Isuzu D-MAX 2021 x-terrain, Ford Ranger 2020 wildtrak 2.0 (4x4)

Ute review: 2021 Isuzu D-Max v Ford Ranger off-road comparison

High-end utes in an off-road face-off

The new Isuzu D-Max is much improved, but is it good enough to take on one of the best off-road?

Things are heating up in the 4x4 ute landscape once again, with an onslaught of new metal vying for attention and sales in Australia.

Amongst the likes of an updated HiLux, and the Isuzu twin-under-the-skin Mazda BT-50, the all-new D-Max has been thoroughly updated, and is looking to take a big chunk of sales away from market leaders Toyota and Ford.

In particular, Isuzu has thrown some extra off-road capability at the new D-Max. There’s an electro-mechanical locking differential, improved 800mm wading depth and more off-road clearance.

But, how much better is it? One sure-fire way of finding out is pretty simple: pointing it up a steep and rutted hill, and see what happens.

Going one step further, we’ve brought along some company. Ford’s Ranger needs no introduction, and looking at the reviews and scores it is one of CarAdvice’s favourite 4x4 utes.

We’ve got the Ranger Wildtrak, with the more expensive 2.0-litre twin-turbocharged diesel engine and 10-speed automatic gearbox.

While it garners a drive-away price of $64,490, our top-spec D-Max X-Terrain launches with a drive-away deal of $58,990, undercutting the Ranger by some margin.

Ranger WildtrakD-Max X-Terrain
Engine size19962999
turbochargers21
Power157kw @ 3750rpm140kW @ 3600rpm
Torque500Nm @ 1750-2000rpm
450Nm @ 1600-2600rpm
1st gear ratio4.7:13.6
low range ratio2.72:12.482
final drive ratio3.31:13.727
crawl ratio47.64:133.3:1
claimed efficiency7.48
tested efficiency10.710.8
fuel tank size80 litres76 litres

While numbers are important when it comes to engines, there are some other details worth looking at. While the Isuzu gets away with a single variable-geometry turbocharger, Ford's 2.0-litre engine uses two turbos.

One is smaller, designed to yield strong torque in the low and middle ranges, while a larger turbo can chase more horsepower with the increased exhaust pressure of higher revs.

Ford uses Borg Warner turbochargers, which have an exotic metal called Inconel to handle the high heat and pressure that comes from spinning at 240,000rpm. It's an austenitic nickel-chromium-based superalloy, and is used in rocket engines.

There are other modern engine design techniques, such as an integrated exhaust manifold, 10mm offset crankshaft and a belt-in-oil timing set-up.

Rather than a belt or chain mounted on the front of the engine, Ford's engine uses a high-strength glass-cord belt sitting inside the engine, partially immersed in the sump oil, which controls timing and oil pumping. While that's all very fancy, the 2.0-litre engine uses an old-school cast-iron block.

In comparison, Isuzu's engine uses a combination of cast iron and alloy in the block, with a special melt-in, induction-hardened cylinder liner. Timing comes via a front-mounted chain and a double scissor gear, and the pistons are a new lightweight aluminium unit.

While the bore and stroke carries over from the old engine, only the conrods are unchanged. Cylinder block and head castings are new, and a new Denso fuel injection system is employed.

Dimensions

This new D-Max has grown in wheelbase over the previous iteration, now measuring in at 3125mm between the wheels. Overall length has reduced, however, yielding lower overhangs and better off-road clearance. Ground clearance has improved to 240mm, as well.

The Ranger’s wheelbase, unchanged since the 2011 inception, is still longer at 3220mm.

Clearances are similar overall, with the D-Max having a few slight advantages on paper. Worth noting here because a towbar is standard on the Ranger and optional ($1164) on the D-Max, departure angle numbers look skewed. In our test, departure angles are roughly the same.

What we are looking to find out today is how far improved this new D-Max is off-road, and how it benchmarks against the Ranger. This is a good comparison, because Ford’s Ranger is one of the better 4x4 utes off-road, and it has a lot of technology at the ready.

Ranger WildtrakD-Max X-Terrain
Length5426mm5280mm
Width (excl mirrors)1860mm1880mm
Height1848mm1810mm
Wheelbase3220mm3125mm
Front overhang908mm905mm
Rear overhang1226mm1250mm

There are a few differences between these two utes at a finer detail, which is well worth covering off. Firstly, Isuzu’s locking rear differential is only available in low-range.

Ford’s Ranger, on the other hand, allows a locked rear end in high-range 4WD. It’s a small point, but makes the Ranger a little more flexible in some conditions.

Another point with the diff lock is that when it’s activated, the Isuzu deactivates the off-road traction-control system entirely.

The Ford keeps its on, so while it doesn’t need to worry about the rear differential (both wheels are locked at the same rotation and speed), it can still control wheel spin and torque up front for some additional capability.

Ford's Ranger has an advantage in gearing, as well, with a lower first gear and transfer case ratio yielding a 47.64:1 crawl ratio. Isuzu's is a little shallower: 33.3:1.

Ranger WildtrakD-Max X-Terrain
Approach29°30.5°
Rampover25°23.8°
Departure21°24.2°
Listed clearance237mm240mm
Wading Depth800mm800mm
Tyre diameter265/60 R18 - 30.5-in265/60 R18 - 30.5-in

Suspension

There’s not a whole lot different between these two utes when it comes to suspension: independent suspension up front with very similar double wishbones, and familiar leaf-sprung rear ends.

Both still carry rear drum brakes, but it’s nice to see diff breathers on both of these utes.

Rear-end suspension articulation is quite good for both utes, leaving the front end feeling relatively stiff.

This is par for the course in this segment, and nothing really other than a Wrangler Rubicon offers balanced and plentiful articulation at both ends.

Tyres

While we talk about tyres, it’s worth noting here that we kept both the Ranger and the D-Max at their respective road pressures for this test.

Airing down is always best practice when off-road, especially in challenging situations. Tyres grip much better, and you’re able to crawl more comfortably and confidently over rough terrain.

Both of these utes, in their respective high specification, use the same tyres in the same size: 265/60 R18 Bridgestone Dueler H/Ts.

This equates to about 30.5 inches of diameter, which is typical of the segment.

While 16- and 17-inch wheels are better suited to off-road driving, you can get yourself into plenty of mischief with this factory set-up.

You’ll notice traction issues quickly when things get slippery and muddy, and passenger-construction tyres are more prone to damage.

Capability

There is no doubt that Isuzu’s new 2021 D-Max is better off-road than the old model. It reads better on paper, but is also (and more importantly) a better thing in the real world. A lot of this improvement simply comes from the addition of a locking rear differential (which is a standard inclusion across the whole 4x4 range).

While the off-road traction control is improved, you can clearly see that it’s still not as good as Ford’s more finessed, finely tuned system. Wheel spin is much more apparent, and allows for more loss of momentum on steep, rutted climbs.

Ford’s system, on the other hand, reins in wheel spin more effectively, with deft dabbing of the brakes redirecting torque to where it’s needed. It’s mighty impressive.

It’s also worth noting that the old Isuzu traction-control system was not very good at all. So, while an improvement might be apparent, there’s still plenty of potential left over for the future. Or, invest in a front locker if you want to go a bit harder.

Despite its age, the Ford Ranger continues to impress in terms of off-road ability. The combination of a smartly tuned traction-control system working in conjunction with the locking rear differential, makes it quite formidable and easy to drive off-road.

Provided you’re not running out of clearance, you’ll be impressed with how far you can push a Ranger before it starts to struggle.

Both utes offer decent engine braking when you manually select first gear, but extra kudos goes to Ford for its better hill descent control system, which is speed-controllable and offers a lower minimum speed in comparison to the D-Max.

Many will likely prefer the torque delivery of the D-Max off-road, because it has such a nicely broad delivery of that 450Nm. Ford’s lower gearing helps, however, and the gearbox never gets caught out in the wrong ratio off-road.

Manual selection is possible, but a little more fiddly to operate on the move. Some gearshifts in the Ranger can feel like a bit of a shunt in low-range, whereas the D-Max manages to stay buttery smooth.

Another interesting point is the steering, because both of these utes now have electrically assisted power-steering systems. While it might feel alien and lacking in resistance compared to a hydraulic system, one does get used to it and then starts to enjoy its ease of use off-road.

No more wrangling of the steering wheel, like Steve Irwin on a saltie, when you’re pounding through ruts and holes. And no more broken thumbs, either. This technology makes both of these utes much easier to navigate off-road.

Ranger WildtrakD-Max X-Terrain
Kerb weight2246kg2130kg
GVM3200kg3100kg
payload954kg970kg
GCM6000kg5950kg
towing capacity3500kg3500kg

VERDICT

As it stands, and as we found out, different driving techniques saw the Ranger and D-Max take on both challenges of the day without any real problems, but one could see that when going at the slowest, toughest crawl, the Ranger felt more adept at continuing forward progress.

Give the D-Max a lick of extra momentum, and it was able to get over obstacles with a bit of theatrical wheel spin. That extra technology leaves the Ranger feeling like the more accomplished off-roader, overall. But, the D-Max has jumped right up to the rest of the pack now.

Both would naturally be better again with better tyres and lower tyre pressures to boot. And, as always, improving your available clearance and protection via the aftermarket will improve these two even further.


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