PUMPED AND PRIMED ISUZU D-MAX | Review

D-MAX enters 2017 with more torque, higher spec and a strong future

As the second largest ute market in the world, beaten only by Thailand, Australia gets the attention of the global vehicle manufacturers and sets standards that eventually flow on to products developed for distribution to other parts of the globe.

That’s certainly the case when it comes to Isuzu Ute Australia, the distributors of the D-MAX Ute and MU-X SUV.

While the manufacturers competing for dominance in the ute market in Europe have almost universally downsized their engine range to 2.0 to 2.5-litre engines, Isuzu Ute has decided that the unique preferences of the Australian market for larger capacity engines and high-torque outputs deserved special recognition.

In 2012, Isuzu Ute launched the D-MAX into European markets powered by a twin-turbo 2.5-litre 4JK1 four-cylinder diesel engine to comply with Euro 5 exhaust emissions regulations.

Although it was expected the company would follow suit to downsize its cubic capacity to achieve Euro 5 status for the Australian market, the company has crunched the numbers and voted in favour of further developing its rugged and dependable 3.0-litre diesel to achieve Euro 5 status and remain exclusive to Aussie demands.

The company started its 3.0-litre Euro 5 programme back in 2014, also aiming to advance the powertrain by adopting six ratios in both the manual and automatic transmissions used in the 4×2 and 4×4 driveline. The engineering programme for this exercise developed from the collection of driver data that covered application preference for carrying light to heavy payloads, towing, recreational and off-road use over a two-year period, and more than 100,000 km of real-time testing.

The results can be seen in the D-MAX and MU-X models for 2017, with the new Euro 5 compliant version of the 4JJI-TC Hi-Power, 3.0-litre, common-rail injected, turbocharged and intercooled diesel as standard equipment throughout both product ranges.

Maximum power of 130 kW is produced at 3600 rpm and remains unchanged from the previous rating, but the torque output has now been modified to produce 430 Nm between 2000 and 2200 rpm, a jump from 380 Nm.

The differences in power and torque spread result from a range of changes throughout the engine that include a new graphite coated piston design, different fuel injectors, a higher common-rail direct injection pressure, a different fuel supply pump, larger EGR cooler and a new EGR by-pass valve design.

A new design of variable geometry turbocharger provides a very smooth increase in performance on demand, without any indication of sudden boost or surging, making the combination ideal for towing. Other new equipment includes ceramic glow plugs, an intelligent battery sensor and a diesel particulate diffuser (DPD).

The DPD technology used in the latest version of the 3.0-litre diesel engine dramatically reduces the particulate matter (PM) within the exhaust system through cleaning carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons from the gases and collecting the particulate matter. When the level of PM reaches a predetermined level, or the vehicle travels a pre-set distance (approximately every 500 km), the DPD automatically burns off the accumulated PM in a process called automatic regeneration. The DPD level and regeneration activity is displayed visually on the dashboard.

Isuzu has an enviable reputation for the durability of its engine range, and the 3.0-litre is no exception. Unlike some designs that use a rubber compound drive belt, the D-MAX and MU-X engine features a steel timing chain that does not have to be changed through the life of the engine. Other benefits include split design camshaft drive gears, large sized connecting rod big end bearings on the crankshaft, robust cast roller rocker arms and large roller bearings.

A new Isuzu-developed six-speed manual gearbox is matched to a new six-speed Aisin fluid automatic transmission, with the driveline also featuring a new differential designed to accept the higher torque production.

When it comes to towing, there’s no substitute for torque. The outgoing 3.0-litre produced maximum torque of 380 Nm between 1800 and 2800 rpm, and in its latest form that same figure of 380 Nm is maintained from 1700 to 3500 rpm, thereafter extending its rating to peak at 430 Nm.

Having an additional 6th gear ratio spells for lower engine rpm at maximum highway cruise speeds, thereby reducing fuel consumption by an estimated five percent. The driver also benefits from a more responsive drivetrain thanks to the closer ratio steps between each gear, and this in turn means better tow performance and general driving characteristics.

The Isuzu-developed six-speed manual gearbox features triple cone synchronisers on 1st, 2nd and 3rd ratios, and a reverse gear synchroniser. The shift pattern is light and easy to use and swapping cogs is smooth, fast and a pleasant experience.

Heading into automatic transmission territory with the Aisin six-speed fluid gearbox introduces the driver to intelligent thinking as the adaptive logic incorporated in the control module of the gearbox swaps ratios and holds them where engine braking is required, such as on downhill slopes.

The six ratios are coupled to a lock-up torque converter, thus reducing any fluid slip, and this results in reduced fuel consumption and less possibility for any surging through the drivetrain as power is applied. Thanks to the adaptive learning ability of the electronic control unit, the transmission adapts to the style of the driver and varies the shift protocol accordingly. For those preferring to select ratios themselves when necessary, the sequential shift lever swaps gears at the touch of the lever.

Externally, there are a series of design improvements that tweak the styling slightly, with a new bonnet and grille that’s slightly more aggressive, daytime running lamps are now incorporated in the headlamp assemblies, and there’s been an upgrade in the headlamp beams themselves with the introduction of either projector beams or halogen beams, dependent on the model.

Internally, the centre console has been refreshed a little, and with 7.0-inch and 8.0-inch screens it’s easier to programme the audio system. Surprisingly only the LS-M models have an integrated reverse camera, but the display is on the rear-vision mirror and not the main central screen unless an optional upgrade to add a reverse camera as listed accessory is specified.

Three USB ports have been included for the LS variant, two in the dash fascia and one in the rear, but accessing these is fiddly.

Interior noise levels are now more subdued than in the previous model, thanks to thicker sound insulation across the firewall internally and some additional treatment inside the front wheelarches. While not silent, the interior is devoid of any harsh noises coming either from the engine bay or from the road surface.

The big factor in favour of the D-MAX has always been its reputation for being a solid, reliable workhorse, and these new upgrades have only reinforced that premise.

From a driver’s perspective the D-MAX remains predictable on the road and precise in its handling and steering control. All models, 4×2 included, now have the addition of Hill Descent Control, which, as its name suggests, controls the descent speed of the vehicle when heading down a steep decline. When starting on a steep incline, the driver now has the added benefit of Hill Start Assist, preventing rollback.

Cruising at freeway speeds it’s reasonable to expect fuel economy figures around the 7.0 l/100 km mark, and it achieves and holds cruise speed with an engine showing just 1500 rpm to provide a quiet and comfortable ride.

D-MAX is supported by a five-year/130,000 km warranty, with service intervals of 12 months/10,000 km and oil drain intervals completed during every second service at 20,000 km. Capped-price servicing can be current for five years or 50,000 km, and Isuzu has calculated that compared to the previous Euro 4 model the service costs of the Euro 5 vehicle have been reduced by 18 percent.

If you fancy a D-MAX and would like to have a slight advantage over the buyers of the standard spec versions, Isuzu has created a limited edition special timed to coincide with the launch of the new model. Called the X-Runner and priced at $46,990 drive-away, it features special colour coded trim panels and an exclusive list of accessories with items such as black and red seats, red stitching on the steering wheel, a black sports bar, special alloy wheels, a heavy-duty tub liner, rear park assist, touchscreen display and side steps.

The great appeal of the D-MAX is its ability to handle any job efficiently and comfortably, whether running unladen or with a full payload and hitched to a caravan or horse float. For those looking for SUV levels of comfort and not after the load-carrying aspect, the MU-X features all the upgrades in terms of engine, transmission and improved comfort with a seven-seat capability.

The restriction of having just two main members of the Isuzu family is not a topic lost on the company management, which appears to be keen to add a further SUV and possibly a medium-sized panel van to the mix. These additions would further improve the company’s ability to grow its presence in the Australian domestic market as a major brand, and, while no decision has yet been made to take that route, both options would be a welcome addition to the product line-up.

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