Ladakh is tough, it is harsh and it is cruel. It's the ultimate test for any vehicle and not everyone comes out unscathed. The Isuzu D-Max V-Cross is one of those vehicles, however, that is no stranger to these conditions. Even before it could begin life properly, it has been gobbled up by hundreds of off-road enthusiasts who know it as a very capable vehicle in all conditions. That it is a pick-up is an even bigger virtue to most, which also brings a lot of joy to me, since I do believe this is a highly underutilised segment. Yet, for an off-road vehicle and especially one with the credentials such as the D-Max, there was still the little quest of conquering the Himalayas. So an Isuzu D-Max V-Cross in Ladakh, here's what transpired.
The V-Cross was our backup vehicle on the recently concluded Independence Quattro Drive. We were quite enamoured by it, especially after its road test where Rishaad gave it a sterling rating. It made perfect sense then to use a pick-up which would not just carry a heavy load but when required would also double up as a shooting rig for our camera crew. With those intentions we called Isuzu to loan us the V-Cross and they were more than happy to comply.
As you can see in the images, the load bed easily swallowed up six tyres, and these aren't small 14" wheels and tyres; these tyres are 17" to 19" in diameter with a minimum profile of 235/65. The width is large and yet we were able to stack up six of these backup tyres end to end without losing any space in the load bed. It still left us with enough space to either fit in baggage or even at times allow labourers in Ladakh to hitch a ride comfortably! There are enough fastening points in the load bed area to make sure anything you place in the load bed is secure. So the V-Cross took care of one of our major challenges and that was the carriage of our backup tyres. For those looking to do the same, one word of advice, figure out a system to cover the bed; a lot of dust can enter the bed when driving off-road. Isuzu provides a cover but that limits the type of goods you can carry; your best bet is a tarp that can wrap around anything that needs protection.
Now as you begin climbing the Himalayas and getting deeper into the mountain range, things don't seem very tough for the V-Cross. For most parts of our journey we stayed in two-wheel drive mode though the shift on the fly high ratio 4WD does come in handy at times. If you want to be truly adventurous then you can also slip it into low ratio 4WD and get onto the shortcuts that reduce the climb uphill. The challenging part is taking care of the length in some of the tighter sections. The V-Cross at 5.2 metres in length is easily the longest vehicle you may have driven in India (unless you drive a truck or bus). If you do decide to take the shortcuts, make sure you have enough room to manoeuvre around the sharp kinks that crop up.
It could get a bit tricky though the 4WD and the 320Nm of torque are a strong combination to get you out of most hairy situations. The ground clearance at over 220m is great for most conditions, yet there were some shortcuts we took while descending from the passes that saw the front lower arms scrape against some rocky outcroppings. On one or two occasions we may have even banged up the front suspension pretty hard, but the surface quality was far more uneven due to some rain that had washed out the top layer of soil in the region, making the shortcuts a bit more challenging.
The suspension set-up is nonetheless very impressive, a mix of independent front end with leaf spring rear with a body mounted on a ladder frame. This is an ideal off-road set-up, a bit traditional but more genuine for heavy duty off-road work. It works very well, especially once you load up the bed. There is very little bounce, and the V-Cross felt very stable and composed irrespective of where it was being driven. You could if you wanted to even push it hard on some dirt sections, the rear wheel drive sweetly allowing the tail to step out into a powerslide. Just be careful doing this with a full load since that tail will be carrying a lot more momentum than expected with a full load.
The trick is to balance out the weight in the bed bringing as much as you can towards the centre of the vehicle rather than letting it hang out at the tail end. This will stabilise the dynamics and make it safer on any surface. On tarmac, you can simply barrel your way through most potholes. It's only the large sections of road that have been completely decimated by the rains or heavy truck movement that need to be addressed with a little prudence. Another impressive feature are the brakes, a set-up involving vented discs at the front and drums at the rear which saw almost no fade throughout our journey. My only fear was the brake fluid boiling over on our rapid descent from Khardung La, but even at slightly ludicrous speeds and with a bit of engine braking, the brakes stayed sharp and on the ball the whole time. This means there is adequate cooling for the brake system which is a big advantage in tough off-road situations.
Throughout the journey the diesel motor faced no issues whatsoever; even the lack of oxygen as we climbed higher failed to dampen her spirit. Usually turbo lag gets more pronounced as you climb higher, but the V-Cross had little of those issues. The 2.5-litre 4-cylinder diesel motor force fed by a variable geometry turbo worked very calmly even at nearly 18,000-plus feet above sea level. We did face one issue, air lock, and I have heard of several others also having faced similar issues in their V-Cross. The problem struck us when the fuel level in our vehicle came perilously close to the empty mark. We were climbing up Khardung La from the Nubra Valley side, and decided to tank up once we crossed the pass.
Now while we did have some fuel in the tank, the steep inclines I presume did not allow the fuel pump to draw sufficient fuel as it sloshed around and resulted in an air lock. Now the engine is a contemporary common rail diesel, but I do suspect there are issues with the self-bleeding electric pump that helps prevent air lock. The air lock itself isn't an issue. After that first air lock, I constantly felt the engine faltering at times as if there were several more air pockets constantly interrupting the fuel supply, and that is where the problem lies. Now it could be that the fuel I filled in Ladakh may have been impure and similarly most other consumers are facing a problem with dirty fuel clogging the fuel pump. A simple trick to avoid these issues is to ensure your fuel tank is running more than three quarters full all the time.
Overall, then the Isuzu D-Max V-Cross worked beautifully for us. It was brilliant in the plains and even better in the mountains. So if you have an adventurous streak, then this is definitely the vehicle for you. The D-max V-Cross is already captivating a large audience, and the time is right to get your hands on one of the finest and highly versatile off-road vehicles there is in India today!
Images: Suresh Narayanan and Anis Shaikh