw and a somewhat rubbery feel, but the clutch is light and easy to modulate.  A double-digit fuel mileage (11 km/L for the D-MAX and 10.63 km/L for the Alterra) is easily attainable.  For those who can’t stand depressing a clutch pedal continuously in Manila traffic, the four-speed automatic does an equally pleasing job.  However, being a ‘slush box’, it saps the engine performance considerably—making acceleration less than brisk.  There’s a penalty too when it comes to fuel economy, dipping to as low as 8.5 km/L in the Alterra 4WD.

For safety, the range-topping D-MAX is equipped with a four-channel ABS with EBD and dual airbags.  Meanwhile all Alterras come standard with the aforementioned safety features.

Despite having the same underpinnings, the D-MAX and the Alterra have varied personalities when it comes to driving.  Designed as a pick-up, the D-MAX feels decisively firmer.  Between the two, it feels more planted and secure on the road.  On the other hand, the Alterra’s ride is soft, perhaps too soft, as to feel sickly to ride in.  Those with a very traditional notion of good ride (i.e. geriatrics) will probably find it just fine.  Because of this set-up, the Alterra feels too wayward in its road manners as well.  If you want to find out what “body-on-frame” means, you should try cornering the Alterra.  Visibility-wise, the D-MAX has the upper hand too as the Alterra suffers from poor rear quarter vision.

Though both the Alterra and the D-MAX already have one of the world’s most formidable diesel engine makes under their hoods, the latest changes should more than keep it afloat on the sales charts.  However, perhaps more changes (at least in the case of Alterra) should have been done on its chassis.

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