motioncars
Keeping It Fresh: Isuzu Alterra (2009)
 
P 1.713-million pesos is a lot of money by anyone’s standard. With that amount of cash, a prospective car buyer would already have a dozen or so choices from an executive car to an entry-level European luxury car. More importantly, this price point represents where the entire so-called ‘new-generation’ family wagon is located: the 7-seater, pick-up based SUV. It’s a relatively new niche here in the Philippines, but since it began sometime in 2003, it’s a market that has grown to at least four or five strong in five years—that’s an average of one new 7-seater SUV every year! So what would Isuzu, the world’s diesel authority, do? Try to build a convincing one, of course!

It’s hard to imagine, but their entry, the Alterra, is actually four years old. It doesn’t feel that way because Isuzu has continuously refined its packaging, culminating in the SUV you see here, the 2009 Alterra. Isuzu’s limited R&D budget and supply chain already puts it a leg down against its competition, but the Alterra has always managed somehow: new colors, alloys and interior bits. These changes weren’t really something to get excited about, until in 2007, when a new face made its way onto the Isuzu flagship. Since then, minor changes and refinements were made, and the changes for this year are no different.

Externally, the most noticeable change is its new alloy wheel: a split-spoke design with six spokes—something that’s all the rage these days. Plus, there’s two new monotone colors available, one of which is the Starry Black you see on these pages. Aside from that though, everything else remains the same. Though the Alterra already has one of the longest wheelbase in its class, the use of black lends it an illusion of added mass. Personally, this color also gives the Alterra a luxurious touch, perhaps at the expense of some of its tough, go-anywhere persona.

Inside, changes to the Alterra are limited to the audio system and improvements to the second-row seat mechanism. On the audio front, the Alterra gains the same JVC head unit from the Crosswind Sportivo. And like the Sportivo, the Alterra’s 4.5-inch widescreen LCD doesn’t just work as a monitor for your favorite DVD movies, but doubles as a reversing camera as well. With the Alterra’s length, the camera’s actually a big help when parking, but you do have to remember to turn on the audio system for it to work. As for the seat aspect, the Alterra’s second row now integrates a sliding function. In conjunction with the split folding and tumbling mechanism, this improves both ingress and egress to and from the third row while adding even more flexibility in both passenger comfort and luggage hauling capability.

These aforementioned changes aside, the Alterra retains its extensive list of standard features. First, the homey two-tone interior continues down to its café colored leather seats and matte wood trim. Next is the unique 11-speaker, 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound system which is now standard on all Alterras. Minor tweaks have been done to equally distribute the sound from a stereo source to all 11 speakers (before, a stereo format would only output to the Alterra’s front speakers). Lastly, the famously ultra-cold air conditioning system is still there too, though it doesn’t have a fancy automatic climate control system found in some of its rivals.

Since this 2009 model is just a minor facelift, no mechanical changes were done. In short, the Alterra rides and drives pretty much the same way as before. Though popping the hood reveals a new engine cover design (out with the gold and in with the platinum), it’s the 3.0-liter common rail direct-injection system from before. With no variable geometry turbo, the outputs remain the same: 146 horsepower and 315 Nm of torque. And like before, the 4WD model is mated to one sole transmission: a 4-speed automatic. This engine and transmission combination is, at best, adequate. This car has enough velocity for puttering around in city traffic, but once you reach highways, the Alterra feels sluggish especially when trying to merge with high-speed traffic. Mashing the throttle is the only way to get a decent response, and this doesn’t do wonders with its fuel mileage: the Alterra returns a figure of 8.64 km/L despite it being a part-time four-wheel drive SUV. This is compared, to say, the Toyota Fortuner with its full-time all-wheel drive which returns roughly the same mileage figure.

On the driving dynamics front, Isuzu engineers have given the Alterra a boat-like, softly sprung ride at the expense of just about everything else. On smooth pavement, the Alterra rides smoothly, isolating minor bumps and road ruts. However, as these ruts turn into potholes or Manila Water diggings, this car tends to jar through them shuddering the entire cabin in the process. Moreover, the Alterra’s long length (almost five meters) and pick-up based platform don’t translate to an easily maneuverable car. Constant mental reminders are needed to adjust for the Alterra’s large turning radius which is especially true for Manila’s numerous U-Turn slots. In fact, on some occasions, you’ll feel like handling an Isuzu light-duty ELF truck with a hood. Lastly, the 1,835 kilogram mass works against the Alterra’s brakes which work really hard to stop this behemoth. This translates to long stopping distances and an overly eager anti-lock braking system. A spongy pedal feel doesn’t exude too much confidence either.

Given Isuzu’s limited budget and resources (especially compared to its rivals), it’s actually quite surprising how the Alterra can still keep it fresh despite being already five years old. However, with more than half a dozen 7-seater SUVs out there (and more coming soon), is there still room to grow for Isuzu’s flagship? Well, that depends on what Isuzu has planned in the near future. If they’re just going to continue with minor updates such as colors or alloy wheels or audio systems, they will certainly fall behind. If they want to regain lost ground, the Alterra has to transform itself into something bolder. And Isuzu has done this before: it has transformed its Hilander AUV into a faux SUV known as the Crosswind Sportivo. If only the Alterra would go through such a radical translation, then maybe it can keep itself on the top of its game.

By Ulysses Ang | Photos by Ulysses Ang
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The Bavarian Delight: BMW 328Ci (1999)
May 15, 1999
Alpha and Omega: Opel 2.5 V6 Omega (1999)
February 5, 1999
Opel Vectra (2.0 (1999) Driven
January 1, 1999
The Daily Nightmare: Nissan Cefiro (1998)
December 1, 1998
VTEC with a Vengeance: Honda Accord (1998)
November 10, 1998