Review and road test of the Isuzu D-Max (2012 - 2017)
RUGGEDNESS TO THE MAX
By Jonathan Crouch
When Isuzu replaced its aging Rodeo pick-up with this much more modern D-Max model in 2012, it finally became a credible force to be reckoned with in the growing UK pick-up sector. The tough 2.5-litre turbo diesel beneath the bonnet can haul and tow hefty loads through the wildest terrain you're likely to come across and there are three bodystyles to suit a wide range of buyers. Smart, tough and very affordable, it's a potentially very sensible used market choice.
4dr pick-up (2.5 diesel [Single Cab 2WD & 4WD / Extended Cab 4WD / Double Cab 4WD])
If you want a job done properly, you call in a specialist. And when the job in question is that of creating a reassuringly over-engineered pick-up, then for British buyers, the specialist in question is undoubtedly Isuzu. Japan's oldest vehicle manufacturer is the only brand on the UK market that for decades has dedicated itself to the very specific needs of pick-up people, with rugged, utilitarian TF and then Rodeo models that were light on lifestyle but tough to beat. Which was fine if all you wanted was a dependable workhorse to lug things around. But not so good for those in search of something that could be a little more car-like at the end of the day, something like this, the Isuzu D-Max pick-up that was introduced in 2012.
'Car-like' might be over-stating things a bit. To be truly 'car-like', this vehicle would need to compromise hefty underpinnings that remain perfectly suited to the working week. But within the confines of the kind of vehicle a pick-up of this kind can be, the post-2012 D-Max represented a huge dynamic step forward for its brand - as it needed to to match competitors of the calibre of Ford's Ranger, the Volkswagen Amarok, the Toyota Hilux and the Nissan Navara. Compared to its Rodeo predecessor, it was safer, more powerful, more spacious and much better looking, with lower running costs, extra equipment and more off-road capability.
This D-Max sold until the Spring of 2017, when it was replaced by an updated model featuring a more efficient 1.9-litre diesel engine.
What You Get
Styling hasn't been a priority for Isuzu pick-ups in the past that offered rugged, squerical shapes, big wheels, lots of chrome - and not a lot else. In a segment now increasingly reaching out to the lifestyle market, a bit more effort was required this time round, hence this post-2012 D-Max model's adoption of a more rakish, wedgier shape that was supposed to look 'tough, poised and ready for work'. This meant a larger front grille on a front end decorated with daytime running lights and flowing into an A-pillar that was moved forward by 100mm and set at a more acute angle leading to the lowered roofline. At the rear, you'll find a set of largest-in-class tail lamps, which feature LEDs on higher-specification models.
Climb inside, easier than you might expect thanks to wide-opening doors, and you're greeted by an interior that's hard-wearing and cleanly styled. It's not easy to get the cabin right on a vehicle of this kind. If it's too plush, it'll be rejected by operators who are looking for a properly tough working vehicle. Too basic and you won't attract private buyers who'll be looking to drive the vehicle themselves. In this D-Max, there's a decent balance between these two extremes, starting with a chunky three-spoke steering wheel that feels good in your hands and features wheel-mounted controls on most versions.
We're not quite so sure about the air conditioning and ventilation system of plusher variants, controlled by buttons in a rather unusual circular array which sits below the stereo. We found it a bit distracting at first because we had to takeour eyes off the road to make adjustments, but after a while it becomes second nature. We still think though, that we prefer the rather less stylish but ergonomically superior chunky dials of the lower trim models. At least the switchgear features buttons are broad and chunky so that you can easily operate them with freezing cold hands or when wearing thick gloves.
Though the front doorbins could be bigger, otherwise storage space around the cabin is much improved on that of older Isuzus, with a lockable glovebox, a deep lidded box between the seat, a pop-up compartment on top of the dashboard, a shelf beneath the steering column and a sunglasses holder above the windscreen. Plus there are enough cupholders for an in-car Expresso gathering.
You even get them in the back, a much more comfortable place to be than you might expect, thanks to the extra vehicle length and the longer wheelbase of this generation model that facilitate additional head, leg and shoulder room. Plus the seat back is less vertically inclined than it was on the previous Rodeo model, facilitating greater comfort on longer journeys. A trio of three-point belts and headrests are provided but in truth, three adults would be a little squashed in the back on longer journeys. One nice touch is the way that 60/40 split-folding rear seats enable you to more flexibly use the rear passenger space for packages, should you so wish. Additional storage compartments in the floor under the rear-seat base are also useful for keeping things out of harm's way.
On to the loading practicalities, which we'll base around the double cab variant that most UK customers chose. At around 5.3m long, this is certainly a pretty large vehicle, so you won't be surprised to flip down the sturdy drop-down tailgate (which can only retract to horizontal level because of the chunky bumper) and find a pretty substantial cargo area on offer. You'll find a space 1485mm long, 1530mm wide and 465mm in depth easily big enough for a euro pallet which can slide in the 1110mm-wide space between the wheelarches.
A load liner is standard on plusher versions and there are four tie-down points to stop loads from moving around, which is just as well as this vehicle doesn't offer a ladder rack behind the cab to protect the driver if all else fails and something really heavy slides forward. As for weight, well, you'll be able to cope with a payload of between 1,058 and 1,136kg, depending on the model you choose. The highest payload capacity can be found in the single cab model as it weighs less than the double cab variant.
What else? Servicing is every 12,000 miles or 24 months. And insurance? Well it's group 9A or 10A, dependent on trims, for the double cab models. On the eco front, the CO2 emissions figure is a very respectable 194g/km and there's a dual Exhaust Gas Recirculation system to cut down on NOx Nitrogen Oxide emissions.
As for day-to-day running costs, well you'd expect the world's largest manufacturer of diesel engines to be able to create a unit capable of keeping these reasonably in check. Sure enough, this very efficient common-rail Euro 5-compliant unit can return a class-leading 38.2 mpg on the combined fuel economy cycle. Isuzu reckons that the class-leadingly slippery 0.47Cd drag co-efficient helps that figure quite a bit, a shape they developed in the wind tunnel of the Japan Railway Research Institute, the place where the famous Bullet Train was born.
What to Look For
There are plenty of satisfied D-Max owners out there, but we did come across a few who had issues. In one case, an owner complained that the engine wouldn't rev; it's an issue that tends to relate to faults with either the connector to the throttle position sensor or the crank angle sensor. In another instance, the owner concerned noticed a knocking sound that set in when coming to a halt in a D-Max that had covered about 20,000 miles. Another owner had a problem with a water-logged diff that entailed the need for an expensive replacement. And another buyer complained of a camshaft chain/ oil pressure-related noise from the engine. There were also a few instances of niggling radio head unit faults. Otherwise, the only issues are the ones common to all pick-ups. So check that the loadbay doesn't have too many scrapes and dents. And look underneath the vehicle for signs of over-enthusiastic off roading.
(approx based on a 2013 D-Max) A pair of brake discs cost in the £25 to £34 bracket, while a pair of pads tend to retail in the £22 to £25 bracket. For a wiper blade, you're looking in the £4 to £10 bracket. For a fuel filter, expect to pay in the £6 to £12 bracket. A wheel bearing kit will cost you in the £20 to £30 bracket.
On the Road
Have you ever bought something and found it a bit under-specified for the job you had in mind? Annoying isn't it? Sometimes it's good to choose something quite the opposite. A watch, say, that's waterproof to 200 metres. Maybe a quad-band mobile phone. Or perhaps this Isuzu D-Max pick up. This thing feels completely bullet-proof in a way that only the more expensive Toyota Hilux can match. And it's got far more pulling power than 'Top Gear's' favourite, despite costing no more to run.
Pulling power in fact, is the first thing you notice about this D-Max once out on the road. Though there's only a single four cylinder 2.5-litre engine choice on offer in the pre-2017 version of this model, it's exactly the kind of powerplant you'd want in a vehicle of this kind from this era, with 163PS on tap and, more importantly, 400Nm of torque from just 1,400rpm, the kind of grunt that makes low speed urban work easy and tough muddy inclines straightforward. It's also a major reason why this vehicle can tow a braked trailer of up to 3.0-tonnes - not quite as much as a comparable Ford Ranger but usefully more than an equivalent Hilux or Mitsubishi L200.
On the move, this engine isn't the most refined of its type but it's a big step forward from older Isuzu units in this respect, helped by the fact that the designers went to a lot of trouble to soundproof both the cabin and the engine bay to what they hoped were passenger car-like standards. In fact, everything about this vehicle is more cultured than buyers of its predecessor, the Rodeo, will remember. The steering for a start. It isn't what you'd call sharp but it's better than you might expect in a pick-up and can facilitate a reasonably tight turning circle that's 11.8m in the 2WD model and 12.2m in the 4x4.
Also better than you might expect is the shift quality of the six speed manual transmission or, if you prefer, the five-speed auto 'box. Whichever of the two you select, opt for an all-wheel driven variant and there are certainly plenty of choices in using it, with a set of high range gears you can use in either for two and four-wheel drive and a low range gear ratio option for the really mucky stuff. Most of the time, you'll be driving on tarmac with two driven rear wheels, a configuration that offers better economy and extra steering feel.
Not enough to make you want to chuck this vehicle around mind you. Plonk your boot on the throttle with an empty loadbay and a wet roundabout and you'll unsettle this pick-up just as you would any other as the laws of physics go to work. The leaf-sprung rear end can also feel a bit fidgety on country lanes but in both scenarios, as is usual with this kind of vehicle, things are much improved if you're carrying a bit of weight in the back.
Certainly the coil springs and dampers which carry the front axle in this design do a much more effective job than the crude torsion bar system used by the old Rodeo model. That vehicle had the same rugged ladder-framed chassis you'll find in this one but there the similarities between the two vehicles largely end. The i-GRIP (or 'Isuzu Gravity Responsive Intelligent Platform') underpinnings of this D-Max are 42% stiffer than the old Rodeo chassis, helped by improved cross bracing at the rear, which offers better stability under load and when towing.
For wet or icy tarmac or light off piste work, you can take the opportunity, at up to 60mph, to twist the provided centre console dial and select high range all-wheel drive. It takes a second or so for the front wheels to engage but when they do, the D-Max feels notably more sure-footed on the slippery stuff. Of course, once in a while, you'll need to do more, occasions on which you'll be further twisting this dial to engage the full low-range four wheel drive mode, something that can only happen when the vehicle's stopped.
In this mode, you really do get an incredibly accomplished off roader, aided by a well chosen first gear ratio that's an ideal 'crawler gear' over rough terrain on which you'll appreciate ground clearance that at 235mm is much higher than you get with most other rival pick-ups. In extremis, you'll also benefit from very useful approach and departure angles, respectively 30 and 22-degrees. There's also a 22-degree ramp angle and a maximum transversing angle of 49-degrees.
And in deep mud? Well, a clever brake traction control system, developed to replace the old Rodeo's limited slip differential, helps here no end. If you've only one front wheel with meaningful traction, a scenario in which the Rodeo would often get stuck, this set-up will figure out that it needs to send drive to that wheel and will crawl you out of trouble. You can also disengage the system for those moments when you want to deliberately generate wheelspin to cut through a slippery top surface in order to gain traction.
If you thought Isuzu pick-ups were a bit rough and ready, it's about time you gave the D-Max a try. Once this brand was really one reserved for the requirements of pure commercial operators. These days though, it'll also suit private buyers looking for an all-terrain utility vehicle that can play the lifestyle card.
But how does it stack up in its crowded market? Very well actually. Pricewise, it's one of the best value choices in the class and with this post-2012 design, Isuzu's appeal in the pick-up sector was broadened to suit the sort of buyer who would previously have automatically looked to a Nissan Navara or a Toyota Hilux. The sort of person who might not be considering this D-Max. But probably should be.
Isuzu D-Max (2012 - 2017) review by Jonathan Crouch