THE RIGHT TIME | Light Truck Review

Neil Dowling heads for the spanners and a few days on the tools. 

Light trucks have started chewing into the workhorse one-tonne market currently dominated by a plethora of utes, as operators demand greater payload, increased reliability and occupant safety.

Isuzu Trucks Australia has been the most obvious competitor to the utes, last year starting its “Ready to Work” marketing campaign headed by actor Shane Jacobson showing off the virtues of a small truck alongside a conventional ute.

Ready-To-Work isn’t brand new, with Isuzu Truck Australia having started the idea with its pre-bodied tippers back in 2005.  It enlisted the assistance of Service Bodies Australia of Brisbane to create the Servicepack Series in 2016, and this year expanded the concept across the N-Series range up to the 7.5-tonne NPS 75-155 4×4.

Isuzu now offers three Servicepack X versions (the X denotes extra features), with the NLR 45-150 Servicepack X, the NLS 45-150 AWD Servicepack X and the NPS 75/45-155 4×4 Servicepack X.

The latest marketing campaign, including television and print advertising, directly targeted traditional trades that were big users of utes, and particularly those with 4×4 ability.

Now, said Isuzu Trucks Australia national sales manager Les Spaltman, the emphasis is being directed to larger, more commercially focused businesses and industries.

“Business fleets have issues with utes because when they are carrying tools, equipment and a crew, they can easily be overloaded,” he said.

“That puts into question the five-star safety ratings of some utes that are not effective when there’s too much weight – above the recommended payload – in the vehicle. That’s why fleets are realising they can get greater payload and safety with a small truck like our NLS and NPS.”

Mr. Spalltman’s point is that many of the latest dual-cab, one-tonne utes used for business have a five-star crash rating and include technology such as autonomous emergency braking (AEB).

Most trucks in the under 4.5-tonne category do not have similar safety ratings and, indeed, are not required to meet the same standards. The exception here being Fuso, which in May this year became the first light truck maker in the Australian market to fit AEB to its Canter 4×2 range.

Isuzu Trucks Australia is putting a lot of effort into making fleets and individual operators make the transition to the small truck category but is facing obstacles.

“One of the challenges is that the ute is a dual-purpose vehicle and is chosen to be used for work during the week and for the family on the weekend,” Mr. Spaltman said.

“They tend to be part of the salary package. The challenge for us is to get them to accept a light truck.

“Safety in the light-truck range is now very good. The single-cab versions have two airbags and some customers are fitting child seat anchors. You can actually fit four baby seats on the rear seat.”

The NPS 4×4 platform, which is already taking on the utes in mining and construction applications, is almost a mainstay in the rural fire brigade sector, being chosen in nearly all Australian States and Territories.

“It’s small enough to travel down fire trails between trees where the larger fire trucks can’t go, yet it carries far more weight than a standard utility.”

Delivery tested two Isuzu light trucks that are at the forefront of Isuzu’s plan to take on the traditional one-tonne ute sector.

They are the NPS and the NLS AWD, the latter with an on-demand all-wheel drive system for off-bitumen work. Both have Isuzu’s Servicepack bodies that are made in Queensland and supplied with the truck, resulting from a one-stop ordering process through a local Isuzu Truck dealership.

The Isuzu Trucks’ NPS has an imposing stature that dwarfs the conventional one-tonne ute on which it is now claiming to be gaining ground in sales.

At first sight it can be hard to see it as a contender to the ute, with competing brands such as the Toyota Hilux, Ford Ranger, Mitsubishi Triton, Nissan Navara and Isuzu D-MAX.

The most glaring deficiency of the NPS and other smaller forward-cab trucks is its suggested role as a dual-purpose vehicle, working during the week and carting the family – often with Mum at the wheel – on weekends.

Yet as a machine that excels in the sole role of driving a business to profit, the flat fronted cab-over trucks can be more efficient and productive than the ute.

This ability of the Servicepack bodied ready-for-work trucks is proving itself in Western Australia where mining-related activities tend to rule the commercial vehicle market. Increasing numbers are also being ferried through body builders to receive uniquely special bodies for mining companies and their servicing agents.

The overall numbers are nowhere near those of the Ranger or Hilux, but the concept of Ready-For -Work bodies purchased straight off the showroom floor and the accepted additional ability of a truck to haul high payloads in safety is gaining converts, while many utes quickly get close – or are exceeding – the allowable payload.

Isuzu Australia dealer sales manager for WA, SA and NT, Craig White, told Delivery that the NPS is popular in mining, but buyers have also included fire brigades, utility companies, energy providers, agricultural businesses and generally any operator that wants a tough go-anywhere truck with a big payload.

The 7.5-tonne NPS 75-155 4×4 driven here is rated with a GVM of 7500 kg and GCM of 11,000 kg that with a 3790 kg weight. This results in 3.7 tonne payload for drivers with a full licence and 710 kg for car licence drivers. Car licence holders have a GVM of 4500 kg and GCM of 8000 kg, illustrating the advantages of up-skilling to a light truck or medium rigid licence.

By comparison, the latest Mitsubishi Triton 4×4 dual cab ute has a GVM of 2900 kg and a GCM of 5885 kg with a payload of 985 kg. It can tow 3100 kg.

Under the NPS cab is a 5.2-litre four-cylinder engine with DOC (diesel oxidation catalyst) and not DPF (Diesel Particulate Filter) that traps unoxidised soot with 114 kW at 2600 rpm and torque of 419 Nm at 1600-2600 rpm.

One of the attractions that is swaying buyers – especially fleets – is the automated manual transmission (AMT), effectively a clutchless manual using an electronic clutch that can be driven as an automatic or with manual selection of the five forward gears.

Mr. White said that the introduction of the automatic broadens the market for the NPS even further and means a driver without a manual-gearbox licence can operate this truck.

The transfer case is electrically engaged by dash-mounted rocker switches, changing from 4×2 to 4×4 and then to 4×4 Low.

Tyres fitted from the factory have an off-road tread pattern (Bridgestone L330 225/80R17), which are designed to complement the drivetrain and make it a very capable all-terrain vehicle. Fleets can opt for other rubber to suit other applications, such as high bitumen use.

“The Servicepack X design is like a blank canvas. It has all the necessary features of what most trades want in a truck body but allows for the owner to make additions to further suit specific needs,” said Mr. White.

“The focus is on the “Ready to Work” mandate of Isuzu and the fact that the truck and the body have a three-year warranty.”

The basics are the LED lighting, six tie-down points, with steps that promote three points of contact for access and egress at the rear and behind the cab to reach any roof-top hardware. There’s a reverse camera, tow bar, drop sides on the tray, and the toolboxes are keyed to the vehicle’s central locking and activated by one press of the key fob.

The accessories can include ladder racks, fixing points for specialised equipment and so on.

The covered area has alloy floors and steel body, with alloy drop sides at the back. Out of the box, the lockable area has lift-up gullwings on struts either side, with a three-quarter version on the driver’s side that locks over a fold-down panel.

Inside, the dimensions are 2060 mm long by 1970 mm wide and 1000 mm headroom with the roof having braces with numerous fixing points for tools and accessories. There is a checker-plate rear tray with drop sides measuring 2200 mm long by 2120 mm wide, ideal for larger powered tools.

Occupant comfort and convenience in trucks is also improving, with the NPS featuring a sprung suspension seat for the driver, multi-media system with satellite navigation and Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and really big side mirrors with electric adjustment.

Mr. White said the truck is shown as tested with a bull bar “but that’s the only option fitted.”

“The rest is how someone would buy it off the showroom floor,” he said.

On the road with the Isuzu NLS Servicepack X

 Mining services fleets are among the biggest buyers of Isuzu’s smallest truck series, the NLS, putting it to work in areas as broad as cities and the outback.

It’s the outback that becomes the target domain for a derivation of the NLS called the 45-150. The all-wheel drive (AWD) baby Isuzu is the next step up from a one-tonne ute and the one that major fleets are now increasingly considering given the truck’s superior payload that allows maximum cargo while remaining safety within the vehicle’s GCM.

That is now regarded by fleets as being vital to safely operating within the law relating to load.

But one of its most attractive features is that it only needs a passenger-car licence to operate. Theoretically everyone can drive this truck – other than those without a manual transmission licence – as this model only offers a manual gearbox.

That aside, Isuzu Australia dealer sales manager for WA, SA and NT, Craig White, said Isuzu is putting a lot of effort into getting the message to fleets who normally select conventional one-tonne utes.

“The AWD system of the NLS means it has applications in some off-road conditions but not to the level of the NPS or some 4×4 utes. Many fleets have a need for high-payload trucks that can be driven on a car licence with features that enable it to be perform away from bitumen roads,” said Craig White.

“The NLS has really taken off in the past 18 months with the pre-fitment of the Servicepack X body. Previously the NLS was purchased as a chassis cab model and there was some reluctance by some buyers to wait for the body to be fitted,” added Craig.

The NLS 45-150 AWD is modelled on the NPS, using the same basic chassis layout, though the trucks are separated by big differences led by the physical sizes and the drivetrain specifications.

Where the NPS is a hard-edged, highly capable platform for serious off-road work thanks to its two-speed transfer case and leaf-sprung front suspension, the NLS is more akin to components used by utes.

It has a 3.0-litre turbodiesel 4JJ1-TCS twin-cam engine that is not related to the four-cylinder, single-overhead cam unit known as the 4HK1-TCN in the NPS.

Practically identical to the engine in the Isuzu Ute D-Max and MU-X, the NLS unit has 110 kW at 2800 rpm and 375 Nm at 1600-2800 rpm. The sole transmission on the AWD variant is a five-speed manual and it drives the rear wheels through a traditional live axle hung on leaf springs.

To get all wheels turning, it has an on-demand system with viscous coupling. It is the same as many SUV systems that sense a lack of traction in the normal driven wheels and then allow drive to be shared with other axles. It needs no driver intervention though there is a dash switch that will lock the drive to both axles.

Taken down the muddy tracks in an outer Perth suburb near where Isuzu’s WA agents, Major Motors, is situated, the NLS showed no problem traversing rutted tracks, a credit to the strong torque of the engine, and the low first gear ratio. Most traffic light take-offs can be cleanly achieved in second gear with low ratio first really coming into its own in the dirt in conjunction with the all-wheel drive function.

The NLS is more car-like, perhaps ute-like, in its comfort and drivability. It is comfortable, surprisingly quiet for a truck, and dead easy to drive. The tilt and telescopic steering adjustment is handy, particularly in fleet operations with multiple drivers.

Coming from a ute, the maneuverability of the little truck is pretty amazing. It has a turning circle of only 10.1m – compared with a new Mitsubishi Triton dual-cab 4×4 ute at 11.8m – that is made a lot easier because of the driver visibility and the driver’s seat being close to the front of the truck.

Much of its appeal is also because of this excellent visibility, from the deep windscreen to the slanted glass area in the doors to the oversize mirrors that are electrically adjusted and heated.

Cabin features are sufficient, with touchscreen for Bluetooth and audio, digital radio and two speakers. Satellite navigation is an option, as is a reverse camera. There’s plenty of dash space for extra equipment in addition to room for personal storage for items such as mobile phones.

The Servicepack X is a steel and aluminium body with large side doors for security and weather protection of the cargo or tools inside. There are tie-down points on the alloy floor and fittings in the inside for carrying gear on hooks, such as ladders and power tools.

The rear tray has a steel and alloy mix with a 1900 mmm by 900 mm area and then the covered area measuring 2460 mm long by 1750 mm wide and 1000 mm headroom.

As Isuzu Truck Australia reiterates, the beauty is that this body carries the same three-year warranty as the truck.

The NLS has a GVM of 4500 kg and GCM of 8000 kg. The payload is 1690 kg – depending on accessories – and has a 2500 kg tow rating.

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