► Brand new Isuzu D-Max driven
► The safest pickup you can buy
► Better made, better to drive
I can already hear the cries: The Isuzu D-Max is a pick-up – what’s it doing on CAR?
Well, there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, while choice in the UK market has been severely reduced as the number of available trucks has dwindled – Amarok, X-Class and Fullback are already gone; L200 and Navara are out of here by the end of 2021 – pick-ups remain a major force globally, and Isuzu is a top-three player, alongside Ford and Toyota.
Secondly, this new for 2021 D-Max is the first pick-up to achieve a five-star Euro NCAP rating under the latest testing regime, with its heavy emphasis on ADAS as well as fundamental survivability. Which makes it quite significant, as pick-ups go.
Especially for anyone thinking of buying one as a multi-purpose family vehicle. AKA: a car.
But isn’t the D-Max just a dumb truck?
That might have been a fair accusation of the previous model, which was best known for its working credentials – despite a seemingly endless phalanx of lifestyle variants and special editions. As such, the engines were gruff, the gearboxes like a piece of unfathomable modern gym equipment, and the ride prone to seeing even Good Boy the Collie asking the driver to keep the speed down.
The closest it got to cutting-edge electronics was a very aftermarket feeling touchscreen infotainment system, and the optional Huntsman package, ideal for storing the shotguns necessary to knock over the nearest branch of Currys PC World.
But as the very existence of the Huntsman package and similar highly specific customisation and conversion options suggest, Isuzu UK knows its audience well. And the previous model had built up a loyal following among people who actually need to get stuff done, people who appreciated its robustness, intelligent (glove-friendly) interior design, and impressive reputation for durability.
Which makes the new model’s heavy emphasis on clever tech seem a little strange – until you learn that this is in addition rather than instead of, and as well as revamping the exterior and upgrading the chassis, Isuzu has been listening to feedback and aiming to deliver solutions that should work for all kinds of buyers, old and new.
So what’s actually new here?
Let’s start with what isn’t. The 162bhp 1.9-litre engine carries over from the previous model (good news for reliability) and the ladder frame chassis – remember those? – is fundamentally similar to the old one. Except beefed up with larger rails, additional bracing and newer steels, making it stiffer and stronger. Good news for on- and off-road driving.
That’s it, though. Everything else is new. The front and rear suspension has been redesigned – good news again for the on- and off-road performance, plus the added bonus of a longer wheelbase. The bodies are all-new, and shorter than before while offering increased load and passenger space (the difference is in the stubbier nose; you can check out CAR's partner site Parkers if you need specific D-Max dimensions info).
The interior is almost night and day better – though it has kept some D-Max trademark features, including the funky pull-out drawers-cum-cupholders at either end of the dash and the double gloveboxes – and the D-Max now has electric power-assisted steering, which makes a massive difference. Examples of user-feedback in action here include more ergonmic seats front and rear, for greater all-day comfort.
The selectable shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive engages far faster, rear axle articulation has increased, and all but the entry-level Utility models come with a mechanical rear diff lock in addition to electronic aids that now include hill descent control and hill start assist.
Then there’s the safety kit.
How much safety kit is there really?
Eschewing front radar, Isuzu has instead chosen to use stereo-imaging via a pair of cameras at the top of the windscreen; less easy to casually damage and supposedly more accurate. Plus you can clean their view of the road ahead with the wipers. These enable the AEB, lane keeping, traffic sign recognition and intelligent speed limiter.
All Double Cab models – the ones with four proper doors and five seats – get a rear radar system. This not only deals with cross traffic alert and blindspot monitoring, it activates emergency lane keeping, steering you back into line should you try and change lanes into someone. Unique in the pick-up truck class.
Double Cabs get eight airbags, including a central one to stop the passengers banging together; the less family friendly Single Cab and Extended Cab models have to make do with seven airbags, and no rear radar. But they do get everything else. Which is unheard of.
Is it still a tank to drive?
Everything in life is relative – and the new D-Max is no exception. Compared with the old one, which had gotten much better in recent years, this D-Max is like a luxury car.
The steering is so much slicker, the brakes are bigger, the gearboxes less intractable (the six-speed automatic option is the same Aisin unit used by the recently revised Hilux), there’s far less body roll, and you don’t feel like it’s going to spit you off at the merest hint of a bump should you choose to be in a bit of a hurry.
Compared with an actual luxury car, it’s still a tank. Thinking of chopping-in your X5 for one of these because it’ll look oh, so rad with the jet skis on the back? Then you may need to adjust your expectations.
The D-Max is far more adept at dealing with bad road surfaces now, but it is going to bounce you around much more than any conventional SUV (excepting some of the daftly aggressive sporty ones). And while refinement has improved – albeit less convincingly – Isuzu’s engine remains more capable than cosseting, and has a real old-school chug to it at times.
It’s also one of the least powerful options in the pick-up segment now, with the main remaining rivals from Ford and Toyota both offering over 200bhp – and up to 369lb ft. The D-Max has just 266lb ft, though like the others it is rated to tow up to 3.5 tonnes.
Still, the improved steering is not only more direct, the variable assistance is genuinely well tuned so that it moves between the light manoeuvring phase and the high-speed stability phase without feeling out of whack at any point. There’s a fairly hefty dead-spot in the straight-ahead position but in pick-up terms its not bad at all – though as a driving proposition I’d give the Ford Ranger the edge.
What about off road?
A little light off-roading around a live quarry is enough to convince that the D-Max is unlikely to be at fault if you get stuck in moderate conditions. All the systems – the locking diff, the low-range gearing, the electronic aids – work as they should, and the four-wheel drive does indeed engage much more swiftly.
As with most pick-ups, the D-Max’s length, limited ground clearance and leaf-spring-restricted rear wheel articulation means it won’t be quite as a capable in extremes as a specialised 4x4 SUV. But then, no SUV is also able to carry over a tonne in the back.
It’s practical then?
Even with a more family friendly interior, improved driving chops and all that extra safety tech, the D-Max remains a working vehicle at heart.
Every version has a payload rating of at least 1070kg – important for commercial vehicle tax purposes as well as sheep transport – and the car-alike Double Cab model is joined by Extended Cab (back-to-front rear doors, ‘occasional’ rear seats, extra load space) and a Single Cab (two doors, two seats, maximum load space) versions. Though the ride quality deteriorates as the load bed gets longer.
More useful for lifestyle buyers is that every D-Max Double Cab also has a kerbweight under the 2040kg threshold for ‘dual purpose’ vehicles. This means they’re allowed to travel at car rather than van speed limits – not something you can say about the Ranger or Hilux…
The load bed is 30mm deeper than it used to be, so Isuzu has put a step into the rear bumper to make reaching in easier. And – small detail, but an agreeable one – every Double Cab model gets a tailgate damper, so the tailgate doesn’t just fall open as soon as you release it.
The tailgates remain lightweight, too. Relevant if you’ve ever tried lifting the one on the back of the Toyota.
Is there a good choice of trim levels?
Isuzu splits the range into Working, All-Purpose and Adventure specifications – which isn’t the same thing as the trim levels.
The Working versions are the basic, black-bumpered Utility models. These have easy-clean vinyl flooring, a less fancy dashboard and come in all the body types – including super-basic 4x2 Single Cab – with a generous roster of equipment, cementing the D-Max’s high-value reputation. Highlights include all that safety kit, air-conditioning and a 4.2-inch full-colour info screen in the instrument cluster.
The All-Purpose models are labelled DL20 and DL40. The DL stands for Diff Lock, signifying that this is included. DL20 gets 18-inch alloys, better seats than the Utility and a carpeted floor, and comes in Extended and Double Cab variants; you’ll need to go to the Double Cab-only DL40 for built-in 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment, LED headlights, leather seats, dual-zone climate and rear ventilation controls.
The Adventure spec is actually called V-Cross, is Double Cab only and ditches the DL40’s chrome exterior detailing for gun metal, comes with a larger 9.0-inch touchscreen and extra speakers. Expect further Adventure models to join the range in due course, as Isuzu adds more variants and the inevitable special editions.
There are plenty of dealer-fit accessories, including all the necessary hard-tops and load covers you’ll need if you want to keep rain out of the back (don’t assume every cover will achieve this, though). Isuzu will soon offer a wide selection of conversions, too.
What’s the verdict on the new D-Max?
Impressive. The new D-Max is not just superior to its predecessor in every way, it's leapt right into contention with the major Ford and Toyota rivals on every level – until it comes down to what’s under the bonnet. Pick-up buyers traditionally like power, and the D-Max just doesn’t have that much of it.
It combats this problem somewhat by being more lightly built and having a reliable reputation. But there’s a big difference between the Ranger’s 210bhp and the D-Max’s 162bhp, and an even greater gulf in torque. This translates into 0-62mph at least 2.0sec slower at 12.7sec. The comparative lack of refinement dents the Isuzu’s appeal as well.
However, since anyone already convinced they need a pick-up in their life is presumably expecting to deal with a rougher ride and coarser road manners, as an all-round package the D-Max is hard to ignore now. And if safety is a key consideration, it’s the clear market leader.
Detailed Isuzu D-Max review on Parkers
Best pickups – on Parkers