Stuart Martin looks at the advantages of staying with the base model D-Max SX or jumping to the top-of-the-line LS-T
This is almost a battle between the site supervisor’s wannabe workhorse and the sparky’s genuine toiler – Isuzu’s D-Max from both ends of the spectrum.
In one corner, tipping the scales at a lean $27,400, is the D-Max, two-door, cab/chassis workhorse, sporting the same five-speed automatic and 3.0-litre turbodiesel that powers its siblings, but driving only the rear wheels.
This is sibling rivalry at its most amusing, whereby the other contender in the facing corner is the 256 mm longer, 15 mm taller, top-spec, dual-cab LS-T, wearing a $50,800 price tag (or $53,000 with the five-speed auto).
It utilises the same force, but gains the ability to drive its front wheels when required.
Both have rear trays, load-loving leaf springs (though the 4×2 has heavier-duty rear springs) and a no-nonsense demeanour.
These are old-school utes that don’t try to be school run SUVs – the rug rats can be deposited by the dual-cab when required, but it would rather be tearing through a muddy bog hole.
Even the 4×2 doesn’t mind getting mud in its wheelarches. Packing clearance of 225 mm, it’s only 10 mm shy of the 4WD and gets chunkier rubber, but more on that later.
The 3.0-litre, 130 kW/380 Nm turbodiesel, double overhead cam, 16-valve, four-cylinder, with five-speed auto is – aside from the number of driven wheels – shared, so the SX high-ride versus LS-T 4WD debate can focus on bums on seats, standard equipment and tray capacity.
The base-model is more frugal – 8.3 versus 8.6 litres per 100km on the ADR lab-derived combined cycle doesn’t do the real-world gap justice.
The dual-cab drank at 10 litres per 100 km (not bad for what it is and the hard work it was doing) and the tray-top a couple of litres below that, but, kerb weights of 1945 kg and 1595 kg respectively, and the absence of front-wheel-drive mechanicals, would more than account for the difference.
A quirk in the fuel economy readout means flat ground is the best place to get a distance-to-empty reading, as a steep descent will cause the fuel tank sensors to hit the panic button.
The two-seater SX gets cruise control and Multi-Information Display (MID), air conditioning with a fine-particle pollen filter and an audio system with a largely-useless mini-USB input, halogen headlights, Bluetooth connectivity for phone and the four-speaker sound system, and a normal pull-up handbrake.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel is a welcome feature for the driver (ahead of many in class) as well as being equipped with the cruise, phone and audio controls. In addition, there’s remote keyless entry, power windows and mirrors (the latter controlled by a poorly placed and laid out switch), vinyl floor covering and 16-inch steel wheels. The absence of a rear demister was annoying during the middle of winter.
There was also ample space beneath the rear tray for additional tool storage, and, while there are two gloveboxes in the cabin, there was precious little storage behind the two seats.
The flagship justifies its price hike with the ability to carry five (including three integrated childseat anchor points) on leather appointed seats, projector headlights, a touchscreen satnav system with a proper USB (not the annoying mini-USB in the SX), 17-inch alloy wheels with highway biased tyres, Bluetooth phone and music link, alloy sidesteps, fog lights, a reversing camera and rear parking sensors, and keyless entry and start (controlled by a poorly-placed button out of the driver’s view).
The shared safety list includes dual front, side and curtain airbags, stability and traction control (which says its off but is never totally so), anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, and emergency brake assist.
The five-speed automatic transmission has a “sequential sports” mode, although it won’t hold a gear at the redline, but is smart in holding gears well for engine braking. While it’s not a quick shifter the change is smooth.
Where the cheaper model comes into its own is when the serious work begins.
The four-door flagship has a tray with a rubber mat and a hard tonneau, but the rear tailgate doesn’t lock, so determined thieves will be faced only with work to be done on the fibreglass lid.
Access to the dual cab’s rear tray is more secure but more ungainly than the cab/chassis, which drops its sides and rear to allow easy loading and unloading, not to mention a genuine one-tonne payload. Score for the traytop.
It’s also 2.5 m long and 1.7 m wide, so no need to drop the cab/chassis’ rear tailgate for a lengthy load and risk raising the ire of the local constabulary.
Serious towing sees the dual-cab claw back some favour, as it trounces the two-door’s 2.5-tonne braked towing rating with a 3.5-tonne braked towing capacity.
Both have a coil-sprung, gas-damped, double-wishbone front suspension and leaf springs under the rump – the cab/chassis gets a heavier-duty set – but neither shirks the task of carrying a load.
A five-year/130,000 km warranty, roadside assistance and three years of capped-price servicing are all part of both vehicles’ repertoire, and, despite the difference in drivetrain, prices range from $260 for the first proper service at 6 months or 10,000 km, to $760 for the 24 months and 40,000 km.
The D-Max in either guise is not the most refined, quietest or punchiest LCV utility on the market, but what it does have on its side is an all-round useability – reasonable power and a good spread of torque (380 Nm between 1800 and 2800 rpm) directed by a smart five-speed auto.
Its former bedfellow from Holden claims more power and torque but the Isuzu feels as though it does not have to work as hard – under-stressed in application and more flexible.
Engine noise is there without being hugely intrusive – again, not the best in class for that either – nor is it as refined in ride quality as its VW opposition, but load it up and point it where it’s needed and for the most part it will get there.
Even sites where surfaces are slippery or boggy can be dealt with in the 4×2, albeit with more momentum required, but its higher ride height does plenty to help. Perhaps the addition of a rear diff lock (something the flagship could also benefit from in terms of its competition) would be a worthy inclusion.
The 4WD model has no qualms getting off the beaten track, slipping easily into 4WD high most of the time and only sporadically getting grumpy about dropping into low range. Even on road-biased rubber at road pressures, sand and mud presented little concern.
The ability to run in 4WD on the bitumen – as evidenced by the Mitsubishi Triton with its centre diff unlocked for on-road use – would be a handy addition to the D-Max’s arsenal.
For all the top-spec model’s fruit, it does miss out on some gear that should be standard – the aforementioned rear diff lock, automatic wipers and headlights, heated exterior mirrors, and a locking rear tailgate would all be welcome additions to the features list.
The 4×2 would be a better proposition in a space-cab body style, but, even as it sits, the SX cab/chassis is a worthwhile consideration for a workhorse as the breadth of ability offered by a dual-cab can be overestimated in these days of multitasking.
The best of both worlds would probably be the SX cab/chassis 4WD dual-cab – which at $42,100 (or $44,300 for the auto) sits neatly between these two, still offers more tray space than the dual-cab ute and is likely the best all-rounder of the Isuzu range.