Light pick-up trucks – they make for great commercial vehicles. You get a relatively comfy, SUV-like cabin for two or four people, and you can lug around a bunch of stuff for your business, whatever your business may be. As personal vehicles, however, they just don’t work as well, at least not here in India. For one, the very idea of a pick-up truck comes across as too utilitarian for Indian tastes, and then there’s the simple fact that you can get almost as much utility out of an SUV, but with better comfort, features and, arguably, street cred.
That hasn’t stopped carmakers from trying to crack this niche, though. Tata has the Xenon XT, which has a small but avid fan following among private owners, and Mahindra still sells the Scorpio Getaway, which is based on the older car’s chassis. Japanese UV-maker Isuzu too kicked off its Indian innings in 2014 with a pick-up – the D-Max – and though it was mechanically very capable, it felt a little basic and could only be registered as a commercial vehicle (CV). Now there’s an all-new, far more attractive D-Max, called the V-Cross, and you can buy and register it for your own personal recreational purposes. This is what it’s all about.
What is it?
Those in the know about cars will have been disappointed with the D-Max that Isuzu first launched in India. Yes, it had a knockout price, but aside from the fact that you needed a commercial vehicle license to drive it on the road, it was also clearly Isuzu’s previous-generation model. The next-generation model, already on sale in markets like Thailand, is what Isuzu launched in India this year – the V-Cross. For a start, it’s significantly larger than the model it replaces, and though there is a CV version available too, the model you see here can actually be driven on the road with a regular driver’s license!
It actually shares its platform with the Chevrolet Trailblazer SUV, and you’ll notice some similarities, like the doors and windows, which are virtually identical. It has incredible road presence, with its tall bonnet, huge chrome grille, meaty front bumper and massively flared wheel arches. The big roof rails and chunky step-bar below the doors only embellish that rugged look. Our test car even had a number of chrome accessories thrown on to liven things up. Unlike the previous D-Max, this one has a distinct ‘dual-cab’ stance, which means more of the vehicle’s length has gone to the passenger area than the storage bed at the back. Speaking of which, the bed has been nicely integrated, it’s lined with a waterproof hard plastic layer, and there are four neat hooks to help you tie down your stuff. Finally, to make the V-Cross that little bit more enticing to private owners, it gets shift-on-the-fly 4x4, which should acquit it well to rurally sited farmhouses or factories.
What’s it like on the inside?
First things first, if you’ve ever been inside a Trailblazer, you’ll recognise this dashboard immediately, especially the big round control set for the automatic AC. In fact, the whole interior looks like a slightly de-specced version of the big Chevy’s. The fit and finish is really impressive by the class standard, and easily on par with the Rs 20 lakh-plus SUVs; though the plastics aren’t the plushest, they do feel durable and tightly screwed together. There’s brushed silver trim instead of the glossy black plastic, the dials are simpler and the steering wheel has fewer controls on it. The digital info display between the dials gives you a handy fuel/trip computer, and also tells you which setting the 4x4 system is in. While you do get an impressively slick seven-inch touchscreen with USB, aux and Bluetooth, it misses out on satellite navigation, but that’s completely forgivable in a pick-up truck like this. What we sorely, sorely miss on the equipment list, however, are rear parking sensors and a camera, because the V-Cross is a huge vehicle; at least the mirrors are big, and electrically foldable and adjustable. And, rounding off the equipment, it’s nice to see Isuzu has specced the V-Cross with ABS and dual airbags.
The front seats are impressively large, comfortable and supportive. No, there’s no leather upholstery or electric adjustment, but you do get height manual adjustment for the driver’s seat. The driving position is very welcoming for any body size and it’s easy to get used to this truck’s massive dimensions quickly enough. What’s a bigger surprise is the back seat. The bench is generously cushioned, supportive and comfortable, with more than enough legroom, headroom and width. There’s even a fold-down centre armrest. The only things that give it away as being a UV’s rear seat are the rather upright seat back and the slightly knees-up seating position owing to a relatively low-set bench, but it’s still nothing to complain too much about.
What’s it like to drive?
Isuzu is quite proud to admit that, in India, the brand is known more for its engines than the cars they power. The 2.5-litre, longitudinally mounted in-line four is the same one we sampled in the previous D-Max and it produces 136hp and 320Nm. Compared to other engines you typically find in such ladder-frame-vehicle applications – the likes of the Innova, Fortuner, Endeavour, Trailblazer, Pajero Sport, Scorpio, Safari and Aria – those numbers might not look very impressive, but this motor’s strength isn’t its outright power.
Like in any of those cars, firing it up results in a loud growl and a lot of vibration from the gearlever, but then it settles down into an impressively refined idle and stays that way at low to medium revs. The clutch is relatively light too, and though the gearlever is typically tall, it’s quite easy to slot into gear. Then the real beauty of this motor starts showing – it’s super smooth getting off the line, and it builds revs so effortlessly. It’s flexible too, rewarding unpredictable throttle inputs with uninterrupted power. Yes, the powerband isn’t all that wide, but you won’t care; because all that torque comes in so nice and early, you won’t want to stay in a single gear too long. Even the transition between gears happens smoothly and without a hiccup in power. In fact the clean power delivery and good refinement make this enormous pick-up truck quite friendly to drive in town, believe it or not.
What takes away from this city-friendly experience, though, is the hydraulically assisted steering. It needs too many turns lock to lock and it’s rather heavy at low speeds, which only magnifies its massive size when you’re trying to park or manoeuvre through gaps. It’s also quite vague around centre, but again, all this can be expected in a tough pick-up truck like this. And speaking of tough, the suspension is exactly what you’d expect to find in a mix of SUV and commercial vehicle – independent double wishbones at the front, and a load-bearing leaf spring setup at the rear.
The ground clearance is rather generous and the suspension, like on many ladder-chassis cars, is on the softer side. With nothing stored in the luggage bed, the rear is very light and so tends to hop and skip over bumps, more so as you go faster, and you’ll feel this more in the back seat. It might even make sense to just load the rear with some dead weight when you don’t have anything to transport. Bump absorption from the big, 60-profile tyres is pretty good and the front springs offer quite a lot of give when you get caught off guard by a speed bump. You do get some kickback through the steering over rough patches though, bear in mind. Out on the highway, this 1.9-tonne truck will hold its line quite fervently, and apart from a little bit of float at seriously high speeds, it really feels at home on the Mumbai-Pune run. One more point of note – though the brakes feel strong enough in everyday use, step on them just a little harder, and the ABS cuts in very aggressively, and could make you feel more nervous than secure in a sticky situation.
Push it around a corner, and of course there’s loads of body roll and a fair bit of resistance from the slightly loose steering, but do you really want to attack corners in a pick-up truck? No, what you want to do is go everywhere as the crow flies, and the big Isuzu truly makes you feel like you can. We’re on road-biased tyres now, but slap a set of off-road tyres on it, and the V-Cross would be truly unstoppable. A rotary dial lets you flick easily between 2WD, 4WD High and 4WD Low (if you have to scramble over some serious rocks), all of which work very effectively. The tough bash plates, the good ground clearance and good visibility simply take care of the rest.
Should I buy one?
At Rs 12.91 lakh (ex-showroom, Mumbai), the new D-Max costs nearly twice as much as its predecessor. But then, it’s so much more car for your money. Where the old car was cheaper than its few rivals, this one is more expensive. In a segment that’s already a niche within a niche, a proposition like this had better be a strong one. The D-Max V-Cross is a very good product. There’s never been such a level of creature comforts or space in a pick-up sold in India before, the 4x4 system is properly capable and, with its strong and flexible engine, it really is a jack of all trades. The problem isn’t the car, it’s the segment itself – the people who would walk past an SUV and choose a pick-up instead are few and far between, and the relatively high price doesn’t help matters at all. Still, if you are one of the few in the market for such a vehicle, it is certainly the best of its kind on sale here right now.