Isuzu D-MAX 2021 x-terrain
launch-review

2021 Isuzu D-Max X-Terrain review

Australian first drive

New engine, chassis, suspension, tech and interior. Isuzu’s new ute threatens to jump from dunce to dux in one fell swoop.
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After eight years of plying the same hardware, Isuzu Ute Australia finally has some fresh metal to show off: 2021 marks an all-new Isuzu D-Max ute.

Remaining mostly unchanged since 2012, the previous-generation D-Max had been overtaken by the rest of the fast-evolving ute segment in just about every discipline. This new model, however, looks to catch up to the pack with lots of updates: new body and chassis, new engine, updated transmissions, reworked suspension, and a shedload of extra technology.

Pricing has gone up for this new D-Max by between $2000 and $8100. With that increase in RRP, the D-Max looks to take on competitors higher up the pricing ladder: think more Ranger and HiLux, and less Triton and Navara.

Our test vehicle is the most expensive variant, the X-Terrain specification, with a drive-away deal at launch of $58,990. This compares to a range that starts at $29,990 (also drive-away) for a single-cab 4x2 SX, while your cheapest 4x4 dual-cab (also an SX) costs $47,900 before on-road costs.

Isuzu buyers previously had to stomach a handful of shortcomings in order to get behind the wheel of a D-Max. While pricing was always sharp, especially with drive-away deals, the D-Max felt old and coarse in comparison to its newer, smoother and safer brethren with more technology.

However, the D-Max always punched well above its weight in the all-important sales race. Many Australians were happy to look past the dated interior, choppy ride and old technology to get that much loved 3.0-litre diesel engine under the bonnet.

I think a big part of the appeal is the fact that the D-Max (and MU-X) shares an engine with Isuzu’s commercial light-truck range, and Isuzu only produces four-wheel drives and commercial trucks.

However, you’re getting plenty more ute for your money these days. More in terms of size: although the D-Max is shorter overall (5280mm, down from 5295mm), it’s sitting on a longer wheelbase: 3125mm (up from 3095mm). It’s also taller and wider than the outgoing model.

The new Isuzu D-Max is also much safer (though as this article was published it was yet to receive its ANCAP safety rating). There are now eight airbags throughout the cabin, including a segment-first centre airbag between the front seats. There's now advanced safety technology such as autonomous emergency braking, forward-collision warning, lane-keeping assistance, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.

We noticed in our time behind the wheel that the lane departure warning can get tiresome at times, especially if you make a habit of using all of the lane you have at your disposal. Thankfully, it can be turned off via the multifunction display if the driver wishes.

A lot of these new smarts come via twin cameras mounted high in the windscreen. This is good news for 4WDers because fitting accessories like bullbars will be a less complicated experience. Isuzu even tells us that UHF antennas won't affect the performance of the active safety technology.

AT A GLANCEIsuzu D-Max X-Terrain
Year of platform introduction2020
Country of manufactureThailand
Price (RRP)$62,900
Drive-away price$58,990
Engine3.0-litre four cylinder diesel
TurboSingle
Power (kW)140
Torque (Nm)450
Automatic transmission ratios6
Fuel consumption average claim (L/100km)8
Fuel consumption average tested (L/100km)10.8
0 to 100kmh (unladen, tested on GPS equipment)10.2 seconds
100kmh to 0 (unladen, tested on GPS equipment)41.6 metres
ANCAP safety ratingNot yet tested
ANCAP safety rating year2020
WarrantySix years/150,000km
Service intervals12 months/15,000km
Routine capped price servicing over five years$2,215

Interior

Blind Freddy could see a vast improvement in the interior. While practical and hard-wearing, the old interior was lacking in two very important aspects: comfort and technology. This new interior, on the other hand, looks and feels much more modern.

This interior still has the likeable and practical touches of the old model: slide-out cupholder underneath the air vents and dual gloveboxes. Thankfully, the design of the lidded storage compartment above the dashboard has been vastly improved – it now works.

Some of the buttons and switchgear feel of a lower quality compared to the likes of a Ford Ranger or Volkswagen Amarok, and Toyota HiLux in some cases. We lament the lack of a volume dial for easy control while driving, but the air-conditioning controls (dual-zone for higher specifications) look smart and are easy to use.

The infotainment display continues the theme of vast improvement, sporting 9.0 inches of size and a high resolution pixel density to boot: Isuzu tells us the 144 pixels per square-inch is class-leading. Android Auto works well, and wireless Apple CarPlay is another unique feature, though it can take some time to connect properly via Bluetooth. And it doesn’t yet have wireless charging capability to go with it.

The infotainment system has AM/FM, digital radio and embedded navigation but no CD player. The infotainment is an improvement from before, but lacks the slick user experience that other systems have. The rear-view camera is a little milky as well, and perhaps a combination of a big display exacerbating the limits of the camera hardware.

Comfort-wise, the leather-accented seats in this X-Terrain specification give a lot more comfort and support, with a more pronounced bucketed design to sit in. There’s additional adjustability in these new seats (including lumbar support), and it combines well with tilt and rake adjustment through the steering wheel.

There's no heated function in these top-spec seats. And, like many other top-spec 4x4 utes, only the driver’s seat gets the electric treatment. Improved seat bolstering is a benefit on and off the road, while adjustable thigh support makes a big difference on those longer stints.

Back in the second row, air vents are a welcome addition to the breed, and something not all competitors can boast. That’s helped along by a 12V plug, decent-sized door bins and a flip-down armrest with cupholders.

Leg room and head room are all in good supply, with enough room for two big-boned adults to sit comfortably. Go to three and things get (typically for the segment) a little squeezy. Seat bases can be flipped up and secured, revealing some handy additional storage in the floor. The seat back can also be pulled forwards (via a single strap) to reveal a modest amount of additional storage.

For fitting child seats, there are Isofix and top-tether points on both outboard seats in the rear. Top tether points need to pass through a webbing loop, and then turn 90 degrees to attach to the centrally mounted steel tether point. Even though it’s behind the middle seat, it can’t be used to mount a child seat (which needs a top tether) in the middle. Confusing, yes. Does it work? Yes, also. It’s probably not as neat or easy as a tether that’s further down the back panel or seat back, but it works all the same.

Moving further back you’ll find a tray covered with a manually operated roller cover and fitted with a drop-in tub liner. There is no 12V power, and we’ve lost the two forward tie-down points: there are only two near the tailgate.


Driveline

This engine feels familiar for the Isuzu: low-revving most of the time, and able to lean on that fat band of torque to surge along effortlessly. While some other utes have more ratios in their gearboxes, this Isuzu genuinely doesn’t need them. Instead, the six gears in the Aisin-sourced automatic gearbox feel perfectly matched to the engine, and get the most out of it most of the time.

Peak power (140kW) is still behind most key competitors. Namely, Ford’s 3.2-litre (147kW) and 2.0-litre (157kW) Ranger. And now with a power bump, the HiLux also has more power (150kW).

Torque is the more important figure to consider with such an engine, however. The D-Max’s 450Nm is off the 500Nm+ of twist that other models boast, but it does gain solid kudos when looking at the bigger picture.

That 450Nm output is available from 1600rpm to 2600rpm, where the engine spends most of its time and the main reason why this engine feels so flexible. Digging deeper, 400Nm (still a healthy number) is on tap between 1400rpm and 3250rpm – virtually your entire operating rev range.

This is the main reason why this engine feels kind of lazy, and not needing to rev hard under load to get moving. Rather, most accelerating and driving can be done in quite a sedate manner.

Now that this engine is noticeably quieter both at idle and under load, the D-Max has transformed itself into a much more refined offering. Exactly how refined is hard to judge in isolation, but I would say that it sits right amongst the likes of the Ranger and HiLux nowadays instead of lagging behind.

While Isuzu claims this D-Max uses 8.0 litres per 100km on the combined cycle, our testing saw between 9.8 and 10.8L/100km, which was mostly a mix of loaded country driving and some 4WDing.

Hardcore Isuzu fans might be interested to know that unlike the previous 4JJ1 diesel engine, Isuzu has split up the development of engines between light trucks and light commercials. While the 4JJ3 series will be the engine for the D-Max, N-Series trucks will get their own new variant called 4JZ1.

JUMP: D-MAX v FORD RANGER v TOYOTA HILUX

DETAILED DATAIsuzu D-Max X-Terrain
Overall length (mm)5280
Body width not including mirrors (mm)1880
Height including roof rails if applicable (mm)1810
Wheelbase (mm)3125
Towing capacity (kg)3500
Kerb weight (kg)2130
Payload (kg)970
Gross combination mass (kg)5950
Fuel tank capacity (litres)76
Wading depth (mm)800
Approach angle30.5
Departure angle24.2
Rampover angle23.8
Turning circle (metres)12.5
Tray length, floor (mm, our tape measure)1450
Tray depth (mm, our tape measure)480
Wheelhouse to wheelhouse (mm, our tape measure)1110
Tray width (mm, our tape measure)1490
Tie down points2
Front disc size (mm)320 x 30
Rear drum brakes (mm)295
Tyre size265/60/18
Tyres fitted to test vehicleBridgestone Dueler HT 684 II
Unloaded tyre pressure front and rear33psi, 230kpa
Loaded tyre pressure (front)33psi, 230kpa
Loaded tyre pressure (rear)44psi, 300kpa

On the road

Another big change comes to the D-Max via the steering system. No more hydraulic assistance, as this Isuzu now gets electric power-assisted steering (EPAS). This makes the D-Max’s steering feel significantly lighter at low speeds, adding an air of premium effortlessness.

Also worth noting: while the wheelbase has increased, Isuzu has somehow reduced the turning circle by 10cm. It’s now 12.5m.

In my review video, I noted that the steering did feel slightly vague and lacking in feel when cornering at speed. I have to say, this criticism does get tempered after spending more time with the vehicle and becoming familiar with the steering. Also, it was while driving the car through corners and at speeds higher than one normally would.

I have little to criticise in terms of how the new D-Max rides. I’m aware that I’m probably less harsh of a judge than others out there, because I spend more time in vehicles with leaf springs, a ladder chassis and off-road rubber. This new D-Max, which still has a rear-end jiggle typical of the segment, has a lot more compliance and comfort. For a 4x4 ute with a decent payload (970kg in this specification) and 3.5-tonne towing capacity, I reckon the ride is plenty good enough.

While it doesn’t raise the bar or rewrite the rule books for the segment, the 2021 D-Max marks a big improvement in ride comfort over the previous offering. And if you’re travelling around with a tray full of gear like we were, that extra ballast helps to smooth things out even more.

New suspension geometry up front, along with a thicker swaybar, does yield better body control, though as you'll read in our three-way test, the front end doesn't turn in as nicely as the updated Toyota HiLux SR5+ and latest Ford Ranger Wildtrak. It’s a case of the new D-Max catching up to competitors rather than eclipsing them in any way. At least it’s another shortcoming now removed from the breed.


Off-road

While the old D-Max was always let down by the lack of any locking differential or effective traction-control system, the new D-Max looks to improve on both of those points. Firstly, just like about every other ute out there, the D-Max now has a locking rear diff.

Using the diff lock is limited to 28km/h, and is only available in low-range. While this will still cover off most scenarios when you need the rear end locked up, some scenarios like desert driving would benefit from flicking the magic button in high-range.

Engaging the rear diff lock also turns off your traction-control ability, which doesn’t have to be the case. Competitors like the Ford Ranger and Nissan Navara, for example, keep traction control operating on the front differential when the rear locker is engaged.

Traction control, while improved over the old model, is still a step or two behind the market leaders. It seems to only work well when you’ve got speed and momentum on your side, and not allowing you to crawl over tricky obstacles as easily as other utes.

Improved ground clearance, smaller front and rear overhangs, and decent rear-end articulation do help improve the D-Max off-road. Without a doubt, the rear locker does the biggest job of making it a better out-of-the-box proposition.

Another improvement is the wading depth, which is now up to 800mm. Isuzu redesigned the air intake, and copied Ford’s set-up by drawing air from a forward-facing intake that seals partially against the bonnet. Because air is forced to travel upwards and sideways, the chances of water entering the intake tract are lessened.


Ownership

Service intervals on the new D-Max remain 15,000km or 12 months, covered initially by a seven-year capped-price servicing program. This totals $3374 over that period, with the most expensive service (at 90,000km) costing $749.

Isuzu’s warranty remains solid at six years and 150,000km, and Isuzu will throw in seven years of roadside assistance provided you keep servicing through its dealerships.


VERDICT

Improvements for most new vehicles are usually incremental rather than this quantum leap. The rapid pace at which the 4x4 ute segment is moving means Isuzu needed to go big in order to stay relevant, and this new D-Max has done just that.

While it’s now safer, more refined, more powerful and more comfortable, the D-Max has still retained its identity through the familiar driveline that feels under-stressed and loping. Lovers of Isuzu’s diesel engines need not suffer through the same drawbacks of the previous model.

While they will be a happy bunch, this new Isuzu has also done enough to start appealing to the wider band of 4x4 ute buyers, who value refinement and efficiency just as much as capability, toughness and grunt.

MORE: D-MAX v FORD RANGER v TOYOTA HILUX
MORE: 2021 D-Max price and specs
MORE: D-Max news and reviews

MORE: Everything Isuzu


2021 Isuzu D-Max X-Terrain equipment

EQUIPMENTIsuzu D-Max X-Terrain
Airbags8
Forward crash alertSTANDARD
Autonomous emergency brakingSTANDARD
AEB with intersection detectionSTANDARD
Radar cruise controlSTANDARD
Cruise controlSTANDARD
Lane wander warningSTANDARD
Lane keeping assistanceSTANDARD
Blind spot warningSTANDARD
Rear cross-traffic alertSTANDARD
Speed sign recognitionSTANDARD
Speed sign controlSTANDARD
Stability controlSTANDARD
Trailer sway controlSTANDARD
Digital speed displaySTANDARD
Individual tyre pressure monitorsN/A
Emergency assistance ‘000’N/A
Remote engine startVia key fob
LED headlightsSTANDARD
LED tail-lightsSTANDARD
Auto headlights (dusk sensing)STANDARD
Daytime running lightsSTANDARD
Front parking sensorsSTANDARD
Rear parking sensorsSTANDARD
Rear cameraSTANDARD
Rear camera guiding lines turn with steeringN/A
360 cameraN/A
Auto dimming rear view mirrorN/A
Power folding side mirrorsSTANDARD
Push button startSTANDARD
Sensor key opens both front doorsSTANDARD
Sensor key opens driver door onlyN/A
Turn-key start with remote fobN/A
Auto-up power window (driver only)STANDARD
Auto-up power window (all four)N/A
AM/FM radioSTANDARD
Digital radioSTANDARD
Wireless Apple CarPlaySTANDARD
Wireless phone chargingN/A
Android AutoSTANDARD
NavigationSTANDARD
CD playerN/A
Volume and tuning dialsN/A
USB front cabin1
12V front cabin1
USB rear cabin1
12V rear cabinN/A
Household power socketN/A
12V power to ute tubN/A
Single zone air-conditioningN/A
Dual zone air-conditioningSTANDARD
Rear air ventsSTANDARD
Illuminated central locking switch in both front doorsN/A
Extendable sun visorsN/A
Height only steering adjustmentN/A
Height and reach steering adjustmentSTANDARD
2 x Isofix child seat mountsSTANDARD
2 x top tether mounts or strapsSTANDARD
3 x top tether mounts or strapsN/A
Rear seatback tilts forwardSTANDARD
Leather seatsSTANDARD
Tow bar fitted as standardN/A
Spring-assisted tailgateN/A
Spare wheelSteel, full size
Bottle jackSTANDARD
Scissor jackN/A
Roller shutter ute coverSTANDARD
Remote control roller shutter ute coverN/A
Tub linerSTANDARD
Hydraulic power steeringN/A
Electric power steeringSTANDARD
Off-road only 4WD systemSTANDARD
Permanent all-wheel-driveN/A
Rear differential lockSTANDARD
Auto stop-startN/A
AdBlueN/A
Euro V emissionsSTANDARD