First drive: why we Dig the new Isuzu D-Max
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Isuzu D-Max LS 4WD double cab
- Distinctive look in the ute world
- Muscular diesel engine
- Loaded with safety equipment
- Power/torque still behind key rivals
- Confusing LS-M/LS designations
- Big step up in price over old model
Digby the dog chased our Isuzu D-Max fleet down the road, all the way from conference headquarters to the first off-road exercise.
The reward for such enthusiasm was prime spot on the tray of the lead vehicle for the rest of the day, though riverbeds and max-articulation obstacles. He loved it.
So big thumbs-up (well, if he had them) from the pet-in-residence at High Peak Station in Canterbury. That’s an endorsement from real New Zealand.
The new D-Max is tougher and more capable than ever before. It’ll now wade through an incredible 800mm of water and every 4x4 model has a rear differential lock as standard.
But what might raise a few eyebrows among the rest of the rural community is the pricing.
D-Max is no longer the simple, inexpensive one-tonne alternative. In the third-generation range only one model gives you change from $50k (the base-spec LX 2WD double cab), the volume-selling LS has risen by $9000 and the lineup is topped by a new flagship called X-Terrain (below), which goes head-to-head with the Ford Ranger Wildtrak. It costs a heady $75,490.
The move upmarket has come directly from the factory, which has gone to town on active and passive safety equipment in an attempt to establish D-Max as a technology benchmark in the segment – and that costs.
So while the entry-level LX might have steel wheels and vinyl lining on the cabin floor, it also comes as standard with eight airbags (including a segment-first “far side” restraint to separate driver and front passenger in a side collision), stop/go adaptive cruise on the automatic, blind spot detection, lane departure warning/assist, forward collision avoidance, drive attention warning, automatic high-beam lights, rain-sensing wipers and a reversing camera.
The D-Max is one of only two utes that’s been tested under the very latest ANCAP protocols; the other is the sister Mazda BT-50. The Isuzu just beat the Mazda on the Vulnerable Road User score (69 per cent versus 67), so it’s officially the safest one-tonne ute on the market right now.
D-Max is still tough: a rear differential lock is now standard across the 4WD range and wading depth has increased 200mm to a deeply (get it?) impressive 800mm. Isuzu says maintenance costs have reduced by 20 per cent over the previous model.
There's no shortage of choice in the new range: by the time you mix and match body configurations with powertrain options (a revamped 140kW/450Nm 3.0l turbo diesel, 6-speed manual or automatic, 2WD or 4WD), there are 105 individual variants.
The LX and LS-M remain the working trucks: heavy duty suspension and basic interior. The LS-M ($61,990-$63,990) adds a few more features and styling enhancements, including alloy wheels in place of the LX steels.
That LS-M designation is a little confusing, because the next model up – traditionally the volume seller – is called simply LS. It has more chrome, higher-quality interior trim and more luxury equipment (carpet!), including an upsized 9in touch screen for the infotainment system.
The X-Terrain is new territory for Isuzu: a “lifestyle” ute to rival the Ford Ranger Wildtrak or Toyota Hilux SR5 Cruiser, with the price to match.
It looks the part and apart from the exterior warpaint, it boasts leather upholstery, “Dark Gunmetal” exterior detailing, roof rails and a tray liner.
Isuzu’s 3.0-litre turbo diesel has a deserved reputation for strength and reliability. Changes to the 2021 unit aim to bring an even broader range of talents – refinement among them.
There’s now more torque delivered even lower down: another 20Nm served up 400rpm earlier, at just 1600rpm. That’s a win-win, as it makes the D-Max even more muscular for low-speed off-road crawling but also makes it a more relaxed on-road machine.
Isuzu still isn’t challenging Ranger (3.2l 147kW/470Nm, 2.0l biturbo 157kW/500Nm) or Hilux (150kW/500Nm) for on-paper honours, but the way it delivers its power and torque makes a real contender.
The D-Max still “only” has a 6-speed transmission, but it certainly doesn’t feel wanting for ratios when it’s working hard.
And yes, the revised engine is also now remarkably refined. It still chugs away under duress like any other light-commercial diesel, but once it’s spinning the D-Max has impressive NVH levels.
The other immediate impression from this new model is the strength of the platform. It feels rock-solid in off-road driving, if you’ll excuse the pun, but also rides in an assured way on the tarmac.
The D-Max’s market share has been declining since its 2017 heyday, when it was sixth on the charts. Despite – or perhaps because of – the major increase in specification and price, the third-gen model is the way back, says Isuzu NZ.
A substantially increased nationwide dealer network will also help, with 34 full outlets and another 14 service centres. A dozen of the new dealers are ex-Holden – so they should know a thing or two about selling utes.
Ultimately, the plan is for D-Max to be a top-three contender, right up there with Ranger and Hilux.
ENGINE: 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four
GEARBOX: 6-speed automatic, part-time 4WD