CC Global: Thailand’s Obsession With Isuzu

It’s funny how certain marques or models become dominant in certain markets. When I lived in Myanmar, something like 70% of cars were Toyotas, mostly second-hand JDM imports. And the lowly Probox accounted for a majority of those, too. In Cambodia, it was all about the Camry. Until about a decade ago, the Peugeot 504 was still the car of choice in swathes of Africa. Ditto the Lada Zhiguli in Soviet successor states.

Now, I’m not saying there are a majority of Isuzus on Thai roads. But compared to any other place, they’re still extremely common. In most markets, Isuzu have retreated to the truck sector, but that’s not the case here. Yes, it may come as a surprise to some of you, but you can still get a civilian Isuzu in Southeast Asia, and they’re all built in Thailand.

But we’ll get to those in a minute. First, I’d like to share some of the evidence I’ve collected to back up my claim. There are few old Isuzus around Thailand — no Belletts or sexy 117 coupes in this post, I’m sorry to say. The most common ones tend to be D-Max pickup trucks, which are relatively recent. This shot has both the older and new generation.

These things are absolutely everywhere, as are the previous generation Isuzu pickups (the TF / Faster / Trooper / Dragon, or whatever it’s called where you happen to live). Thais are mad for pickups. Even more so than Americans, it seems. Double cab, single cab, long beds turned into minibuses, canvas roofs, metal roofs – where most folks just see a pickup truck, Thais see an opportunity to create all manner of modular vehicles. Toyota, Ford, Mitsubishi, Mazda and others sell (and often manufacture) a lot of pickups in this country, but the top dog always was and still remains Isuzu.

Of course, when it comes to large trucks, they’re also one of the big sellers, and have been for a while now. These awesome Isuzu TXD trucks were apparently made from 1959 to 1979, but they are not yet uncommon in Thailand.

One of the oldest Isuzu vehicles I’ve captured in this KB station wagon, found in Chiang Mai. Some of you may know this as the 2nd generation Isuzu Faster, or the Chevy LUV or the Holden Rodeo. Given the grille design, I’d say this is a late model (1987-88), though I understand Thai production lasted until 1990. These were made by Thairung – more on those guys in a minute.

I kind of like this KB. It’s reassuringly square and large, though the rear end is a bit out of proportion, like it came off a ‘70s full-size American wagon. I’m not sure if this variant is a Thailand-only special or if similar ones could be bought in other markets. The late ‘80s / early ‘90s were the boom years for Isuzu, and they were assembling these (in pickup form) in a half a dozen countries.

In 1989, a new generation of Isuzu Faster / Trooper pickups arrived, and with it came the SUV variants. These were marketed under a bewildering amount of nameplates – Honda Passport, Chevrolet / Holden / Opel / Vauxhall Frontera, Isuzu Amigo / Rodeo / Wizard and more. In Thailand, they arrived in 1993 as the Isuzu Cameo. An appropriate name, as it will only be fleetingly seen once.

By the early years of the present century, Isuzu were in a rut. Sales were on the slide everywhere and they pulled out of markets one after the other. Even in Japan, the appetite for Isuzu cars was fading. All Isuzu light vehicle production migrated to Thailand by 2002. And that’s when the D-Max was launched to save the company’s bacon. In most countries, the D-Max was strictly a pickup truck, and it did very well. There was still a market for those.

Thailand’s assembly line morphed into a semi-independent entity. The local JV partner, Thairung (or Thai Rung Union), were keen to try making a cheap domestic SUV using Isuzu TF running gear. The resultant Thairung Adventure SUV helped give Isuzu a second lease of life in Southeast Asia in general and in Thailand in particular.

The TF-based Thairungs were replaced with a D-Max-based version in 2003 or 2004. These Thairungs are still a fairly common sight around Bangkok. I have seen some have a slightly different front end without the Isuzu script, others are Isuzu on the front and Thairung on the back. It’s another one of those Buick / Opel (/ Isuzu!), Simca / Talbot or Ssangyong / Mercedes branding clusterfucks.

In 2004, as an ailing Isuzu pulled out of the European and Canadian car markets, the MU-7 was launched in Thailand. I’m not sure where these were sold – probably only in ASEAN countries, though I’m sure our antipodean friends will tell us whether they were also seen Down Under. Possibly in India and/or China, as well. To the best of my knowledge, they’ve never been exported to Japan, Europe or North America. By the same token, the various recent Isuzu models made in the US (Ascender, Axiom, Hombre, etc.) are nowhere to be seen on this side of the Pacific.

These MU-7s are ubiquitous in Thailand. And I must say they don’t look too bad. The rear section – i.e. the car’s distinguishing feature, compared to its pickup truck ancestor – has just enough personality to qualify as a proper design. It doesn’t feel tacked on to a pickup, unlike the earlier Thairungs.

The MU-7 is just like any other SUV of the mid-to-late Naughties, really. Which begs the question: why did Isuzu not bother with exporting them further afield? Perhaps their image was so discredited in so many markets that they figured nobody would have bothered looking at them twice. And perhaps the Thai Isuzu plant’s production capacity was already maxed out by all the D-Maxes and MU-7s already being made. Why create demand when you can’t fulfill it? Alternatively, if it bombed, perhaps that would have spelled the end of Isuzu for good…

This is pure speculation on my part, of course. I have no idea why the MU-7 never had a career outside of Southeast Asia. They did eventually quit making them, but the MU-7 did not die without issue. When the time came to launch a new version of the D-Max in 2011, Isuzu Thailand soon followed with a new SUV, the MU-X.

Isuzu have yet to completely cut the umbilical cord with the GM mother ship. Although the American conglomerate sold its Isuzu shares to Mitsubishi back in 2006, Isuzu and GM are still very close, notably for Diesel engines. Just like its predecessor, the current-generation D-Max was made in collaboration with GM, using the Chevrolet Colorado platform. But it goes deeper than that: the Thai-made Isuzu D-Max is also available as a different kind of Chevy Colorado in Thailand. The MU-X, however, is only sold under the Isuzu brand, as far as I know.

It seems the MU-X, the last “small” passenger (i.e. non-pickup) vehicle made by Isuzu, is being exported to new markets, including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It’s now also assembled in China and India, and Isuzu are planning to expand to other markets beyond. Could this signal a revival of sorts for the beleaguered brand? Only time will tell, but Isuzu have far more prospects now than they had a decade ago. It seems Japan will not import this “Japanese” SUV in any case — it’s too big.

Thairung, for their part, are also still in the game, but have switched allegiance to Toyota. I haven’t noticed anything with their logo on it with Toyota running gear, so perhaps they have reverted back to a body supplier / assembler status.

Will another generation appear in a few years to carry the MU nameplate into the future? It’s not impossible. But for the record, just like Suzuki, Isuzu are still in the passenger car business. It’s just that they tend to focus less obvious markets. Out of the US/Europe, out of sight, out of mind?