Want a dressed-up Isuzu D-Max? Not on your lifestyle
ISUZU D-MAX LS
Base price: $58,990.
Powertrain and performance: 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four, 130kW/430Nm, 6-speed automatic, part-time 4WD, Combined economy 7.9 litres per 100km.
Vital statistics: 5295mm long, 1795mm high, 3095mm wheelbase, tray length 1485mm, width between wheel arches 1105mm, 17-inch alloy wheels with 255/60 tyres.
We like: Totally unpretentious, more gutsy powertrain in new model, useful sat-nav system.
We don't like: Relatively soft styling for a tough truck, only a $2k hop to better-equipped Colorado LTZ.
Orange is a very "now" colour for lifestyle pickup trucks. Doesn't seem to suit the Isuzu D-Max at all.
While the rest of the ute-world is passionately chasing urban and recreational buyers with models in leery colours with lots of body addenda, Isuzu Utes New Zealand has always been quietly proud that its buyers are more likely to live in the country and want a working truck than be out conquering kerbs in city streets.
That's why the company does not bother with a D-Max equivalent to the likes of dressed-up models like the Ford Ranger Wildtrak or Holden Colorado Z71. Even though such a model exists in Japan: the D-Max Z-Prestige.
No, in NZ our rather modest-looking D-Max LS test vehicle is pretty much the top of the tree, unless you want to really splash out on the LS-T package, which has roof rails, leather upholstery and 18-inch wheels.
The appeal of the D-Max is very much of the roll-your-sleeves-up variety, so don't expect to be wowed by logo-decals and luxury equipment in the latest model (RT87 in Isuzu-speak). Aside from a mildly tweaked front, the big change is a heavily revised 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine, with new internal components (including pistons) and technology like exhaust gas recirculation and particulate diffuser to help it meet Euro 5 emissions.
None of this is entirely tangible when you're in the driver's seat. But the cleaner-running powertrain does bring more torque (up 50Nm to 430Nm at 2000rpm) and driveability is enhanced by the shift to a six-speed automatic transmission (choose manual and you also get six cogs).
More pulling power also brings the D-Max a bit more cred against the competition, because numbers do matter in the world of utes. It's now within striking distance of the Mitsubishi Triton (437Nm) and a maximum output that starts with a "4" maintains honour against the Toyota Hilux (450Nm) and Ranger (470Nm). Colorado still twists its way to victory among the diesel fours with 500Nm, though.
The D-Max diesel sounds a little gruff but performs with a good deal of verve, revving freely and well-supported by the new six-speeder.
In 4WD models you can shift from 2WD to 4-High "on the fly" with a simple rotary controller, at speeds of up to 100kmh; the RT87 model has also gained hill descent control for the first time. Tow rating for the D-Max across the range is 3500kg. Of course.
While the cabin is big on durable plastic and short on design-detail, there are more than a few home-comforts included in the new D-Max. The most impressive is a new eight-inch touch screen that includes an excellent sat-nav system with Suna traffic information, as used by Toyota and Hyundai. Perhaps the D-Max can tackle city streets after all.
The cabin's actually quieter than the previous model thanks to extra sound insulation, or it can be noisier if you take advantage of the new eight-speaker sound system. It's still not exactly premium sound, but not terrible either. Dual USB ports in the back are another addition to LS and above.
In this day of flashy light commercials, the weird thing about the D-Max is that it's actually a bit of a feel-good proposition. During our week with the truck everybody seemed to give the Isuzu brand the thumbs-up and there seemed to be genuine admiration for a decently specified pickup truck that wasn't trying its hardest to be a high-end SUV. Even among city-dwellers.
If you're at all sentimental about utes (who isn't?), this particular shape of D-Max will be significant in the future as the last vestige of a relationship between Isuzu and GM/Holden that stretches back over four decades. Isuzu's pickup truck was sold as the Holden Rodeo from 1980-2008 and when GM divested itself of its shareholding in the Japanese company, the ute (and light-commercial partnership) carried on as the Colorado.
The current generation of Colorado and D-Max, launched in 2012, still share a platform and basic body shape. In 2013, the two companies even announced a project to develop the next-generation ute together.
But in 2016 the partnership bottomed out for good. A media statement issued by GM in July said: "Both GM and Isuzu agree due to unique requirements for each company, joint development of the next-generation midsize pickup truck is no longer the optimal model for this project."
Translation: GM wants to move upmarket, Isuzu wants another no-nonsense ute.
Isuzu's next one-tonner, due in 2020, will be a joint development with Mazda. Who's doing which parts? Nobody seems to know at this stage. But it's a fair guess that Isuzu will be rolling its sleeves up and doing the oily bits.