Isuzu AT35, Hilux GR Sport, Ranger Raptor - Hyped-up special bakkies: Do they live up to it in South Africa?

Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

This is exacerbated by the current trend for protracted pre-launch ad campaigns, online and otherwise, that can lead to a feeling of disappointment and even deception when the result does not live up to all the generated flimflam.

The campaign around the Ford Ranger Raptor serves as a prime example. For over a year before it finally arrived, the pinnacle Ranger was hyped by ads, releases and videos… so overwhelming that the actual launch was a bit of an anti-climax. Yet, the Raptor concept and its development caused a commotion in the local bakkie market.

Toyota responded by releasing a GR-Sport derivative of the Hilux with its Legend 50 range, while Isuzu used its links with Icelandic company Arctic Trucks to create a big-wheeled offshoot of its venerable D-Max.

As more focused and purposeful by-products, the role of these aspirational specials is to generate bigger awareness for the rest of the range, while simultaneously serving a specialised niche within the lucrative recreational bakkie segment.

Given the high expectations of an eager buyers' market, the question is whether they actually achieve this, so to find out we subjected the distinctive trio to a range of demanding and challenging 4x4, off-road and dirt road tests on the Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve near Worcester in the Western Cape.    

Different strokes

While basically similar in concept, the three manufacturers involved each took a different approach with the suspension systems for their special editions to essentially ensure the same outcome – better off-road capability.

To achieve this, the Raptor and the Arctic AT35 have been furnished with specialised Fox suspension bits and shock absorbers, while the front suspension of the GR-Sport has been modified (the rear has been left unchanged so as to not influence the payload) and it also uses slightly smaller rims, but higher-profile tyres than the normal Raiders models.


Isuzu’s Arctic solution is the most radical – using massive 35-inch tyres to create better ground clearance, a deeper wading depth and improved approach, departure and break-over angles. The Raptor, too, uses bigger, specially developed tyres and a wider track than its regular cousins, to achieve more flexibility in tough conditions.


The big-wheeled D-Max AT35 and Raptor dwarfed the special Hilux, developed by Toyota’s Gazoo Racing division to its second-tier GR-specification level, yet in terms of wheel articulation or suspension travel it wasn’t intimidated by the Isuzu or the Ford. Despite its smaller tyres, the Hilux also stood its ground in the sand and gravel tests and cleared the obstacles easily, but at higher speeds on undulating dirt roads there wasn’t much to choose between the GR-Sport’s ride quality and that of the standard Hilux 2.8 GD-6 auto 4x4 (yes, we did take one with for comparison).

The normal Hilux was just as impressive in the highly technical off-road exercises and serious 4x4 stuff, making one wonder whether a few racing stripes, red inserts in the cabin and a limited edition series number (only 535 GR-Sport models have been made available locally) justifies a price difference of more than R38k over a similarly specified Legend 50. Fact is, we did expect more from the GR-Sport and, in our opinion, something like the UK-only Invincible 50 or the Australian Rogue, Rugged or Rugged X derivatives would have been better alternatives as a limited edition. One can only hope a full-blown GRMN version is in the works to reassert belief in the brand, as even extra exclusivity cannot justify the additional expense for the GR-Sport – so ignore the headbanging meerkats and get yourself a Legend 50.

Arctic AT35

With those huge 35" BF Goodrich tyres, the big Isuzu D-Max Arctic AT35 undoubtedly attracts attention, and in our 4x4 tests it proved virtually unstoppable, despite its torque deficit compared to the others.

However, its big wheels and tyres make it quite impractical, as the huge bakkie does not fit in any garage easily and its huge turning circle makes it difficult to park. On tar, its steering is vague (and this can be tiring on long trips) and reactions to directional input are slightly slower than that of a normal bakkie, due to extra tyre drag.

Apart from those wheels and its uprated suspension, the Arctic is also not much different from the standard D-Max 300 LX auto 4x4 it is based on. We also found its wheel articulation and cross-axle capabilities weren’t much better than the others, but when it came to technical 4x4 work and water crossing ability, it was a winner. The Arctic AT35, available with a comprehensive manufacturer’s warranty and service plan, is squarely aimed at the hardcore 4x4 market, and Isuzu plans to only build 50 per annum. 

In this sense it is an honest offering – one that doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t – and for this it deserves respect. Yet its retail price (R785 000) is prohibitive, more so when compared to the price for a similarly endowed, normal D-Max at nearly R180k less. 

Ranger Raptor

Given the huge amount of publicity preceding the launch of the Raptor and its iconic nomenclature, derived from some seriously powerful machines, we expected something very special. And yes, in many instances the flagship Ranger did impress. But in others, not so much. 

In our tests, the comprehensive development done on its suspension was immediately apparent and with its bigger, specially developed BF Goodrich tyres and wider track, it literally galloped over broken terrain in Baja driving mode.

Much was done to harness its handling on tar; its tight turn-in capability and stability at higher speeds inspired confidence and urged one to push it even more. But, even with 157 kW on tap, its two-litre biturbo mill struggled to get going from lower revs, and with its Raptor roots we expected more from it in terms of power delivery.

It was clear its mill needed revs, and in the technical 4x4 tests at low engine rotations, such as rock climbing and boulder jumping, it counted against it. Also, its smooth-shifting 10-speed transmission, while unflappable on-road, battled to keep up in these circumstances. 

However, on open gravel roads and flat, sandy surfaces it was very much in its element.

The Ranger is an attractive bakkie and the Raptor’s interior appointment with unique model details - such as the special, comfortable sports seats - is of high quality. Still, the question mark over its ultimate purpose and application remains.

Yes, the Raptor will get you there faster, but in real 4x4 conditions it will not get you any further than a GR-Sport or AT35 will. And if power and speed are the main considerations, there are bakkies with more power, available at the same price (such as the VW Amarok 3.0 V6 with prices ranging from R791 100 to R829 200).

The Raptor remains a very desirable pickup, and those who always wanted one will purchase one immediately. However, after the initial rush, demand could drop quite dramatically, since a Ranger Wildtrak – equipped with the same engine (and a Raptor kit, if you really want it) – at nearly R100 000 less, makes much more sense…