Isuzu early this year announced an all new 2008 model-year N-Series with increased driver comfort and productivity. Another plank of the launch platform is the fact that the optional gasoline engine gains a significant cost advantage over diesels, now that the latter get particulate filters and advanced combustion to meet 2007 diesel engine emissions.

To experience this engine, as well as drive the upgraded diesel and enjoy the roomier cab, Isuzu arranged a two-day driving event based in California's beautiful Santa Barbara and taking in a stunning drive up to the wine country around Los Olivos.

The drive was relatively short, yet we managed to take in not only the rugged countryside but also a lunch at Fess Parker's resort and restaurant, a tour of the Firestone Winery (maintaining the automotive connection, of course) a stopover to feed some ostriches, and then an hour or so on a tight-handling course that showed how well these little N-Series trucks handle the demands of narrow streets in busy cities.

But before we get ahead of the story, let me recap the changes to the N-Series.

The new truck gets a larger and more spacious cab with increased side-to-side as well as front-to-back room. This allows for more seat travel and increased headroom, shoulder room and legroom on both the standard and crew cab models.

More significantly, the windshield header rail has been pushed forward, making the cab squarer in profile but giving a lot more room up ahead of the driver's face. The cab's sides are straighter as well, curving in less toward the roof, adding to the spacious feeling in the header area.

The cab is built from galvanized steel panels with electro deposit paint primer and high-quality enamel paint top coat. The close section and increased gussets and reinforcements also improve the durability of this new cab, as well as increasing the safety of the driver and passengers. Additional safety items on the 2008 N-Series include a new seatbelt design; low-cut side windows; larger, 17-inch by 8-inch side mirrors with integrated convex sections; and available heated mirrors.

The standard diesel is the 5.2-liter 4HK1-TC with horsepower now at 205, up from 190. Torque is up, too, by 14 percent to a very useful 441 pounds-feet. The optional gas engine is the familiar GM Vortec 6-liter V-8 with 325 horsepower and 360 pounds-feet of torque. This engine is available in the NPR and the NPR HD up to 14,500 pounds GVW. The diesel powers all, including these and the NQR and NRR, which go to 19,500 pounds.

Transmissions are automatic Aisin six-speed, with a manual Isuzu transmission available. For the gas engine, there's the GM Hydra-Matic 4L80.

For our driving pleasure, we had NPR, NPR-HD and NRR models, among them several of the special-edition Onyx vans for image-conscious buyers. They have a 14-foot body built on a 132-inch wheelbase NPR-HD and include a host of special features, including air deflectors, stainless steel wheel trims, air conditioning, AM-FM CD player radio, and a unique black exterior onyx paint with silver highlights.

Other test-drive trucks included van and utility bodies on regular and crew-cab chassis.


On The Road

Getting on board the new cab is a snap. The doors are wider, and the additional forward headroom makes it easier to swing up and into the driving seat, an important feature on a distribution vehicle.

In front of you is a new, modern dashboard with a full complement of easy-to-see gauges and warning lamps. It features a dash opening for such optional equipment as radios, GPS-enabled equipment and rear view cameras. Storage includes seat-back pockets, a glove box, overhead storage shelves and rear storage organizers. There are also large map pockets built into the fully trimmed door panels. Cup holders in the center console hold oversized drinks and in the dash hold regular-sized cans and cups.

With the comfortable seat adjusted for the pedals and the tilt and telescope steering column set, I selected Drive on my first N-Series, a black HD Onyx. With a little weight in the van body, we set off on the route from the oceanfront Biltmore Hotel to the middle of beautiful Santa Barbara, then off to a driver change overlooking Cachuma Lake, nestled in the nearby mountains.

The NPR-HD was quiet, rode nicely and steered and stopped like a car. I was allocated another Onyx, but I was not to have it long because it was just a short hop to Fess Parker's Inn and Spa for lunch in quaint Los Olivos. (Fess Parker - you may know him better as Davey Crockett from the TV series of a half century ago - also has a prize-winning winery with some excellent varietals.)

The next driver change was at the Firestone Winery, which was started by Harvey Firestone's grandson, Leonard. As I was about to take a crew cab NPR, I agreed not to sample the product, instead puzzling over the next item on our agenda: Ostrich Farm. On the way, I had Todd Bloom, Isuzu's marketing vice president, in the back seat and found the overall noise levels so low we could chat easily. The utility body on this truck was relatively light, but with its longer wheelbase, the ride of this NPR was excellent. As before, steering was light and precise.

Upon arrival at our next destination, an ostrich farm it proved to be. Here we were given the opportunity to stretch our legs and to feed the giant birds ( I can report their table manners are less than gracious).

On then to a handling demonstration course, where we could drive anything around a tight course that a mid-sized Chevy S10 could only just manage. It was most impressive, with even the longer-wheelbase crew cabs wheeling easily around the tight course.

Most delightful was the sweet gasoline-engined NPR. The Vortec 6-liter V-8 is silky smooth and extremely quiet. Bloom had commented earlier during the drive that, because the gasoline option doesn't have the 2007 diesel additions, the savings have jumped from around $4,000 previously to $6,000 to $7,000 over competitive diesels - both from Isuzu and from competitor cabover importers. The break-even point has stretched out so that vocations where the trucks do 30,000 miles or less are better served by gasoline than diesel.

The maneuverability course marked the end of the drive.

Then it was back by bus for a dinner at the Biltmore. Deary me. It's a tough life.