Engine: 3.0 litre four cylinder, common rail, direct injection, turbo-diesel
Power: 130kW @ 3600rpm Torque: 380Nm @ 1800-3000 rpm
Transmission: Five-speed manual or five-speed automatic
Suspension: (F) upper/lower wishbones, coil springs (R) live axle, leaf springs
Payload: 1015 kgs
Towing: 3.0 tonnes (braked)
Economy: 8.0-8.3 litres/100 kms
Price: $27,200 (SX Single Cab-chassis 4×2) – $51,700 (LS-Terrain Crew Cab)
General Motors and Isuzu have a long history of model-sharing in work utes, going right back to the early 1970s when GM first bought a stake in the Japanese manufacturer and its local subsidiary Holden started importing the Isuzu KB ute, which was sold as the Chevrolet LUV (Light Utility Vehicle).
By 1980, the Chevy nameplate had been replaced by Holden Rodeo. And it stayed that way through four generations of Isuzu-built, Holden-badged workhorses sold by Holden dealers, until Isuzu and GM formally split in 2006 when Isuzu regained full ownership.
As part of the divorce, Isuzu established its own Australian dealer network (Isuzu Ute Australia) in 2008 and also took back its Rodeo nameplate, forcing Holden to switch to the ‘Colorado’ badge and (until 2012) sell in direct competition to the nearly identical Isuzu version on which it was based.
However, a solution for both brands was on the way, because back in 2006 GM and Isuzu had also agreed to a fresh joint venture to develop an all-new one tonne ute platform from which the two manufacturers could create their own distinctly different model derivatives.
So when the all-new Holden Colorado and Isuzu D-Max utes were launched in 2012, Holden and Isuzu made plenty of noise about major differences in drivetrains and body styling to change perceptions created by the previous models that Holden and Isuzu utes were one and the same.
These new claims of autonomy were certainly credible, given that the latest Isuzu D-Max features sheet metal that can no longer be confused with the Colorado’s latest styling direction.
Although the Colorado and Isuzu share the same chassis and cabin/interior architecture, the body work apart from perhaps the roof panel is unique to each truck. This includes the doors, which share the same frame structures but different outer skins.
Even though we love the latest Colorado’s bold Chevy Silverado-inspired grille design, we think Isuzu has done a better job with the styling overall. And that’s largely because the bulbous wheel arch flares front and rear give the D-Max a more broad shouldered ‘big foot’ stance than the Colorado’s more narrow, upright appearance.
The rounded D-Max grille and front end shape, with recessed fog lights and smooth polycarbonate headlight covers, is also designed to minimise injuries to pedestrians in the case of a collision.
And the D-Max/Colorado pair feature entirely different engines, manual gearboxes and automatic transmissions, which makes them more individual than the current Ford Ranger/Mazda BT50 duo which rely mainly on different body styling to tell them apart.
Our test vehicles
The latest D-Max range offers a big choice of models with 4×2 or 4×4 drivetrains and standard height or Hi-Ride suspension variants. These start at $27,200 for the 4×2 SX Single Cab manual cab-chassis workhorse and finish at the $51,700 4×4 LS-Terrain Crew Cab Hi-Ride auto with all the fruit.
Like its major competitors, there’s also a third body variant called the Space Cab which conveniently slots in between the Single Cab and Crew Cab.
In the 4×4 Hi-Ride models, which are available in Space Cab or Crew Cab, the D-Max buyer has a choice of four model grades in manual or auto starting at SX followed by LS-M then LS-U and finally LS-Terrain.
Truck Jungle tested two of these 4×4 Hi-Riders – the Space Cab LS-U manual and Crew Cab LS-Terrain auto – to sample what the latest D-Max has to offer the one tonne ute buyer.
Design & Features
The new D-Max ute is a big, strong truck. Riding on an all-new heavy duty ladder-type chassis with seven cross-members, it provides a 45mm increase in wheelbase over the previous model (now 3095mm) and a 50mm increase in track width front and back.
Independent front suspension features coil springs and upper and lower wishbones with the usual leaf springs (mounted above the axle on Hi-Ride models) and live rear axle arrangement.
The Crew Cab ute’s overall length of 5295mm and width of 1860mm (helped by those big wheel arch flares) is on par or slightly larger than its main competitors which has resulted in greatly improved cabin space, larger door openings and a more comfortable back rest angle in the rear seat.
Active and passive safety features were top priorities in the design of the new D-Max which now features six airbags, Electronic Stability Control and ABS with Electronic Brake Force Distribution which automatically moves a higher proportion of braking power to the rear brakes depending on payload.
The Euro IV-compliant 3.0 litre turbo-diesel produces 130 kW at 3600rpm, but more importantly has a nice fat 380 Nm serving of torque from 1800-3000 rpm (manual) and 1800-2800rpm (auto). These figures represent a 10kW power increase and 20Nm boost in torque over the previous model.
Interior comfort and safety
Like its Colorado sibling, the interior is spacious with all controls easy to use and identify. The LS-Terrain cockpit is packed with features including full leather trim (we’re told the awful brown with charcoal leather combo will not be continued), satellite navigation with touchscreen, reversing camera, Bluetooth connectivity, USB input with IPod connectivity and MP3 compatible CD player.
Like its main competitors, the steering column is adjustable for tilt only but for some baffling reason the steering wheel in the top-shelf LS-Terrain is not equipped with the remote audio and phone controls available in some lower-spec models. Like the brown leather, this needs to be addressed.
The driver’s seat has enough adjustment for different shapes and sizes to get reasonably comfortable. There’s plenty of room on the rear bench seat, too, with generous window glass, head room and sufficient rake on the backrest for a comfortable seating position.
At the time of writing, the Crew Cab’s six-airbag survival cell was sitting one star short of the maximum five-star ANCAP crash safety rating due to its use of single seatbelt pre-tensioners, but Isuzu is addressing these shortcomings and aiming to achieve the five-star rating as soon as possible.
A glaring omission in the D-Max safety menu is the lack of rear parking sensors, which aren’t available as an option or even as a factory accessory. And the reversing camera is only available in the top-of-the-range LS-Terrain as it relies on that model’s touch-screen feature to function.
Even so, with its use of high strength steel side intrusion beams combined with driver/passenger front airbags and full length side-curtain airbags, it’s a huge advance in active and passive safety over the previous generation D-Max.
What will it carry?
The 4×4 models we tested can carry a 1000-plus kg payload and pull 3000 kgs on a braked trailer or 750 kgs without brakes.
In key dimensions, the load floor length of the D-Max Crew Cab’s load box is 65mm shorter and 25mm narrower than the current Ford Ranger benchmark. In practical terms, that can mean the difference between being able to close the tailgate with a pushbike or wheelbarrow laying straight or having to carry it across the load floor to allow enough room to close it.
The distance between the wheel arches inside the load area is 17mm narrower than the Ranger at 1122 mm, so standard 900mm-wide builder sheets will lay flat between them and the standard 1100mm x 1100mm Asian pallet will also just squeeze in there with 11mm each side to spare.
What’s it like to drive?
The D-Max has great build integrity and rattle-free operation. It feels like a lot of truck building experience has gone into it, which is not surprising given the sizeable amount of input Isuzu had in its shared platform design.
The D-Max’s Isuzu 4JJ1-TC Hi-Power four cylinder common rail turbo-diesel is a gem of an engine for this application and showcases the company’s expertise in truck engine design and refinement.
On face value that 380 Nm falls short of the 470 Nm peak torque figures quoted for its Colorado cousin and Ford Ranger/Mazda BT50, but you wouldn’t know when you’re driving it. This is helped by the D-Max’s more athletic kerb weight, which even in the heaviest model (LS-Terrain Crew Cab auto) is 1940 kgs or about 150 kgs lighter than the Ranger XLT Crew Cab pickup.
The D-Max engine is super flexible and very refined. It is quiet and remarkably smooth in operation without the noise, vibration and harshness we sometimes associate with small bore diesel engines. On or off road, there’s no shortage of torque where you need it most, bang in the middle of that 2000-3000 rpm sweet spot whether you’ve got a manual or automatic behind it.
Service intervals have also been doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 kms backed by a five year/130,000 km warranty, thanks to some robust hardware changes within.
Isuzu’s MUX five-speed manual is a sweet-shifting transmission with a good spread of ratios, although it can be a bit notchy when cold. The beefy 265mm diameter clutch has plenty of bite with a pedal weight that makes it easy to use.
The Aisin AW TB50-LS five-speed automatic is also a good unit, featuring a sequential shift option which is great for towing when you need to hold it in one gear at times and a fuel-saving lock-up torque converter on all gears from second to fifth.
The Adaptive Grade Logic Control also holds third gear in varied gradient descents and automatically selects third on steep descents to maintain your set speed using powerful engine braking.
The 4×4 drivetrain shared with the Colorado features what Isuzu calls ‘Terrain Command’ control which with the turn of a console dial allows shifting from 2WD to high range 4WD while on the move at speeds up to 100 km/h.
It’s an impressive performer off road, thanks to the outstanding flexibility of its turbo-diesel engine, well-matched gearing and supple suspension. Both the auto and manual performed well during our test that included a variety of rugged terrain, although when the going got tougher in places we preferred the more direct control and throttle response of the five-speed manual.
It rides, handles and stops well on the bitumen but the D-Max’s ride quality when you venture away from sealed roads is remarkable for a ute. It is one of the best we’ve driven, particularly unladen, absorbing the kidney-rattling corrugations of rough dirt roads and chassis-twisting irregularities of narrow bush tracks with great composure and passenger comfort.
Across the board, the ride quality just keeps getting better in these one-tonne utes, but it will never be as good as a sedan given the weight of their live rear axles and leaf springs required to carry one tonne and tow more than three. You can’t have everything!
Overall the latest Isuzu D-Max is an excellent one-tonne ute that now stands proudly on its own. It is competitively priced, backed by a solid Isuzu dealer network and is every bit as tough and capable as its main rivals.
It’s only major drawback is perhaps lingering market perceptions of GM-Isuzu ‘badge engineering’ from the past affecting buying decisions, which is an injustice given its new-found individuality in styling and drivetrain. And particularly that great engine!
So if you’re in the market for a new one-tonner, make sure you include the D-Max on your list of potential purchases. We reckon you’ll be surprised and impressed by a vehicle you may well have overlooked. There’s not much to dislike here. TJ