First Drive: Isuzu D-Max


ISUZU is something of a modern-day David, taking on the corporate Goliaths in the shape of much bigger, much richer pick-up makers.

But just as David had his sling, Isuzu has its own weapons to use in pursuit of the number one spot in UK pick-up sales. As a small company, Isuzu is a lot more focused on the ins and outs of making a hard-working, cost-effective pick-up than it says its massive rivals can be.

The same goes for the dealers, who are complete experts in Isuzu’s products rather than only viewing the pick-up line as an aside to a consumer cars business. The company aims to offer buyers what they really need – a top-drawer understanding of what a working vehicle needs to do and a detailed knowledge of the product range – from an Isuzu franchise.

It’s the buying experience that makes it easy, but naturally if the product falls short of expectations then it won’t sell, no matter how good the dealers are.

Fortunately the new D-Max pick-up, built to replace the long-serving Rodeo, is something of a surprise. At first glance at the spec sheet reveals nothing remarkable, but behind the wheel, both off- and on-road, the D-Max is exactly what it needs to be – and more.

There are four trim levels and three cab types to choose from, but the basic platform and 2.5-litre turbocharged diesel engine are shared. The four trim choices go from the basic D-Max through Eiger and Yukon up to the top-spec Utah, while your cab options span single cab, extended cab and full double cab – but only on the basic D-Max.

Once you climb above D-Max it’s double cab only. It’s fair enough in a way but also a bit annoying, because while Isuzu has a fair argument with its obvious point that people who pay for nice extras aren’t among those who’ll really batter their vehicles around and therefore don’t need the full potential load bay space more than they need rear seats, some people would still like the choice.

The basic D-Max, with its steel wheels, two- and four-wheel-drive options and relatively basic, bash-resistant interior is likely to be the real working man’s favourite. Its no-nonsense approach to getting the job done gives it the kind of appeal enjoyed by old Land Rover Defenders.

You also get the highest payload in the D-Max single cab because it weighs less than the double cab options.

The Utah is a real looker though, with roof bars, side steps and a load liner neatening the package up a treat. It’s like a rough Irish horse handler after a morning with Brad Pitt’s styling team.

With leather seats, climate control and luxury features dotted around, it’s more a lifestyle pick-up than a working vehicle, although it still has around one tonne’s worth of payload capacity in the load bay.

Ironically, the suspension is set up to cope with that weight and the ride quality is arguably best with about 750kg in the back. That’s not to say the standard ride is poor – far from it, the Utah’s on-road composure is impressive, but weight in the back does settle the rear suspension somewhat.

The engine offers a good balance of torque and economy, offering oodles of useful natural pulling grunt without needing to be revved too hard. With a towing capacity of three tonnes the D-Max can’t quite match the best towers out there, but it’s plenty for most applications.

The weakest link is the clutch on the other end of the six-speed manual gearbox, which is as tough as old boots as it is but would need to be upgraded to cope with 3.5-tonne loads. A five-speed automatic gearbox can be specified for a £1,000 fee but it doesn’t lift the towing capability.

The dashboard shows how much thought has gone into the D-Max. Although the circular central air management control arrangement on the Utah is surprisingly stylish, all the buttons are broad, chunky and robust, so you can use them easily with freezing cold hands, while wearing thick gloves or when you’ve had a bad day. The little things make the difference…

Although there’s no locking differential arrangement you get switchable two-to-four-wheel-drive and a low-range gearbox for serious off-road tasks. The stability control and traction control are set to account for mud and gravel, and actively help maintain a safe stance in awkward environments like quarries. Come deep water or steep slopes, the D-Max excels itself – in all trim levels.

It’s a broad gamut of potential roles that the D-Max covers, from purely working vehicles built to take a beating to more lifestyle-oriented pick-ups that are happy fetching supplies from the builder’s merchant or carrying home the pieces for a new shed. They’re all built on the same dependable platform so whatever the job, the D-Max will see it done.


Model: Isuzu D-Max Utah, £20,499 on the road (exc. VAT).

Engine: 2.5-litre turbodiesel producing 161bhp and 295lb.ft.

Transmission: 6-speed manual gearbox driving all four wheels (with selectable two-wheel-drive)

Performance: Top speed 112mph.

Fuel economy: 38.2mpg.

CO2 rating: 194g/km.


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