Isuzu Ute Australia (IUA) managing director, Hitoshi Kono, said Isuzu was currently developing the next-generation D-Max-based SUV, known in Thailand as the MU-7.
The new Isuzu would compete against other established ute-based SUVs like the Mitsubishi Challenger (Triton) and the Nissan Pathfinder (Navara), as well as upcoming SUVs based on the all-new Holden Colorado and the Australian-developed Ford Ranger.
Mr Kono said the timing of the MU-7’s local launch would depend on IUA’s ability to convince the decision makers at Isuzu of the vehicle’s viability in Australia.
“The new model D-Max is coming soon, and the next target is to nail down the SUV deal with the factory,” Mr Kono confirmed. “That’s my goal for the company: to bring SUV to the country.“We have not received the final confirmation from Isuzu for the market here, but we are working hard to prove to the factory that we can sell it.”
Despite the desire to grow into the SUV market, Mr Kono said IUA had no intention of changing its name.
“We’ve already thought about this. We feel very comfortable with Isuzu Ute. It’s very Aussie, and we want to be Aussie,” he said.
Although the timing is not officially confirmed, the all-new Isuzu D-Max is expected to arrive in Australia sometime in 2012, more than likely in the first half of the year.
The current D-Max was introduced as an Isuzu in Australia in 2008, although between 2003 and 2008 it was sold here as the third-generation RA Holden Rodeo.
Mr Kono admitted the 2012 D-Max and the 2012 Colorado would still share some basic underpinnings, but confirmed the D-Max would have a unique diesel engine.
“My impression is that it (the D-Max) is quite a different vehicle. I am very happy that the two companies are going separate ways.“It’s no secret that in the past that Isuzu supplied Rodeo for GM Holden. As of today, we are still faced by some difficult questions, ‘what’s the difference between D-Max and Colorado?’ That kind of impression will be history soon.”
Mr Kono admitted the launch of the next-generation Isuzu D-Max had been delayed by a couple of months as a result of the Japan disasters, but he expects most of its new competitors to be affected to a similar degree.
The current D-Max was rated three stars for safety by ANCAP in 2008, although since August 2010 it has been equipped with seatbelt pretensioners, which Mr Kono believes has pushed it into the 3.5-star territory.
He said the new model would follow the lead of the Volkswagen Amarok, as well as the upcoming Colorado, Ranger and Mazda BT-50, in offering an enhanced safety package.
“I particularly checked with the company when the new model comes what the rating will be, and they promised me that we will get the highest rating.”
Mr Kono said the only thing potentially standing in the way of a five-star rating would be its pedestrian safety, as the new vehicle will have a higher bonnet line than the outgoing model.
IUA currently sells 4x2 and 4x4 versions of the D-Max in Single Cab, Space Cab and Crew Cab body styles.
In March the brand surpassed 10,000 cumulative sales in Australia, with special edition models like the Farm Mate and X-Runner helping it over the line.
IUA spokesman Richard Power confirmed another special edition D-Max – this time designed specifically for tradies – would be introduced later in 2011.
“We’re always looking at ways to keep the model appeal up, and the way to do that is by introducing limited edition high-value [models],” Mr Power said.“That’s the plan: to increase the value with some special models rather than slash and burn pricing.”
In the first quarter of 2011, Isuzu sold 296 D-Max 4x2 utes in Australia, representing growth of 9.6 percent and a market share of 2.3 percent.
The volume seller – the D-Max 4x4 – is up 50.3 percent year-to-date, with 1225 sales giving it a 4.8 percent share of that market.