Isuzu D-Max 2012: Launch Review

words - Chris Fincham
Now with six airbags, Isuzu’s one-tonne ute grows in size and stature

Isuzu D-Max

Local Launch

Port Douglas, Queensland


What we liked
>> Gutsy, fuel-efficient engine

>> Off-roadability
>> Well-priced LS-T range-topper

Not so much
>> Rubbery five-speed manual
>> Uninspiring cabin
>> Still a Colorado cousin…


OVERVIEW
>> Last in but best dressed?
The second generation D-Max has been launched locally around the same time as its twin-under-the-skin Holden Colorado. This is almost four years after Japan’s Isuzu launched its one-tonne ute on the Australian market for the first time with a D-Max badge (it was previously sold here only as a Holden Rodeo/Colorado).

Co-developed by General-Motors and Isuzu (despite GM offloading Isuzu to Mitsubishi Corporation in 2006), the latest D-Max continues to have much in common with the Holden ute, including a new longer, stiffer chassis, roof and door panels and interior design.

But they now differ in key aspects including mechanicals. Built in Isuzu’s Thailand factory and sporting a unique front fascia, the D-Max retains the existing 3.0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel engine (albeit with more power and torque), while the Colorado is now powered by two new 2.5 and 2.7-litre diesel engines. The Isuzu ute also uses an updated five-speed manual transmission and new five-speed auto, and is fitted with six airbags compared to the Colorado’s four.

Designed and engineered in Japan, the new D-Max was subject to four million kilometres of testing, while its streamlined “wedge-shaped” styling was honed through wind-tunnel testing at the Japan Railway Technical Research Institute (where the Shinkansen Bullet Train is developed), and Italy’s Pininfarina design house (usually reserved for the likes of Ferrari and Maserati). However, despite Isuzu’s best efforts, the 1.8m high D-Max still only manages a figure of 0.47Cd.

In line with its increasingly bigger rivals, D-Max has a wider track and longer (3095mm) wheelbase, while in Crew Cab LS-U form it’s longer (at 5295mm) than Volkswagen’s deceptively bulky Amarok.

More cabin space across all body styles and better supporting front and rear seating on dual cab versions are other notable improvements, while B-pillarless Space Cab utes (only available in 4x4 guise), also feature new rear ‘wing’ doors for better access.
New “modern, aggressive” exterior styling, highlighted by a chrome-laden grille and LED taillights on up-spec versions, should appeal to traditionally conservative, blokey ute buyers, though its Colorado-like silhouette makes it blend into the crowd more than the ‘grinning’ Mazda BT-50 or distinctively-styled VW Amarok.

Packed with more standard kit, the new D-Max is arguably better value for money, despite minor increases in pricing across the range. All up, 22 variants are available, from single-cab, space-cab and crew-cab body styles, five trim levels, 4x2 and 4x4 drivetrains, cab-chassis and pick-up trays, as well as low and high-ride chassis. Pitched to weekend warriors and cashed-up tradies is the new, range-topping LS-Terrain Crew Cab pick-up auto which, priced at $51,700 undercuts its top-spec rivals. The LS-T comes with sat nav, leather seats and reversing camera; all items missing on the $51,900 Colorado LTZ range-topper.

Like the Colorado, the local release of the new D-Max has been significantly delayed due to the devastating effects of last October’s Thailand floods. The D-Max went on sale in Thailand in September 2011, and Isuzu says demand there is so strong there are currently 100,000 back orders.

Since late-2008, Isuzu Utes Australia (IUA) has steadily grown its share of one-tonne ute sales to five per cent in Australia, which is now the second biggest market for the D-Max after Thailand. Isuzu sold 6397 utes here in 2011, and in a segment that now accounts for one in eight new vehicles sold, expects the new model to help increase annual D-Max sales to 10,000 by 2014.


PRICE AND EQUIPMENT

>> New top-spec LS-T a price winner
Entering the market with an ageing model in 2008, IUA embarked on an aggressive pricing strategy, undercutting similar-spec rivals by up to $10,000. A series of value-packed special editions have also helped keep sales ticking along.

Now with a bigger, established presence and new, improved model, the D-Max no longer has to be the cheapest and can compete on a more even playing field with its rivals.

As a result, the D-Max range now kicks off $2100 higher than before at $27,200 (excluding on-road costs) for the 4x2 Single Cab cab chassis SX manual, which is $210 more than the entry-level Colorado and $2710 more than the cheapest HiLux.

Isuzu is still playing the price game however, with the new top-spec LS-T comparing favourably on price with its range-topping rivals. For the full list of variants and pricing see our earlier news story. Even basic SX workhorse models are well equipped with air-conditioning, cloth trim, 16x7inch alloy wheels (on high-ride versions), two-speaker CD/MP3/radio with iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, six airbags and stability control, two 12V outlets, halogen headlights, power windows with one-touch down driver’s window, vinyl floors, central locking with keyless entry, power side mirrors, and leather steering wheel with cruise control.
Priced at $33,400, the EX grade 4x4 Single Cab cab chassis (manual only) adds front underbody bash plates, high-ride suspension, and front interior grab handles.

Available only as 4x2 Crew Cab high-ride with manual or auto, the LS adds rear window demister, height-adjustable driver’s seat, overhead console with map lights and sunglass holder, coat hooks, projector headlights, front fog lights, aluminium side steps, chrome door handles, chrome side mirrors with turn signals, LED rear tail lights, chrome-plated rear bumper, lockable tailgate, Sky Sound roof-mounted surround sound system with six speakers, multi-function leather steering wheel, and carpet flooring.

Three special LS versions are available, including the LS-M 4x4 Crew Cab which adds ‘shift-on-the-fly’ Terrain Command 4WD, and has black door handles, vinyl flooring and no side steps for $44,000 (manual). The LS-U available in 4x4 with Space or Crew Cab from $43,700, adds Terrain Command and 17x7 inch alloys, while the top-spec LS-Terrain 4x4 Crew Cab starts at $49,500 with manual.

Described as a “workhorse that won’t alienate the family” the LS-T adds leather trim, three-way electric driver’s seat, integrated Clarion touchscreen multimedia display, sat nav with live updates and 10,000 off-road destinations, reversing camera and roof rails.

Isuzu is offering a number of accessories, including alloy nudge bars and bullbars, roof racks, cab chassis ladder racks and tool boxes, soft and hard tonneau covers and tub liners, sports bars, canopies, and tow bar kit. Other off-road accessories including a snorkel should be available in the future.

Four exteriors colours including Splash White, Mineral Grey metallic, Titanium silver metallic, and Garnet Red mica are available across the range, with Ash Beige metallic and Cosmic Black mica on LS models only.

More photos of the Isuzu D-Max ute at motoring.com.au


MECHANICAL
>> Trusty diesel losing ground to torquey rivals
With 80 per cent of light commercial vehicles sold with diesel engines, it’s no surprise Isuzu has stuck with its proven ‘Hi Power’ 4JJ1-TC engine, which produces 10kW more power and 20Nm more torque than before. The 3.0-litre, four-cylinder, common-rail turbodiesel with variable geometry turbo outputs a maximum 130kW at 3600rpm and 380Nm from 1800-3000rpm (manual) and 1800-2800rpm (auto).

With 90Nm less than the 470Nm Colorado and Ford Ranger/BT-50 -- not to mention the 550Nm V6-powered ST-X Navara -- Isuzu points to the 3.0-litre engine’s “nice, flat, long torque curve” which helps overall driveability and fuel economy.

Along with an aluminium head and chain-driven camshafts, Isuzu has beefed up the Euro 4-compliant engine with a new intake manifold design, updated aluminium pistons, and larger intercooler, to help reduce wear and tear and servicing costs.

Despite the performance boost the official fuel figures remain very competitive, ranging from 8.0-8.3L/100km (depending on configuration), with C02 emissions between 211-220.

The five-speed manual transmission has a revised gear-lever pivot point for a sportier shift feel, or for an additional $2200 there’s a new five-speed RevTronic auto which replaces the old four-speed unit. The auto ‘box features manual shifting as well as electronically-controlled hill descent and hill ascent modes.

Four-wheel drive versions get an electronically actuated part-time transfer case with ‘shift-on-the-fly’ from 2WD to 4WD High at speeds up 100km/h.
A locking rear diff, available on the Amarok, and hill descent system similar to that on the BT-50/Ranger, are not available. The body-on-frame D-Max sits on a 42 per cent more rigid chassis, and the independent double wishbone/coil front and leaf-spring rear suspension has new geometry for improved stability. Brakes are 300mm ventilated front discs/295mm rear drums on most variants.

A braked towing capacity of 2500kg (4x2), and 3000kg (4x4) falls short of the class-leading Colorado (3500kg), and there’s a minimum one-tonne payload across the range.

Major service intervals have been increased to 20,000km, or 12 months, while IUA’s 80-plus dealers provide a three year/100,000km warranty but no fixed price servicing.


PACKAGING
>> Bigger, better but still workmanlike
Bigger in all respects, the D-Max’s larger dimensions translate to increased cabin space across all body styles. This is most evident in the spacious rear seat area on Crew Cab utes, where good knee, head and foot room, along with less upright seatbacks, mean three, average-sized adults should fit comfortably across the back.

Crew cab rear seats also come with a full complement of headrests, child-seat anchors and three-point retractable seat belts, four cupholders and a fold-down arm rest. The rear seat back folds down to increase storage space.

Interior layout and materials are similar to Colorado, which is good news if you like a no-fuss, user-friendly dash layout with a hard, dull, easy-to-clean plastic finish. We counted more than 20 storage nooks and crannies, including three lidded, dash compartments, and two 12V outlets.

At 1552mm by 1530mm, the Crew Cab’s pick-up tray is smaller than Amarok’s, despite being 138mm longer, 70mm wider -- and 15mm lower -- than before. And with just four tie-down hooks and 1105mm between the wheel arches, it’s no patch on the pallet-swallowing Amarok tub.


SAFETY
>> six airbags matches class leaders
Gone are the days when ute buyers were lucky to get a couple of airbags, front discs and traction control to keep them out of hospital. Five-star safety is no longer the preserve of passenger vehicles, with Ranger and Amarok recently awarded the highest ANCAP ratings.

Isuzu’s D-Max looks set to follow, with an upgraded safety package that includes four-channel anti-skid brakes (ABS) with electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD), electronic stability control (ESC), traction control (TSC) and brake assist (BA), along with dual front, curtain and side airbags. Occupants are also protected by a high-strength “passenger safety cell”, collapsible steering column and brake pedal, while pedestrian safety has also been considered, with an impact-absorbing bonnet design, recessed fog lamps and shatter-resistant polycarbonate headlamp covers.

Bright, LED brake lights, projector lens headlights (on LS variants), and reversing camera (LS-T) complete the well-rounded safety package.


COMPETITORS
>> Another month, another ute contender
With one-tonne ute sales on the rise, particularly up-market 4x4, diesel-engined dual cab variants, Isuzu is well positioned to increase market share with its new D-Max range.

That’s despite increasingly stronger competition, with no fewer than 10 direct rivals, from cut-price new entries like the Ssangyong Actyon Sports to $60,000-plus options from the likes of Volkswagen and Nissan. Toyota and Nissan are not resting on their laurels either, with recent updates to their respective top-selling HiLux and Navara ranges.

As more buyers seek utes for work and play, Isuzu also expects the top-spec LS-T to attract plenty of interest considering its previous range-topping LS-U accounted for around 30 percent of D-Max sales.


ON THE ROAD
>> More impressive off-road than on
It may not have the Euro-style or aesthetics of the Amarok, nor supple ride or cavernous interior of the Ranger, but the top-spec D-Max still presents as a stylish, capable workhorse that could easily double as comfy, refined family transport on the weekend.

Driving the LS Crew Cab and Space Cab variants over a variety of terrain around the Atherton Tablelands region of far-north Queensland, the front seats proved firm, narrow but reasonably comfortable over long stints. The driver is perched high, which provides a good view over the bonnet when navigating gnarly dirt tracks.

Like most utes, the steering wheel is adjustable for angle but not rake, although there’s enough adjustability in the seats to get a comfortable position behind the leather-wrapped wheel.

The aftermarket-style Clarion touchscreen unit in the LS-T had a busy interface but was OK to navigate, although the reversing camera display lacked handy distance markers.

Isuzu is claiming class-leading cabin quietness with the new D-Max, thanks to increased sound deadening, improved aerodynamics and suspension changes. Engine, wind and tyre noise were certainly well suppressed on the highway, although some engine roar at higher revs spoilt the ambience.

Performance-wise, the D-Max is no super truck, but it gets up to highway speeds in a willing manner, aided by a smooth-shifting auto that kicks down eagerly to keep the momentum up. Long, rubbery throws and an imprecise shift action make the five-speed manual the lesser of the two transmission choices.

Both gearboxes have tall ‘overdrive’ gears, cruising at 110km/h in fifth at 2200rpm compared to 2000rpm with the auto. The low-revving set-up is one reason for the impressive fuel figures of between 9.0 and 10L/100km we saw in the two vehicles we drove, which included some demanding off-road work.

While not quite reaching the handling heights of the Ranger/BT-50 or Amarok, the D-Max can be punted reasonably fast through corners, inspiring confidence up to a point before excessive body lean takes effect and grip from the Bridgestone Dueler A/T tyres gives out. With 3.2 turns lock-to-lock, the speed-sensitive, power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is light and slow in response, but offers enough feedback for enthusiastic driving.

The firm but compliant front suspension works in harmony with the longer leaf-spring set-up to provide a settled ride over most surfaces, even with an unladen tray. However, some cabin shudder at slower speeds over bumpy bitumen, betrayed the ute’s agricultural underpinnings.

However, the D-Max most impressed off the tar, when ploughing through a sandy river bed and tackling a short but demanding off-road course that included a very steep, rutted incline and equally challenging steep descent. Locked in first gear in low-range 4WD, the tyres rarely lost traction and tricky obstacles were cleared with good wheel articulation.

With 235mm ground clearance, 30-degree approach angle, 22-degree departure angle and 22-degree ramp-over angle, the LS-T Crew Cab auto cleared all in its path with only minor scraping of side steps, mud flaps and underbody armour. The only issue for passengers was trying to hang onto one of the four interior grab handles to prevent sliding around on the slippery leather seats.

Other strong points were traction and stability control systems that intervened in an unobtrusive manner on gravel roads, competent high-speed braking, and a handy turning circle aided by light steering.


Like its Colorado cousin, the D-Max has grown in both size and stature. But where the Isuzu excels is in gutsy, fuel-efficient performance, strong off-road capabilities, passenger car-like safety and well-priced LS-T range-topper, which could prove to be a real winner among the growing number of family/recreational ute buyers.

More photos of the Isuzu D-Max ute at motoring.com.au

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Published : Tuesday, 26 June 2012
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