It’s tough, handsome enough, and built for hard graft. But can you dress the D-MAX up and take it to the opera? Klosey slipped on a dinner suit and the Blundstones to find out.
There is a very good reason you see a lot of Isuzu utes and light trucks around building sites. It is the same very good reason you see them half-filled with sand and bricks, with a mixer and shovel on top, barrelling around the new housing estate.
It’s because they’re very good at it.
Whatever badge is on the tailgate, D-MAX, Rodeo or Colorado, these Isuzu utes are tough. Uncompromising, built for work and with bugger-all frills, if they had arms they’d be carrying sunburn and tats.
And if you could get them into a singlet, there’d be a Eureka flag on the front.
Now you could be forgiven for getting your Rodeos, Colorados and D-MAXs all a little confused, so it’s probably best to start this test drive with a history lesson.
For more than 30 years Isuzu had (until recently) sold light commercial vehicles in Australia. Wearing Holden badges, the Isuzu products became a part of the Australian lexicon and models such as the Jackaroo and Rodeo became household names.
At the time, both Holden and Isuzu were owned by GM, so the arrangement made plenty of sense. That was then. But as we now all know only too well, the wheels on the General’s cart have been getting progressively wobblier, and in 2006 GM sold Isuzu to Mitsubishi.
That left Isuzu and GM Holden in a situation. Isuzu held the rights to the Rodeo name in Australia, and also supplied the Rodeo range to Holden. With new owners Mitsubishi at the helm, it was decided that Isuzu would not allow Holden to continue using the Rodeo name, instead it would continue to supply Holden with the same commercial vehicle range, only this time around, it would be called the Colorado.
Isuzu’s plans also included establishing its own Australian distribution network for the D-MAX range. Thus, Isuzu UTE Australia (IUA) was established in 2008 and the D-MAX range was launched in Australia.
So in summary, Holden now sells the Colorado, which to all intents and purposes is the same basic vehicle as the Isuzu D-MAX, which itself replaces the Rodeo that used to be sold as a Holden.
We are spoiled for choice in the light commercial 4WD category in Australia and the D-MAX adds another interesting facet for buyers shopping in this segment.
Sidle up to the D-MAX and you will be struck by its ruggedly handsome, chiselled looks. We like it; others were similarly complimentary while the D-MAX was on TMR duties.
It is evident from the outset that the D-MAX is no show-pony. It is not aimed at the big wheeled and blinged-out brigade, instead there is a sense of purpose about its design and a feeling of simple robustness about the way it is put together.
It’s built to earn its keep, with a tough, solid construction.
The no nonsense attitude carries through to the D-MAX’s engine range. You can choose from diesel… or diesel.
No poncy petrol V6s in this catalogue. All variants use the same 3.0 litre turbo diesel four-cylinder, which in manual variants produces 120kW and 360Nm. A five-speed manual transmission is standard across the D-MAX range.
According to Isuzu off-road race-ace Bruce Garland, that diesel, under-stressed and with a stainless-steel timing chain, is “bloody unbreakable”. He raced his in the recent Dakar with just a ‘reprogram’ upgrade. (Bruce told The Insider that there was at least 100 extra Nm waiting to be released in the standard donk.)
Opt for the automatic and you’ll pay an extra $2,000 and drop 27Nm, with Isuzu choosing to limit engine torque in auto-equipped cars to 333Nm.
Isuzu UTE provided us with the $41,800 range topping D-MAX LS-U 4x4 crew cab, equipped with the optional automatic transmission ($2,000).
There are two crew cab LS grades to choose from, the LS-U (Urban) and the LS-M (M for workhorse?) and both feature standard dual front airbags, cruise control, a leather-bound steering wheel and gearshift knob, projector headlights, front fog lights and 16”x 7” alloys (including spare).
The LS-U crew cab costs $1,800 more than the LS-M, and is equipped with aluminium side steps, body coloured front bumper and wheel arch flares and a chromed grille, door mirrors and rear bumper step (all black on the LS-M). Inside, the LS-U you get carpet in place of the LS-M’s vinyl floor covering.
Both the LS-U and LS-M models feature ‘in dash’ 4WD mode-select buttons, along with a sump guard and a transfer case protection plate.
Interior… not exactly ‘leading-edge’
Climb into the cabin of the D-MAX and you’ll immediately be struck by the awkwardly styled slab-faced dashboard. Though simply laid-out, the out-of-date and starkly utilitarian styling (that’s a nicer way of saying ugly) is well-short of the benchmarks for the sector.
Here, the Hi-Lux and Triton have the D-Max beaten all-ends-up for the look and feel from behind the wheel.
While ‘ours’ might have been the range-topping LS-U, the old-fashioned dash, ‘pigs-bristle’ style carpet, and drab grey plastic throughout, ain’t gonna win it any design contests.
The down-market and style-less feel to the interior - to be honest – is at odds with the sticker price. (Although the specially-kitted one at the Melbourne Motor Show, with carbon-fibre and leather throughout, looked fat.)
The front seats squabs also fell a bit short of the mark; they’re too small and too soft for taller/larger drivers (6ft+) to get comfortable. The D-MAX is not the only sinner in the front seat department in the dual-purpose ute sector. The ML Triton suffers from a flat and hard front seat squab. The Hi-Lux and Navara are superior here.
But does anyone who buys a bullet-proof ‘worker’ like the D-MAX give a tinker’s cuss about the styling niceties of the interior? I doubt it.
This is a ute that is built for work first and pamper its occupants sixth.
Understand that, and you’ll understand the D-MAX.
The drive… a tad uncompromising
The D-MAX’s 3.0-litre diesel is a willing performer. It’s not the quietest in its class, but it is perfectly acceptable, and frankly, there is nothing wrong with a little diesel clatter - it’s all part of the charm.
It feels under-stressed, completely unfussed (whatever the load) and has the good manners to sip diesel very sparingly.
Isuzu claims that the D-MAX range will return between 7.9 to 9.0l/100km, and our testing across a mix of suburban, highway and light off-road work saw us achieve high 8’s.
The D-MAX is set-up to carry a load and this is reflected in the quality of its ‘around town’ ride. Few competitors in this class manage to combine load-carrying capacity, with a well-mannered ride. The D-MAX is certainly not perfect in this regard.
Low speeds on pock marked bitumen will have the firmly sprung rear-end making its presence felt with a little hopping and skipping and a few clangs from the tailgate. Unladen on the highway, its firm springing induces some front/rear pitch on undulations and secondary roads.
You wouldn’t call it a handful, but it reminds you it wants a load in the back.
Fill it up, as we did, and the suspension tuning then makes sense. While with half a tonne in the back the diesel barely noticed it was there, the ride was transformed. The unladen pitching and nervous highway balance simply disappeared.
This also tells a story of course. It tells you what Isuzu has engineered the D-MAX for… it’s built for graft. Put it to work, and it’s happy.
This suggested, and we were able to confirm, that the D-MAX would likely also be completely at home in the rough stuff.
So, fuelled up, we headed for the bush trails up around Blackwood, to the North-West of Melbourne. The tracks there can be steep, narrow and loose and the D-MAX excelled in this moderately difficult off-road environment.
It offers excellent ground clearance and departure and approach angles for a factory stock 4WD, and the dynamic shortfalls that we experienced on sealed roads, disappeared when the going got rough.
Throttle and brakes are easily modulated over rough ground, and the D-MAX’s diesel just keeps churning away, whatever the gradient. The low-range gearing proved perfectly capable during our travels, providing enough engine braking and hill climbing ability for everything we threw at it.
Here too, in this environment, it feels like it could take anything you could throw at it, and keep coming back for more. We came away pretty impressed with the D-MAX’s off-road capability.
While ‘feel at the wheel’ doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, few utes convey such a sense of robustness as the D-MAX.
Bruce Garland swears by ‘em. He preps his racing D-MAXs from his Sydney workshop and reckons you can get them back in one piece without heavy mods.
So, if you want a car you can hose out at the end of a day’s work, or when out in the bush, put the D-MAX on the list.
If you want something to convey the loved one to the opera, take it off the list. Swank, it ain’t. Tough, it is.
So, that’s our position on the D-MAX. It’s a work ute, and a tough capable off-roader, but it’s not for everyone.
Sort out your priorities, and if the words “workhorse”, “unkillable”, and “no bullshit” appear near the top, go and have a look at the D-MAX.
While ‘ours’, the LS-U 4X4 crew cab, sits at the top of the D-MAX tree, most of the models across the range hold a healthy price advantage over their competitors.
For people with a job to do, this makes the D-MAX case stronger.
THE LAST WORD
While the D-MAX is a bit too uncompromising in its on-road dynamics for my tastes, there is no denying its robustness and readiness for work. As a work-horse, it has lots to recommend it, and, like its all-but identical stable-mate, the Holden Colorado, will continue to carve a place for itself in the market.
It’s got heaps of blue-singlet cred, and is perfectly at home with a load of sand in the back and a Bobcat in tow. (But, no, leave the dinner suit and the opera tickets at home.)
- Rugged construction
- Chiselled good looks
- Robust diesel
- Excellent fuel economy
- Reasonable rear seat accommodation
- Price when compared to a similarly equipped Hi-Lux
- Uncomfortable front seats
- Ugly dashboard design
- Harsh low speed ride
- Downmarket interior feel