Isuzu is a Japanese vehicle manufacturer that built its reputation for tough recreational vehicles on the back of having produced more than 26 million reliable engines for commercial use over the years.
The D-MAX Ute might not have been the sexy poster boy of the class, but owners have long praised the brand’s ability to perform day after day with little fuss or fanfare. Much of the success has been in transplanting a 4JJ1 engine out of the commercial range into their RV offering. While the reliability was impressive, improvements to the latest release have added even more performance.
The range includes two and four wheel drives and a choice of single, space and crew cab versions as well as four model variants.
At the release, Isuzu UTE Australia Managing Director, Hiroyasu Sato, announced that the company “...completely redesigned and modernised the Isuzu D-MAX from the ground up with a new standard of premium features, blended with a suite of technological advancements and sharp, yet bold aesthetics.”
Released in late 2020, the team here at Emprise has multiple opportunities to drive various iterations of the ute to put Sato's claims to the test. Tim van Duyl ran a review, Kevin Smith hooked up his 2T trailer boat for TradeaBoat, and I took the top of the line X-TERRAIN variation away for a week towing my 2.5T offroad van. Each of us were well impressed with the low down torque and the safety features.
Rounding out my time with the D-MAX, we headed off on an extended tour of the New England high country in northern New South Wales. Towing a 19ft (5.7m) Marvel Sea Breeze van over 2000km took us through a range of driving conditions extending from motorways and mountainous winding roads to rough dirt tracks — certainly enough to form an analysis.
THE NEW TECH
The engine is a re-engineered version of Isuzu’s 3000CC four-cylinder turbocharged diesel, now classified as a 4JJ3-TCX. It meets Euro-5 emissions compliance, exceeding local standards. Changes are numerous and include a new engine block, cylinder head, crank, and lightweight aluminium pistons. The pistons take a new shape in a tapered combustion chamber and have a coating of anti-friction carbon heat insulation to the crown, skirts, and gudgeon pins.
Improvements have added 10kW and 20Nm of torque for a new rating of 140kW at 3600rpm and 450Nm at 1600rpm through to 2600rpm. The low-end torque is a very noticeable feature when driving, with 400Nm at a low 1400rpm offering gutsy pulling power with little fuss.
Performance improvements start with a redesigned high-pressure fuel injection system crafted by Denso. Less moving parts aid efficiency and allow a 25 per cent pressure increase for optimised fuel atomisation and better combustion. A new Variable Geometry Turbocharger increases throttle response and a more robust shaft bearing adds efficiency and durability.
Importantly for a diesel engine, the noise levels are noticeably lower both at idle and when driving. There is some induction howl from the forward facing air intake during fast acceleration but otherwise things are comfortably quiet in the well-insulated cabin.
Drive is through an Isuzu manual or an Aisin auto box, both of which are six speed. A new single piece aluminium drive shaft is said to be stronger and lighter than mild steel and offers a lower rotational mass for better response, harmonics, and durability. We drove the autos and noticed smooth and fast shifting through the range and an efficient hill descent mode that intuitively changed down gears when braking down a hill, utilising engine braking rather than relying solely on the brakes.
The 4X4 transfer case benefits from faster changes into 4WD at speeds of up to 100km/h and a smoother and faster shift into low range.
For those planning serious offroading, the D-MAX now sports an electromagnetic diff-lock as standard, the lack of which was a major criticism of previous models. I tried it out on soft sand after deliberately bogging the car and van combo and, with the diffs locked and some pressure released from the tyres, we were moving immediately.
Research showed that close to half of D-MAX owners tow with their vehicle. As such, Isuzu has fitted a new transmission warmer and cooler to stabilise auto-transmission fluid temperatures and improve gearbox longevity. With the caravan market in mind, the latest model allows for weight distribution hitches — another criticism of previous models now corrected.
New safety features are included across the entire range and they lift the game considerably for the brand. The Adaptive Cruise Control system implements a stop and go traffic facility, automatically adjusting speed to match traffic flow. We all found the system works really well.
Similarly, the Autonomous Emergency Braking feature could prove a lifesaver should you momentarily lose concentration. The Lane Departure Prevention system reads the lines on each side of the road and keeps the car in the center of the lane. I found this system was sometimes too sensitive for my liking and it took some time to get used to the steering wheel tugging out of my grip — mind you, it makes you drive in the center of the lane and it can even turn the vehicle on its own around slow freeway bends, giving a preview of a fully autonomous vehicle.
Other safety features include a reversing camera, blind spot monitoring lights on the rear vision mirrors, and eight airbags — now with knee and centre bags. The D-MAX sports the biggest brakes in its class, which worked extremely well across all our driving.
The top of line new D-MAX adds a bold look to the traditionally staid Isuzu appearance. The flash colour scheme of the first test vehicle I drove — dubbed Volcanic Amber — attracted admiring looks every time we parked.
More modern looks are achieved with a sportier grill and front end with elliptical LED driving lights, front and rear spoilers, roof rails flares, and a sports bar. The vehicle also has a lockable roller tonneau cover and tub liner.
Despite improvements to ground clearance and a wading depth of 800mm, from the side the car looks leaner and more aerodynamic.
Lesser models in the range also benefit from the new image, though not to the same extent as the more expensive version.
The wider cabin is well-appointed and has a considerably more modern design. The X-Terrain and LS-U get a 22.8cm (9in) screen with a 17.7cm (7in) screen in lower spec models. Both screens are said to be the highest resolution in the ute market. Screens now include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for a full transfer of phone and music.
When van Duyl — who is 1.95m (6ft 5in) tall — drove his test vehicle, he was impressed with the generous steering wheel adjustment that moved up and down as well as forward and back, allowing him to get comfortable behind the wheel.
Standing out from the crowd was the X-Terrain’s remote engine start, keyless entry and start, and walk-away door locking, as well as a leather-accented interior.
I drove the lower spec LS-U on our New England run and, while it misses the party trick remote start, its new interior still makes for a more sophisticated improvement on the previous model.
What's more, the gauges are well positioned, the seat has plenty of movement, and the computer display of fuel use information is easy to scroll through.
For anyone interested in using the Isuzu as a tow vehicle, the bottom line is how it towed.
After a 2000km trip with the Marvel and a week with my van, I was impressed. On the flatter 110km/h sections of the Bruce Highway on the way up to the Sunshine Coast we easily travelled at legal speeds and slowed only marginally up the hills.
The steep mountains west of Gold Coast slowed us down of course, but power up the hills is ample considering the load.
Comfort levels are good and after five or six hours behind the wheel, I still felt relaxed. The ride is smooth and the power available makes the D-MAX easy to drive.
The diff-lock is a real winner on the latest model and I loved that it handled my van in soft sand and along some gnarly dirt tracks with ease.
Capped price servicing at 15,000km intervals will cost $3373 over the six-year 150,000km warranty period. Sign up to the service plan and you also get seven years of roadside assistance.
The Isuzu is, at the end of the day, still a ute and therefore lacks the armchair-ride of some SUVs. At the same time, it also lacks the $120k plus price tag of the big boys.
Coming in at $62,900, the top of line X-Terrain has the latest tech and plenty of power to qualify as a desirable caravan tow vehicle and is good value in today’s market.
For me the standout in the range is the LS-U Space Cab at $53,900, which gives a bigger tray and cab at the price of a second row of seats. It doesn't get the remote key start and some other special features of its more upmarket sibling, but I could live with that.
Even the base model 2WD single cab/chassis at $32,200 gets all the new electronic safety features, and while the interior may seem quite spartan, the engine has plenty of strength and this model could be an option with your choice of tray if offroading isn’t in your foreseeable plans.
All the improvements and the leading edge safety technology have lifted the game for Isuzu. Once the thinking person's choice of a tow rig, the D-MAX is now a much more desirable choice for a wider range of buyers.
BUT IS IT THIRSTY?
No. The 4JJ engine is real a teetotaler. Due to the added weight of the new tech and stricter testing, the official combined consumption for an unladen X-Terrain has crept up to a still impressive 8L/100km. We’ve seen better than that without a trailer, but it’s actually when towing that the Isuzu impresses most.
Tim van Duyl, our creative director, has been driving D-MAX’s in shoots since their launch last year and reported that a typical full-body van, like the excellent Marvel in the opening spread, raises consumption to around 17L/100. That’s still fantastic and with small campers, like the Goldfields also seen in this feature, he saw around 12L/100, impressive for what was a weighty camper.