Isuzu’s philosophy might have been written from a Beatles lyric, for instead of infrequent but major model changes, it opts for continuous small improvements, with vehicles like this D-Max getting just a little better all the time.
If you think the trees in some of our shots look a little bare for summer, you’d be right. For it was autumn when the Isuzu D-Max got a bit of a tweak, and winter when we had our drive.
Volkswagen’s latest Crafter had nudged it out, but we couldn’t forget this ute, for it’s a workhorse likely to suit New Zealand, and that tweak was a good ‘un.
Isuzu seems to favour ongoing improvements throughout a model’s life rather than big, flashy step changes, and the alterations to the metal up front aren’t immediately obvious unless the ignition’s on, and you spot the running lights. Indeed, none of the changes exactly set your trousers on fire, and some are model-specific. This LS adds a USB outlet for rear seat passengers, the infotainment system’s screen is an inch bigger, at eight of the imperial measures across, and there are also two more speakers to take the tally to eight. It gets Satnav, while the useful reversing camera is now available for all variants, along with downhill descent control and hill start assist. There are new 6-speed auto and manual transmissions too, and the motor gets a particulate filter and a different cylinder head, which, we’re told, breathes more freely and is Euro V compliant.
The result is a whisker more torque over an equally broad spread, which those towing will appreciate, and fewer nasties emitted from the tailpipe.
Photo: Well-thought-out cabin with enough of what you want, all well-placed, chunky and easy to use. Infotainment screen larger, with Satnav now standard, and all dials and buttons large and user-friendly. Below: Rear seat bases fold up to liberate more space; rubber floor mats a cost option. Child seat tether points included, rubber floor mats a cost option.
But otherwise Isuzu has taken an ‘if it ain’t broke’ stance for a vehicle described by some as ‘a Hilux as it used to be made’. In other words, a rugged performer that’ll carry most loads over most terrain your average hardworking Kiwi will encounter.
Mind you this is a modern ute, so it must make a decent fist of everyday tasks. Nowadays a large footprint is a given for a pick-up, so tight city parking naturally isn’t as easy as it’d be for your average car, while most roof, ladder or equipment racks will give you problems in multi-storey car parks. But the seats are comfy, the cabin a pleasant place to spend a few hours cruising – we covered around seven, half with our Isuzu laden and half with it empty – and with enough of what you’d once have called ‘fancy’ features to please your average commuter or family.
The air con controls are exceptionally simple to dial in, even with cold hands or gloves on; indeed that can be said of all the controls on the fascia. Those controls you can access via the steering wheel, like the radio and phone, are as easy to access and intuitive to use, and yes, that cup holder to the right of the wheel really is useful, for cups, phones, pens or what have you, and if you think that’s frivolous, just leave it tucked in the dash and forget about it, there are enough other places to stash stuff – including both an upper and lower glovebox.
Naturally, this not being a car there’s no boot, but if you’re not carrying rear passengers and have stuff that has to stay locked up and dry, it’s easy to fold the back seats up to free up space for a taller load, or a lot more luggage.
Those in the know have confirmed this is a strong enough performer off road and in low range; that said, we lacked an opportunity to safely take it further off seal than rural gravel roads, where it felt well planted and communicative. As for our load, we hefted nothing bigger than a full tray of macrocarpa. Full to the tonneau that is – had I left it in the garage I could have carried more wood, but as this optional ($690) foldable item fits by tucking the moulded edge neatly under a kind of rim, I couldn’t work out how to carry more without either losing the tonneau, or trying to fold it in the back without causing damage. Give me elastic loops any day; they may look less tidy, they quite possibly might be less secure (they’re easy to peek under), but they do allow you a little more flexibility about how high your load is, while still covering it.
Once you’re under way it has to be said that ride compliance isn’t what an urban cowboy would expect, as D-Max runs a little stiffly without a load out back when compared with the likes of VW’s Amarok or Ford’s Ranger, not unexpected for a ute that’s designed to do a rugged job, and still better than most. It remained a little stiff with wood packed tight under the tonneau too, but already noticeably a bit better controlled and compliant over bumps, enough that we’d love to have tried it with a bit more weight.
It handled as you’d expect – like a truck, not a family car – with steering not as precise as the market leader, though it’s far from the only ute you can say that about.
Power remains at the same 130kW figure as before, but the changes have boosted torque to 430Nm, enough to make the driving experience more relaxed. It no longer needs working to get the most from this 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine thanks to those tweaks to the on-paper numbers and the range at which they’re most effective; though I still found it a tad noisy after a few hours – others may not be as bothered.
I also liked how adjustable this cabin is – like many cars you can even adjust the shoulder height of the front belts – a bonus for anyone buying a ute for a range of folk to drive.
Overall, there are more refined utes on the market, but if you’re seeking a few comforts along with rugged go anywhere, do anything ability, the D-Max should be on your list to try.