It's been some time coming, but Isuzu finally introduced its D-Max model to the South African market earlier this year, despite several delays, rumours and tabloid-like speculation. Isuzu has in many ways done this right, we reckon, by introducing a product that's been enhanced in every which way, while still keeping true to what enticed buyers to sign on the dotted line in the first place. But, and this is a big one, not all is rosy...
Note we used the word 'enhanced'… This new D-Max, especially in the V-Cross trim we had on test, didn't exactly feel brand-new. By no means am I saying this as a slight to one of SA's favourite trucks... Instead, it resembles a product that's been tweaked, refined and supplemented to meet the demands of current buyers, without reinventing the essence of the humble bakkie. That comes with a few benefits, chief of which is an asking price that doesn't breach the R1m mark; that Isuzu sense of familiarity, and, of course, Isuzu's time- and bulletproof mechanicals. We'll get to this a little later…
The biggest redraft that's taken place on the Isuzu is also the most obvious — its exterior styling. Look, it's beautiful with that new lighting signature and geometrically-interesting grille inserts, but the new D-Max has also received some space optimisations. Standing in my driveway, it looked considerably bigger than the previous D-Max, but according to Isuzu, that's not exactly the case. Isuzu decided to make the most of the available dimensions by stretching the wheelbase by 30 mm, raising the bonnet by 10 mm and increasing the load bin's height by 30 mm. Small changes, sure, but visually it looks considerably more imposing.
As is the general theme with the rest of the Isuzu D-Max, the interior too has seen a step-up while maintaining the essence of the brand. As you'd expect, there are more interior storage spaces than you could have on-person bits and bobs. The most frequently used areas of the interior (the cubbies and cupholders) have been constructed from hard-wearing plastic. A dabbing of brushed chrome inserts also adorn the bottom spokes of the steering wheel while the centre air vents, the dual-zone climate control switchgear and gear selector received the same treatment. This proved effective in elevating the cabin of the V-Cross edition over that of its more utilitarian siblings. Sure, it's still not as nice to look at as some of the posher bakkie contenders, but in terms of durability, the cabin is unmatched in the double-cab segment.
In the centre stack lives a neatly integrated 9" touchscreen infotainment system that has the usual functionality addition with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and a reverse camera. The crisp resolution of the centre screen is a welcome bonus, but we do feel that the grainy quality of the reverse camera undermines the otherwise modern system. On the plus side, all onboard functions are easy to navigate and operate, with very little in the way of tech gremlins rearing their ugly heads on the system — an issue that's becoming alarmingly common as manufacturers try to push the envelope of connectivity.
Isuzu chose to retain the analogue speedo and tachometer combination for its D-Max with only a 4.2" multi-information centre screen displaying important driving information. The graphics on this screen do look a tad outdated but the relative simplicity of having just the basics instead of pages upon pages of loaded information was a refreshing change during our test period with the D-Max V-Cross 4x4.
All in all, everything is where it should be and everything works as expected. It gets the nod of approval from us.
The biggest point of contention surrounding the new Isuzu D-Max is its engine. In its initial tune and build, the 'TCX' edition of the 3.0-litre turbodiesel J-Series engines was first introduced in 2006, and it's still soldiering on in the new D-Max. Sure, it's seen some updates since the engine launched in '06 with 120 kW and 360 Nm of torque that's been upgraded to 130 kW and 380 Nm in 2011 thanks to a reduced compression ratio. Now, in its third generation, the J-Series 4-cyl turbodiesel still has a 3.0-litre displacement but it's seen an aggressive uptick to 140 kW and 450 Newtons, or, in bakkie terms, the stuff that matters.
The arguments for the continued use of this engine are that, firstly, it allows Isuzu to "competitively" price the D-Max" something we'll explore later. Secondly, the mechanicals are near-indestructible since they've only been improved over the last 16 years. Why change what's working?
Well, for one, efficiency. Isuzu claims that in ideal circumstances the Max 3.0TD double cab V-Cross 4x4 will sip 8.1l/100 km on the average cycle. During our test tenure, and in far from ideal conditions, our best consumption was 9.2l/100 km. This is a considerable sum more than some more powertrain-refined competitors, even when wringing some mechanical necks. Also, despite considerable refinements, that agricultural implement-like diesel clatter is ever-present, but then again, that old-school diesel sound is one of my favourite Isuzu characteristics.
Still, the engine does exactly what it says on the box. It's plenty powerful and the early torque onset from 1,600 r/min coupled with well-positioned gear ratios from the 6-speed automatic gearbox makes it responsive enough for any driving scenario. No complaints on this front…
Comfort? Even when unladen, the V-Cross derivative represents a considerable step-up in comfort levels compared to the previous gen. This is especially evident in its ability to soak up road imperfections and provides a near-opposite ride quality to that of another Japanese bakkie that shares the underpinnings with the D-Max. I must admit, following the bone-jarring ride in the other pick-up, I had my reservations about this platform. Not anymore, though.
One detail that intersects with the styling of the new D-Max is the inner-city usability of Isuzu's newest pick-up. By raising the bonnet height by 10 mm, front visibility, especially in confined parking areas, is a tad compromised. By not giving the bonnet line much of a downwards taper, guesstimating the true position of the grille isn't exactly an exercise in precision. I oftentimes found myself overestimating the distance, even with parking aids. Tailgaters, beware of this one…
Can I recommend the Isuzu D-Max 3.0TD double cab V-Cross 4x4? Well, it's a hard sell since while the V-Cross is a gorgeous bakkie, in terms of pricing on a spec-for-spec level (R835,100) it's taking a swing at some double cab titans: the Toyota Hilux 2.8GD-6 4x4 Legend auto (R824,900), the Ford Ranger 2.0 Bi-Turbo Wildtrak 4x4 (R832,100) and the Nissan Navara 2.5D PRO-4X 4x4 (R812,900). This while offering a characterful but outdated engine and very little else, bar some styling additions, to justify such a significant price mismatch.
Yes, it's reliable, mechanically bulletproof, pretty and comfortable, but many of these attributes are true for its competitors as well; while to a large extent, the competition offers better engine refinement and by extension better fuel economy.
I just keep scratching my head to find a singular justification for this overinflated price tag. Sure, there's a rolling bin cover, plenty of road presence and two-tone styling elements… Ditto with the competition. Furthermore, the local assembly of Isuzus should also translate into some savings, shouldn't it?
In any case, while the new Isuzu is a considerable step-up from the outgoing generation, I just can't wrap my head around the asking price, especially since this brand was once considered the go-to choice for tough and affordable.