An all-new Isuzu D-Max sees the 4×4 ute move from near bottom of the class to near the top as it brings style, features and safety to match its renowned ability.
Parked up on the sand, the bright orange Isuzu D-Max ute felt like the automotive equivalent of the Pied Piper. Here on Noosa North Shore’s expansive beach, the all-new model may as well have had a ‘Free Beer’ sign in its tray as young and old – most explaining they were tradie by day, beach adventurer by weekend – pawed over this latest entry to the clogged, enduringly-popular and ever-lucrative lifestyle ute segment.
This sharp-looking one-tonner with angled bi-LED headlights, LED rear lights and enlarged, truck-like front grille had nailed its first remit: give the core market what it wants. There’s the required rugged styling and muscled flanks, but it’s there to complement proper off-road and load-lugging abilities.
Isuzu sells only two models in Australia – this D-Max ute and the platform- and engine-sharing MU-X seven-seat SUV – yet is a sales phenomenon. Last year we bought almost as many Isuzus as we did BMWs, and look at the volume of choice you get at the German marque’s dealerships.
Aussies trust Isuzus. They’re renowned for reliability – especially its truck-derived 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine – relative fuel economy and towing ability: D-Maxs and MU-Xs litter caravan parks and bush camp grounds. A Grey Nomad favourite, many cite Isuzu’s fuss-free, no frills, good-value offerings as positives – who wants all that modern electronic nonsense playing up while doing a lap of Australia?
There may be the odd dissenting voice among such retirees, but younger buyers and safety testers demand more. In that regard, the all-new D-Max one-tonner, which replaces an almost decade-old design, has done something of a Bradbury by going from near bottom of the ute class to flirting with its leaders. Many of these virtues are shared with the new D-Max’s twin-under-the-skin – the new Mazda BT-50. It’s worth noting, though, that the BT-50 is merely a reskinned D-Max. Isuzu did all the mechanical work for the pair.
The old model’s safety features were very much an afterthought and a utilitarian cabin looking perilously dated next to best-selling ute rivals. This latest D-Max introduced some segment-firsts. Wireless Apple CarPlay (Android Auto remains wired) is a superb addition, as is an airbag between driver and passenger.
All D-Max grades score eight airbags, auto emergency braking (including for pedestrians and cyclists), lane departure prevention, lane keep assist, turn assist, blind spot monitor, rear cross traffic alert, traffic sign recognition and adaptive cruise control as standard. Result? A 5 Star crash rating.
The extra inclusions have pushed the Isuzu closer to the price points of Australia’s two best-selling vehicles, the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger. Concentrating on 4×4 D-Max Crew Cab (dual-cab) ute models with auto gearboxes – the popular choice of private buyers – grades are SX, LS-M, LS-U and flagship X-Terrain.
Isuzu typically always has drive-away deals on, making their RRPs almost an irrelevance. Right now only the range-topper is on special at $59,990 drive-away: this fan favourite making the lesser grades look expensive with drive-aways of around $62,800 (LS-U), $58,700 (LX-U) and $55,500 (SX) when equipped with auto ‘boxes.
The SX is your work truck with steel rims, basic cloth seats, vinyl floor and halogen lights. LS-M adds fancier cloth seats, LED lights and 17-inch alloys, while the LS-U gets fancy with dual-zone climate control, leather steering wheel, carpets, aluminium side steps, chrome grille and 18-inch two-tone alloys.
The one you want – the X-Terrain – gains faux leather seats, smart key with remote engine start, dark grey for the trim, roof rails, sports bar, side steps, fender flares and alloys, plus a roller tonneau cover and tub liner. An extra $500 buys the hero Volcanic Amber colour.
Isuzu was loath to drop its ace-in-the-hole 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder, the large displacement unit a key reason for purchase to many. It’s been re-engineered to now offer 140kW/450Nm, up 10kW/20Nm on old. More pertinently it’s quieter and more refined, although much like every ute engine, once pushed it reminds you’re in a commercial vehicle.
The power figure is down versus some key rivals, but maximum torque arrives at just 1600rpm meaning you’re rarely short of shove. The six-speed auto goes about its business in an unfussed way, but the engine/gearbox combination is in its happy place when you keep things smooth. The cabin’s well-insulated and highway cruising in top gear has the diesel engine feeling very unstressed and barely audible. Little wonder so many tow with these things.
Good news for adventure-seekers too. Off-road clout is bolstered with a rear diff lock on all 4×4 D-Maxs (it was absent before) while wading depth is up 200mm to an excellent 800mm. All can tow 3500kg.
Leaf-spring suspension is retained, Isuzu resisting following Nissan’s move to coil springs for its Navara ute. It means the D-Max’s ride with no load in the tub (the X-Terrain can handle 970kg) is inevitably bouncy and cornering something to be taken carefully.
Isuzu’s updated its front suspension and anti-roll bars, while stronger 3-leaf rear springs make the ride better than average for the segment. Certainly, its general ride overall beats an unladen Toyota HiLux – Australia’s long-time best-selling vehicle, remember. If you have kids riding in the back, count on it being far bouncier back here than a family SUV – these are still work trucks at heart.
Knowing the target market is more likely to be slinging surf boards than worksite gear in the tub, only the LS-M model gets what Isuzu calls its heavy duty suspension among the 4×4 Crew Cabs. This LS-M will have an even choppier unladen ride, but is the pick for better handling and compliant ride if you’re regularly hauling plenty of weight around.
The included active safety kit is welcome, although it’s such a massive rig the lane departure prevention was kept busy and beepy on skinnier roads.
For those tempted to jump on the bandwagon and have a ute as an everyday family vehicle, make sure you test drive one for a decent amount of time first. The D-Max, like all modern utes, are cumbersome in town, need plenty of space to park, lean in corners and don’t enjoy wet roads. At least the D-Max’s electric power steering makes manoeuvring quite effortless.
Where you win is heading off-road. We tackled the soft sand of Noosa’s North Shore and that leaf suspension came into its own. Incredibly good at absorbing the numerous bumps, dips and channels, it remained unflustered and incredibly competent. We had no need for the new rear diff lock, but it’s a big plus for those venturing on the really loose and tricky stuff.
Moving from 2WD to 4WD is done on the fly up to 100km/h, while shifting to low-range is a far less clunky process than before. Into neutral, twist a dial, two-seconds later you’re good to go. Even on highway tyres with highway pressures the D-Max never looked like getting stuck in the soft sand.
The D-Max’s cabin was in dire need of more polish and kit, and the new model has delivered to make it far more competitive versus rivals. Importantly, it feels robust and well screwed together so the workhorse/comfort balance is a good one.
Modern angular styling for the dash, air vents and doors plus piano key-type climate control buttons are big improvements, while top-tier models feature 9-inch touchscreens with sharp 1280 x 800 HD screens and built-in navigation.
LS-M and SX grades are stuck with 7-inch screens, but all benefit from DAB+, voice recognition and cutting-edge wireless Apple CarPlay. If I must grumble, no wireless charging makes this less practical for we who like to charge our phones on the move.
While there are plenty of soft plastics around the cabin, hard plastic for the doors and centre console show this is a work truck and not a plush SUV. Two ISOFIX mounting points, rear vents and a USB port boost its family vehicle potential, as does storage under the rear seats to go with ample bins through the front. There’s good head room and acceptable leg room for those in the second row, albeit the skinny middle seat’s best suited to your least favourite child.
The faux leather seats in the X-Terrain are a high point. They feel pretty luxurious and are well-cosseting: important for those planning a long time in the saddle. For a $60,000 vehicle, heated seats wouldn’t go astray – the $10k-cheaper Mitsubishi Triton GLS Premium manages to include them – and only the driver’s is electric.
There are four cargo tie-down hooks in the ute tub. The less worksite-likely X-Terrain has just two, but its under-rail tub liner and matte black roller tonneau help keep things pretty out back.
Be it by accident or design, cup holders in front of the air vents mean you can blast cold air at your soft drink, cool your molten service station long black (or re-heat it), or even pre-chill a longneck before getting home after a long day of over-quoting for jobs.
Dual cab utes often struggle to match their quoted fuel use figures, but we returned 8.2L/100km on-road, only rising to 8.9L/100km when playing on the sand. From official figures of 8.0L/100km, that’s an excellent return.
The warranty lasts six years (good) but only up to 150,000km (unlimited should be the case), while services are due every 15,000km or 12 months.
Capped price services last seven years, with the first three costing $1,407 and the first five $2,215 – on the cheaper side for these types of trucks. You also get seven years of roadside assistance if you service at Isuzu dealers.
Unlike some utes there’s no D-Max grade provided with a tow bar. A kit costs $950, but you then need to pay more again for a tow bar wiring harness.
While the default choice for many remains ol’ faithful Toyota HiLux or pretty boy Ford Ranger, this much-improved Isuzu D-Max makes a fair shout for best all-rounder in the lifestyle ute segment.
Safety and equipment levels are very strong, it looks tough and stylish, the cabin’s well-built and well-appointed and that 3.0-litre motor has known reliability and economy.
Drive-away pricing is mystifying, making the range-topping X-Terrain the only double-cab 4×4 ute in the range looking good value, unless you negotiate on the price of others.
As with all utes, don’t confuse them with comfortable and easy family transport – you need SUVs or wagons for that. But for caravan towers and weekend adventurers who like getting the boots muddy, this D-Max is an excellent choice in a very competitive market.
The best-driving ute on the Australian market gets even better thanks to Australian Walkinshaw know-how.
Variant tested LS-U (4x4)
Key specs (as tested)
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