SERIOUS INTENTIONS | Ute Review

 The new Isuzu D-Max SX 4×2 has the goods to be a contender, says Warren Caves after his first taste of the workhorse tray-back.

The highly anticipated, all-new, third generation Isuzu D-Max has arrived and finally come of age. An all-new engine, heaps of safety and tech in a refined styling package, allows the new D-Max to rub shoulders with the likes of Toyota’s Hilux and the Ford Ranger.

Isuzu’s D-Max has had a strong following of loyalists, benefitting from the tried and trusted platform of reliability that Isuzu has built. Over time, with the emergence of improved technology, the trusty D-Max, which has only seen facelift upgrades since 2012, has been criticised for not keeping pace with advancements in style, design and technology. Until now!

The new, third-generation D-Max comes loaded with safety features; from the Isuzu Driver Assist system (IDAS) which includes active emergency braking (AEB), lane-keeping assist system (LKAS), blind-spot monitoring (BSM), lane-departure warning (LDW) and no less than eight airbags, to make this new model top-of-the-class in the safety stakes.

We’ll be testing a range of D-Max variants over the coming months, kicking off with the working-class entry-level D-Max SX, 4×2 single-cab cab/chassis.

This is targeted at fleets, councils, tradies and rental buyers. Fortunately, the bare bones model does not miss out on all the safety and technical wizardry found in the higher spec models.

So how does it stack-up? A week-long evaluation experiencing the SX over a variety of driving conditions, from rural sealed and gravel roads to motorways, and quiet shire roads. A tow evaluation was also undertaken, dragging about a mini-excavator and trailer totaling 2400 kg (max. braked towing capacity is 3500 kg).

From the driver’s seat the new interior seems well laid out with features adding form and function to the D-Max design. Centre stage is the all new 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, occupying the space between the two central air vents.

The higher specification models use the same surrounding structure with a larger 9.0-inch display occupying the whole screen. The display screen provides for operation of the AM, FM and digital radio, Bluetooth connectivity, Android Auto and wireless Apple CarPlay functions. Steering-wheel controls are available to operate these features without distraction or you can choose to use the voice-control button on the steering wheel. The sound system pumps out the beats with a premium quality sound.

The cloth seats offer good support but there’s only manual adjustments for slide, height and seat-back tilt. There is no lumbar adjustment on the SX. The steering wheel includes tilt and now reach adjustments.

Finding a good driving position is easy with healthy rearward adjustment travel, abundant head height and a driver footrest. The SX misses out on the keyless entry and remote start/lock function of the higher grades.

There is an all-new 4.2-inch multi-Information display (MID) located between the tacho and speedo. This contains all the menus and information for the driver aid functions along with fuel and trip data. Also displayed and new to the D-Max is a digital speed readout.

Immediately noticeable from the turn of the key is what’s not there from the old D-MAX. Gone is the three-tonne light-truck engine symphony provided by the outgoing but venerable 4JJ1 engine.

Previous generations are well known for their distinctly commercial diesel rattle. This is no longer the case for the new D-Max thanks to the new 4JJ3-TCX engine.

The revised engine design with focus on timing gears, chain and quieter injectors has resulted in a pleasantly noticeable reduction in engine noise.

Moving off, the 3.0-litre engine provided instant, off-idle torque to get things going. The six-speed manual transmission shifts did feel a little commercial, notchy and not a slick as some, but cog swaps were precise and offered positive engagement. A reverse gear lift-up lock-collar prevents unintentional selection and a buzzer similar to a truck reverse alarm sounds a few times in the cab to confirm its selection.

Towing a 2400 kg trailer loaded with a mini-excavator provided some resistance which the D-Max seemed to relish. Attaching the trailer with an estimated ball weight in the vicinity of 200 kg saw a reduction in ride height of 35-40 mm.

The best torque availability ranged between 1800 rpm to just short of 3000 rpm, keeping the tacho needle around 2300 rpm delivered the best pulling power on hills with the trailer attached. Any lower, and performance waned and a downshift beckoned.

What did surprise me was the ability of the D-Max fitted with the manual transmission to reverse the heavy excavator and trailer up a very steep driveway with a gravel surface.

Releasing the clutch combined with small amount of throttle was all that was needed to push the trailer up the incline. No slipping or feathering of the clutch was necessary and progress was at a controlled speed with no wheel-spin. The SX D-Max was fitted with a genuine Isuzu electric brake controller for our test.

With the trailer jettisoned, the open road beckoned with some unladen kilometres to be experienced. The SX cab/chassis models are fitted with a heavy-duty three-leaf spring rear suspension (the more luxe versions feature a standard rate, three-leaf design) and it was easy to tell. The ride was quite firm and rigid, no doubt the 1300 kg payload availability influencing this aspect.

Interestingly, even with the firm nature of the heavy-duty suspension, when driving at speed on rural roads within a 100 km/h zone, cornering and handling were remarkably good. The suspension proved pliable enough to absorb oscillations and bumps from poor surfaces and was not prone to even the slightest amount of axle hop.

The D-Max responded predictably and precisely under all conditions and I could confidently push into corners without concern. Isuzu really has developed a good suspension package, so long as you can overlook the rough ride when unladen. I look forward to experiencing more of the range with their softer spring rates.

The driver-assist features provided add an extra layer of safety when driving, but obviously not all were tested!

Blind-spot monitoring worked well, never missing a vehicle lurking in blind spots and activating a warning and a corrective steering response if I tried to merge over with a vehicle to either side.

The lane-departure warning system’s operation was somewhat patchier and was dependant on the type of road and line markings, working best on the motorway. The system provides a considerable amount of resistance to a lane change without an indicator being used, maybe aimed at correcting lazy driver practices.

All of the active and passive safety features can be turned off if required, for example, driving off-road or on roads with narrow shoulders and foliage or signs close to the roadside.

Unfortunately, the settings menu where individual functions can be deactivated via the multi-information display is not accessible while driving. Also, when the engine is keyed off these settings are lost. I can see this being a bit annoying if driving and stopping frequently, especially in typical unsealed driving environments.

Our test vehicle was fitted with a genuine Isuzu aluminium tray measuring 2620 mm by 1820 mm. The tray was rattle-free, featuring solid tie-down rails, a mesh headboard, front ladder rack and a small lockable toolbox. A water tank and soap dispenser are also included.

The 4JJ3-TCX engine retains the same 3.0-litre displacement of the outgoing model, with moderate power and torque increases on offer. The D-Max now draws from 140 kW of power at 3600 rpm and 450 Nm of torque between 1600 rpm and 2600 rpm. This places it on par with the Nissan Navara and just behind the revised forthcoming Toyota Hilux (150 kW and 500 Nm respectively).

For those thinking that the new D-Max may have come up short in the power stakes I offer these power-weight calculations based on the competitors top-spec dual-cab variants.

New Isuzu D-Max X-Terrain: 0.0657 kW/kg

Ford Ranger Raptor: 0.0673 kW/kg

New Toyota Hilux Rugged-X: 0.666 kW/kg (assuming the same kerb weight of current model)

So, on paper the number very, very close. The new D-Max requires servicing at 15,000 km intervals with Isuzu offering seven years of capped price serving. Owing to durability enhancements and reduced servicing requirements of some components, the new D-Max will cost just $3373 to service up to 105,000 km, representing a 12 percent saving on the previous model’s service costs.

In summation, the all-new D-Max is looking really good. With most manufacturers leaning towards engine downsizing, it’s nice to see Isuzu retaining the tried and tested 3.0-litre displacement platform. By moving to a more modern, updated interior with the latest safety and technology, the third-generation Isuzu D-Max has truly come of age and is now a serious threat to sales to its competitors.

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