The Thailand-Built Wonder Truck that Rules the Jungle and Dragstrip Has an American Cousin

Isuzu's do-anything workhorse isn't available in the US... or is it?

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Courtesy Jack Baruth

I was doing about 105mph in the fast lane on the jungle-shrouded freeway somewhere between Hatyai and Hua Hin when the landscape in my rearview mirror was rather rudely obscured by the toothy chrome grin of a 4x4 truck hanging about six inches off my back bumper. So close that I couldn’t see the headlights. Worse than that, I didn’t recall seeing him anywhere near me the last time I’d scanned the mirror, which had been seconds ago. The last time I’d been surprised like that, it was on the back straight of Road Atlanta in an enduro that included both my Miata and an ex-ALMS Ford GT.

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No matter. Time to teach this fellow a little humility. I floored the throttle of my Volvo S90 T8 “Twin Engine” and the speedometer promptly leapt from “irresponsible” to “inexcusable.” The truck behind me shrank and I chuckled. Then I saw two twirling plumes of black soot darken the air behind it. Then I saw the Isuzu D-Max 3.0 simply pull out and pass me on the left, even as the four hundred horsemen of my apocalyptic Volvo ran into an aerodynamic wall. By the time I’d yielded to the inevitable and dropped back down to low triple digits, the pickup ahead of me was nothing but a nightmare cloud of particulates in the distance. The two-way radio on my passenger seat crackled.

“Welcome to Thailand,” it said. “Those trucks can be very fast.”

If you’re a habitué of the automotive Internet’s more viral corners, you’ve no doubt seen the photos and videos of Toyota Hilux trucks carrying some truly outrageous loads across Asia and Africa. I spent last week doing a cross-country high-speed run heading out of Kuala Lumpur with some friends from Malaysia’s EVOLTN Magazine, and sure enough I saw plenty of crazy Hilux drivers balancing their cargo five or even ten feet above the walls of their pickup beds. What I didn’t expect to see, however, was that the Toyotas would be a distinct minority. The Hilux might rule the Sahara, but in the jungles of Southeast Asia they are just the best supporting actors to Isuzu’s superstar D-Max.

The D-Max, which is available with diesel engines ranging from the mild (1.9-liter four-cylinder making 150 horses) to wild (3.0-liter four-banger with 280 pound-feet of torque), is built locally in Thailand and sold for prices ranging from about $13,000 to just over twice that. You’ll see them carrying the from farm to market, and you will see them holding one or two perturbed-looking cattle in a tubular-steel enclosure that is sold by roadside vendors for both D-Max and Hilux applications.

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It could probably hold more.
Courtesy Jack Baruth

The most outrageously-loaded one I saw was carrying a dozen or so massive plastic barrels, all of which appeared to be filled with some sort of oily liquid. It had no fewer than nine leaf springs supporting the rear axle, but it was still nose-up like a 747 on takeoff. On the road, it was managing to run at about sixty-five miles per hour. The stopping distance at that speed? Something like a 747’s, I would imagine.

Many of the fruit-carrying D-Maxes sport aftermarket Brembo brake installations, a happy outcome from Brembo’s decision to move much of its production to nearby China. It’s easy to see why you might want more stopping power if you’re carrying two tons’ worth of fruit, but that’s not the only reason for it. It turns out that Thailand also has an utterly insane drag-racing subculture based around heavily-modified D-Max pickups. They can make up to 800 horsepower and they can crank out quarter-mile runs in the eight-second range. In Hua Hin, they prowl city streets with empty beds, outrageous graphics plastered on every flat panel, and LED light arrays that demand your attention. Some of them are lowered to the point that they’d be useless on even the mildest unpaved road. It doesn’t matter; these trucks don’t haul anything but the proverbial ass.

After a few days in Thailand, I learned that you don’t mess with the D-Maxes. They’ll bully even an AMG Benz out of the fastlane and they have no compunction about driving the point home with a nicely-timed swerve in your direction as they pass. Their windows are tinted to the point of opacity and according to my local sources they are frequently found with an AR-15 or AK-47 in the passenger seat. The sky-jacked F-350s of Texas might as well be Hello Kitty cars compared to these bad boys. Yet they also show remarkable care and compassion towards the women and children on tiny 125cc motorbikes that are omnipresent in both the jungle and urban areas of Thailand. More than once I saw a D-Max smoke its Brembos from 120mph to 50mph or less to make safe room for a family of four on a scooter that was puffing along the road shoulder.

Thailand doesn’t have much of a “car culture” per se; I saw one 370Z and one battered old Skyline four-door, nothing more than that. But their truck culture combines the most in-your-face aspects of off-roading and dragstrip chic, all based around a single vehicle and its big-bore four-cylinder diesel.

Here’s the funny part. The D-Max isn’t available in the States, but the Chevrolet Colorado is, and the Colorado is more or less a D-Max with a different front clip. You can even get a 2.8-liter Duramax diesel four-cylinder; it probably won’t respond to tuning the way the Isuzu 3.0 does but it’s not slow even when it’s stock. All of the other hop-up and pimp-my-ride parts should bolt right on. So if you want to try building a hot rod to grab the attention of the oh-so-jaded Cars-and-Coffee crowd, going D-Max style might be the way to do it. Forget the JDM trend. The future is TDM – Thai Domestic Market. You might just surprise a few hoity-toity types in their European wonder-wagons. Ask me how I know.

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