If there’s been one vehicle that’s stolen all the headlines in Australia this year, it’s the 2021 Isuzu D-Max. Sure, there are some big names that have broken the internet in other parts of the world – the Land Rover Defender and Toyota GR Yaris, for instance, both of which I hope to bring you reviews of soon – but here in ute-loving Australia, this all-new D-Max has been big business.
The first market to receive this new model outside of Thailand, where it’s made, the importance of this ute isn’t just because of our love of these tray-backed ladder-frame workhorses Down Under, but more so in my eyes because it marked a small company showing the market leaders at Ford and Toyota just how it’s done. Everyone loves an underdog, right?
Now, I’ve already had my fair share of seat time in the new D-Max between two LS-U models, the second-highest trim level in the range. The first, I drove as part of the media launch activities for the new model at Eagle View 4WD Track back in August, while the second one I got especially familiar with on a 2000km+ road trip to Coober Pedy and back through Quorn.
Naturally, then, given how well all of that had gone, when Isuzu asked me if I’d like to spend three whole weeks with the flashiest D-Max of them all that really got everyone talking – the X-Terrain range-topper finished in the fetching Volcanic Amber launch colour – I jumped at the opportunity, quickly starting to plan the many tests I wanted to do with it that I hadn’t had a chance to previously.
However, such is the way of the world in the year that was 2020, those plans were quickly derailed. A few days into my time with the big orange beast, coronavirus struck again. The – up to this point – largely virus-free state of South Australia, where I live, was plunged into one of the strictest lockdowns in the entire world after a cluster broke out in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. Although this ‘circuit breaker’ was cut short after just three days and life quickly returned to normal as the cluster was speedily contained and eradicated, my travel plans were all in the bin, and for the best part of a week the D-Max was simply used to haul a personal supply of face masks and hand sanitiser around, rather than anything that’d test its payload.
Not to worry, though. Doing some more adventuring and testing its towing and payload capabilities might have been off the cards, but these three weeks – at least for the moments I was allowed to drive the thing – meant I could spend some time simply living with this thing the way most owners will. And so, in the interests of fair and balanced journalism, allow me to start by intensely nitpicking.
While the D-Max packs a truly impressive amount of active safety technology into it – much more than many cars, let alone utes – it must be said that some of it can be immensely overbearing. The speed limit warning that accompanies its traffic sign recognition tech is one such example – leave it on the default setting and straying a mere 2km/h over the limit will result in it binging and bonging like a child’s new toy on Christmas morning. Mercifully, you can adjust this limit, and while I’m obviously not advocating for breaking the speed limit, even the cruise control allowing it to stray a mere couple of clicks over the limit on a downhill slope setting it off is incredibly tedious.
I love the fact that all models in the entire four-tiered lineup are fitted with wireless Apple CarPlay as standard, too, although there is a big problem here as well. There’s no wireless phone charger fitted to any variant, including this range-topper, meaning that while you do get the convenience of not having to plug your phone in to mirror it on the display, you do have the inconvenience of it going flat quicker as a result. Curiously, a wireless phone charger is available as an option on the largely-identical Mazda BT-50, so its absence from Isuzu’s option list is disappointing. Many out there will be keen to point out that heated seats are a Mazda-exclusive, too, leaving a pair of blank switches next to the shifter in even this most expensive D-Max variant.
Oh, and then there’s the remote start system fitted solely to this X-Terrain variant. While it fires into life from a distance just fine, the second you go to unlock your now-warmed-up vehicle, it’ll instantly turn off, no matter whether its unlocked from the button on the door handle or the key fob itself. A minor gripe, obviously, but it is annoying to have to fire it back up again a second time.
Then there’s perhaps the most minor complaint of all that I have. In the old model, there was an incredibly handy tray underneath the steering column that my wallet perfectly fitted into, while its absent from this new model to make way for a knee airbag.
And that brings me onto the nature of all this nitpicking – it’s just that, delving too deep to find things that bug me, because the simple truth of the matter is that you really do have to look hard to find something you don’t like about this bus. Sure, the majority of active safety systems out there are annoying, but I’d rather have them than not. I can live without a wireless phone charger if it means I’m getting Apple CarPlay at all. A lack of heated seats is hardly a deal-breaker. A minor irritation with the remote start system? Again, it’s a clever thing to have either way. Oh, and losing a storage tray for an airbag? I know which I’d rather have in, God forbid, a crash.
Clearly, then, for its minor omissions, the D-Max is an incredibly well-equipped piece of kit, and that’s before I’ve even mentioned features such as dual-zone climate control, push-button start, a power-operated driver’s seat, and even Level 2 semi-autonomous driving technology. And anyway, a few minor omissions are what facelifts and mid-life-cycle-updates exist for, so if you see a wireless phone charger added in a year or two’s time, don’t be surprised.
One of the key talking points with the X-Terrain, of course, is its looks, and my is it a tough cookie. The sail-plane sports bar, more aggressive lower front bumper, flared wheel arches, aerodynamic-looking fins by the rear bumper, and the roller tonneau cover are all fitted as standard to this model, and they definitely help it look the part. Go for the orange paint as well and you’ll really get everyone looking, although I think the lovely blue is what I’d go for if I was buying one. Either way, it’s a very sporty look that’s in keeping with the D-Max’s overall character, both in the way it drives and in the way it feels inside.
Inside, the incredibly comfortable and supportive bucket seats are now covered in perforated leather, rather than cloth, although I do have to nitpick again, here. While the leather is certainly plusher to sit on when you’re sticking to city streets, the LS-U’s cloth seats do feel far grippier when you’re off-roading, so just some food for thought. The black headliner fitted to the X-Terrain helps give the cabin an incredibly smart appearance, too, although a tiny splash of colour such as some contrast stitching, dashboard trim, or ambient lighting would step it up yet another notch. It’s a very classy and well-made cabin that belies this ute’s working credentials irrespective of those minor suggestions for improvement, though.
The one thing that goes totally unchanged from the rest of the D-Max range, though, is the X-Terrain’s running gear, which is certainly a good thing given its engine in particular is one of this ute’s biggest drawcards.
It’s a 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel – the biggest four-pot in the class – that makes 140kW and 450Nm, and although that torque output is dwarfed by the equivalent 2021 Hilux and Ranger models, its cleverly engineered torque curve means that real-world performance is near-identical.
In the X-Terrain model, a six-speed automatic made by Aisin is the only transmission available, although all other models are available with a six-speed manual. Similarly, four-wheel drive comes standard as well, with only the SX and LS-U available in 4×2 configurations.
While the 4JJ1 engine fitted to the old D-Max sounded as gruff as a perturbed grizzly bear, the largely re-engineered 4JJ3 fitted to this new model remains far quieter, particularly when cruising, and although it can start to get vocal in the higher reaches of the rev range, it’s a drastically marked improvement over the noise levels of before. More importantly, these 4J engines are built to last, with their origins in Isuzu’s N Series trucks, so it oughtn’t give you any headaches at all now between that and its now-reduced noise levels.
As I mentioned, the D-Max has a distinctly sportier feel than some of its rivals, as while it’s never going to have the darty handling of a minnow, its variable-ratio electric steering rack that weights up above 50km/h and its ride that does an impressive job of helping it remain pretty level through most bends does inspire a good deal of confidence.
There’s a touch of initial firmness to its ride that adds to the sporty flavour like a dash of hot sauce atop a taco, but as I learned on my Coober Pedy trip in the LS-U model, you’ll be able to spend thousands of kays behind the wheel without any backache at all.
As such, for a vehicle that – despite the insistence and argumentativeness of many 4×4 and ute owners – will spend the majority of time around town, particularly in flashy X-Terrain configuration, it feels perfectly suited to the task. The steering is light and easy in carparks, the suspension absorbs the majority of the impacts from dreaded speed bumps, and the sheer array of cupholders (with the pop-out ones on the dashboard being a personal favourite of mine) means you’ll have no trouble carrying the takeaway lattes you’ll inevitably be fetching in it with ease.
The X-Terrain’s standard-fit lockable roller tonneau cover proved to be a particularly useful bit of kit as well, as it meant that you could easily store any bags, eskys, or other items you were carrying back there away from the prying eyes and swift fingers of passers by. Admittedly, its operation wasn’t the smoothest when compared with the electric roller tonneau on a Ford Ranger, but once you got used to the rope and latch system of it you’ll find you’re gladder to have it than to not.
While at its $62,990 list price the X-Terrain does look to be pretty steep, the fact it’s been offered at $58,990 since launch really does sweeten the deal on it, as while it’s certainly a considerable chunk of change, you’re getting an awful lot of ute for it. Isuzu offers a decent ownership proposition for it as well with a six-year/150,000km warranty along with seven years of capped price servicing and roadside assistance. Do consider, though, that the largely identical Mazda BT-50 offers a warranty with no mileage cap but a slightly shorter five-year term, so if you’re going to be driving your ute an awful lot in a short period of time as a good number of ute owners do, that’s worth taking into account.
At this point, I feel like there’s not a lot I haven’t done with the new D-Max – across over 4000km of testing I’ve pitted it against rocky off-road trails, the red dirt in South Australia’s far north, seemingly-endless country roads, and now, finally, the daily grind in the urban jungle, and I think I can say with confidence it’s a mighty impressive thing. For the few improvements I think could be made come time to give it a facelift, none are deal-breakers at this stage as the D-Max really does leaves a lasting impression on you. As we exit 2020, this is the ute that has definitely left me the most impressed this year by a long shot.
2021 Isuzu D-Max X-Terrain List Price: $62,990 | Drive-Away Price: $58,990
Pros: Smart and sporty looks thanks to the X-Terrain’s unique exterior trim, leather upholstery and black headliner make for a classy interior finish, feels better suited to city driving than many rivals, strong value-for-money at its current drive-away price
Cons: Interior could do with a splash of colour, no wireless phone charger even as an option, some active safety systems can feel overbearing
In a nutshell: While previous testing had revealed the D-Max to be more than up to the task on the rough stuff, this plush and flashy X-Terrain model assures that it feels just as at home in the urban jungle as it does on the open road. The slick looks and classy interior help make the X-Terrain feel like a fitting range-topping specification as well.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Isuzu UTE Australia for three weeks with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel expenses were covered by the author.