The 2021 Isuzu D-Max is the new ute to beat
We submit the D-Max to trial by rock, mud, gravel, sand, and tarmac ahead of the Australian launch of this all-new model.
It’s not every day that a truly new ute comes along – sure, manufacturers throw some updates at them every year or two, and give them a thorough facelift every three or four, but with the average model life cycle for utes being closer to a decade while it’s often only a handful of years for the average car, it makes a total overhaul a rare and special thing.
And special, this one is, as it’s one of the most hotly-anticipated entrants into the Australian car market this year – the third-generation 2021 Isuzu D-Max. Catapulting itself from one of the oldest utes in the class to the very newest, it gives the customer-pleasing, rapidly-growing, and relatively fledgling Isuzu UTE Australia the talking point it needs in the country’s top-selling segment.
With Isuzu setting its sights on a 10 percent slice of the new ute sales pie here in Australia, it’s important, then, that it’s made this thing enough of a standout. It’s also important what this new D-Max’s underpinnings are like, too, because they will also form the basis for the new Mazda BT-50 that’s set to launch in October, so properly putting this new platform to the test for the first time is important given the sort of mileage it’s going to do.
With restrictions on interstate travel and large gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in place at the time of this new D-Max being revealed to the media preventing the usual sort of press launch event an all-new model like this would typically be shown off at, a digital briefing earlier in the month and vehicles being lent out like typical press loans would have to suffice this time around.
Except, you see, I got rather lucky being based in South Australia as eased restrictions here due to long periods of having very few if any active cases meant that the Isuzu I-Venture Club – set up as a way to get Isuzu owners out in their 4x4s and learning how to drive them properly – was able to host a weekend of training days at Eagle View 4WD Track in Sanderston, and it was here at an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning that I was lucky enough to be invited along to get my first hands-on experience with this new D-Max ahead of a further seven days with it to put it through its paces in a number of other environments before it goes on sale.
Although I’d already chin-wagged with some other media pals prior to seeing it in the flesh about how snazzy this thing looked in the pictures, I think it almost looks even smarter in the flesh with its sleek Bi-LED headlights, aggressive new grille with downturned chrome fangs, chopped roofline and sleeker windows, and Altezza-style clear taillights at the rear.
The model I was lined up with for the launch was the LS-U 4×4 Crew Cab which at $56,900 with the automatic transmission that featured in my tester is the second-most expensive model in the range, and although it may lack some of the visual pizazz of the X-Terrain flagship with its flared guards and other sporty additions, I liked the clean and restrained look of the LS-U which sports a great-looking set of diamond-cut wheels and was toughened up a bit with its Basalt Black mica paint and a set of roof racks.
If you want all the nitty-gritty technical details on the new D-Max, I should point you in the direction of my pricing and specs article in which I pore over the new model’s nuts and bolts in great detail, but it is worth recapping here that all 20 of the variants on offer in Australia at launch are high-ride models – the LS-U in question here is available as both a Space Cab or Crew Cab with both 4×2 or 4×4 drivetrains on offer for the latter, with only the SX available as a Single Cab or Cab Chassis model as well – sat on a longer 3125mm wheelbase that allows for a shorter overall vehicle length to improve clearance angles, but more usable space in both the cabin and the tray. This new model is also wider and has a lower roofline than the model it replaces, which helps give it its undeniably bold stance.
Sitting inside it for the first time, the difference between this cabin and that of the old model is night and day. Where before it felt like you were sitting high up on top of the thing, this new cabin truly cocoons you without ever feeling claustrophobic. Truth be told, it feels like you’re sitting in a car, not a ute, as you can get nice and low in the seat and if you’re long in the leg and shorter in the arm like I am, it’s incredibly easy to find the perfect driving position with the new tilt and telescopic steering wheel column.
The wheel itself is a really nice size and the button layout on it is clear and easy to navigate, and the new gauge cluster that sits ahead of you with a 4.2-inch digital display is nice and legible, with important information like the status of the four-wheel drive system still kept to reliable old indicator lights beneath it.
Throughout the interior, the array of materials used feels perfectly appropriate – smoother, softer, and nicely-presented on the key contact points, and durable, hard-wearing, and easy to clean where it matters. Some piano black plastic, funky patterned cloth upholstery, carpeted floor, and convenience items like dual-zone climate control does help the LS-U tested here feel more premium on the inside compared to the more trade-focused variants in the range, although it does miss out on things like the leather upholstery, keyless entry, and push-button start of the X-Terrain.
I must praise the absolutely excellent seats the D-Max features as well, as they are without a shadow of a doubt the most supportive I’ve ever sat in out of any ute out there. With excellent shoulder and side bolstering, they really hold you in incredibly well both through the corners and while on bumpy off-road tracks meaning your co-driver won’t be thrown around nearly as much as in a typical ute pew with no shoulder support at all, while powered lumbar support for the driver I found helps out on longer drives as well.
The tech it packs in is seriously impressive as well, as not only is the gauge cluster new but so is the infotainment system, and it’s a serious step up from the somewhat clunky old units of before. While SX and LS-M models feature only a 7.0-inch touchscreen, the LS-U and X-Terrain feature a massive 9.0-inch unit, but irrespective of size, both pack wireless Apple CarPlay, wired Android Auto, and digital radio as standard, while the system with the bigger screen also features integrated Here Maps satellite navigation.
Only having used the larger system, it certainly impressed with its screen clarity and fairly straightforward operation given some shortcut buttons running along the bottom of it, although it was occasionally just a tiny bit laggy if I’m nitpicking.
It’s the wireless CarPlay that really stands out the most here as not only is it unique in the ute class, but it’s a feature very few cars feature either – until Kia recently announced a whole range of its new and facelifted 2021 models would feature it, this was the preserve of premium brands like Audi and BMW. However, it’s a crying shame that there’s no wireless phone charger that features in the D-Max as using CarPlay wirelessly absolutely churns through your phone’s battery.
Even more impressive than the infotainment, though, is the active safety technology it features, which is truly unprecedented in a ute. Dubbed the Intelligent Driver Assist System, or IDAS for short, a Hitachi 3D Stereo Camera setup positioned at the top of the windscreen scans the road for information and feeds it to its numerous safety systems that include, just to skim the surface, adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, turn assist with AEB, traffic sign recognition, lane departure warning and prevention, and even a lane centring system on automatic models like my tester which while not allowing you to take your hands off the wheel like Tesla’s Autopilot system, let’s say, does an impressive job of keeping you between the lines and helping to reduce fatigue on longer drives.
Add in passive safety measures as well such as a centre airbag which is not only a class-first but sees the D-Max become one of the very first vehicles sold in Australia to feature one, and it’s safe to say that this thing is, well, incredibly safe. And, given how stringent ANCAP’s safety standards have become, it really needs to feature all of this tech as simply being structurally sound isn’t enough these days – with crash testing being undertaken around the same time I was getting hands-on with the car, it’s yet to be seen how it scores, although it’s safe to say Isuzu is hoping for the maximum five-star score.
But it’s not just major technological and ergonomic improvements that the new D-Max benefits from, however, as under the skin the changes stretch far beyond just the chassis being longer and wider as mentioned before.
Also made more rigid than before through the extensive use of high tensile and ultra-high tensile, the suspension has been overhauled to improve ride quality and help it feel more planted, with its double wishbone front suspension seeing the upper control arms mounted higher and a thicker 34mm anti-roll bar fitted to reduce body roll, while its leaf-sprung live rear axle features a lightened three-leaf setup that’s unique to the class which promises improved articulation and unladen ride quality. Worth mentioning as well is that electric power steering now features instead of the hydraulic system of the old model, which is a necessary move to facilitate all the active safety tech.
And then there’s the drivetrain which, too, has been almost completely overhauled. Although it still features a 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel – which is unique to Australia and Thailand, with European models slated to feature a Euro 6-compliant 1.9-litre twin-turbocharged unit – like the famed 4JJ1 featured in the outgoing model, the one featured here is an almost entirely redesigned new unit dubbed the 4JJ3 that makes 140kW and 450Nm. Not only is more usable torque one of its major promises, but so is drastically reduced noise levels, as the engine in the old model constantly reminded you of its origins in Isuzu’s N series trucks, and while being a literal truck engine is a great sign for reliability, it’s not so great when it comes to how it sounds on-throttle.
The two six-speed transmission options that feature – an Isuzu manual, or an Aisin automatic, the latter of which was fitted to my tester – have been tweaked as well, with the manual now gaining a shortened shifter throw and a dual-mass flywheel, and the auto being revised to shorten its shift times by 0.2 seconds. A new transfer case features on four-wheel drive models like my tester as well, as does a one-piece aluminium tailshaft and a much-requested electromagnetic rear differential lock.
With these changes all in mind, that leads us back to that early Sunday morning in the outskirts of the Barossa, where I clearly wasn’t there to mess about. Within the first few hundred yards of being behind the wheel, the D-Max was already being demanded to work like an underpaid supermarket shelf stacker, with it pitted at a few laps of a course that encompassed some tight muddy turns, chassis-twisting divots in the track, and some steep ascents and descents.
Shifting it between rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, and subsequently high and low-range before hitting the track, it’s truly shocking just how quickly its new transfer case shifts, particularly between its two sets of ratios as the tedious waiting for that unmistakeable clunk is now completed in quite literally a couple of seconds and with far less of a dramatic aural accompaniment.
With it in low-range, it’s safe to say the D-Max took the course in its stride. Combine a good amount of rear axle articulation, far less cumbersome electric power steering, a far more sophisticated traction control system than what the old model featured, and its 20mm of extra ground clearance – with it now sitting at 240mm above the ground, along with sporting clearance angles of 30.5-degrees on approach, 24.2 on departure, and 23.8 ramp-over – and it really did make it all look easy, showing barely a sign of it starting to break traction despite the useless highway-terrain tyres, and even when trying to catch it out, such as by truly creeping up a particularly steep incline in first gear, as suggested by program leader David Wilson from Adventure 4WD, which only elicited a mere hint of wheelspin from the rear right.
We also demoed the new diff-lock fitted to this new model for the Isuzu owners who were in attendance, showing just how much of a difference it makes when ascending something like a rutted uphill track that it would otherwise get stuck on without it engaged.
After a break for lunch it was time to hit Eagle View’s fairly rocky trails, and although we were still running road tyre pressures, the D-Max continued to perform impressively and without a hint of any drama. Aside from not wanting to snag the big 18-inch wheels on a rock, ground clearance and traction were total non-issues here as well. The suspension, it must be said, felt far more forgiving than in the old model as well, and the wonderful bucket seats up front that feature fantastic shoulder and side bolstering really hold you in and prevent you from being thrown around at all.
The only issue I could really pick out was that the transmission was overly eager to shift back down into first when trying to keep it in second and let the torque converter pick up the slack as we were trying to get it to do. Of course, this is an idiot-proofing measure to make sure you don’t accidentally lug or redline the engine should you accidentally put it into or leave it in manual mode, but for this sort of stuff it would be nice to have that bit of extra control over it. Otherwise though, I had nothing else to complain about really.
Hitting the open road for the drive home though, this is where the D-Max really started to shine. Immediately, all of the NVH reduction measures make themselves apparent as any sense of this being an agricultural vehicle by design dissipates immediately. Although the big diesel donk can get a tad more audible once you spin it above 3000rpm, it manages to sound muted the whole time and is practically silent while cruising along at triple-digit speeds. What noise it does make sounds nice and muscular, too, compared with the injector clatter that defined the old engine’s tone.
The torque curve of this new engine feels perfectly judged as well for both low-speed applications and when getting it up to higher speeds – with a minimum of 300Nm available from 1000rpm and 400Nm from 1400-3250rpm, with its 450Nm accessible in the middle of that range from 1600-2600rpm, you never really have to work it all that hard to get it going, meaning you’ll largely steer clear of the slightly noisier-end of the rev range.
Road and wind noise also remain incredibly well suppressed as well due to a combination of extensive soundproofing of the firewall and body aerodynamics that were honed at the Japan Railway Technical Institute where the Shinkansen bullet trains are developed, and having experienced how dead quiet they are inside at speeds nearing 300km/h first hand, it’s perhaps no surprise then that sitting in the D-Max is more like being in an art gallery than on a construction site.
Through the long sweeping bends you get out onto immediately after leaving Eagle View, all those suspension changes really do feel to have added up nicely – feeling undoubtedly planted and stable on the road, what little body roll there is owing to its tall and top-heavy design feels to be incredibly well managed, and through faster sweeping bends like this, the new electric steering rack feels nice and progressive.
At slow speeds – such as in carparks or while off-roading – it feels incredibly light and easy, too, although it must be said that it does feel undoubtedly artificial. At around 40km/h while navigating through the suburbs I found there was a touch of off-centre slowness to it as well, but either side of that, it feels perfectly judged – and perfectly car-like, which you may have gathered by now is a bit of a recurring theme.
On every road surface I pitted it at during my week with it back out in the real world, the ride quality left me incredibly impressed as well. Keeping in mind that the Adelaide Hills has some of the very worst-maintained tree-lined roads you’ll encounter anywhere in the country, never did it ever feel too jarring over any bumps, seeming to just absorb even the biggest of hits without making a fuss. Admittedly, there is a tiny bit of initial firmness from the rear end which is typical of a leaf-sprung axle like this, although for what it is it’s most impressive.
Plus, with even just a tiny bit of extra weight in the tray, it helps to take the edge off as well – I was only able to get a couple hundred kilos in the back during my time with it, but even this was enough to make a difference. For those wondering, the maximum payload of my automatic LS-U 4×4 Crew Cab tester comes in at 1055kg – all models bar the X-Terrain offer at least a 1040kg payload – and the tub on it and all other Crew Cab Ute models measures in at 1570mm in length, 1530mm wide, 1122mm between the wheel arches, and 490mm deep.
Wanting to pit this all-new model against as wide a variety of off-road surfaces as possible beyond just the rocky tracks at Eagle View, I also managed to throw it against the deep and slushy mud of the Carey Gully Sandstone quarry and the sand out at Goolwa Beach.
Despite the shoe-destroying conditions at the quarry and the highway-terrain tyres, the D-Max again felt surprisingly tractable even when pushed hard through even the sloppiest patches of mud – turn the traction control off and it’ll unsurprisingly understeer, but leave it on and it does a ripper job of figuring the surface out – while on the soft beach sand it tracked straight and true, never really wandering around too much at all.
It’s safe to say, then, that the all-new D-Max impresses big time on every front. Comfortable and adept on-road, incredibly capable and sorted off-road, and brimming with technology, Isuzu has redefined just how accomplished a ute needs to be with this thing.
Bringing in car-like levels of refinement and safety to appeal to the many families turning to dual-cab utes while still offering the capability to keep its traditional clientele after a rugged and dependable ute on-side, this all-new model has turned the D-Max from one of the most bare-bones if abundantly characterful utes to a true class-leader on just about every front and the new ute to beat.
Admittedly, if you judge it by its retail price list, is does look to be an expensive proposition compared with the outgoing model, but given the massive amounts of tech and the fact Isuzu is known for regularly doing sharp drive-away deals, the price tag shouldn’t seem so daunting.
Plus, with a six-year/150,000km warranty that betters that of most utes – although it does still trail the seven-year coverage of the Mitsubishi Triton and SsangYong Musso – along with seven years of roadside assistance and capped-price servicing that’s now 12 percent cheaper than before, it looks as though it should offer as pleasant and worry-free an ownership experience as buyers of the old model also saw.
A 10 percent slice of the new ute sales pie? If ever Isuzu could’ve built a vehicle capable of taking that and then some, it’s this thing. Ford, Toyota – be afraid… be very afraid.
This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on August 28, 2020. The vehicle tested here was provided by Isuzu UTE Australia. All noted prices are in Australian dollars (AUD). Photos by Patrick Jackson, Justin Cribbes, David Wilson, and Georgia Ristivojevic.