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We live in a strange time. An era when utes and pick-ups serve as symbols of status and objects of desire. High-grade Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger variants are the market’s two most popular vehicles, and Mercedes-Benz is about to launch the $73,270 X350d.
Within this context, it’s refreshing to be driving the revised MY18 Isuzu D-Max, which while making some nods to the ‘lifestyle’ part of the light commercial market, remains quite free of pretension and doesn’t cost more than the boat or van it’ll be towing.
Given Isuzu Ute sees Australia as its top export market and has posted double-digit growth every year for a decade now, clearly its message is catching on. If there’s a brand that punches above its weight division locally, it’s this one.
We’re in the D-Max LS-U grade here, sitting one rung below the new flagship LS-T. The nominal RRP with the volume-selling automatic transmission is $50,900 before on-road costs, though you can expect to undercut that figure.
While no revolutionary changes can be found, the D-Max’s cabin feels more resolved by the year. It’s solid, spacious and thoughtful, even if it lacks bling or tech compared to many weekend-warrior-mobiles.
New fake leather padding on the doors, dash and console adds something of a premium feel, and the build quality is improving over the earliest versions. It all feels more cohesive than the earlier iterations. There are even in-vogue shiny silver plastics.
There are plenty of places to store your things, from the deep console to the two separate gloveboxes, four front cupholders, bottle holders in the doors and sunglasses holder in the roof. There’s also a little nook ahead of the gear shifter that’s exactly iPhone X-sized.
That storage area atop the dash remains a nice idea provided you don't put a Mars Bar in there during summer, but its lid remains hilariously flimsy and temperamental – sometimes simply refusing to open when you press the button. And that’s when new…
The instrument fascia remains old-hat – the big touchscreen’s home menu has just six feature tiles, and the graphics look a decade old because they probably are – and there’s no digital radio or Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
On the other hand, it’s all ridiculously simple to navigate, there’s satellite navigation, and the Bluetooth phone and audio system re-pairs rapidly. The sound system is also pretty good – there are even speakers in the roof for back seat occupants.
Put it this way, your grandparents will love the screen’s simple menus, unless they’re atypically tech-savvy. Isuzu Ute’s demographic is an older one, too.
There are a few things we’d like added. For one, we want to be able to adjust the screen brightness. We’d also like a digital speedometer (luckily there’s Waze), and telescopic adjustment on the steering column to improve the ergonomics.
One final annoyance is the way the front passenger seatbelt buckle noisily slams into the plastic B-pillar lining when not in use. You’ll end up fastening it even when the seat is empty, out of annoyance. One simple clip would address this.
The cloth seats feel hard-wearing and have height adjustment for the driver. They’re plenty supportive for those doing lots of driving. The floors are carpeted, but Isuzu’s rubber mats are excellent for keeping mud somewhere hose-able.
Safety features include six airbags and cruise control, as well as a nice clear reversing camera with guidelines, and evening illumination. Some utes are getting features such as AEB now, but Isuzu has no such systems yet in its kit bag.
Surprisingly impressive are the back seats, which offer above-average levels of head room and leg room, with space for two 200cm blokes. The big side windows help add an impression of space.
There’s a flip-down centre armrest, door bins, two cupholders in the back of the console, damped grab handles, and even a new 2.1A USB input for phone charging. This joins the two USB, one HDMI, one AUX and one 12V input up front.
Those back seat bases also flip upwards to give you a large space under the roof, while the jack and tools are stored in little bins accessed this way.
To the capabilities. The payload is a smidgen over a tonne (GVM is 3050kg and kerb weight is 2021kg), while the tub is just over 1500mm long, 465mm deep and 1100mm between the arches. If you want a protective tub liner and either hard or soft tonneau covers, Isuzu has you covered.
Underneath the tray is a new three-leaf spring set-up (on all bar the LS-M) designed to improve unladen ride comfort without impeding load capacity. Each leaf is a little stronger than before, but there are two fewer.
The remarkable thing is this change makes a notable difference to the way the D-Max drives. With a light weight aboard, the Isuzu settles after sharp hits like a pothole or speed bump more quickly and with less bounce or pogo-ing; a feeling of comfort enhanced by the high-sidewall tyres.
It’s not quite the refined, long-legged country tourer that the locally calibrated Holden Colorado or Ford Ranger are, but it’s certainly less stiff and busy at the rear than a HiLux. Throw a load in and it settles further. The frame itself has six crossmembers.
Unlike some other brands, Isuzu has stuck with a hydraulic-assisted steering rack with almost four turns lock-to-lock. Alleviating this cumbersome situation is the fact that it offers plenty of resistance, thus you do not need Popeye arms to drive it.
Under the bonnet is the familiar Euro 5 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four used in the Isuzu N Series light truck. Outputs are modest by today’s standard at 130kW (at 3600rpm) and 430Nm (at 2000rpm). It’s matched as tested to a six-speed automatic gearbox supplied by Aisin.
Rather than turning up the wick on this engine, Isuzu has focused on low-down pulling power and a kind of relaxed, de-stressed delivery. You won’t get where you’re going in a rush, especially if you’re nearing the 3.5-tonne towing ceiling, but reputation and history suggest you won’t conk out on the side of the road either.
The claimed combined-cycle fuel use is 7.9L/100km, but we averaged around 9L/100km. In our experience, this figure is not drastically affected by towing, which suits the market.
We’ve driven the D-Max 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.
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).
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.
As you can read in more exhaustive detail, the D-Max is a proven thing off-road, though you don’t get a factory rear diff lock. It has high- and low-range 4x4, plus the regular road-oriented rear-wheel drive. There’s hill-descent control, but you can just as easily lift off and use engine braking.
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...
From an ownership angle, Isuzu Ute offers a five-year/130,000km warranty (five years is becoming common now, being offered also by Ford, Holden and Mitsubishi) and capped-price servicing at improved intervals of 12 months or 15,000km.
At current rates, the D-Max will cost you $2090 to service over the first five years or 75,000km, and we’d point out its relatively wide network of rural dealers, albeit not to the same level as market leader Toyota.
All told, the D-Max remains a good, honest ute that you’ll get for a decent price, though the likes of Mitsubishi will likely undercut it. The MY18 changes – new rear springs, improved cabin, longer service intervals – all sweeten the deal and add a few decimals to the rating.
The LS-U as tested – and even the luxo LS-T that sits above it – perhaps doesn’t have the recognition or widespread acceptance of the HiLux or Ranger, but it remains a fundamentally honest toiler with a few newfound smooth edges.