2013 ISUZU D-MAX SAND TEST
What’s Hot: The regular D-Max can cope with dunes; Bruce Garland’s Dakar racer trounces them.
What’s Not: Sand filling most orifices, Bruce hogging the driver's seat.
X Factor: Great ute, greater ute; what's not to like about a lash in a potential Dakar-winning ute.
It’s the world’s toughest rally: the Dakar. For 2013 it runs from Lima, Peru, heads south diverting across the Andes into Argentina, before crossing back into Chile and ending in Santiago.
In all, 8000 kilometres of car-busting and body-busting torture.
No problem. Australian desert rally legend and long-time Isuzu stalwart Bruce Garland is heading back for another crack at it.
The 2013 Dakar Rally in January will be his return since his crash during the 2011 event that left him with a fractured vertebra.
Given the two-year gap between bites at the Dakar cherry, Garland’s Isuzu Motorsports (IM) team decided that one final Dakar warm-up was in order.
So, what better place than a secluded dune system near Sydney for a lash in his recce truck (2010 Dakar entry) to get the blood running in preparation for the Dakar’s notorious dunes?
Garland’s major sponsor, Isuzu Ute Australia (IUA) invited TMR to tag along for the day, letting us loose on the dunes in a collection of road-going D-Max’s for good measure.
IUA also promised a taste of Bruce’s recce truck from its passenger seat, and despite none-too-subtle hints for a steer ourselves, we were keen to sample the next best thing.
Bruce’s long-time co-driver, Hiroaki (Harry) Suzuki, also brought along a little surprise for us to try, in the form of his subtly fettled personal D-MAX work ute.
As far as days in the office go, this was set to be a good one.
IUA brought along a collection of regular D-MAX 4x4 models, including a Crew Cab SX auto, Space Cab LS-U manual, and the range-topping Crew Cab LS-Terrain auto.
Spanning a good chunk of the D-MAX’s model range, all were equipped with the D-MAX’s sole engine choice of Isuzu’s 130kW/380Nm 3.0 litre turbodiesel four.
This venerable unit produces maximum torque between 1800-2800rpm for automatic models, and until 3000rpm for the manuals.
Taking the D-MAXs onto the sand was a no-nonsense affair, selecting 4x4 low range via the console knob, and dropping tyre pressures down to a Bruce-recommended 17psi.
Sand driving can take a bit of knack, but the key rules are; maintain momentum, don’t turn too sharply, and approach any gradients perpendicular to the crest.
With the D-MAXs in low range, all road-focused traction and stability control was disabled. For beach driving, speeds are generally quite slow (unless you’re Bruce), and maintaining momentum requires a degree of constant wheelspin.
An inability to completely disarm these aids can severely hamper some modern all-wheel drive models on sand - not so the D-MAX.
The D-MAX’s highway terrain factory tyres also work pretty well in these conditions, as less aggressive tread patterns are generally best on sand.
Aside from the choice of manual or automatic transmissions, all three standard D-MAXs behaved identically on the sand - perhaps no surprise considering their similar weights, tyres, and identical wheelbases between Space and Crew Cab bodystyles.
Of the two transmissions, the five-speed auto unsurprisingly proved the more comfortable, providing intuitive gear selection and freeing the driver’s mind to focus on steering and the all-important momentum.
Sand driving also masks an automatic transmission’s relative lack of engine braking capability, as the heavy rolling resistance of the sand will slow the car on all but properly steep descents.
The five-speed manual was more challenging - which may be preferable given the right mood - as the high wheel speed and constant adjustment at the throttle, combined with the engine’s relatively narrow rev band, require close attention to gear selection to keep momentum.
Nonetheless, the D-MAX’s useful low-range gearing saw us powering up most dunes in an impressive fourth gear.
Perhaps a strong indicator of the D-MAX’s sand-driving ability is the fact that not one of the assembled throng - both experienced and otherwise - managed to get bogged on the day.
HARRY SUZUKI’S D-MAX
Bruce’s left-hand-man, co-driver Harry Suzuki, brought along his personal D-MAX work ute for us to try.
On the surface, Harry’s Space-Cab is quite unassuming, but closer inspection reveals its a Thai-spec model brought in as a mobile parts donor for Bruce’s new race truck.
Before the team pillages it for its wares, Harry has used it as a rolling testbed for a number of subtle improvements he is developing to suit the standard road car.
IUA’s David Harding says that they are considering offering these Harry-developed bits as aftermarket options for D-MAX buyers.
Still at prototype stage for now, Harry’s ute features IM-branded silicon radiator and intercooler hoses, short-shift manual gear selector, and new shock absorbers - all specifically developed by Harry himself.
IM already markets a range of upgrades for 2007-11 model D-MAXs, but the upgrades fitted to Harry’s ute are the first designed for the new 2012 model.
As someone who has spent considerable time in the passenger seat of off-road D-MAXs, Harry is well qualified to fettle with suspension tuning.
Significantly, Harry’s suspension set-up maintains the standard D-MAX springs, bushes and swaybar - replacing just the shock absorbers to keep the cost of the prospective kit down.
Driven back-to-back with the LS-U Space Cab on test, Harry’s shocks made for a far more composed ride, dampening bumps as though carrying a load in the back - and the front.
From a sand-driving perspective, Harry’s done a great job at refining the D-MAX’s ride. We didn’t have the opportunity to drive it on bitumen however, so how it all works on the black-top will be an occasion for another day.
Driving Harry’s D-MAX alongside the manual LS-U also highlighted the benefits of his short-shift gear selector. Harry says he’s changed the pivot point of the gearstick by just 3 mm, but the benefit is immediately obvious.
The gear selector remains the same length as standard, but the throw between gates is noticably shorter and more precise, without any noticeable compromise to shift effort.
Harry admits that the red-coloured silicon coolant and intercooler pipes’ greatest commercial appeal would be their apprearance, but their race-proven resistance to failure would be mighty handy long-term.
IUA are yet to decide whether to offer these Harry-developed bits to Isuzu customers, but watch this space...
BRUCE’S DAKAR D-MAX
They say that good things come to those who wait. After plenty of wheel-time in the standard D-MAX’s and Harry’s testbed, Bruce offered the willing a ride in the passenger seat of his recce truck.
This recce truck is the vehicle used for Garland and Suzuki’s 2010 Dakar entry, which failed to finish when a spare wheel worked loose and damaged the tray-mounted radiator.
Their 2013 Dakar entry - based on the 2012 model D-MAX - is already on a ferry bound for Peru.
But the 2010 car is still a weapon. And it still goes quickly and still makes lots of noise.
Producing 181kW/589Nm from its production-based 3.0 litre turbodiesel, Bruce was easily able to spin all four 235/85/R16 mud terrain tyres on takeoff.
Strapped in and using the on-board intercom to communicate, the experience is not as violent as you’d expect.
Bruce’s D-MAX sits at least six inches higher than a standard model, with competition spec coils on the rear and torsion beams on the front controlled by multiple shocks on each corner.
Combined with tall tyres, the race D-MAX cruised over crests and undulations with the ease of a bulldozer, but at a far greater pace.
Bruce’s D-MAX gathered speed and changed direction on the sand like a standard model would on bitumen, overcoming the immense friction caused by the sand underneath.
Wearing a race helmet drowns out much of the turbodiesel’s more truck-like diesel exhaust note, pronounced turbo whistle, and whine from the five speed Hollinger sequential gearbox.
Despite the surprising lack of drama, Bruce’s recce D-MAX was a hoot from the passenger seat.
TMR DUNE VERDICT
Isuzu Motorsports’s Dakar warm-up day provided us with a first-hand appreciation of the difference between a standard production D-MAX and Bruce’s full-blown Dakar racer.
The production D-MAXs impressed for what they are - affirming our previous positive experiences with the new 2012 model - and provided an ideal chance to try out both auto and manual D-Max 4x4’s dune driving ability.
These standard models didn’t let us down, but Harry’s prototype trick bits show that the standard model’s strengths can be easily and cheaply built upon.
Bruce’s 2010 Dakar racer-come recce truck is of course in another league again, and a credit to the local team.
Be sure to keep an eye on TMR to see how Bruce and Harry fare in their latest racer early in the new year.
The flag drops on January 5th in Peru, finishing 15 days and 8000km later in Chile.
- D-MAX Space-Cab LS-U 4x4 Ute manual - $43,700
- D-MAX Crew-Cab SX 4x4 Ute automatic - $44,200
- D-MAX Crew-Cab LS-Terrain 4x4 Ute automatic - $51,700
Note: Above prices exclude on-road costs.
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