The Isuzu D-Max ute has come in for a final refresh before it is due to be replaced by an all-new model some time in 2020.
For the record, Isuzu executives won’t say if or when the next-generation D-Max will arrive. However, if history is a guide, it is due in local showrooms about 12 months from now.
In the meantime, Isuzu still has plenty of pick-ups to sell, so it has continued with its pattern of annual 'model year' updates. To borrow the lingo, this is the MY19, or 2019 model year, just in case the dealer starts talking in code.
In essence, the MY19 D-Max arriving in showrooms this month is virtually identical to the MY18 models already in dealer stock. As with updates from previous years, the changes are subtle and mostly cosmetic.
How subtle? On the flagship LS-T, the 18-inch alloys have a new design and they’re now wrapped in 'highway terrain' or H/T tyres rather than nobbly 'all terrain' or A/T tyres. There are new side steps, and the roof rails and lower bumper grille slats are now black.
The Isuzu D-Max remains conspicuous due to its lack of such mod-cons as Apple Car Play, Android Auto, autonomous emergency braking and other advanced safety aids. It seems Isuzu fans will need to wait until the next-generation ute for these features.
The D-Max’s relative lack of equipment versus newer rivals makes it all the more remarkable that sales have increased every year over the past decade. In 2018, it even knocked off the Holden Colorado – its former twin – for the first time ever, despite the fact Isuzu has a smaller dealer network than Holden.
The sales momentum has continued even though the D-Max is the oldest among the current crop of utes, and the drive experience is more ute-like than most of the competition, which have ironed out some of the bumps and the rough edges.
While Isuzu Australia has been hamstrung with limited improvements in the D-Max itself, it has tried to make a difference on the things it can change: the ownership experience.
To coincide with the arrival of the MY19 range, the D-Max gains six-year/150,000km warranty coverage (up from five years/130,000km), service price protection for seven years and 105,000km (up from five years and 75,000km), and roadside assistance for six years instead of five.
While some ute brands offer an unlimited-kilometre warranty, Isuzu says it capped coverage at 150,000km because research showed most private buyers travelled just 20,000km each year on average.
It also means private buyers aren’t paying for the higher warranty costs of fleets that might do more than 300,000km during the warranty period. Warranty isn’t exactly free – each car company holds back a portion of the profit from each vehicle to cover future claims.
The cost of routine maintenance on the D-Max at 12 months/15,000km intervals is now as follows: $350 12 months/15,000km, $450 two years/30,000km, $500 three years/45,000km, $450 four years/60,000km, $340 five years/75,000km, $1110 six years/90,000km, $400 seven years/105,000km.
Most other brands offer roadside assistance renewals only if the vehicle is serviced within their dealer network. However, Isuzu’s roadside assistance offer covers the car for six years as long as the vehicle has been well maintained – inside or outside the Isuzu dealer network.
The complimentary roadside assistance coverage is also transferable to the next owner of the car if sold within the six-year period.
The only catch to all of this is that the price has risen by up to $1000 across most models. For example, the flagship LS-T double-cab auto 4x4 is now listed at $51,990 drive-away, up from $50,990 drive-away. The LS-T double-cab auto 4x2 is now listed at $43,990 drive-away, also a $1000 increase.
The base model SX double-cab manual 4x4 has risen $500 from $39,490 drive-away to $39,990 drive-away.
The cheapest tradie model in the entire line-up, the SX single-cab manual 4x2 with a dropside tray, has no price change and remains $26,990 drive-away.
On the road
Isuzu D-Max buyers love the tough, truck-like design, but more importantly they’re sold on the engine. The 3.0-litre turbo diesel hasn’t had a power bump since it was updated to 130kW and 430Nm in February 2017. Despite having among the lowest output among its peers, it’s not afraid of hard work.
Enthusiast buyers know this engine is shared with an Isuzu light truck that can handle a 6.5-tonne load, so one tonne in the tray or 3.5 tonnes on a tow ball is all in a day’s work for the D-Max. Which is presumably why buyers don’t mind the fact that the D-Max engine is a bit rowdy under the bonnet. Even by ute standards, the 3.0-litre unit is a noisy operator.
Buyers of the Isuzu MU-X SUV have a quieter experience because there is extra sound deadening behind the dashboard, firewall and in the transmission tunnel. Why Isuzu hasn’t fitted this noise-suppression package at least to the top-end D-Max models is a mystery. It would instantly deliver a more car-like experience.
The same criticism can be made of the steering. The D-Max retains its heavy steering feel, whereas the MU-X gets a lighter recalibrated steering feel for MY19. This modification would have given the D-Max a new lease on life, and yet it was left on the shelf.
Isuzu has taken the brave decision to fit highway tyres on the top two model grades: the LS-T flagship and mid-range LS-U. I happen to agree with this strategy given most private buyers – and indeed many tradies – rarely leave the tarmac.
Buyers who really want to go off-road prefer a tread pattern that’s even more aggressive than all-terrain rubber. So, Isuzu is on the right track here in my opinion, but unfortunately the tyre selected is not as good as I was expecting.
Without any provocation, the Toyo A33A Open Country tyres (255/60/18) tend to squeal in tight turns and lack grip. I had two executives from Isuzu in the car on the media preview drive, so I was attempting to drive smoothly along the winding Great Ocean Road. And yet, the tyres didn't seem to deliver the improvement I was expecting.
Next time, Isuzu, may we please have highway tyres that favour grip over low friction and fuel economy?
The six-speed automatic transmission, too, isn’t as smooth as other autos in the ute segment. In the past three months I have spent most of my time in utes such as the Toyota HiLux, Ford Ranger, VW Amarok and Mitsubishi Triton. I’ve even recently been reacquainted with China’s LDV T60.
The D-Max auto could do with some further finessing in my opinion, especially when you consider the same transmission in the MU-X SUV is a much smoother operator.
In defence of the D-Max’s comparatively firm suspension, noisy engine and agricultural auto, it does do well once there’s a load on board. For about 50km of winding and hilly back roads I towed a 2000kg boat and trailer. While it was well inside its maximum towing capacity, the D-Max didn’t raise a sweat and felt sure-footed.
That said, colleagues who’ve tested the D-Max while towing 3.5 tonnes advise that peak towing capacity does approach the limits of the engine, which can fall into a hole, especially up hills. But for most people wanting to tow a boat or a caravan, the Isuzu D-Max will get the job done.
Other observations? The driving position lacks the adjustment of newer ute rivals. The seat doesn’t travel as high or as far back as most others. And the steering adjustment is for height only, not reach.
The door pockets are comparatively small, the instrument cluster lacks a digital speed display, and there’s no volume dial, making the buttons hard to operate quickly on a bumpy road.
It sounds like I’m being harsh, but even simple things like brightness of the central touchscreen can’t be adjusted if you drive with your headlights on during the day. This is a hangover of getting a new infotainment display in the dash, but not properly integrating it with the rest of the car.
All that said, buyers clearly don’t mind. They love the D-Max for what it can do rather than worry about what it lacks.
The Isuzu D-Max is starting to show its age and lacks the latest safety aids, but at least it’s an honest ute at an honest price with a solid customer care package.
If you’re in the market for one, be sure to haggle while it’s in runout for the next year or so.
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling