The Easy Driver
Comfort and convenience aren't the first words that come to mind when talking about a truck.
Normally these are beasts of burden, and all customers' demands for these vehicles revolve around payload, durability, robustness, fuel economy, presentability, low price, so on and so forth. Comfort and convenience aren't anywhere near the sharp end of that list of priorities.
Isuzu wants to turn that notion around with the latest variant of the N-Series: they call it the Smoother.
The N-Series itself is not an all-new product. We see a lot of these vehicles running around, and sometimes many of us don't even recognize it. In other markets, this is known as the Elf, but locally we know it as the N-Series; Isuzu's competitor to the very popular Fuso (formerly Mitsubishi) Canter. That means this is a light-duty truck, one that is suited to small, medium, and even large enterprises. That fact alone makes it a very important model because the target market is so huge.
On the looks department, this is about as functional as it gets. The truck itself is a simple cab-over design intended to maximize the real estate in the back, but that doesn't mean it can't look good. The grille is the 6-hole design that Isuzu has had for years on most -if not all of their vehicles of late, and it looks good on the N-Series. The headlights and multi-reflectors, it has a painted bumper, and extended mirrors that allow the driver to see past the rear body; in this case, it's an aluminum rear body that's ideal for deliveries of balikbayan boxes or home appliances.
There are many versions of the N-Series. The smallest ones are the QKR, followed by the NLR, NMR, NPR, and the NQR; that last one is a 6-wheeler model. But the one we're driving is the NLR85ES, which is a derivative of the NLR85E.
Regardless of the variant you get, the N-Series they'll sell you is likely a cab and chassis variant. That is really what makes the NLR a vehicle that could be the backbone of any business because is up to you -the customer- to decide what body you need to be fitted on there. Are you involved in wired communications? That means you'll need an aerial platform: a basket at the end of a crane. Is your business a hardware store? You'll probably select a dropside truck body. Are you a cooperative looking at expanding your modern PUV fleet? They even have modern PUV conversions for the N-Series. That versatility is what makes this class of vehicle so important.
Despite the official designation of “light duty”, the NLR85ES just doesn't look light duty. Examine the chassis rails at the back, and it's easy to see what gives Isuzu their reputation for reliability. Those frame rails just look tough and strong, the same goes for the leaf springs in the front and in the back. Even if there are only four wheels on the NLR85ES, the tires look built for heavy loads; this is a vehicle rated for a GVW of 4490 kilos after all, but more on that later.
Open the driver's door and a rather generous side step reveals itself, making getting into the cab very easy even if you're not tall. The dashboard is straightforward in its layout. The steering wheel is very much a truck one: it's horizontal like a plate. There are power windows and a single DIN head unit with AM, FM, CD, MP3, an SD card slot, USB port, and even Aux-in. There's even an A/C control panel here, and yes there really is an A/C in this one we're driving. There's even a 2.4A USB charging port; that was quite unexpected; but with virtually anyone owning a smartphone nowadays it sure is a welcome feature.
What surprised me immediately was how comfortable the driver's seat is in this three-seater cab. It's not a suspended seat like you would find in a larger truck (or the passenger seat of a second-gen Pajero), but the foam is quite supple for a truck. Perhaps what surprised me most is how nicely it was all built and how well it was laid out. There are blanks all over the dashboard for a variety of features; that allow the vehicle to be fitted with switches for all kinds of electrical equipment depending on the configuration, but in this one there's an additional switch for the lights of the rear aluminum body.
The big story with this N-Series is that it is the first in its class to not have a manual gearbox in the classic sense. Look down at your feet and you'll spot that there are only two pedals and not three. Look at where the shifter would be and instead of a manual stick, you've got a T-bar style shift lever like you would have in an automatic... but not quite. There's no P (for Park) in the selections on the shifter.
This is what Smoother is all about: it's not an automatic and not quite a manual. This is an automated manual. What that means is that instead of having a torque converter style automatic, this one has a manual gearbox that is operated automatically. It's an AMT or automated manual transmission. This all sounds like alien technology in this class of vehicle, but Isuzu has already had this feature in their trucks overseas for a while now. Carmakers also use this technology for several passenger models too. A few examples that come to mind include the AMT that Peugeot used as well as the AGS that Suzuki has on the Dzire. The principles and operation are the same, but of course, it's scaled up for the Smoother system.
Driving the truck around, what's immediately clear is that it does have power and torque. Under the cab is the 4JJ1-TC turbodiesel engine. If you own a previous generation mu-X/D-Max or even the older Alterra, then the engine code sounds familiar. The tuning for the N-Series is different though as Isuzu prioritized achieving more torque at an earlier RPM because this is a truck; they need that for heavy loads. What surprised me about the engine in this N-Series is how quiet it is; even with my decibel meter almost right next to it, at 79-80 decibels this 3.0L turbodiesel is actually quieter than my pick-up truck which averages 83 dB. Strange, but true.
Where it gets really interesting is how easy this truck is to drive. The power steering is really nice and light; like, I can turn the steering wheel using only my index finger. Of course, we won't actually do that especially when the vehicle is actually fully loaded with cargo, but believe me when I say that the power steering is good. The A/C is a welcome addition to this model; every N-Series doesn't come with A/C, but this one is fitted with it as an option. That just makes driving so much more comfortable. The suspension isn't built for comfort, but given that all wheels are on leaf springs it's actually not bad.
But what really is my favorite feature is the AMT. If you're hopping into the Smoother and thinking it's going to be exactly like the automatic transmission in your everyday car, then you have a bit of learning to do. And the reason is that the driver needs to recognize that the transmission is still a manual, meaning you have to apply a few techniques and expect a few manual-related nuances. A few examples are the time it takes to disengage the current gear and the engaging of the next gear higher. And to be really smooth, you have to anticipate when the gearbox shifts and lift just a little bit off the throttle when it does like you would in a manual. Once you get used to that, you can really maximize the potential of this gearbox.
Mind you, before driving you really should read the manual for this vehicle because there are a few features that the driver needs to be familiar with regards to the Smoother gearbox. For one, there is a switch on the lower dash (next to the USB port) that looks like a power window switch. That's an adjustment switch for the transmission program; you can make it shift faster or slower depending on your driving style and the load. The other button is a red switch with a clear plastic cover. It looks like a launch button, but it's an emergency button if there's a problem with the gearbox. If you encounter an issue, pull over, press that button, and call Isuzu. That's what the manual says, and you really should read it.
I think the Isuzu N-Series Smoother has some serious potential, especially now. I mentioned earlier that the economy has changed, and that's because the challenges of the pandemic have forced many to give up their corporate jobs to become their own boss and start a business. And over a year since the start of the pandemic, quite a few of these businesses that people pivoted to are actually growing, so much so that they're looking at getting bigger trucks to suit their business. Where before their personal hatchback, family MPV or adventure SUV was enough, they now need something bigger to drive on their own. And that's what the Smoother offers.
Yes, it's definitely more convenient than a manual. Yes, it's much more comfortable. And yes, you as a business owner can drive it. If you check your license, chances are you can drive a vehicle that has a GVW of 4500 kilograms. We still recommend formal truck driver training if you intend to do so, and driving this won't be a problem if you do.