Isuzu vehicles are known to be sturdy, reliable and rugged. Isuzu trucks, pick-ups, SUVs and AUVs have proved steadfast and continue serving their purpose even well beyond their years. In fact, most of the jeepneys in this country are powered by surplus, rebuilt or rebuilt-again Isuzu engines. Such is the reason Isuzu was able to build its fiercely loyal customer bases in the Philippines, with several provinces being declared openly as "Isuzu country".

Like its predecessors, the new Isuzu D-Max pickup truck is built to deliver the same unquestionable service, which in turn, would undoubtedly generate additional customer loyalty. The new pick-up is taller, wider and more muscular than the Fuego. Its handsome façade is accentuated by a chrome grill with mesh inserts surrounded by large multi-reflector headlamps encased in clear lenses. Short front overhangs and fender flares add to the pickup truck's masculinity while chrome accented door handles and side mirrors add to its classiness. 16-inch 6-spoke alloy wheels wrapped in meaty 245/70R16 tires seem to further crease the muscles of this Isuzu.

Pick-ups are built for hauling and the D-Max is no exception. The wheelbase was increased to 3.050 meters to increase cabin room and rear bed dimensions. The bed boasts of the largest cargo capacity in its class (1.26 cubic meters) and more bed depth (30.5 inches) for superior loading capability. The rear is likewise accentuated with a chrome accented center-mounted tailgate handle with an integrated lock, chrome bumpers, large roof-mounted third brake light and stylish tail lamp clusters to continue its masculine yet classy theme.

The increased wheelbase of the D-Max translated into increased interior space. Headroom expanded by 23mm, front legroom grew by 42mm while the rear legroom increased by 60mm, giving its occupants added comfort and flexibility for the long ride. The driver grips a leather-wrapped 4-spoke steering wheel and faces an ergonomic dashboard that is a model of functional simplicity. All controls fall readily to hand and become easily intuitive even on the first drive.

Uh, let me rephrase that: Almost all controls fall readily to hand, with the audio system head unit being the only exception. Blame it on this writer's passion for elegant simplicity but the Clarion head unit installed in the Sandalwood Metallic D-Max 4X4 with 5-speed manual transmission test drive unit I was driving looked a bit garish for the elegantly simple dashboard and required a bit more familiarization to master its controls. One has to read and re-read the audio systems owner's manual to learn the controls while the displays on the LCD screen are too brightly backlit to be comprehended. The 6-speaker system sounds great though, once you've adjusted it to your liking, but I'd rather have the D-Max 4X2's 2-DIN CD/cassette/tuner with the two round knobs. Mechanized face plates, hidden displays and miniature buttons doesn't do justice to the D-Max's dash.

This little quibble was easily suppressed by the power reserves of the new D-Max. 130PS at 3,800 rpm and 28.5kg-m (4X2)/30.2 kg-m ((4X4) of torque at 2,000 rpm is generated by the new 4JH1-TC turbo-intercooled 3.0-liter direct injection 4-cylinder diesel engine managed by Isuzu's Computerized Controlled Fuel Injection System. The engine output is delivered to either a 5-speed manual (MUA-5G) or a four speed automatic transmission with overdrive (JR405E) with the 4X4 version getting a chain-driven shift-on-the-fly transfer case operated by push button controls on the dashboard. Braking force is provided by front ventilated discs and rear drums while the body-on-frame pickup is suspended by independent double wishbone suspension with torsion bar springs and stabilizer bar in front and live axle with semi-elliptic springs at the rear.

Driving the D-Max satisfied most of my expectations. The technology packed into this pick-up delivered what was expected; acceleration is fantastic, torque is great, hauling is easy and even when fully-laden, this Isuzu can fly off the bat. Its masculine looks attracted looks from almost everyone and its overall stature commanded respect. The safety conscious can feel secure with the dual front airbags and the myriad chassis and safety innovations.

However, the 5-speed manual tranny could use a numerically-lower top gear for highway driving because 120kph translates to a buzzy 2,800 rpm, considering the engine's 3,800rpm power peak. Likewise, the brakes could use a bit more bind because, in spite of the ABS, emergency braking maneuvers are still a little hairy. It's either that or the softer-sprung suspension just wallows when braking. And the ride, while softer and plushier than the Fuego 4X4, still feels bouncier compared to Ford's Ranger 4X4.

Overall, the new Isuzu D-Max is poised to maintain or even further increase Isuzu's leadership in the utility vehicle market. The D-Max represents exceptional value, technological superiority and backed by a trusted brand image that it takes "to the max!"