Isuzu is a brand that bats above its average when it comes to sales in Australia. Selling just two models in Australia spread across a number of guises, Isuzu does well to slot in as the 13th best-selling brand in the country, ahead of BMW and Suzuki.
But, given the platform the Isuzu D-Max sits on was first launched over six years ago, does the 2018 Isuzu D-Max LS-T 4x4 Crew Cab still have the core elements of a work-truck-cum-weekend-lifestyle-ute?
The latest changes made by Isuzu to the ride and handling come in combination with minor design enhancements inside the cabin with the addition of some soft-touch materials. This followed engine improvements made to the single diesel engine offering in 2017, along with a minor design change. Outside of that, the design and features have remained fairly consistent over the current generation's tenure in Australia.
Under the bonnet, Isuzu employs a 3.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine that produces 130kW of power and 430Nm of torque, mated to either a six-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission that normally sends torque to the rear wheels. Fuel economy comes in at a claimed 7.9 litres of fuel per 100km.
Off-road items include a four-wheel-drive high-range mode, a four-wheel-drive low-range mode, and a hill-descent control. The D-Max misses out on both a centre and rear differential lock and any switchable traction or gearbox-calibrated drive modes.
Core to the recent ride and handling changes for the LS-T include replacement of the five-leaf leaf spring rear suspension set-up with a new three-leaf configuration. Normally reducing the amount of leaves within a leaf spring suspension set-up improves ride comfort, but reduces load-carrying ability.
Isuzu managed to get around this by installing leaves made of higher-grade steel, which in turn has resulted in an increased total vehicle mass, now 3050kg in total. Braked towing capacity remains unchanged at 3500kg.
We wanted to test the D-Max both on- and off-road given the ride improvements and its reputation as one of the better off-road utes, so we lined up the Australian Automotive Research Centre (AARC) to test the D-Max across a number of disciplines, including on-road, off-road and handling.
Before we take a closer look at the exterior, let's talk pricing. The D-Max is expensive, very expensive for what it is. The list price of the vehicle tested here without the fitted accessories is $54,700 plus on-road costs. That makes it almost $4000 more expensive than the Holden Colorado LTZ, almost $3000 more than the Nissan Navara ST-X, and a couple of hundred dollars more than the Toyota HiLux SR5.
But, don't get too excited just yet. Isuzu almost always has a drive-away deal running, which makes the D-Max excellent value for money. For example, at the time of publishing this story, you can pick up a D-Max LS-T with two years of complimentary servicing for just $50,990 drive-away.
The D-Max certainly isn't an unattractive vehicle, and it has aged fairly well given the lack of design changes over the years. The upper-specification vehicles like the LS-T look good with chrome highlights, a wide range of colours, and a number of available accessories (a few that you can see on our test car).
Step inside the cabin and it's a relaxing place to be. You'll find soft-touch padded material along the doors, six-way electric seat adjustment for the driver's pew, single-zone automatic climate control, a decent-sized centre console and glovebox, plus added storage atop the dashboard.
Infotainment comes in the form of an 8.0-inch central LCD screen with inbuilt satellite navigation, eight speakers, Bluetooth audio streaming and AM/FM radio. Missing from the infotainment system is Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and DAB+ digital radio, which is now commonly found on a number of the D-Max's competitors.
Up front, there's high-speed USB charging (with an additional port in the second row), plus a keyless entry and start system and cruise control. But, glaring omissions are basic features like automatic headlights, automatic windscreen wipers, and an automatically dimming rear-vision mirror.
The second row is accommodating for bigger adults with adequate knee and head room. But, it lacks ISOFIX points for child seats and rear air vents.
Hit the starter button and the four-cylinder diesel engine comes to life. It's a noisy engine, both inside and outside the cabin, but offers a smooth and refined driving experience once settled. The steering wheel sits nicely in the hand, but lacks telescopic adjustment. The position was okay, but I would have liked it to sit a little further out, constantly feeling like I'm hunched over the wheel due to its position.
The gearbox is a good thing with smooth shifts between gears and little indecisiveness. Manual shifting is available by sliding the shifter to the right, but it lacks steering-wheel-mounted paddle-shifters – not really a big deal, but it appears to be a trend picking up in top-shelf dual-cab utes.
In-gear acceleration at low speeds is excellent. You can feel that 430Nm of torque in action all the time, and simply need to lean on a gear to get the most out of the engine's torque band. It's surprising that it never feels strained or under load, even when you dig deeper into the throttle – it makes us think there's plenty of bandwidth left in the engine.
In and around town, the ride has been drastically improved. It wasn't ever bad to begin with, but it now feels well rounded and much more comfortable when hitting bumps and speed humps. It doesn't shimmy or shake over deep potholes, and it feels more comfortable without a load, which traditionally isn't the case with leaf-sprung vehicles.
As you hit gravel and road quality degrades, the D-Max feels just as comfortable to drive. Our access road to the AARC is corrugated and rutted in parts and carries a 100km/h speed limit. The D-Max happily glides over these corrugated sections with little fuss or fanfare.
It's the same story as we arrived at the off-road section of the AARC, where ruts are met with gravel and mud sections. The day we were at the facility was particularly muddy and the stability control managed torque allocation with few issues.
In terms of off-road specifications, the D-Max offers 235mm of ground clearance, a 30-degree approach angle and a 22.7-degree departure angle. Wading can be performed up to 600mm in depth without a snorkel.
We did find the standard tyres (Toyo Open Country A33) were a little too road-biased for these conditions. The ruts within the tyres filled with mud very quickly and made it hard to get traction in the very muddy sections. Easily fixed when landing on firmer ground, but worth keeping in mind if you're planning on doing any serious four-wheel driving.
The offset mogul was our first test. We tried this first in two-wheel drive with traction control on. Without a rear differential lock, the D-Max really struggled when it had the front left and rear right tyres in the air. When we tested the same scenario with the Nissan Navara, it managed to make it over the same obstacle in two-wheel drive with the aid of traction control.
Even in high-range four-wheel drive with traction control on, the D-Max struggled to make it over the offset mogul. We needed to switch off the traction-control systems for the D-Max to get enough purchase on the sections where it kicked up wheels.
This comes down to the level of effort put into the traction-control systems for off-road driving. It feels like the D-Max's traction control is tailored for on-road driving as opposed to off-road touring. It then crawled over the offset mogul in low-range four-wheel drive (which disables the stability-control systems automatically).
Our next test was a river crossing. With 600mm of wading depth available, we drove through our river crossing, which measures in at just over 500mm. The crossing was carefree with a little bit of resistance on entry, but it was able to push through without any dramas.
Finally, our off-road testing concluded with a steep hill ascent and descent. We used low-range four-wheel drive for the ascent and descent to get the most out of the engine. The material beneath the treads is a scrabbly rocky gravel with soft ground beneath.
The ascent started off easy, but gradually become harder as the car struggled for traction. The engine stayed true to form offering plenty of punch in low-range with enough traction on offer to finish the climb. The way back down didn't go as expected, though.
With hill-descent control enabled, the descent started off fine but began to get a little too fast for our liking. By the time we reached the bottom, the car was travelling a little too fast and bottomed out as we reached the end. Without any speed variability (some cars in this segment allow the driver to adjust descent speed using the steering wheel), it wasn't possible to have any further control over the hill-descent control (outside of applying the brakes manually).
Thankfully, the D-Max comes with a heap of underbody protection to protect the engine and critical components from the occasional scuff or scrape during off-road driving.
During previous testing, we've found the D-Max to be capable of towing a circa 3000kg load on a braked trailer. While it performed fine with acceleration and braking, the ride was quite floaty and it felt like the trailer was leading the rear of the vehicle at times. Isuzu implemented a trailer sway control to the D-Max's stability-control system, which counters any further rear steering.
The new Isuzu D-Max comes with a five-year, 130,000km warranty with five years of capped-price servicing and five years of roadside assistance. Over a five-year period, the D-Max costs $2090 to service at regular 12 monthly, 15,000km intervals.
While the new Isuzu D-Max performs well both on- and off-road, it's starting to lag behind the competition in terms of modern technology and basic comfort features. Despite the ongoing drive-away deals, the rest of the utes in this segment are starting to sprint ahead quickly in terms of technology and features.
Isuzu has proven the D-Max offers reliability and longevity, but with the advent of advanced safety technology like AEB creeping into top-end dual-cab utes, it won't be long before Isuzu has a very outdated product with a high price tag.