In the last 15 years, the Isuzu D-Max has never been what we would consider as a top contender.
Whether we're talking about the first-generation model (since the transition from the Fuego) or the second generation, the D-Max has never been something we would call class-leading or game-changing. Isuzu was happily doing their own thing and offering customers a pick-up truck that they can depend on. They didn't seem to care too much to go for big headlines and were letting competitors trip over each other by one-upping for the best performance figures, the most advanced safety features, 4x4 capabilities, and winning the beauty contests.
I have a gut feeling that this all-new third-generation D-Max is about to turn that notion on its head. Isuzu wants to win on merit, and it really shows.
This D-Max we're driving is the LS-E, and it's the top trim grade of the new third-generation for the Philippine market. This truck really looks good, as Isuzu really worked to give the D-Max LS-E a lot of curb appeal.
We've known Isuzu to be conservative with design, but that doesn't seem to be the case with the new D-Max. I like the treatment of the front grille design, especially with those fangs. The LED headlights look really neat and have the DRLs integrated into them. The lower bumper is definitely not conservative, featuring a lot of neat and crisp creases and lines.
Perhaps what I like the most is that Isuzu didn't use much chrome on the LS-E; most of the other variants of the D-Max actually have some chrome on the grille and other external details, but none for the LS-E. They made use of gunmetal gray which is really my favorite color even when I was working on Tamiya model kits as a kid. You'll see more of that gray on the fender flares and door handles; and speaking of door handles, the ones on this LS-E do feel a bit too light to me; just a little plasticky.
The roof rails up top are very much functional unlike the ones on the Hilux Conquest (which are ornamental only). The roof and the rails on this LS-E can take up to 100kg of weight which is huge. I have a feeling Isuzu was able to achieve that rating thanks to the use of stronger steel for the critical parts of the D-Max like the cabin, the chassis, and more. And if you have to load stuff up there, you can make full use of the side steps; they don't creak even when I step on them.
The bed is fairly big even though double cab trucks aren't known for having big or long beds. I prefer using a tape measure to gauge the bed instead of referring to official figures, so what I found is that with the tailgate closed, this D-Max has a deck that measures 56 inches long (1.42 meters) with a maximum width of 58 inches (1.47 meters). The width between the wheelhouses is 43.5 inches (1.1 meters), and the height of the deck is 19.25 inches (0.48 meters). I don't measure up to the deck extender on this LS-E because it's just an accessory and doesn't really add any practical use because the tailgate isn't extended; just the sides.
The extender is something I'm not keen on, in the same way, I'm not a fan of faux bars (fake roll bars) or sports bars. I'm also iffy about the rear integrated bumper (previous ones used chrome bumpers). It could be better and could be tucked upward a bit more because that bumper might be a casualty if you go off-roading. The lowered step made the bumper protrude more downward and affect the departure angle. In more practical terms, that could snag on a rock.
The other thing is the wheel design and the tire selection. I'm not a fan of the wheel design that Isuzu chose; I feel it's too conservative for a truck that looks quite aggressive and forward; they could have gone with something that doesn't cover up the brakes so much. Also, while the brochure says the tires are all-terrain (Dunlop Grandtrek AT25) but these really look much more like highway tires so manage your expectations if you take it off-road. Isuzu may need to check on the specifications of the actual tire and correct the brochure.
Speaking of off-road, here are some key things to remember. This D-Max has a selectable four-wheel-drive system, and you can access it via a dial on the center stack. Minimum ground clearance is 240mm which would probably be the differential housing in the rear; that's usually the lowest point on most live axle/solid axle vehicles. If you also look at the rear diff, there's a breather hose that goes up to the side of the bed; it acts as a snorkel and prevents water from coming into the axle when crossing a river or a flood.
And speaking of water wading, the air intake of the D-Max has been raised up; the actual inlet port is above the front radiator support. It's 1 meter above the road, which gives the D-Max a maximum water wading rating of 800mm. Conservative, but with good reason.
While we're under the engine bay, this D-Max has a 4JJ3-TCX. It's an enhanced version of the 4JJ engine that we've come to know from Isuzu. The displacement hasn't changed, but they reworked the turbo and reduced friction within the engine to make it more powerful and more efficient. That's why it now makes 190 PS (+13 PS) and 450 Nm of torque (+70 Nm) over the 4JJ1 in the previous D-Max. The LS-E has a 6-speed automatic and, as mentioned earlier, has a 4WD system.
The interior is actually what really impressed me with the D-Max. Isuzu really stepped it up quite a bit because the predecessor D-Max was really plasticky. That's fine if you're looking for a cabin that's easy to clean, making it ideal as a serious 4x4 or a pure utility truck; but if you're looking for an alternative to a Ranger Wildtrak or a Strada GLS, then it was definitely behind.
This new one is much more like it with a far more cohesive look, soft-touch materials all around (i.e. top of the dash), better quality plastics, and enhanced functionality. I like the deeper cupholders between the two front seats, the improved buttons, and most especially the compartment up top with the button to open it now on the dash and not on the lid. If you drive a D-Max and an mu-X, you'll know what we're talking about. Actually, you'll also know if you drive a pre-facelift Trailblazer or Colorado; Isuzu was partnered up with GM for the previous-gen D-Max.
That is also something we need to delve into: Isuzu is now partnered up with Mazda for its pickup, and that is key. It may not say it on the brochure, but the changes are very significant if you've tried any of the newer generation Mazda models. The driving ergonomics are superb; actually, it's probably the best in the class now. It doesn't take too much adjusting to find a great and natural driving position. The driver's seat is also excellent, as is the placement of the buttons, the shifter, and the handbrake. I'm actually surprised they didn't use the floor-hinged accelerator pedal which is a normal feature on Mazda vehicles.
The rear seat is also really nice. The leather, the scalloping, the height; all are actually perfect. Isuzu also improved on the toe room in the back, particularly when getting in and out of the vehicle. There are even grab handles on the B-pillar to make ingress and egress easier.
For features, this D-Max (almost) has it all. Power everything, a color multi-info display, 12-volt outlets and USB charging ports, dual-zone climate control (with rear ventilation and a really nice control panel, by the way), and that huge 10.1-inch screen in the middle. Actually, I find the screen a bit too big, but it certainly is a nice touch. Bluetooth, USB input, Android Auto, and Apple Carplay are of course standard features, but the cherry on top is the 8-speaker surround sound system. If you're wondering where the extra 2 speakers are, they're on the ceiling.
There is also a long list of standard safety features like 7 airbags, ABS, EBD, traction control, stability control, and the like. The best bit is the ADAS, which is basically the advanced safety feature package that includes things like multi-collision braking, autonomous braking, and adaptive cruise control. The adaptive cruise control is perhaps most useful if you frequent Skyway 3; just set it to 60 km/h and you can somewhat relax and let it maintain a legal speed and a safe distance from the vehicle in front.
As a drive, the best word to describe the D-Max LS-E is balance. The ride, while not as comfortable as something like the facelifted Navara, is very good. Isuzu used a new rear leaf spring design to achieve that, toning down the bounciness of the back and matching it more closely with the manners of the front suspension. Actually, the front suspension has also been changed with better steel and revised geometry
The handling (when unladen) has definitely improved. Gone is the tendency of the D-Max to nosedive under hard braking and cornering. This one feels much more like it, and some of it can be attributed to the suspension upgrades and to the new and improved ladder frame which uses stiffer steel and has more cross-members. Isuzu even moved back the engine (supposedly) to bring it within the wheelbase for better handling.
The efficiency also won us over too. On the Skyway 3 at a steady 60 km/h, it was averaging 16.1 kilometers per liter. On city streets, the D-Max was doing over 10 kilometers per liter which is outstanding for a truck this big and this heavy.
I'm also pleased with the powertrain combo they have on this model. There's plenty of torque down low, and the gearing allows me to maintain 60 km/h at a very steady 1400 rpm. On a 0-100 km/h dash, the D-Max clocked in at a respectable 11.05 seconds (0.25 slower than the more powerful Hilux Conquest) and the braking felt very good too.
If I was to change something mechanically, I would have tossed in the electronic locking rear differential. This D-Max already covers a lot of the good stuff, but a 4x4 at this level should have the ability to lock the rear diff. As to why Isuzu left it out and put it in the 4x4 manual only is an odd decision, but that doesn't detract from the experience too much.
There's also the question of the engine's performance. The D-Max now has the biggest turbodiesel in the class after Ford ditched the 3.2L, but it has the lowest specific output. For every liter, the 4JJ3-TCX only produces 63.3 PS; that's lower than most -if not all- in the class. The Ranger models with the 2.0L bi-turbo make 106.5 PS per liter, while the smaller engines in the Navara, Hilux, and Strada are in the mid 70 PS per liter.
That is key because that means Isuzu isn't pushing the 3.0L at all. They're being conservative, and I think it's because they really want a reliable truck. By conservatively tuning an engine that is clearly able to handle more power than what it's doing, what they have is something that can last a long time. That doesn't mean the D-Max drives lazily (it doesn't), but it doesn't have to exert too much effort to and that's a good thing. That's how you make a reliable engine.
While the LS-E is priced high at PHP 1,825,000 (plus the safeguard deposit of PHP 123,200), I would pick it over the Hilux Conquest that costs PHP 1,830,000 (plus SG too) any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Without a doubt, the D-Max LS-E is an outstanding truck that balances what traditional Isuzu customers want like capability and durability, and tosses in what new customers have been asking for like a more enjoyable driving experience, better features, and safety, as well as a more premium vehicle, especially inside.
If the D-Max is this good, then I can't wait to see what the all-new mu-X is going to be like.