Umpteen builders, landscape gardeners and fencing contractors were left bereft when Nissan decided to drop the Cabstar a few years’ back. While even its best friends wouldn’t describe it as sophisticated, it had the reputation of being a dependable workhorse, and users liked its forward-control layout.

Forward-control is where the driver is positioned above the engine rather than behind it. 

While this can lead to a feeling of vulnerability because there appears to be so little separating whoever is at the wheel from whatever he or she might run into, sitting right at the front gives you excellent left/right vision at T-junctions as well as forward vision. It also permits a longer load bed within a given overall length than can be achieved with a bonneted vehicle.

Precious few light commercials use this configuration these days, so Cabstar fans have had to search long and hard for a replacement for their trusty steed. Isuzu Truck UK (ITUK) is one supplier that can render assistance thanks to the availability of its forward-control rear-wheel-drive Grafter 3.5-tonner.

Sold solely as a chassis cab with two different wheelbases – 2,500mm or 3,360mm – and with the choice of either single or twin rear-wheels, Grafter can be ordered with either a manual or fully-automatic transmission. They are both six-speeders, and the auto box can be used as a manual by pushing the lever to ‘M’ and flicking a switch on the side to go up and down the box.   

Note that the automatic box cannot accommodate a power take-off should you need one. 

Note too that automatic Grafters are restricted to hauling a trailer grossing at 2.5t. Manual models are permitted to pull a 3.5t trailer.

Use the maximum towing capacity in either case and you should enquire about having a tachograph installed because you are likely to be subject to the heavy truck Drivers Hours rules. 

There is only one choice of engine; a 120hp 1.9l diesel.

As well as promoting a bare chassis cab, ITUK lists a variety of ready-bodied models, including a dropside, a tipper and what ITUK refers to as a Utilititruck; a tipper with a pod that can be used to stow tools.

We decided to get to grips with a 2,500mm-wheelbase single-rear-wheel Grafter automatic equipped with a Meshmaster cage-tipper body made by Bristol’s TGS. So how did we fare?

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Load bay

The easily-accessible all-alloy body is well-nigh ideal if you happen to be tasked with, for example, moving bagged rubbish from litter bins, or waste cardboard – loads that bulk out rather than weigh out. That said, the Grafter cage-tipper can transport over 900kg gross – so shifting a bit of weight isn’t out of the question either.

The up/down tipper body controls are attached to a wander lead, and stowed on the bulkhead behind the driver’s seat.



Interior and equipment

While forward-control vehicles are sometimes criticised for poor cab access, in Grafter’s case it’s really not that difficult. All you need to do to get behind the wheel is put your foot on the step just ahead of the wheel-arch, grab the handle on the A-pillar, and swing yourself aboard.

Before you do that, however, you may want to think about how heavy you are; and not because the adjustable seat won’t be able to cope with all the pounds you may have piled on during the Covid-19 pandemic. It features mechanical suspension which requires you to use a knob to dial in your weight for maximum comfort. It’s better to be honest when you do.

The interior of the three-seater cab is best described as utilitarian, with rather a lot of hard plastic. That at least has the advantage of making it easy to clean out; worth knowing given that a vehicle like this is likely to spend a lot of time going in and out of muddy building sites.

The storage facilities for all the bits and bobs drivers carry around with them are at a premium. They include shelves above the windscreen, slim pockets in each of the doors, and two cubby holes in the dashboard.

The dashboard also boasts a couple of pop-out cup-holders. Ashtrays are mounted on each of the doors – be healthy, and use them as receptacles for mints rather than cigarette ends – and the fascia comes with a little hook to hold a bag containing your Friday-night takeaway.

Going back to the seats for a moment, just bear in mind that the middle seat only has a lap-strap, with no headrest, and is best used for short journeys. The other seats feature headrests plus conventional lap-and-diagonal belts; the belts are red, so everybody can see they are being worn when the truck leaves the yard.

With three people aboard things get a mite too cosy, and the middle passenger will find his right leg is pushed bang up against the gear shift console. Legroom otherwise is not too bad though, although the seat cushions could stand to be a bit longer for better thigh support.

Included in the deal are driver and passenger airbags along with a Kenwood DPX-7200 DAB radio plus a USB socket. The set-up includes Bluetooth compatibility.

Grafter does not feature the umpteen onboard technological gizmos found on so many modern 3.5-tonners. 

It does however come with reversing beepers, ABS, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Electronic Vehicle Stability Control, and Anti Slip Regulation. ASR is designed to prevent slippage of the driven wheels under acceleration.

Front fog lights and big exterior mirrors are installed. While that is good news so far as vision rearwards is concerned, the mirrors have to be adjusted manually, and do not feature a separate, wide-angle section.

Semi-elliptical steel suspension is fitted at the rear while a double wishbone and transverse parallel leaf set-up helps support the front of the vehicle. Hydraulic shock absorbers are installed all round.

Our demonstrator’s 16ins steel wheels were shod with Michelin Agilis 205/75 R16 tyres. Stopping power is delivered by 265mm ventilated disc brakes at the front, and 290mm
drums at the back. The rack-and-pinion steering comes with hydraulic power assistance.

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Isuzu’s turbocharged and intercooled four-cylinder diesel delivers its maximum output at 3,200rpm. The top torque of 320Nm kicks in at 1,600rpm.

The AdBlue sourced from a 10l reservoir ensures compliance with the latest Euro 6d exhaust emission regulations. The reservoir sits on the offside of the chassis next to the
diesel tank.


With a 800kg test load on-board our Grafter accelerated slowly away from rest, but steadily gathered pace. Sourced from Aisin, the automatic transmission delivers power smoothly, with no jerking or hesitancy, and engine noise levels are less intrusive than we expected them to be.

The little tipper struggles with uneven road surfaces, and although the ride is acceptable, it is not one of its strong points. It is easy to manoeuvre at low speeds though – indeed its manoeuvrability gives it a major advantage in busy urban areas as well as down narrow rural lanes – and forward-control means that the vision from the driver’s seat ahead and to either side could scarcely be bettered.

A hefty steel-reinforced bumper should ensure that whoever is at the wheel doesn’t feel exposed to front-end bumps and bangs.   

The steering tightens nicely at high speeds, with no hint of sloppiness, and delivers plenty of feedback. That said, over-enthusiastic cornering is not something to be encouraged given that the Grafter cage tipper appears to have a comparatively-high centre of gravity. 

Take it steady, and you should be absolutely fine.


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With a fully-tiltable cab, engine access is exemplary, but tilting the cab is not always necessary for some of the more basic tasks. 

If you need to top up the windscreen washer bottle then all you have to do is remove a panel on the passenger side of the dashboard to gain access. You take off a panel on the driver’s side to replenish the brake fluid.

Isuzu provides a three-year unlimited-mileage warranty while service intervals are set at 12 months/12,500 miles. 

Isuzu Truck UK quotes a WLTP (Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure) average fuel consumption figure of 11.9l per 100km for this model, which translates to just shy of 24mpg; painful, but a cage tipper with an automatic gearbox is never going to be the most frugal vehicle in the world. We would hope to be able to achieve closer to 26mpg to 27mpg if the vehicle is driven carefully.

It’s good to see that a proper spare wheel is provided, incidentally. The jack and tools are stowed behind the passenger seats.

Isuzu Truck UK’s network provides the intense level of aftersales support heavy commercial vehicle operators insist on – the importer’s range goes up to 13.5t – which is good news for Grafter owners. Isuzu pick-ups are imported and distributed separately from the manufacturer’s trucks in the UK, and marketed through a different dealer network.

Isuzu Grafter N35.125(SA) Automatic cage tipper

Price (ex VAT) £28,495 

Price range (ex VAT) £28,325-£28,495

Gross payload 927kg

Load length 3,048mm

Load width 1,702mm 

Load bay height 1,372mm

Loading height 851mm

Gross vehicle weight 851mm

Braked trailer towing weight 2,500kg

Engine size/power 1,898cc, 120hp @ 3,200rpm

Torque 320Nm @ 1,600 rpm

Gearbox 6spd automatic

Fuel economy (combined WLTP) 23.74.mpg 

Fuel tank 68l

CO2 310g/km

Warranty 3yrs/unlimited mls

Service intervals 1yr/12,500 mls


Fiat Professional Ducato

Price (ex VAT) £28,605-£76,520

Load volume 8.0-17m3

Gross payload 690-1,885kg

Engines 120hp, 140hp, 160hp, 180hp 2.2 diesel, 90kW electric motor

Verdict: Like the other two competitors listed, Ducato is available as a chassis cab but – unlike Grafter – can also be ordered as a van. Revised not long ago, What Van?’s Van of the Year is crammed with clever on-board technology. It can be ordered with a nine-speed automatic transmission, and don’t forget to check out the  electric model; with a claimed range of up to 230mls between recharges.

Ford Transit

Price (ex VAT) £30,735-£52,285

Load volume 9.5-15.1m3

Gross payload 895-2,209kg

Engines 105hp, 130hp, 170hp, 185hp 2.0 diesel, 135kW, 198kW electric motor

Verdict: Few developments in the van industry can truly be described as game-changing, no matter what the spin-doctors employed by all manufacturers may say. But Ford’s battery-electric E-Transit undoubtedly is. It comes with an astonishingly-low starting price and a big dollop of power. Not that the rest of the Transit line-up should be ignored, including the availability of a 10-speed automatic gearbox on rear-wheel-drive diesel models. 

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter

Price (ex VAT) £29,435-£58,575

Load volume 7.8-17m3

Gross payload 852-2,813kg 

Engines 150hp, 170hp, 190hp, 2.0 diesel, 85kW electric motor

Verdict: If connectivity is a priority and you want plenty of on-board safety devices, then make a bee-line for Sprinter. Durable and solidly-built, with strong residuals, it offers customers the option of a nine-speed automatic transmission. The electric version should not be ignored, but we suspect that it will be eclipsed – like all other battery-electric vans in this weight category – by what is likely to become the all-conquering Ford E-Transit van.

The Final Verdict 

Design 8/10 – Who says forward-control is dead? Good vision ahead and to either side is a plus.

Cabin 6/10 – Quite basic but easy to clean out if you end up with muddy boots and overalls.

Ride 6/10 – Not one of its strong suits, and can struggle on rough highway surfaces.

Refinement 7/10 – Quieter than we expected, and a decent level of build quality meant zero squeaking.

Load area 8/10 – Cage tipper body from TGS is just what you need if you are hauling bulky rubbish.

Handling/performance 7/10 – Extraordinarily manoeuvrable at low speeds, but not a vehicle for bends.

Engine/transmission 8/10 – A well-matched duo, with the automatic gearbox delivering power smoothly.

Standard equipment 7/10 – Not packed with gizmos that beep and flash, but most of the basics are there.

Operating costs 6/10 – Engine access and a good warranty have to be balanced against fuel consumption.

What Van? subjective rating 7/10 – Good if you’re searching for a robust, no-frills, 3.5-tonner for local work.

Overall Rating = 70/100