STEPPING UP | UTE REVIEW – ISUZU D-MAX

Isuzu upgrades the D-MAX and MU-X to counter increased market competition – Words by Ed Higginson

Isuzu continues to push to increase its popularity with several D-MAX updates coming in 2018. With strong sales for the past nine years, the Isuzu UTE Australia (IUA) team is looking for a tenth consecutive year of over 10 percent growth, which will lead it to its goal of selling 30,000 units by 2020.

The ute and SUV market has been growing too, from just 30 percent of all vehicles sold back in 2007, to now making up over 55 percent of the total market, showing Australia’s increasing appetite for lifestyle vehicles. It also explains why nearly all manufactures have been looking for ute models to add to their portfolio here.

In 2017, Isuzu ranked fifth in the one-tonne ute market. Not surprisingly, the top two utes were Toyota HiLux with a 24 percent share and the Ford Ranger a close second, claiming 22 percent of the sales. Then the next three spots were Mitsubishi Triton on 12 percent, Holden Colorado with 11 percent and Isuzu a close fifth with over 9 percent. In the SUV space the Isuzu MU-X leads the market for ute-based seven seaters, ahead of the Pajero Sport, Ford Everest, Holden Trailblazer and Toyota Fortuner.

Isuzu stands out as the only ute produced by a commercial vehicle manufacturer, and the company is proud of its truck DNA. Indeed, the Isuzu has found many fans by being a scaled down truck rather than an up-scaled car.

Isuzu UTE Australia (IUA) managing director, Hiro Kuramoto, explains, “We work closely with Isuzu Trucks, and both source parts from the parent company Isuzu Motors. We have different customers, so need our own identity, although we have 13 dealerships that sell both trucks and utes, out of a total of 141 dealers Australia wide”.

Perhaps surprisingly, Isuzu has stayed with just two models, and why not when you have such a strong fan base? The D-MAX ute for 2018 will now get 23 variants whilst the MU-X seven-seater has seven.

In terms of the engines, IUA will offer just the single diesel option in Australia, the popular 3.0-litre turbo engine as found in the class-leading N-Series Isuzu truck. This advanced Euro-5-compliant unit generates 130 kW of power and a peak torque output of 430 Nm at a low 2000 rpm, delivering consistent levels of torque throughout the rev range, making it ideal for towing up to 3.5 tonnes.

Euro-6-complaint engines are available overseas in a 2.3-litre and 1.9-litre block, but there are no plans to bring that here just yet. Hiro comments, “We are always in discussions with our engineers, mindful of the world trends in diesel, hybrids and EV. But, through listening to our Australian customers, and with great reliability shown in the Euro 5 3.0-litre unit, it’s a great option to stick with for now”.

In fact, as over half of all Isuzu customers will plan to tow with their new D-MAX or MU-X, the engine choice is undoubtedly what gives it such a strong following, especially in the caravanning communities. It’s also why Isuzu has added trailer sway control (TSC) as standard on all D-MAX and MU-X models, excluding 4×2 low-ride single-cab/chassis SX manual. TSC will automatically apply the brake on individual wheels to counteract potentially dangerous swaying of the trailer to maintain vehicle and trailer control.

With over 98 percent of all Isuzu models sold currently featuring an automatic transmission, IUA has opted for a six-speed ‘Rev-Tronic’ automatic transmission with sequential sports mode. This transmission features an adaptive-learning function that constantly monitors brake and throttle applications, enabling the transmission to automatically select the most appropriate shift points and lock-up points depending on driver behaviour and the vehicle’s load and speed. A smooth shift six-speed manual transmission is also available on selected models.

Isuzu Ute has a strong focus on the Australian market, testimony indeed that Australia is now Isuzu’s largest export market, so, understandably, the company has listened to customer feedback in order to structure several updates for MY18.

For Q3 and beyond, the Isuzu D-MAX gets the new LS-T 4×2 and 4×4 model to target the premium end of the one-tonne ute market. This model incorporates many of the premium features from the MU-X, with inclusions such as 18” wheels with highway-terrain tyres, sat-nav, roof rails, premium leather seats and a passive enter and start system.

Across the range, the D-MAX gets a refreshed interior, an increased GVM of 2950 kg on the 4×2 and 3050 kg on the 4×4, safety upgrades with trailer sway control, and a rear-view camera. Service intervals have been extended to 15,000 km and there is a palette of fresh new colours and, best of all, new suspension.

The previous models tended to bounce around when running empty, which is probably more of the norm these days. For Q3 2018, the D-MAX benefits from a much softer ride by changing the rear five-leaf spring setup, to a three-leaf spring pack on the SX, LS-U and LS-T crew-cab variants. The Isuzu engineers have been able to use stronger and lighter material to achieve a much-improved ride when empty, while not compromising on payload.

Isuzu also has a strong dealer network to support the product, particularly in regional areas where the D-MAX and MU-X are now more commonly found.

As Ben Jaeger, the Australian deputy general manager of sales for IUA, explains, “We have a strong private market in Australia, with around 76 percent of sales going to individuals and small businesses. Our dealer network has grown considerably from 38 in 2008, to over 140 currently, so we have great coverage across the country”.

“Our head office is based in Brisbane, so we have always been strong in Queensland, but we recently opened a regional office in Sydney, and another is planned in Melbourne to give greater support to the dealers in each state,” he added.

To get a feel for the updated models, Delivery Magazine previewed the range on a drive programme held at the Mount Cotton off-road proving grounds on the outskirts of Brisbane, with the opportunity to run through the various models in some tough conditions. The different parameters of the evaluation included towing circuits, rough dirt tracks, some serious off-road forest tracks, and, not to be outdone, a few laps of the skidpan.

Isuzu customer data shows that over 50 percent of customers intend to use the D-MAX or MU-X for towing, so our first drives were with the MU-X pulling a large Finke off-road caravan with electric brakes at 1900 kg, and the D-MAX LS-T pulling a boat on a twin-axle trailer with mechanical brakes at 1760 kg. Both combinations pulled effortlessly with the 3.0-litre diesel, and the smooth Aisin six-speed auto box worked effectively at picking the right gears round tight bends and at a junction. The combinations felt well planted on the track, which helps to give you the confidence when fully loaded, especially when heading off for your annual holiday.

In terms of off-road credentials, the Isuzu is more than capable. Under the guidance of the I-Venture Club, that offers 4WD training to Isuzu customers, the team of instructors was highly proficient in showing exactly how capable these vehicles can be.

The I-Venture programme is indicative of the extent to which IUA provides customer support. Owners of either model, together with their families, can join the team for trips into the country where they learn their off-road driving skills under expert guidance. Delivery Magazine believes this option is of major importance, especially geared to families that may have never ventured off-road or away from a city environment.

Interestingly, Isuzu Ute Australia is the only ute manufacturer offering this level of involvement and expertise to its customers, and it is a strong contributor to the safety and performance ability for the buyer. While other manufacturers are content to take orders and arrange finance options, IUA is the only manufacturer that actively supports its brand.

As a synopsis of some of the features relevant to both the D-MAX and MU-X, with the Terrain Command 4WD select system you can change between 2WD and 4WD high ratio (or vice versa) on the move, such as when going from bitumen to dirt roads. For the change from 2WD and 4WD high into 4WD low range (or vice versa), the vehicle needs to be stationary.

The hill start assist and hill descent control both worked well to manage the vehicle and was particularly helpful with the automatic box. The track on which we travelled had some seriously steep sections covered in rocks, and, although it was still wet from rain earlier in the morning, the ute never felt out of its depth or at risk of loosing its footings.

Overall, the Isuzu D-MAX and MU-X have a strong package, and the updates continue to keep them highly competitive with other models. It might not be the sexiest model on the market, but many don’t want that. If you are looking for reasonable comfort, great reliability, and intend to go off-road, tow or do both without having to spend top dollars, then the Isuzu will remain a key choice.

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