► Utilitarian Isuzu gets sporty makeover
► Off-road hardware suggests a cut-price Raptor
► ...but it could do with more firepower
Like a Triassic landscape of evolving predators, there’s a growing world of lifestyle pickups out there - and if you’re wondering what they’re doing on the pages of CAR, you’ve probably missed the sophistication and V6 grunt of the Volkswagen Amarok, the lavish trim and refinement of the Ranger Wildtrack, and the easy-to-live with nature of the Mitsubishi L200. Or the fact we’re living with a Mercedes X-Class.
Scurrying about in the forests, though, is one that’s yet to evolve: the Isuzu D-Max. It’s sold primarily through rural dealers and is unashamedly functional in attitude, has developed some specialisations that could lead to a new species – while demonstrating how flexible Isuzu UK can be – but these have been adapted to very specific environments. The D-Max XTR is aimed at improving the on-road experience as well as the already capable off-road performance of the tough pickup.
Previously Isuzu has relied on the Arctic Trucks AT35 edition as a halo model – and those impressive looks might tempt SUV buyers, but the on-road experience suffers due to the very focused off-road spec. Awesome the AT35 may be, it’s rather meant for committed off-road enthusiasts, not mass-market lifestyle trims for dual-purpose buyers. They’re ill equipped to fight a new breed of Raptors lurking in the trees.
Dramatic looks and plenty of off-road attitude mean you won’t miss the XTR if you see one – not as likely as you’d think, given that currently the D-Max is one of the lowest volume pickups in the UK. In squaring up for a David and Goliath fight with the UK’s bestsellers, Isuzu appears to have gone for Mexican Wrestling as its arena of choice.
Donning the black and green Lucha libre mask of a freestyle fighter, the XTR looks like nothing else on the road, let alone like the typical working D-Max you’ll see on farm tracks with country-friendly paint, aluminium top and steel wheels.
Substance beneath the style
It’s more than just a bodykit, new alloys and some purposeful side-steps. Underneath, there’s an increase in ride height - ground clearance is now 250mm. A complete package of Pedders suspension upgrades including a revised upper wishbone design at the front, plus upgraded brakes, and a load of underbody protection all add clout. Most of the suspension and brake upgrades are highlighted in vibrant green paint but they’re all – with the exception of the new upper wishbones – off-the-shelf upgrades any D-Max owner can buy as part of a suspension kit from Isuzu.
You’ll find add-on arches and bumper protectors in the accessory catalogue too, but the XTR’s look is unique. That front end has a completely new bumper – not an applique on the existing model. It’s resilient and well finished, and although it looks a bit quirky there are many practical touches – from easily-cleaned protective grilles, to the three bumps on the bonnet protector that provide the kind of sightlines long abandoned by modern cars.
Inside the XTR’s essentially a basic-spec D-Max (it starts life as a Yukon) with manual air conditioning and manual seat adjustment, which has been upgraded with new seats. Since a 2018 refresh, there’s more soft-touch material on the dashboard than before, and there’s an eight-speaker, 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system as standard.
If you need navigation, the Pioneer Evo-equipped Nav+ costs an additional £1,150, and for a higher premium you can go for an impressive 9.2-inch Alpine with CarPlay. There’s even a subwoofer option, which is very unusual for a UK-market pickup.
Remaining stubbornly unmodified is the 1.9-litre four-cylinder diesel. Producing 161bhp and 265lb ft, it’s one of the lowest output offerings in the UK, and it’s all about the emissions – economy is average for the class, but NOx levels have been controlled with requirements beyond Euro 6 in mind, and it still doesn’t require AdBlue.
Despite that relatively small engine, it can tow 3500kg and maximum payload is 1136kg. Despite the modifications, the XTR is still very much a dual-purpose commercial vehicle from a tax point of view, and with a kerb weight below 2000kg it’s not going to fall foul of the 10mph reduction in national speed limit and dual-carriageway limits that a surprisingly number of pickups now risk falling foul of.
Enough rambling – how the XTR drives matters…
Isuzu want aspirational lifestyle buyers to look at the D-Max, and this is the group that would go for a traditional SUV like a Land Rover Discovery but may be dissuaded by high purchase and running costs. For sole traders and businesses, pickups are deeply attractive from a tax point of view, particularly if VAT registered too – but even for company car drivers, the fixed-rate BIK is either £57 or £114/month instead of up to £590/month for the £50K Ford Ranger Raptor.
Without going to the extremes of chassis engineering that the Raptor required, the D-Max XTR does behave very differently to the regular D-Max on the road. Firmer suspension, with more controlled damping, provides a better ride overall; the steering is also surprisingly direct – influenced in part by the thick, suede-and-leather trimmed steering wheel – and in conjunction with Kevlar ceramic brake pads, the XTR feels more secure and planted in bends. Some pickup traits remain, in particular a bouncy back axle when unladen, but it’s more subdued than the usual Pogo-stick hop. From the driver’s seat it’s not unpleasant but rear passengers might not enjoy fast undulating roads.
The generously padded front seats are firm, with a lot of grip and effective heaters, though manual adjustment is a surprise at this price point. Like the manual air conditioning, the XTR’s Yukon roots show occasionally. By opting for 17-inch wheels rather than attention-getting 20-inch alloys Isuzu has helped maintain a decent ride on poor urban roads too, but pickups that can ride out the worst of Britain’s potholes aren’t really news. Of more interest is the audio system; Isuzu seem to be the only pickup manufacturer to bother with a system to rival a moderate family car, and it suits the XTR having something suitably punchy.
Road noise levels are subdued, impressively so given the off-road ability of the standard tyres, but there’s no disguising how hard the engine has to work at fast A-road speeds, or on inclines, and that’s unladen. The six-speed manual gearbox provides a little more control, at the expense of a long, rather detached shift action, while the automatic hunts for ratios to keep the engine at peak torque. Not quite as intuitive as paddles, the manual override is at least a push-pull affair rather than a fiddly on-lever switch.
The kind of driver that would want an XTR for the looks may not be happy with the performance; for most uses it’s happy to lope along at reasonable speeds, in reasonable comfort, without the crudity of the basic D-Max.
We were given the opportunity to drive the XTR in Welsh forest and quarry environments that, frankly, exceed the usual places we can take a 4x4 for a review. With the caveat that Isuzu obviously aren’t going to provide somewhere that shows their pickup in a bad light, there was no handing over to a professional driver to ‘show what it can do’ – this is all from the driver’s seat.
Isuzu are the first manufacturer to equip a pickup with Pirelli Scorpion tyres as standard, which may influence the D-Max’s ability slightly but most of the challenging areas of the course highlighted the advantages of raised ground clearance and variable-speed hill-descent control. Like all D-Maxes, the XTR has a part-time 4x4 system with locked centre differential and selectable low range, and on soil, clay and mud this proved very effective, with little slip and easy progress.
Most inexperienced off-road drivers would have no trouble handling the XTR on forest tracks, and despite the raised suspension your own sense of self-preservation and loose understanding of physics will fall over before the D-Max becomes unstable.
Parts of the course did provide a chance to test the underbody protection, with tree stumps and loose rocks, so we can report that the hexagonal grid-style side steps and thick underbody plates aren’t just for show, shrugging off impacts with no obvious damage. The bonnet protector might look like a weird afterthought, but those three protruding blocks are genuinely useful when driving off-road.
Isuzu D-Max XTR: verdict
Dramatic looks mask rather pedestrian on-road performance and it’s still lacking in some plusher tech, but Isuzu UK and its dealer network seem adept at modifying the pickups to suit a buyer’s needs. accessories include the missing modern touches like LED headlights and one-touch signals for reasonable prices. From dealers, there is also a supported performance upgrade that delivers 200bhp and a decent upgrade in torque, too – for about £800.
If equipped, the D-Max XTR would offer a better power to weight than the Raptor for significantly less money with a more dramatic appearance and all the tax advantages of a commercial vehicle. It remains a curious choice against other well equipped, cheaper lifestyle pickups – but a very appealing package for serious off-road users who want a refined on-road experience too.