It’s not a market leader in terms of ride and refinement, nor is it endowed with the latest and greatest in technology. But in terms of sales in the competitive 4x4 ute segment, the Isuzu D-Max has always managed to punch well above its weight with Australian buyers.
There is something important to point out before we get into the review: there’s a new D-Max coming, and it promises to improve many of the shortcomings of this current iteration. Things like new safety, smartphone mirroring, and a rear locking differential are slated for the new-look model.
A new D-Max on the horizon means this current one under review (a 2020 Isuzu D-Max LS-T) will soon be no more, and Isuzu will be clearing remaining stock with special deals. So, if you want the newest iteration, hold onto your hat until July 2020.
However, maybe you don’t place that much value on the fandangles, and you’re keen on a good-value 4x4 ute with good bones, old fashion and no pretensions. If that sounds like you, now might be the right time to buy a not-new-for-long 2020 Isuzu D-Max.
4JJ1 is the latest iteration of Isuzu’s ‘4J’ lineage of diesel engines, which dates back to 1985. They’re the smaller-capacity commercial donk of Isuzu’s range pulling double-duty for utes and light trucks alike. The first of its kind was a 2.5-litre ‘4JA1’, with eight valves, no turbocharger, and outputs of 57kW and 162Nm. Oh, how far we’ve come...
Australia’s love affair with Isuzu diesels really blossomed with the Holden TF Rodeo, which was powered by a rough but gutsy and efficient 4JB1-T.
Yes, that T referred to forced induction. And with 2.8 litres of mechanical-injected goodness, there was 74kW at 3800rpm and 225Nm at 2300rpm. But most importantly, the element of reliability was in plentiful supply for many years.
Fast-forward to the present, and those outputs are thankfully much higher: the 4JJ1-TC now makes 130kW at 3600rpm and 430Nm at 2000–2200rpm, using modern conveniences like common-rail injection and a variable-geometry turbo.
Despite having a relatively high displacement, it’s the least impressive engine when compared on paper to the rest of the segment.
That’s not the full story, however. That 380Nm, still a decent surge, is available between 1700–3500rpm, which leaves the engine feeling muscular and flexible, especially when laden and towing.
The power runs through an equally predictable and dependable six-speed Aisin automatic gearbox, which is similar to what you’ll find in a Toyota HiLux. Previous experience indicates the D-Max to be a solid performer in both disciplines of towing and hauling.
The engine is refined enough for day-to-day duties plodding around town, although you won’t have to look far to find something smoother or quieter. It’s a bit clattery when revving hard (like most diesels), but sticking to that mid-range dose of torque is the engine’s happy place.
In terms of fuel economy, we experienced between 8–9L/100km depending where we were driving, while the official claim is 7.9L/100km. Compared to the rest of the segment, those numbers sit the D-Max towards the front of the class.
While refinement and peak power take a back seat, you can’t deny the fit-for-purpose credentials of the D-Max’s 3.0-litre engine. And the good news is the trusted and loved 3.0-litre engine will carry over to the new model, with a kick in the guts for good measure.
While the rear suspension changed to a three-leaf pack for improved ride comfort, our previous testing has shown the D-Max is still pretty good at loading up the rear end.
Driving rough roads with a full tonne aboard could give the bump-stops a workout, but our testing up to 700kg was impressive.
While general ride comfort is improved, the D-Max is still one of the more harsh driving experiences out there. If you prioritise comfort and refinement over utility, then consider shopping elsewhere. However, that whole ‘fit-for-purpose’ argument comes to the fore once again.
You could argue that in a 4x4 ute, load carrying and heavy-duty durability are more important than ride comfort and compliance. And from that point of view, the D-Max is hard to fault.
Perhaps the area that the Isuzu D-Max needs improvement most is the interior. There are some strong practical features, like slide-out cupholders below air vents, and big square units in the centre console that can fit a milk/coffee carton.
We also like the dual glovebox design (with an additional 12V socket), as well as the bits and bobs you can fit atop the dashboard.
The design is overall dated, however, and lacking the sophistication in design and materials that many other 4x4 utes have nowadays. The seats are wide and mostly comfortable, but lacking in bolstering and under-thigh support. While hard plastics may not scream high-end, the interior overall does promise to be hard-wearing and durable.
The Isuzu D-Max's interior, in a nutshell: there’s nothing critically wrong, a few things to like, but there is plenty of room for improvement.
The infotainment display, 8.0 inches in this specification, is an old system. It’s clunky to operate, lacking features compared to more modern systems, and isn’t exactly high-resolution. There’s navigation, and it gives you a decent view for the reversing camera.
Two flip-down cupholders for the second row take the total count to six, and those in the back can fight over a single USB power outlet. Space for adults in the back is decent, and average for the segment. Those who want to fix baby seats will lament the lack of ISOFIX points.
Kick the passengers out, and you can choose to flip the seat bases up for some additional storage room. You'll notice a couple of small storage hatches, which are handy for stowing away some bits and bobs, maybe a snatch strap and a couple of shackles.
Off-road, the D-Max is a similar mixed bag. While ground clearance and general stability are good, the lack of any locking differential or effective traction control tuning means when you do lift a wheel, the D-Max is more than happy to leave it spinning and let progress grind to a halt.
Often, a little extra momentum or choosing a different line can get you through. And with some shrewd driving, you can certainly punt a D-Max through some challenging terrain.
It is fundamentally less capable than others in the segment, before you consider bang-for-buck and common modifications. Low-range gearing is decent, and visibility is quite good.
I’ve been lucky enough to drive Isuzu 4WDs in some challenging and special locations like Fraser Island and the Victorian High Country, as well as a handful of more local runs around the Blue Mountains. And although there is (once again) room for improvement, it’s always been a solid performer off-road without any nasty surprises.
If you’re buying a D-Max to take it off-road, you’d want to consider budgeting in some additional gear. Better tyres and a locking differential (or two) would go a long way, along with the usual suspects of suspension and protection. But, of course, this can be said for just about every 4WD.
LS-T specification is Isuzu’s most expensive, and also the least logical. The gains one gets from the additional spend don’t seem to add up, especially if you’re going to put the ute to work on-site and off-road. The 18-inch alloy wheels certainly help with on-road presence, but a smaller diameter is preferable for off-roading and hard yakka.
Currently, this top-spec flavour D-Max is advertised at $51,990 drive-away on Isuzu’s website. This represents good value, but I reckon the best buying for the range is further down. LS-M, for example, with 16-inch alloys and less interior niceties, is advertised at $43,990 drive-away with an auto.
Or for even less spend, look at the base-specification SX, which can be had for $39,990 drive-away with a six-speed manual transmission or $42,190 with an automatic.
Isuzu’s warranty covers six years and 150,000km, which comes with six years of roadside assistance. In terms of servicing, there’s a seven-year capped program that requires 15,000km or 12-month intervals.
The program works out to be $2255 for the first five years, averaging out to $451 per year or 15,000km. The sixth visit is a big one ($1179) followed by a final $409 service. The total over seven years is $3843.
Isuzu’s D-Max has hardly changed, and that’s part of the appeal for many buyers. The competition has zoomed ahead in terms of technology, safety, refinement and comfort. But, the D-Max has stuck to its guns with good working credentials and a terrific driveline reputation.