Neil Dowling asks whether the latest upgrades to the Isuzu D-MAX range are enough to keep the seven-year-old ute competitive
In a market in which dual-cab utes and SUVs are the undoubted kings of the road, any such new announcement turns a head. Which prompts the question: Does the updated 2019 model year Isuzu Ute range have the potential to lift the bar further for a brand that – aside from its shouty ‘Go Your Own Way’ marketing campaign – is known to be remarkably conservative?
That’s a big clue to the true nature of the MY19 D-Max ute and MU-X SUV, both of which superficially appear barely altered from previous incarnations of the series that has been stepping up the sales charts since the second-generation was launched in 2012, four years after the D-Max first appeared.
The new(er) series launched this month is visually identical to anyone except Isuzu Ute’s own representatives, who point to a change to the middle bar of the grille, the now blacked-out lower air intake, and different alloy wheel patterns.
The range continues as before with 4WD and 2WD dual-cab and Space Cab variants in ute and cab-chassis bodies, and single-cab in cab-chassis form only. The 2WD variants come in High-Ride and Low-Ride versions.
There is also a limited-edition X-Runner dual-cab version with all the fruit including leather, sports bar, new wheels, decals, tub liner and so on.
Prices for the D-Max now start at $28,600 (plus on-road costs) for the 2WD single-cab cab-chassis manual, with the least-expensive 4WD dual-cab being the SX manual at $44,600 (plus costs). The most expensive is the LST auto at $54,800.
That’s pretty much all the changes, though the MU-X gets tweaks to the steering to improve low-speed road feel.
What is remarkable is that Isuzu Ute has resisted any move to lift its safety inventory or upgrade infotainment systems in line with substantial upgrades by rivals. These include Ford Ranger’s excellent SYNC3 communication system, and standard autonomous emergency braking (AEB) offerings from the utes of Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi, SsangYong and Mercedes-Benz.
At the recent launch, Isuzu Ute has, however, offered an optional safety pack with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert for the MU-X at $955 that is also available as a retro-fit for MY17 and MY18 versions.
Front parking sensors are now available for the ute and SUV for $545, including retro-fits for the same two previous years.
AEB is regarded as a must-have by some fleets, but Isuzu Ute Australia product planner Kiochiro “Yoshi” Yoshida said its own research with fleet buyers indicated it wasn’t regarded as vital.
Yoshida and other Isuzu Ute representatives at the launch of the MY19 models were silent on when AEB and next-gen infotainment systems will be included. They indicated a new generation will arrive around late 2020 or early 2021, which we speculate may open the door to add new safety and convenience features.
This next-gen range will share its architecture with the Mazda BT-50 – whose current twin, the Ford Ranger, will snuggle up to the Volkswagen Amarok from 2022 – which, with Mazda’s input, may further impress a less-commercial aspect upon the next Isuzu’s feature list.
Historically – or some might say hysterically, given the twists and turns in the relationship – Isuzu is part of Mitsubishi, yet was also a bedfellow of General Motors for decades, a tie broken in the early 2000s when it went solo. Now, in spite of being financially related to the Mitsubishi Triton, those two utes inexplicably have nothing to do with each other.
In going its own way – to paraphrase the marketing jingle – the Isuzu Ute has honoured its truck lineage by honing its mechanical package at the expense of other areas. The upside is that it has undoubtedly cracked the code for durability, reliability and fuel economy in its current generation.
The 3.0-litre JJ1 turbo-diesel is an over-engineered, truck-format engine that doesn’t appear to sparkle on the specification sheet with 130 kW at 3600 rpm and 430 Nm from 2000 to 2200 rpm. On that basis, potential buyers may ignore a road test in favour of the brighter lights from the Ranger’s new 2.0-litre (157 kW/500 Nm), the new V6 Amarok (190 kW/580 Nm), the V6-engined Mercedes-Benz X350d (190 kW/550 Nm), and the Holden Colorado (147 kW/500 Nm).
Look under the bonnet hard enough, though, and the Isuzu wins some bonus points – a primer for the diesel fuel pump, an open engine bay with easy access to high-maintenance items, a tall air intake, and no dealer workshop-only service obstacles such as the sensor (of a rival manufacturer) that detects low oil and shuts down the engine management system. That’s not appreciated if you’re changing the oil in the field.
The chassis remains as before and is perhaps the vehicle’s highlight because of its strength, with an Aisin six-speed auto (upgraded from a five-speed Aisin unit in 2016), hydraulic-assist power steering, front wishbone suspension with coils and a live axle with leafs (ute) at the back, and the Thai-regulation tax-effective rear drum brakes (ute).
The MU-X wagon continues with the same underpinnings except some steering tuning (“rack recalibration” in Isuzu-speak), rear disc brakes and rear coil suspension with links.
Isuzu Ute’s recent hiccup with some reported failures of its leaf spring rear-end – four cases were reported in Australia as having similar symptoms, according to company service general manager Andy Gibson – is being dealt with, and the recall has passed 20 percent of the 4717 affected Australian vehicles. The issue was traced to an undersized bracket hole that could fracture the spring. That aside, the D-Max is regarded as an owner’s delight because of its mechanical durability.
Now Isuzu Ute products will appeal more to sole operators and fleets with a six-year, 150,000 km warranty that replaces the previous five-year, 130,000 km period. This is bundled with six years of roadside assistance.
The new warranty programme includes seven years or 105,000 km of capped-price servicing that, for scheduled maintenance, will cost $3600 over the period. It opens with $350 for the first annual service then fluctuates through the years, peaking at $1110 at year six for the major service.
Isuzu Ute has also confirmed capped-price servicing for MY16.5 and MY17 models at five years or 50,000 km, and for MY18, five years or 75,000 km. The pricing schedule is the same as MY19 models.
It is one of the best warranties around, eclipsed only by the SsangYong Rexton and Musso at seven years plus seven-year roadside assistance and seven years of capped-price servicing.
Mitsubishi launched its latest Triton with a seven-year warranty, one-year roadside assist and three-year capped-price service (CPS) programme but the extended warranty period – effectively adding two years to the existing cover – ends on June 30 this year.
Other dual-cab ute-makers are Ford (five-year warranty, one-year roadside and lifetime CPS); Nissan (5/5/6); Mazda (5/5/5); Holden (5/1/7); and Toyota (5/0/3).
Subtle improvements to NVH over the years have turned the D-Max from a bit of a gravelly-engined ute into something with the on-road maturity to rival most competitors.
It has always been a bit more agricultural than, say, the Hilux and Ranger – let alone the relatively car-like Amarok – but since the 2016 cut-and-polish model, it has started to become as domesticated as a pet. And possibly equally as tame.
There are no qualms about the MY19 model, with the familiar grumbling idle softened and then disappearing at cruise. Even overtaking is less audible and intrusive than before.
Much of this is attributable to the six-speed automatic (replacing a five-cog auto from 2016) that broadens the ability of the engine to keep revs low for economy, while maintaining performance. The rest of the improvement is attributable to better soundproofing, and ironing out excessive wind noise.
The automatic we drove (the manual option was not available for testing at launch) has clean shifts and impressive downshifts when slowing for corners.
The D-Max is hardly the last word in driving dynamics, but it is at least on par with the majors in its class, and its on-road characteristics match its rivals.
It steers confidently through the bends and has reasonable ride comfort – less pitching in the rear than an unladen Hilux, but not as supple as the coil-sprung Nissan Navara.
The MU-X is naturally a more comfortable vehicle because of the rear coils, multi-links and a bit more weight over the rear axle. It is on par with the Ford Everest and SsangYong Rexton, rating it as pretty good, and certainly family-friendly for urban use.
At speed on rough gravel roads both the ute and SUV are well tied down, comfortable and easy to punt. The steep decline test at the Anglesea proving ground showed the simplicity and effectiveness of Isuzu’s electronic brake control, which incorporates hill descent crawl and will hold the vehicle on an incline without needing the brake pedal depressed.
It’s important to note that the Isuzu Ute products also give the impression of being well built. None of the test vehicles had any body creaks or groans while panel fit – both inside and out – was very good. The use of materials, including leather in top-spec versions, looked great and implied durability while being easy to clean.
The cabin, while functional, has a basic style that doesn’t match the bling of rivals such as Ford and Mitsubishi. This is the area where Isuzu Ute has to lift its game come 2021, as dual-cab ute and SUV buyers will increasingly demand car-like features, quality and looks.
There is nothing wrong with the framework of the D-Max and MU-X. There’s plenty of space within the 3095 mm wheelbase for comfortable family accommodation, and heaps of room for cargo.
They are competent, confident and relatively affordable vehicles with benefits to private buyers (because of low ownership costs, including fuel use) and fleets, with high resale and the benefit of the new warranty.
When compared with the marketing weight of its rivals, it could appear that Isuzu Ute plays second fiddle in the ute and SUV market. However, one startling fact emerged rather late in the launch – that Isuzu Ute’s two models in 2018 outsold both Audi (with 16 models) and BMW (21 models).
Even this year, at the time of publication, Isuzu had sold more vehicles than Audi, and was only 300 units behind BMW. Says it all about the Australian market, really.