Neil Dowling reviews the Isuzu D-Max LS-T 4×4
In 2018, Isuzu’s two models – D-Max ute and MU-X SUV – outsold all the models each from BMW and Audi. That’s two models versus, respectively, 19 and 15 models.
Last year, 27,640 sales were made by Isuzu. By comparison, there were 23,055 to BMW and Audi trailing with 19,416 sales. In the first half of 2019, Isuzu sold 12,664 utes and SUVs while BMW sold 12,387 vehicles and Audi found 7198 new owners. You get the picture.
We need – or think we need – a workhorse or a tow vehicle or a family tough wagon. We want adventure, and in many cases, the closest we can get is a 4WD ute or an SUV in the garage.
The Isuzu D-Max dual-cab 4WD ute in its flagship LS-T version is as tough as nails but lacking in some of the decorum on which passenger-car aficionados may have been weaned. It’s like bringing an NRL prop-forward to a needle-point class. There’s admiration in the attempt but it’s not the right environment.
This is a workhorse striving for durability above comfort and pleasantries, meanwhile Isuzu’s rivals have stepped up in key roles of safety, features and comfort – all while keeping the price pegged.
The latest D-Max (and MU-X) get some polish for 2019 and set the pace for the all-new model – complete with autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and adaptive cruise control – that arrives here late next year with its twin, the Mazda BT-50. For those who came in late, Mazda and Ford have dissolved their marriage and Mazda is pairing up with Isuzu for the next ute that continues to be built in Thailand.
The current D-Max has precious little safety gear and that weakens its stance against the Toyota Hilux, Ford Ranger and SsangYong Musso that have available AEB and adaptive cruise, together with sophisticated infotainment systems.
That said, the D-Max is a solid contender for its role as a hauler and off-road performer. The basis for the D-Max is as conservative as a Liberal backbencher, using a ladder-frame chassis with bolt-on body, turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine with automatic transmission, twist-dial low-range box, part-time 4WD and live-axle, leaf-sprung rear end with wishbones and torsion bars up front.
It’s simple, durable, easy to fix and begs the question why the price tag of this upmarket LS-T version is a steep $54,800 plus on-road costs. In perspective, that’s equivalent to Skoda’s all-wheel drive Superb wagon or an entry-level Audi A4 or Mercedes-Benz CLA.
The essence of the D-Max is its ability to be thrown at a harsh environment or a high-payload situation and watch it thrive. We loaded this with 350kg – a lot short of its listed payload of 900kg – that softened the sometimes pitchy tail-end ride and made it a far more comfortable machine for some longer-distance testing.
The standard bed liner has four tie-down hooks and the LS-T comes with a slick sliding lockable cover. This worked very well to secure loads, but leaves the owner with a somewhat shallow cargo area. The 12.6m turning circle is in the ballpark with its rivals, but nonetheless the lock-to-lock move gives drivers a workout. Automatic – or dusk-seeking – headlights are today as common as noses, yet don’t manifest on the D-Max.
The satellite navigation is standard on the LS-T with the screen doubling as the reverse camera monitor and the index for phone and audio needs. While large, the screen is unhooded and any sunlight that hits it at the wrong angle will obliterate any image.
The cabin offers three glovebox compartments in the dash plus a big lidded storage bin between the seats, cupholders in the centre console, bottle holders in the doors – that would take an A4 clipboard – and extra space beneath the rear seat. It’s the little things that make getting your paraphernalia together so much easier.
The visibility from the driver’s seat is excellent and, though there’s some bolstering in the seat cushions, it’s not a difficult vehicle to enter and egress, despite the tall stance. A side step, grab handles and flat floor help with getting in and out.
There’s excellent cabin room with a bit more rear-seat legroom than Navara and Hilux, with sufficient backrest rake to give some comfort for long trips. Today’s dual-cab utes can provide baby-seat anchorage, but they never feel as secure as a passenger car or SUV and are difficult to connect. Instruments are basic yet clear and simple, with a trip computer showing fuel economy and distance-to-empty data.
The audio in the D-Max is pretty good in terms of clarity but the touch buttons for volume and channel selection can be tricky and even a bit distracting when driving, especially over bumpy road surfaces.
The simple and convenient things about the D-Max and its drivetrain appeal to Grey Nomads as well as workers and fleets, with the leisure sector next in line for purchase.
Talk to owners and fuel economy seems high on the list, along with reliability. A tradie Delivery chatted to is on his second D-Max and chose the brand again because of the reliability of the first one. It wasn’t sold, by the way, but passed onto another carpenter in the company.
A caravan owner said he and his wife enjoyed the reliability and the fuel economy that he said was “around 12 L/100km” with the van aboard. When asked about the manual headlights and scrappy infotainment screen, he shrugged his shoulders. Seems it wasn’t important.
There’s a lot to love about the truck-like resonance of the engine. The 3.0-litre turbo-diesel, which borrows a lot from the Isuzu N-series truck engine and essentially dates back decades, always feels as constant as time.
There’s nothing performance-oriented about the engine and it thrives on churning out loads of bottom-end grunt, erasing any need or desire to spin the engine higher than about 3500rpm. The sixth gear, added in the past upgrade to replace a five-speed unit also from Aisin, broadens the delivery of improved performance, and seems to favour the top end where its overdrive makes cruising quieter and more fuel efficient. We achieved a 10.4 L/100km average on test – with the occasional load, some off-the-road ventures but mainly freeway and suburbia. Reasonable, but not close to Isuzu’s claim of 7.7 L/100km.
The engine is rated at 130 kW at 3600 rpm and torque of 430 Nm at 2000-2200 rpm for both manual and automatic versions. Good things include the chain-driven camshafts that may be noisier and more expensive than a rubber-fibre belt, but last longer without needing sub-150,000 km replacements.
An open bonnet provides easy access to the high maintenance items and there’s even a bleed for the diesel fuel pump. It also has a DPF and is rated as a Euro5.
The six-speed Aisin automatic transmission has a good reputation for durability. It includes a transmission control system that holds the gear while driving up gradients, includes hill holder for stopping on a slope, and has a hill descent that holds a low gear for engine braking.
Bypass these and you have an honest worker with the promise of years of faithful service.