Do just a few things, but do them well. It’s an adage that has done the rounds, and which could easily become Isuzu Ute’s corporate motto – if only ‘go your own way’ wasn’t so catchy.
The company has been selling the D-Max ute in Australia for a decade, and in that time has recorded double-digit sales growth each year in succession. Heavy-duty operators are constantly drawn to the famous reliability of its (basically) Isuzu N Series truck engine.
Same goes for the D-Max’s SUV derivative, the MU-X, which is the nation’s most popular body-on-frame wagon not fitted with a Toyota badge, outselling the likes of Ford’s Everest and Mitsubishi’s Pajero Sport, proving a hit with grey nomads and 4x4-ing families.
By 2020, this ‘little company that could’ expects to deliver 30,000 units annually to Australia, its single biggest export market, and based on recent sales figures this sounds conservative. For context, it outsells Suzuki and Jeep here.
But Australia’s massive light commercial market dominated by the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger sits still for nobody. So Isuzu Ute Australia (IUA) has given the D-Max a series of upgrades for 2018. Nothing major, but sufficient to give it a little ‘push’ out to the media.
Perhaps the most interesting change is the addition of the LS-T dual-cab as a permanent flagship, rather than a special edition. Think of it as IUA’s answer to the Ranger XLT, HiLux SR5, and Holden Colorado LTZ – its platform-mate running a different drivetrain.
Priced at $50,990 drive-away, the D-Max range-topper gets creature comforts such as an 8.0-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation (also on the LS-U), a proximity key fob, seats trimmed with soft perforated leather on the base and hardier polyurethane on the sides, 18-inch wheels with 255/60 highway-terrain tyres, and a full-size alloy spare wheel.
Other exterior tweaks include 60kg capacity roof rails, plus three new colour options called Magnetic Red Mica, Cobalt Blue Mica and Graphite Grey Metallic. That red is particularly lustrous, though all look the part covered in mud and dirt.
Side note: Not as tough as the company’s stunt-ready stock D-Max vehicles that were on hand, though. These beasts have racing buckets, a side exhaust and… That’s about it. They’ve endured three-and-a-half years of constant stunt driving, covering events around the country without anything but servicing needed. Not a bearing, ’box, clutch or turbo has gone yet.
Back to the task at hand. IUA has also reworked the rear suspension to suit local tastes for utes that are more comfortable and compliant at the rear, with light loads. The old five-leaf set-up is now a three-leaf set-up on the SX, LS-U and LS-T dual-cabs, with the trio of load-bearing leaves made from stronger steel to offset the numerical reduction.
In fact, IUA has actually raised the GVM on these versions to 2950kg (4x2) and 3050 (4x4). We drove a D-Max LS-T running near GVM – 600kg in the tray and two burly blokes inside – and while the suspension dipped the tray slightly, we felt no significant handling, braking or uphill-performance degradation.
This suspension, unfortunately, isn’t available on the lower-volume space cab model, which we find quite desirable on account of its longer tray. Obviously, the more hardcore cab-chassis models keep the old set-up too.
The MY18 D-Max ute range also gets a few safety tweaks. The company has added a rear step bumper and reversing camera to all ute-body versions – these features were previously available on most grades, not all. Obviously, the LS-T has this, plus side steps.
Isuzu Ute has also added a trailer sway control component to the ESC system to all versions bar the base SX single-cab manual low-rider. This system controls the wheel braking to help you out if your trailer starts weaving, and leading the car.
The company’s data says about half of all D-Max owners use their ute to tow, and the 3.5t maximum braked-trailer rating is equal top-of-the-class (with the HiLux, Ranger, Colorado, Nissan Navara, Mazda BT-50 and VW Amarok V6).
So that’s the crux of the changes out of the way – what are our first impressions?
First, the new three-leaf set-up is certainly softer and more comfortable than the MY17’s five-leaf set-up (this ‘heavy duty’ layout still comes on the side-step-less LS-M if you’re concerned), especially when unladen. The MY18 feels more settled and less prone to pogo or skip over sharp hits than its predecessor, which is an outstanding outcome.
There are no other mechanical changes, with the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel still making less power and torque than rivals, but doing so in a relaxed and low-stress fashion. Outputs are 130kW at 3600rpm and 430Nm of torque at 2000rpm, just off idle.
We’ve written pretty exhaustively about this Euro 5 donk since the MY17 model was revealed last year, and nothing much has changed. We did have a crack towing a 2t off-road caravan with electric brake controller and it just chugged up hills without breaking a sweat. That’s its happy place.
The suspension also seemed unfazed too, provided the weight was distributed properly. GCM is 5950kg. In these situations, that slow hydraulic-assisted steering rack comes to the fore – it’s less nimble around town, but weathers bigger inputs.
The sole gearbox option on the LS-T is a six-speed auto made by Aisin, though lower grades also come with a six-speed manual. You can get the LS-T with 4x2, or part-time 4x4 with a rotary-dial-operated 4H and low-range 4L, augmented by throttle-adjustable hill-descent control and a transmission manual override.
The D-Max’s off-road cred is beyond doubt at this point, though keen 4x4 operators may need to fit some different tyres if they’re getting muddy often, and an aftermarket locking rear diff, which annoyingly remains absent. IUA would, however, be delighted to sell you all manner of stamped factory accessories like a snorkel, tub mats etc...
The interior hasn’t changed much, but some good additions are there to be found. More soft-touch surfaces, and some glossy black/faux chrome plastics. The material grade isn’t up with a HiLux’s, but the actual quality is a match for a Ranger or Colorado.
Another cabin upgrade that applies to this LS-T variant, as well as the cheaper LS-M and LS-U, is the fitment of 2.1A USB points – two up front and one for back-seat passengers mounted behind the console – in place of the old trickle chargers. This is music to the ears of anyone charging smartphones on the go, aka everyone.
The fascia is pretty old school, though the touchscreen is sizeable and the big chunky buttons are age-proof. There’s still no sign of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, though, nor digital speed readout in the instruments, or a telescopic steering column.
There’s also no modern active safety tech, though the D-Max has six airbags and a five-star ANCAP rating from a few years back. With the Ranger and Colorado offering forward collision warning (the Ford also has active cruise and digital instruments), the D-Max feels dated in this regard.
No $50K vehicle should lack autonomous emergency braking (AEB) out of principle, and the Isuzu is far from alone. Only the expensive Mercedes-Benz X-Class gets it in-segment. There must be a way, even if it’s just high-mounted, camera-based like Subaru’s unit.
The D-Max’s back seats offer among the most leg room and head room in class, plus cup holders and even speakers in the roof. The Isuzu’s back-seat bases also flip up to accommodate taller items.
The Navara remains the only ute with rear air vents, though, which isn’t ideal. The D-Max also remains one of the few utes without ISOFIX, the super-simple child-seat attachment point system that complements top tethers here, and which is in the MU-X.
You could argue we’ve been a little remiss not to mention one of the other most important updates to the MY18 D-Max range: improved servicing intervals. The car launched with ordinary six-month/10,000km intervals, updated last year to 12-month/10,000km.
Now you can do either 12 months or 15,000km between services, which suits the engine’s truck origins far better. The five-year capped-price service plan costs $2090 all up, with each visit set at $350, $450, $500, $450 and $340. This is alongside the standard five-year warranty and roadside assist plan.
IUA has also been working hard to grow its network of dealerships and affiliated service centres, up from 38 sites in 2008 to 141 today, many of which are in remote outback Australia. The coverage is not yet at Toyota levels, but it’s coming along…
So, that’s a quick look at the 2018 D-Max LS-T. At $51K drive-away before haggling, it’s decent enough value, sitting a few grand below the high-tech and tough-looking Ranger, and default (but hard-riding) HiLux, though above the ultra-budget Triton Exceed, which is also a little quieter and more refined.
More importantly, the minor cabin tweaks that bring comfier seats, more upmarket materials and proper USB chargers are all worthy, the three-leaf rear springs genuinely improve the unladen ride quality, and the already cheap running costs improve again.
Yes, someone after a ute with the most tech, the punchiest engine off the line, the toughest styling or the absolute sharpest pricing may be advised to look carefully at a few rivals. We’d still rate it middle-of-the-pack if you apply it to all criteria.
But if you want a bulletproof ute with some creature comforts, the MY18 D-Max makes a moderately more compelling case than it did before. For IUA’s loyal cadre of customers, often discerning types who do homework, it does more than enough. Always has.
We’d just urge the company to keep the tweaks coming, because the light commercial segment is getting ever more crowded, and tech-loaded, and little old IUA has its work cut out keeping up with the Joneses.