Car reviews - Isuzu - D-Max - LS-Terrain
Relaxed and linear engine feel, improved transmission, gravel track confidence and serious off-road capability, spacious cab, audio quality, high customer satisfaction rating
Room for improvement
Dated interior, struggles for traction on wet bitumen, ride firm and busy, expensive for the spec, half-baked capped-price servicing scheme
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23 May 2017
Price and equipment
ISUZU asks $54,200 plus on-road costs for the top-spec D-Max LS-Terrain tested here, a $1700 increase over the pre-facelift model.
We think that’s a bit over ambitious, considering the equivalent Holden Colorado LTZ that was co-developed with the Isuzu and shares much of its chassis, body and interior architecture, is $52,690 – that’s $500 less than it was pre-facelift and $1510 less than the D-Max.
And the Colorado’s facelift – particularly inside and under the skin – renders it almost unrecognisable both visually and to drive, so comprehensive was the transformation.
The Colorado also outguns the D-Max on standard equipment, packing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity, DAB+ digital radio reception, voice recognition tech and rear air-conditioning vents. The engine can be started and the windows controlled remotely from the key fob, too.
More importantly, the Holden has driver assistance and safety aids such as forward collision alert, lane departure warning, tyre pressure monitoring and parking sensors at both ends plus Isofix child seat anchorages. Its engine is also significantly more powerful.
Sure, the Isuzu gets leather upholstery as standard, but ticking the leather option box on the Colorado costs $1500, includes front seat heaters not available on the D-Max and it’s still $10 less than the Isuzu. And the Holden’s updated interior is far, far more modern and upmarket.
The Colorado LTZ is also rated to carry more than a tonne in the tray, while the D-Max LS-Terrain can only take 924kg. Both can tow 3500kg braked.
Isuzu claws back some points with roof rails and a shark-fin antenna, plus a warranty that lasts two years and 30,000km longer than the Holden’s three-year, 100,000km coverage.
The D-Max also promises to go further off-road than its Holden counterpart, with 235mm ground clearance versus 210mm resulting in better approach, departure and breakover angles. Isuzu also fits more underbody protection as standard. Neither Holden nor Isuzu offer a locking rear differential, but the Colorado comes with a limited-slip unit that represents a good halfway house and also provides the benefit of extra traction regardless of surface.
Enough compare and contrast. The D-Max LS-Terrain spec sheet reads as follows: 8.0-inch touchscreen with sat-nav, three USB ports, an HDMI video input, auxiliary audio jack and Bluetooth streaming, leather upholstery, a leather multi-function steering wheel, climate control, keyless entry and start, cruise control and a reversing camera.
It also has projector headlights with LED daytime running lights, front foglights, 18-inch alloys with full-size alloy spare, chrome door mirrors with electrical adjustment and folding, a chrome grille, chrome door handles, chrome roof rails, a chrome rear step, aluminium side steps and carpet floor coverings.
So it is pretty well equipped, but this comparison with the Holden reveals some glaring omissions for the money. Isuzu dealerships are known to do a deal, but then again so are those representing Holden. List prices are merely a suggestion in both camps. And the Isuzu price hike forces the negotiation starting point higher.
But the brand reputations of Isuzu and Holden in terms of reliability and customer satisfaction are chalk and cheese, with Isuzu leagues ahead and earning an almost cult-like following as a result. It turns out money can buy peace of mind, when spending more for less kit on a D-Max.
Apart from a minor (and very masculine looking) instrument panel refresh plus the addition of a new audio setup with a pair of ceiling mounted speakers – which contribute to its excellent sound quality – the main interior update on this new D-Max is a new touchscreen, in a healthy 8.0-inch size for this flagship variant and the LS-U one grade down the pecking order.
While it looks slicker and far better integrated than systems Isuzu has fitted in the past, we experienced problems with this unit, most concerning being a glitch that causes podcasts being streamed from an iPhone via USB to be played over phone calls made using Bluetooth.
It does not happen when listening to audio other than podcasts, nor does it happen when using Bluetooth streaming rather than USB, but we found it dangerously distracting when it happened while we were on the move as it tempts the driver to reach for their phone to try and figure out what is going on and stop it. Quickest and simplest option was to just pull the USB plug out.
Also not ideal from a safety perspective is the fact the display dims far too much when the headlights are on during daylight, such as when driving through fog or heavy rain. We could not find a setting to prevent this and also found it almost impossible to read the screen when wearing polarised sunglasses.
Confusingly, the row of buttons beneath the display has one labelled ‘map’ that appears to be a switch blank, but upon further investigation is in fact a cover for the memory card slot that contains the sat-nav system data.
The lack of rotary audio volume controller was also a bit annoying, with Isuzu providing only slow-acting button-based solution beside the aforementioned map blank, and another on the steering wheel.
It is also a shame Isuzu overlooked the opportunity to include a digital speed readout on the updated instrument panel.
Despite our misgivings over the touchscreen, the sat-nav system was easy to use and accurate, as were Bluetooth phone pairing, audio streaming and USB connectivity. Apart from the aforementioned problem with USB-sourced podcasts interrupting Bluetooth phone calls, in-call clarity was excellent.
Still, how hard would it be to include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto? We call BS on Isuzu’s line is that its customers don’t spend enough time within mobile signal range. Even without reception for the map and telephony features, the superior audio integration of the smartphone systems is priceless on any journey long or short.
We understand that Isuzu lacks the vast global resources of General Motors, which threw a lot of cash at reinventing the Colorado, but are still disappointed that Isuzu did so little to the facelifted D-Max, particularly as its launch was so closely followed by an updated MU-X – the SUV sister to the D-Max – that received a simple but highly effective interior overhaul that delivers a leap in perceived quality.
The refreshed wagon has more upmarket plastic textures and plenty of stitched leather-like dash coverings, door trims and armrest padding plus plusher seat upholstery that we can confirm from time behind the wheel add up to much more than the sum of their parts in terms of interior ambience.
But for now it is business as usual in the D-Max and hard plastic reigns supreme, as does the chintzy oversized digital climate control readout that dominates the lower dash, but at least it is all tough, functional, mostly easy to use and well put-together.
Consistent with our experience of numerous D-Max variants on the long launch drive, seat comfort in the LS-Terrain was top notch. Isuzu seems to have listened to our past criticism about slippery leather seats but the solution is an oddly textured material on the seat base and lower backrest that appears to be man-made and as such, could be sweaty in hot conditions.
Better news comes from the electrical driver’s seat adjustment, which moves the chair with record-setting pace. A long-held gripe of ours is the slow movement of electrically adjustable seats. Not in the Isuzu.
Extra sound insulation on this update means the cabin is also quieter, which is particularly noticeable at a cruise once the gruff engine quietens down. Tyre noise from traditionally noisy road surfaces is also well suppressed.
An advantage the Isuzu has over the Colorado is that Holden sacrificed a lot of interior storage areas in its quest for inner beauty.
The D-Max retains its HiLux-esque slide-out cup-holders beneath the outer AC vents, two-tier glove compartments and dash-top storage compartment that still requires precise technique on the release catch or it will remain forever closed.
Its four door bins remain on the small side though, and suitable for only small drinks bottles. We resorted to using the large bin beneath the central armrest for bigger vessels, sacrificing comfort in the process.
A pair of USB sockets, an auxiliary audio input and HDMI video ports are provided above a tray in front of the gear selector that can hold an iPhone SE when plugged in but larger phones will not fit while charging. There is another USB socket on the rear of the central armrest for use by rear passengers, who are denied rear air-con vents.
Considering its size the D-Max feels reasonably manageable and manoeuvrable in urban driving, with excellent visibility. The reversing camera also does a great job – at least in the dry when it is not obscured by water and dirt – but we would like to see the factory fitment of parking sensors.
The D-Max cabin is a spacious as ever, too, with dual-cabs having heaps of rear legroom. Interestingly we did not suffer from the lack of steering reach adjustment as we did in the Colorado either.
For those considering a D-Max for family transport, the lack of Isofix child seat anchorages might dissuade.
On the upside, the bench is broad enough to fit three kiddy carriers abreast (or fully grown adults for that matter) and the central release catch makes folding the backrest down to access top tether points easier than a number of competitors that either make this a two person job, or have the person fitting the child seats doing laps of the exterior to operate separate release catches at far ends of the bench.
The rear bench base has a 60:40 fold function, which we used to transport a piece of furniture that would not fit into the tray due to our test vehicle’s inclusion of a hard tonneau cover featuring protruding strengthening beams on its underside.
Overall, while the D-Max interior was a bit disappointing when we first sat in it, after several days we got used to it and apart from sometimes wincing at the diesel drone coming at us from under the bonnet, we found the cabin annoyed us very little while we used the Isuzu as a spacious family hauler.
Engine and transmission
With Isuzu Ute Australia now being top of the tree globally for export sales (the Thailand manufacturing base is considered as domestic market for its D-Max ute and MU-X SUV range), Australia wields enough influence with the factory to have a unique version of the tried and trusted 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine specially developed to meet our recently introduced Euro 5 emissions standards.
Isuzu has already developed 2.5-litre and 1.9-litre diesel engines for markets with tougher fuel consumption and emissions regulations than Australia but staying with the bigger unit and its heavy-duty credentials (it is also used in the 4.5-tonne N-Series truck) was seen as essential Down Under.
As is often the way with modern engines, in the process of making the D-Max driveline cleaner and greener, additional performance, improved fuel efficiency and longer service intervals have been achieved.
Now producing 430Nm of torque between 2000 and 2200rpm, the revised engine is gruntier, and while its peak torque output lasts just 200rpm a key difference is that the it produces the old engine’s peak 380Nm of torque all the way from 1700rpm to 3500rpm. Power output still peaks with 130kW at 3600rpm.
Six-speed manual and automatic transmissions have replaced the old five-speed units, with the LS-Terrain tested exclusively auto.
Neither engine nor transmission is great when simply mashing the accelerator pedal. There is a delay long enough to make the driver wonder if something is wrong. The solution is to simply not do it, and recognise that the D-Max does not like to be hurried.
In keeping with this notion, acceleration in even an unladen D-Max never feels rapid like it does in, say, the Colorado with its far stronger 147kW and 500Nm from a smaller 2.8-litre engine.
But, driven with more consideration, there is a pleasing smoothness and linearity to the D-Max engine under acceleration in that it hardly feels turbocharged at all.
This is reminiscent of the big V8 diesel in a Toyota LandCruiser. As with the iconic Toyota, Isuzu could no doubt coax a lot more performance from its engine but chooses not to in the name of longevity.
Again, like the Toyota this shows in the way the Isuzu deals with a heavy load.
From an engine point of view it appears to drive exactly the same. The impact on fuel consumption is also mind-bogglingly negligible. Making it look easy is what the Isuzu is all about, and this rings true when extending its off-road abilities as well.
During the launch drive in factory-fresh examples we had a concern or two about Isuzu’s transmission calibration. The company said the electronics learn and adapt to driving style and conditions, which went some way to explaining the lethargic kick-down and general hesitancy.
With more kilometres under its tyres and several hundred more during our custody, we had fewer grumbles about the six-speed auto fitted to our LS-Terrain.
It was easier to just set and forget as it got things right more often than not, shifting smoothly provided we remained mindful that the entire D-Max driveline prefers an unhurried approach. Overtakes, urban crawl and twisty roads were far less drama than during the launch. We experienced no driveline shunt during our 10-day test, which was another concern during the launch.
Manual mode is more useful off-road than on, with lazy up-changes and especially slow down-changes. A great benefit to the Isuzu’s drivetrain combination is excellent engine braking in low range, even with the auto that lacks the manual’s super-low first ratio, which makes for confident progress down low-traction inclines. Additional support is now available range-wide in the shape of electronic hill descent control, too.
It is time to talk about refinement. Isuzu has added more insulation and the D-Max has much less shake, rattle and roll than previously, particularly from cold start. As we said, there is little vibration under acceleration either but there is still a fair bit of noise at idle and under acceleration from low speed.
Observing the D-Max from outside, there was a lot less commotion than expected although there is no doubt a large four-cylinder diesel engine lurks within.
While rivals have become more car-like, the Isuzu wears its commercial vehicle status with pride, and some people like that.
Cruising at 110km/h in sixth, the engine is ticking over at just 1800rpm – automatic D-Maxes have a taller top than manuals so are slightly more fuel efficient – and the sound is reduced to a background hum. Engine noise never disappears, but becomes pretty distant from around 80km/h.
During our test that involved a long cross-country trek with plenty of mountainous terrain, motorway driving, a week or so of suburban errand-running, dynamic testing and off-road work, fuel consumption averaged a respectable 9.5 litres per 100 kilometres.
Not bad considering the official combined figure is 8.1L/100km and that our test vehicle had still done less than 700km from new by the time we handed it back.
Low fuel use is another benefit of an engine that is not working all that hard.
And this Isuzu unit has the reputation that it will keep working, and working, and working.
Ride and handling
We reckon the big 18-inch alloy wheels fitted to the D-Max LS-Terrain range-topper compromise the ride. Isuzu is not alone, with even the mighty Volkswagen Amarok subject to deterioration in comfort on its most comfort-oriented luxury variants due to the large wheels fitted.
It is not as though Isuzu could afford to make the D-Max ride much firmer, either. There is a heavy-duty feel to this ute that, in a similar way to the demonstrative diesel, some may enjoy.
Part of that comes down to the way the D-Max feels when not driven on bitumen.
It takes on an imperious confidence the moment its tyres touch gravel, dirt or sand.
Suddenly the D-Max feels at home and it seems to get better the tougher the conditions, brushing off terrain that has wheels off the ground as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Amarok and Ranger aside, few competitors can feel as good off-road as they do on, or vice-versa.
Even on reasonably well-maintained road, the LS-Terrain feels busy. It is riding over imperfections rather than absorbing them. Adding weight in the tray helps soften things, but introduces more bouncing and bobbing.
Unladen the D-Max does not tend to rebound badly from bumps but it does pitch about upon hitting uneven surfaces at urban speeds. There is also the classic bump shudder typical of separate chassis utes and off-roaders.
The Isuzu lacks the finesse of rivals noted for their road manners, such as the VW Amarok, Ford Ranger or facelifted Holden Colorado and we would rate the D-Max ride as of similar quality to a HiLux, but the LS-Terrain’s big wheels tip our favour towards the Toyota.
But during dynamic testing Isuzu scores a surprise victory over Toyota. The steering is just as slow, but it is more positive and the Toyo Open Country tyres do not howl quite so much in protest as the Toyota’s Dunlops at being pushed, nor do the wheels feel as though they are about to trip over them.
On a couple of occasions we did encounter a traction issue though, particularly on steep, wet bitumen ascent that had the rear wheels scrabbling away and stability control lights flickering like an 80s arcade game. This was odd, as lateral grip in the wet was pretty good and we could hurl the D-Max along a sodden country lane at around eight tenths without having to pack clean underwear.
But, as if to illustrate our earlier point, upon turning onto a gravel road the D-Max instantly felt much more settled and confident than it did on either wet or dry bitumen. Although braking distances naturally suffer on dirt, the Isuzu brakes with real confidence regardless of surface and keeps everything straight, unlike the wayward Colorado.
There may be no limited-slip or locking rear differential even as an option, but we have driven D-Maxes on variously tough terrain over the years and never felt as though we were missing something. On the other hand, we have experienced some competitors that would fail to proceed in surprisingly tame conditions unless their locker was activated.
In general, as with the driveline, to get the best out of the D-Max in any scenario is to not hurry. It responds well to gentler, more considered inputs than a heavy-handed approach that some rivals will cop without complaint.
Trundle, rather than thrash and both vehicle and driver are happier. This tough truck has a sensitive soul after all.
Safety and servicing
Isuzu has an enviable reputation and an army of super-satisfied customers.
GoAuto has met some of these happy campers in person during one of the brand’s unique and subsidised I-Venture off-road training experiences it runs for its customers, with many more independently surveyed by Roy Morgan Research to place Isuzu second only to Lexus in overall automotive customer satisfaction rankings for the past two years.
What’s more, Isuzu continues to put its money where its mouth is with a class-leading five-year, 130,000km warranty plus roadside assistance and a new capped-price servicing for the duration.
But the 50,000km expiry on its servicing program comes with a big catch as it only applies to a small subset of customers who don’t drive their Isuzu all that much. The company knows its typical buyer covers in excess of 20,000km per year, so we’re calling this out as a bit of a token effort.
It is a similar story with service intervals that have extended from six months to annually for D-Maxes with the upgraded engine because the 10,000km between workshop visits stays the same, meaning it is again business as usual for high-milers.
At the time of writing, the first service under the new capped-price plan was quoted as $200, with the second $400, the third $260, the fourth $590 and the fifth an unbelievable $50 (we had to double-check with Isuzu that this was accurate).
The D-Max was awarded the full five star rating for crash-test safety by ANCAP, scoring 13.58 out of 16 in the frontal offset test, a maximum 16 points in the side impact test and a full two points in the pole test. Whiplash protection received a ‘good’ score and pedestrian protection was considered ‘marginal’.
Standard safety kit comprises two front, two side and two curtain airbags, with seatbelt reminders and pre-tensioners for both front occupants.
Helping prevent accidents are anti-lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake force distribution, electronic stability control, traction control, a hill-holder and a reversing camera. No autonomous emergency braking, lane-keeping assistance or blind-spot monitoring is available and rear parking sensors are a dealer-fit accessory.
The D-Max will probably still be around come the apocalypse, along with the HiLux and its LandCruiser 70 Series big brother. At that point, a plastic-fantastic interior and jiggly ride – something all three share – will be the least of our worries.
More seriously, Isuzu’s meteoric rise through the sales charts has clearly not been to the detriment of customer satisfaction either, which cannot be said for other brands that have also experienced explosive growth in Australia.
The D-Max cops a fair bit of flak for lagging the best rivals in terms of road manners, refinement and cabin ambience. From our experience, this matters little to customers.
Still, we think Isuzu could have gone much further with this facelift to address those objections, especially as it has unjustifiably hiked the price of a D-Max. Dealers had better roll up their sleeves for some hard haggling, because the starting point just got a lot higher.
Perhaps its quick accumulation of die-hard fans has been taken as a signal to not mess with a proven formula, but we showed a former D-Max owner the vehicle tested here and he was clearly underwhelmed.
Although our tradie friend missed his old D-Max and was keen to take a look at the new one, he decided to stick with his current HiLux until Isuzu comes out with something different enough to tempt him back.
Only time will tell whether Isuzu gets destroyed at the dealerships as a result.
With the related Holden Colorado offering so much more for similar money – and representing just one such example in a highly competitive market – Isuzu had better brace itself.
For those still willing to take the plunge, Isuzu’s hard work looking after its customers and building a bulletproof product mean the D-Max is a safe pair of hands.
Perhaps Isuzu has put a price on peace of mind after all.
Holden Colorado LTZ 4x4 Crew Cab Pick Up from $52,690 plus on-road costs
The Colorado was co-developed with Isuzu and shares plenty, but an Aussie-led overhaul has transformed its interior and road manners into something approaching class leadership. What’s more it has an impressive spec sheet you cannot argue with, more power and torque, great payload and towing capacity and once leather is optioned, it is still $10 cheaper than a D-Max LS-Terrain.
Mitsubishi Triton Exceed 4x4 Double Cab automatic from $48,000 plus on-road costs
Value-packed, spacious, safe, comfortable, pleasant to drive on-road and pretty good off-road, the Triton is an almost unbelievable amount of ute for the money, with a warranty second only to the Isuzu (by 30,000km). A five-speed auto and 3100kg towing capacity are off the pace but offset by a useful all-wheel-drive operating mode thanks to the presence of a centre differential.
Ford Ranger XLT Double Cab automatic from $57,615 plus on-road costs
Impressive ride, refinement and road manners, a decent cabin and plenty of available tech. Its on-road sense of bigness could be a deal-breaker for urban dwellers.
Toyota HiLux SR5 Double Cab automatic from $56,390 plus on-road costs
The toughest truck by reputation that is still unstoppable off-road and provides access to an unrivalled accessories aftermarket – although the Ranger is catching up. It is let down by disappointing ride and handling plus a dreary drivetrain.
Volkswagen Amarok TDI 420 Highline Dual Cab automatic from $56,990 plus on-road costs
The Amarok remains competitive despite its age because VW set the bar so high in the first place on most levels except towing capacity, airbag-count and safety tech. Recently updated with a much nicer interior and some new tech.
Definitely worth a look considering the higher price of an Isuzu these days.
Nissan Navara ST-X 4x4 Dual Cab automatic from $54,490 plus on-road costs
Nissan’s experiment with a coil-sprung rear axle succeeded with on-road comfort and off-road traction but required some serious recalibration to restore the Navara name in terms of towing and load-carrying ability. It’s a modern thing with an attractive, functional interior and efficient, gutsy little twin-turbo diesel engine.
Mazda BT-50 GT from $53,790 plus on-road costs
Combines value-for-money with some serious off-road and toughness credentials.
Has an honest workhorse feel a bit like the Isuzu but can feel unwieldy like its Ford-badged twin under the skin, without quite the same on-road finesse or level of on-board tech. Like the Triton, a BT-50’s looks can be an obstacle.
Note: Not all images are of the Isuzu D-Max LS-Terrain
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