Isuzu is so determined to grab a greater share of Australia’s bustling ute market that it has decided to look for otherworldly help to promote the all-new Isuzu D-Max.
Isuzu has produced a spoof television commercial of a classic scene from the 1982 blockbuster movie E.T to add thrust to its launch of the second-generation Isuzu D-Max ute in Australia.
It’s definitely got cut-through, which is exactly what Isuzu will need if the number-six player in the segment is going to generate the kind of increased sales volumes it’s forecasting over the next few years.
In 2011, Isuzu’s extensive network of 81 dealers sold a total 6397 D-Max utes. In 2012, the Japanese truck manufacturer expects to sell at least 8000 of them - growing its market share from 5.1 to 5.8 per cent.
And Isuzu isn’t just looking to galvanise sales performance in the short-term. Yasuhiro Takeuchi, the head of Isuzu Ute Australia, has an even more optimistic goal for the new D-Max, predicting sales of 11,200 units in 2014 and a market share of 8.2 per cent.
When you consider the number of high quality rivals that currently sit above the D-Max in the sales charts, it’s clear that even Spielberg’s Extra Terrestrial cash cow will have its work cut out for it.
New-generation models such as the Ford Ranger, Volkswagen Amarok (which is about to add an automatic transmission to the range), Mazda BT-50, Toyota Hilux and Holden Colorado all offer compelling buying propositions.
But Isuzu already holds something of an advantage in the fact that it’s the only dedicated truck builder to produce its own Ute.
The maker also has an enviable reputation for building reliable engines, having built over 22 million of them to date.
And therein lies one of the key points of difference between the Isuzu D-Max and the recently released Holden Colorado – with which it shares its chassis and much of its interior trim.
While the D-Max is powered by its own 3.0-litre four-cylinder common-rail turbo diesel engine, generating 130kW/380Nm; the Colorado uses either a VM Motori (co-owned by General Motors and Fiat) 2.5-litre or 2.8-litre turbo diesel producing 132kW/470Nm, and mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
Both vehicles have an identical one-tonne payload across their ranges, but the Isuzu D-Max’s 3-tonne towing capacity falls short of the Colorado’s 3.5-tonne limit.
Like most of the recently released utes in Australia, the latest generation Isuzu D-Max benefits from a major styling makeover by Ichiro Murato, who also designed the previous model D-Max.
Murato majored in aeronautics at university and was keen for the new D-Max to have a thoroughly unique and contemporary face that was also aerodynamically efficient.
He sent the D-Max through the same wind tunnel test facility where the Japanese Bullit train was developed and conducted further enhancement in the wind tunnel of Italian styling house Pininfarina.
By all accounts, Murato succeeded; not only has the D-Max got the lowest drag coefficient (.47 Cd) in its class, but we think its easily one more stylish looking utes on the market, while still maintaining an aggressive on-road stance. A fact that is crucial to finding favour with buyers in this segment.
There are several spin-off benefits from this design, including improved fuel economy, better performance and reduced cabin noise – all of which are noticeable features of the new Isuzu D-Max.
The D-Max is also pedestrian friendly. The bonnet itself is a soft-impact design and front fog lamps are recessed, as are the wiper posts. Even the headlamp covers are polycarbonate in the interest of reducing potential injury to pedestrians.
Something you may not notice on the D-Max is the projector headlamps that Isuzu have incorporated for additional safety. That’s a rare feature in the segment and shared only with the Holden Colorado LTZ.
However, the same cannot be said of the interior.
The dash and centre-stack are practically identical to that found in the Holden Colorado and apart from a decent touchscreen, the overall dash design is pretty much the same in the entry-level D-Max 4x2 SX single cab chassis ($27,200 – plus on-road costs) as it is in the top-of-the-line LS-Terrain ($51,700 – plus on-road costs).
There’s the odd metallic-look accent around the cabin, but on the whole, the Isuzu D-Max interior is dismal and disappointing in comparison with the fresh new exterior look of the vehicle.
If you want to offset these shortcomings, there is always the sumptuous leather-trimmed Isuzu D-Max LS-Terrain model, which also picks up an electrically operated driver’s seat, touchscreen navigation and audio system and a reversing camera (poor resolution).
And it would be unfair to say the D-Max is altogether without its creature comforts. Almost all 22 D-Max variants are equipped with remote keyless entry; power windows and mirrors; cruise control; multi-information display - (between the instrument dials); air conditioning with pollen filter and a new sound system with Bluetooth phone and music streaming.
Disappointingly, there’s no climate control for the more expensive LS models and those who choose the top-shelf LS-Terrain will lose the steering wheel controls for the audio system due to the touchscreen taking over that functionality.
The latest Isuzu D-Max is a far more spacious place to be than the previous iteration. There’s more length and more width in the cabin, with car-like comfort up front and decent head and legroom for rear passengers in the crew cab.
The big surprise in the space stakes is the amount of room in the new D-Max space cab. It’s a rear wing door configuration that opens out to a wide 90-degree angle, allowing for unencumbered access to the rear compartment.
The seating arrangement consists of two Dickie-style seats (that can be folded away), but our 189cm tall colleague had enough head and legroom to remain relatively comfortable.
Isuzu says it has gone to great lengths to reduce engine noise inside the D-Max cockpit with additional engine bay soundproofing along with new cabin and body mountings.
From the instant you turn over the 3.0-litre diesel, it’s abundantly clear that their efforts have paid off. Surprisingly, there’s none of the usual diesel clatter at idle.
All 380Nm of torque is available between 1800-3000rpm with the manual and between 1800-2800rpm for the auto. Step on the throttle and the decibel level naturally rises, but rest assured the D-Max is one of the quieter members of this segment even under sustained acceleration.
However, you never get the feeling that the engine is strained - it’s a relatively laid-back powertrain that simply pulls and pulls with the minimum of fuss. So while it’s certainly not the most powerful vehicle in the class, the powertrain is well matched to the chassis.
It’s a wide torque band too, and throttle response is good, so there’s no issue safely passing trucks at the maximum legal speed on the highway, either.
It’s an easy-shifting manual gearbox, although it’s a long throw between all-five forward gear ratios. First and second gears are customarily short, but third is wide enough to leave there practically all day, depending on the terrain.
We found the automatic transmission to be equally lazy, but a little too keen to get to top gear, which meant we were on and off the throttle incessantly over undulating terrain. We also think a six-speed automatic gearbox (as fitted on the Colorado) would solve that issue with shorter gear ratios.
Isuzu developed an all-new ladder frame for D-Max, which is 42 per cent more rigid than its predecessor and extends the wheelbase, widening the tracks. The end result is a one-tonne ute that feels well balanced and very stable, even along the lengthy s-bend sections of our drive route.
The new Isuzu D-Max also benefits from new suspension geometry using a combination of independent double wish-bone with coil springs and gas shock absorbers up front and long-span leaf springs at the rear.
There’s never any harshness to the ride, the suspension absorbs the severest of potholes and keeps uncomfortable jolts well away from the cabin.
It’s only poorly-maintained and uneven back roads that can evoke a jittery ride from the D-Max, but even in these conditions we’d rate it slightly ahead in ride comfort against several of its main competitors.
Off-road, the ride is even better. We took the D-Max down several stone-ridden tracks and the ride was superior to some SUVs we’ve tested over similar surfaces.
It didn’t fair so well on the soft sand. Dialling up 4WD-H on Isuzu’s new Terrain Command system and manually turning off the traction control still managed to produce some uneasy moments as the traction control automatically engaged and slowed the D-max unnecessarily.
The D-Max gets speed-sensitive power assisted steering, so negotiating tight parking spots requires minimal effort and it weights up on the highway when your speed increases.
As our launch drive program included both off-road and on-road drive components and alternate drivers, we didn’t get the opportunity to check fuel-consumption against the manufacturer’s fuel consumption values for the D-Max, which range between 8.1 and 8.3 litres per 100 kilometres, but will do so when we review the vehicle during our standard CarAdvice week-long test period in due course.
Apart from the various safety measures mentioned earlier in this review, the Isuzu D-Max gets a full suite of the active and passive safety features including six-airbags (dual-front, curtain and side); electronic stability control (ESC); anti-lock braking system (ABS) with electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) and brake assist (BA).
Equally important are the side impact intrusion bars and a collapsible steering column and brake pedal, further adding to the safety aspects of the Isuzu D-Max.
Isuzu have not submitted the new generation D-Max for an ANCAP crash test evaluation and at this stage are unwilling to speculate on what star rating the vehicle might achieve.
The 2012 Isuzu D-Max offers great styling, excellent diesel engine, and strong all-round performance. It’s also competitively priced and well equipped and should have no trouble convincing buyers of its many merits.