2017 Isuzu D-Max review

First Australian drive

Can an upgraded engine, new transmissions and quieter cabin push the 2017 Isuzu D-Max up the sales charts?

The 2017 Isuzu D-Max promises to be a quieter, more refined version of the rugged, reliable workhorse we've come to know over the past eight or so years.

First introduced in Australia in 2008, the D-Max was joined by the MU-X SUV in 2013, and Isuzu has increased its dealer network from 38 to 120 in that time.

The tough ute has inspired a loyal following here, so much so that Isuzu relied on feedback from local customers and dealers to overhaul the engine found in the updated 2017 Isuzu D-Max.

The Euro 5 compliant 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine headlines changes that also include a new bonnet and grille design, subtly restyled rear bumper, new 7.0- and 8.0-inch touchscreens, the addition of hill-descent control across the range, new six-speed automatic and six-speed manual transmissions, refinement improvements, a better ownership package and a few other minor specification tweaks including LED daytime running lamps on all LS models.

The engine has been thoroughly overhauled with new design pistons, fuel injectors, fuel supply pump, turbocharger, diesel particulate diffuser (DPD) and more. We are the first market in the world to have the MU-X and D-Max with this engine.

Power output hasn't changed: it's still 130kW, but torque is up 50Nm to 430Nm (at 2000-2200rpm). To improve towing performance, the previous maximum torque is now available through a wider rev range (1700-3500rpm). The same engine is found in the special-edition 2017 D-Max X-Runner that Isuzu is releasing here to celebrate its 100-year history.

The D-Max line-up is not quite as complicated as some other utes, with just one engine choice - but there are four trim levels (EX/SX, LS-M, LS-U and LS-T), 4x2 or 4x4, three body styles, tub or tray back, and high-ride or low-ride options. Of course, not all combinations are possible.

Pricing for the SX single-cab chassis low-ride manual starts at $28,500 before on-road costs, which is up $1000 on last year, while the LS-T crew-cab ute is priced at $54,200 - up $1700.

Are the changes enough to warrant the price hike? For a company aiming to overtake the Nissan Navara in the one-tonne ute sales race, and to leapfrog the Mazda BT-50 and move from third to second on the 4x2 charts (based on 2106 sales figures), pricing and kit will be key to both maintaining its position in the market and any potential sales increase.

A rear-view camera is now standard on all LS models, and is optional on the EX/SX. The cabin has been updated with a 7.0-inch touch screen in the LS-M, and an 8.0-inch touch screen in the LS-U and LS-T. Satellite navigation is also standard in the higher specs.

Though it's a welcome addition that's certainly long overdue, it feels and looks aftermarket. Nothing else in the cabin has changed: it's still the old Colorado interior that was shared under a former collaboration deal, and while Holden has updated its version since the partnership dissolved, Isuzu is still stuck with an ageing design.

That said, LS models also now have three USB ports scattered about the cabin, two in the front and one for rear seat passengers (only the one near the screen feeds info to the media system, the others are just for charging). Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, DVD, CD, MP3, radio and auxiliary jacks are also present and accounted for, as is single-zone climate control in higher-spec versions.

There is room for three adults in the second row, or if there are just two backseat bandits, they can enjoy the centre armrest. ISOFIX points are noticeably absent on the outboard seats, however there are three top-tethers that can accommodate traditional child seats. All dual-cab models have six airbags (dual front, front side and full-length curtains).

Storage is well thought-out, with twin gloveboxes, a deep centre console bin, cup holders on either side of the dash and another storage spot at the centre of the top of the dash with a bit of a flimsy lid. The floor is covered in easy-clean vinyl in lower models, while higher versions have carpet.

The materials are plasticky and, though easy to clean, not pretty to look at. The seats are comfortable, helping to soften bumps in the road that would otherwise be unpleasant thanks to the firm suspension - but more on that soon.

Overall the cabin is simple in its design, simple to figure out where everything is, and it's all easy to use. It may not be the most stylish in the segment but it's practical and comfortable.

At the launch we were driving higher-spec crew-cab utes and the test loop involved a road drive south through the Gold Coast hinterland to Evans Head for a beach run, followed by an off-road jaunt at an old quarry site.

On the road and heading through built-up areas at lower speeds, the D-Max feels like a sizeable truck. Though the high seating position is great with good visibility, the steering is heavy and it's a beast to navigate corners at slow speeds. The turning circle is 12.6 metres, and feels every bit of it - but the large steering wheel feels nice in hand.

Noise, vibration and harshness improvements have helped a bit with the intrusion of engine and road noise, but it's still exactly what it always has been: a diesel ute built by a truck maker - it lacks the refinement of many of its competitors in this regard.

The updated engine is good and the extra torque is noticeable, but it was already a good, strong, reliable engine so trumpeting this as the headline act for 2017 is a big call. It's strong, steady and predictable - all those words again.

As you would expect, the suspension is firm, and Isuzu isn't planning on changing that anytime soon, as a softer suspension set-up is useless for towing. Unladen, the rear does feel light, reminding us once again that this is designed to be a workhorse and is less suited to the 'poser' ute owners.

The new Aisin six-speed automatic transmission features an adaptive learning function, but it seems to be a slow learner. It keeps up and concentrates on the task at hand while you're moving at minimal speed in urban areas, but gets confused and can struggle to figure out what it needs to do next at highway speeds. Between 80-100km/h seems to be its Achilles heel. The old five-speed was more predictable in its changes, now it chops and changes and doesn't feel as settled or refined.

The six-speed manual transmission is also new and was designed in-house by Isuzu. We took a quick run in the manual version during an off-road section and our first impressions were good. Off-road drivers have tended to favour automatic transmissions in recent years, but the Isuzu manual was smooth through the shifts.

Swapping from 2H to 4H involves a simple twist of a dial, and the D-Max really comes into its own when it's off the bitumen and carving through sand. The 17-inch alloy wheels on the LS-M we were driving at the time were wrapped in all-terrain tyres and it felt confident and secure.

As mentioned previously, hill-descent control is now standard right across the range and the opportunity to test that came when we pulled into an old quarry site. Coming to a complete stop, we swapped the terrain command dial from 2H to 4L, and engaged the hill-descent system. Even a steep descent with a deep, twisted, gnarly rut that got a rear wheel well off the ground wasn't an issue. The big ute crawled down with control and ease.

Isuzu has introduced a new warranty, servicing and roadside assist package called Service Plus 555. It's a five-year/130,000km warranty, five years' roadside assist and a five-year/50,000km capped price servicing plan. Servicing is due every year or 10,000km and they are cheap too; $200, $400, $260, $590 and $50 for years one to five, respectively. That's an average of $300 a year.

The D-Max claims fuel consumption figures of between 7.2 and 8.1 litres per 100km depending on the specification, payloads of up to 1249kg, braked towing capacity up to 3500kg and an un-braked towing mass of 750kg.

The 2017 Isuzu D-Max update is certainly not breaking any moulds, but the changes are welcome additions that add a little sparkle under the dust. It is what it always has been: an honest, reliable, strong, competent and rugged ute that can handle work, play and adventure.

It's lagging behind its competition in refinement and modern technology, and the value-for-money proposition is a consideration, but its simplicity and rough edges are part of the charm.

Podcast

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