Rarely does a vehicle come from the back of the pack – on paper at least – to the top of the class.
But that’s what has happened with the 2021 Isuzu D-Max. To be frank, I didn’t know Isuzu was capable of such a massive leap. More fool me.
After years of banging on about all the things the previous Isuzu D-Max lacked – basics such as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, dusk-sensing headlights – I had low expectations for the new model.
In the old D-Max, you couldn’t even adjust the brightness of the damn infotainment screen if you drove with your headlights on during the day (as recommended by some road safety advocates, and mining sites).
We got used to the idea of the Isuzu D-Max being a bare bones proposition. And you know what? Buyers didn’t seem to mind.
They bought the old D-Max for its tough looks, and its engine – even though it had among the lowest power and torque in the ute class. But those in the know also knew the Isuzu engine has another life, in a delivery truck. So a ute should be light work, right?
The Isuzu D-Max was starting to show its age even when it came out in 2012. The Ford Ranger and the Volkswagen Amarok – which came out just ahead of the then-new Isuzu D-Max – were game-changers.
The Ford and Volkswagen drove more like SUVs, whereas the Isuzu D-Max of the day drove like an old-school ute.
Hard-as-nails buyers accused us motoring writers of going soft, complaining about the agricultural driving dynamics of the old Isuzu D-Max. What, unfortunately, Isuzu failed to recognise early enough for that 2012 model, was that the ute market had changed.
Ford and Volkswagen (and to an extent Toyota) have proven you can engineer a capable ute that’s also comfortable. Now it seems Isuzu has redeemed itself, on paper at least.
We won’t for sure how it drives until we get behind the wheel, but the early signs are good.
What has impressed me most is that Isuzu has elected to equip every single model with every available piece of safety technology.
In many ways, Isuzu had to – if it wanted its vehicles allowed on mining sites and in government fleets, which have five-star safety policies.
But equally, Isuzu could have chosen to leave the full suite of safety tech off the base models and added them at a price, as some brands prefer to do.
Thankfully, wiser minds prevailed. And every model in the new Isuzu D-Max range gets the works when it comes to safety.
It has frustrated me that it has taken years for utes to get up to speed on safety. They arguably spend more time on the road than many family cars and sales reps. Is the life of a tradie worth less than anyone else behind the wheel of a modern car? Of course not.
Then there is the changing use patterns of these vehicles. Many buyers are treating utes like family SUVs. Indeed, the top-of-the-range Isuzu D-Max X-Terrain has been designed for novated lease buyers, choosing a car on the company dime.
So Isuzu deserves kudos for the big leap in safety and technology, though I’m not sure everyone will stomach the price. This is just a guess, but I reckon Isuzu is testing the market with the higher price, to see if it can make some big bucks while the car is still fresh, before prices settle down in six to 12 months.
Yes, there is more tech in the new D-Max range – including the first centre airbag in the ute class – and that is responsible for some of the price rises. But some of the price hike is Isuzu figuring out what it thinks it can charge.
How do we know this? Because the price rises are not universal. Some of the smallest price rises are on the cheapest models – which have the same tech and, arguably, made the biggest leap. Ultimately, customers will decide if the new Isuzu D-Max is too much, or if the price is right.
With all things considered, I’m genuinely blown away by the long list of improvements and changes. But alas, no car is perfect. And so without trying to sound like I'm being picky, here’s a quick to-do list for the facelift or the next annual running change.
One thing I wouldn’t change is the machine-faced 18-inch alloy wheels on the Isuzu D-Max LS-U (pictured above). They look great when parked or on the move. I can’t explain it, but I love their originality and futuristic aero look. In fact, I prefer them to the painted version on the X-Terrain.
That said there were a few minor things Isuzu might consider, if it wants to stay on top of the game after almost a decade of playing catch-up. A 360-degree camera is conspicuous by its absence on top models.
A sensor key with push-button start should be on all LS grades (not just the top-of-the-range X-Terrain).
The new D-Max has wireless Apple CarPlay, but not wireless phone charging. Extendable sun visors would be appreciated (as per Ford Ranger) to cope with side glare on country roads. Most top-end utes also have an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. That’s not available on any model grade in the new Isuzu D-Max line-up.
And although Isuzu says more than half of all D-Max buyers opt for a tow bar, it’s still an option (approximately $1500 to $2000) on the 2021 Isuzu D-Max. By comparison, a tow bar is standard on the top three grades of the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger.
If that’s all we can fault on the new Isuzu D-Max at this point in time, it’s a good start. Now we just have to drive it.