This all-new Isuzu D-Max is exciting

If we were to do a rundown of all Isuzu models in the last 20 years, we would find boatloads of solid and reliable diesel vehicles that served their owners faithfully. Many are probably still running on the road. Isuzus are dependable, no question about it.

There is a word we generally don't use for Isuzu, though: exciting. Yes, we can count on an Isuzu to get the job done, but their vehicles haven't been too exciting in terms of drive. Actually, not since the Gemini fastback/coupe have we found an Isuzu that's enjoyable to drive, but those are too few and far in between.

That may all change with the new generation Isuzu D-Max which will be available at dealerships starting on the fifth of March. Isuzu gave us a preview of the vehicle in Tagaytay, and while the driving is limited (not enough for a proper full review), we walked away with a realization: the D-Max is going for the win.

Whether we're discussing the looks, the engineering, the interior, the features, the safety, the ergonomics, the functionality, and the capability, the D-Max has been improved significantly. We believe this new generation is the biggest leap forward for Isuzu's midsize pick-up. Ever.

These vehicles are meant for work, so design often takes a backseat compared to functionality and capability. But with the new D-Max, Isuzu aims for a more lifestyle type of pick-up owner; the kind that needs a truck as a carry-all if and when the need arises, but has to be stylish, modern, and comfortable for everyday use in the city or beyond. Reconciling those two primary traits of a “lifestyle truck” is tricky in itself, but we think Isuzu pulled it off exceptionally well.

On the outside, the D-Max looks like a thorough reskin of the model, and it is in many ways. The body looks nice and cleanly cut with crisp character lines and details.

The hexagonal grille is gun metallic for this LS-E variant and has two bars that appear to have fangs. The headlights are striking and new and are hi-low LED projectors in this LS-E (and for the LS 4x4 manual); other variants get multi-reflector halogens. The LED DRLs look good too.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

Also, the fender flares complement the vehicle nicely. There are side steps for easier ingress and egress. The LS-E has a 4x4 decal at the back, and all models get new taillights. The bumper is neatly integrated into the design of the vehicle. It's not one of those chrome pieces that appear separate from the truck itself.

We were surprised that Isuzu didn't go for much chrome in the range-topping D-Max LS-E. In the past, Isuzu went for more chrome in their vehicles, especially the top-of-the-line units, but not with this one. For more chrome, you can opt for the LS 4x4 manual. One thing we're not a fan of with the D-Max LS-E is the wheel design; it's a bit too dish-type for our liking, but that can be swapped out without a problem. Oh, and the LS 4x4, 4x2 LS-A, and this LS-E get all-terrain (A/T) tires, so those are definitely worth remounting onto other wheel options. The lower grades get highway tires (H/T) as standard equipment.

But the D-Max isn't about winning a beauty pageant. This vehicle is about being able to carry.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

The bed (or deck, depending on how you wish to refer to it) is slightly larger than the previous model. The maximum width within the bed hasn't changed at 1530mm. However, the length has changed at 1570mm (previous: 1552mm), and the height is bumped up to 490mm (previous: 465mm). The space between the wheel arches has also been improved slightly to 1122mm (previous: 1105mm).

You also have the option of loading stuff on the roof if need be. Those roof rails -while purely decorative on some trucks like the Hilux Conquest- are functional on the D-Max. Isuzu says the roof rails can take on 100 kg of cargo. While that may already factor in the roof rack, that's still a lot. If you're the type that's thinking about fitting an awning and a rack to a pick-up, this might be a good option.

Then there's the capability. For starters, you have ground clearance. The standard height variants like the 4x2 LT and Single Cab have a clearance of 195mm. The high rider mid-grade versions such as the 4x4 LT and the 4x2 LS have 235mm of clearance. The high-grade models such as the LS-A, LS 4x4 MT, and this LS-E have even more at 240mm, 5mm more than previous models.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

For those that like to go off-road, the D-Max high rider vehicles have been improved on nearly all fronts in terms of numbers. The approach angle is better at 30.5 degrees (+0.5), the departure angle is now at 24.2 degrees (+1.5), and the ramp breakover is at 23.8 degrees (+1.4).

Isuzu achieved these improvements because they lengthened the wheelbase to 3125mm (+30mm) but shortened the body to 5277mm (-18mm). That allowed Isuzu to reduce the overhang in front for a better approach angle and reduce the rear overhang by 45mm as well.

The huge improvement in capability -something that's very relevant for the Philippine market- is the water wading capability, and you can spot it in the engine bay. In the older D-Max, Isuzu was only really able to claim a 600mm water wading depth. That's because of the position of the air intake that was lower down the engine.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

In the new D-Max, they added a kind of mini-snorkel that elevates the air inlet for the intake system to the top of the engine bay, just above the radiator. This improvement immediately boosts Isuzu's claim: the D-Max can confidently wade through 800mm of water. They even added a snorkel/breather tube for the rear differential; that means water, mud, and debris will have a tougher time to get into the diff.

There are two engine options in the D-Max. As before, they have the RZ4E 1.9-liter turbodiesel with 150 PS and 350 Nm of torque. It's used in four D-Max variants: the LS 4x2 with a six-speed A/T, the LS and LT 4x2 with a six-speed M/T, as well as the Single Cab model. The remaining five variants get the new 3.0-liter engine.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

We've become familiar with the 4JJ1 over the years (decade, actually), but the one in the D-Max has been thoroughly improved on the inside, so much so that Isuzu now calls it the 4JJ3-TCX. The displacement hasn't changed, but they've worked to make it more efficient through reduced friction, and thus more powerful. The engine now makes 190 PS (+13 PS) and 450 Nm of torque (+70 Nm) over the 4JJ1 in the previous D-Max.

While the RZ4E is purely 4x2, the 4JJ3 can be matched with a 4x4 or a 4x2 system. The transmission options for both power units include a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic from Aisin. The 3.0L 4x4 LS with the manual transmission has an electronic locking diff in the back for more serious off-roading, but the LS-E does not come with that.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

More than the looks and more than the engine, there are two more major improvements for the D-Max, and the chassis and all the other undercarriage bits and pieces represent major lunges forward for the model.

The frame is different and has been upgraded significantly with the extensive use of high-strength steel (46%) and the new eight-crossmember design (previous: six). We didn't get the exact number, but this means the D-Max has better torsional rigidity. And the use of better steel resulted in a weight savings of 8 kg despite the extra crossmembers.

But wait, there's more. The rear suspension has been revised too with a new leaf spring design. We actually removed the front and rear wheels during our shoot to show you (check the video,) but the new leaf springs are intended to be better for comfort and noise management overall. The front suspension has also been heavily revised with an enhanced double wishbone system. The major changes are with the thickness of the steel and the geometry.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

The brakes have been uprated. The rear drums haven't changed, but the front discs are much bigger at 320mm. The previous model had 300mm discs in front. Yes, the D-Max has really good foundations, much like a solidly-built house.

Some may say that improvements are just for car geeks (like us) but step inside and be prepared to enter a whole new world, especially if you're familiar with the previous D-Max. The new one is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor.

Visually, the interior appears premium. The dashtop is actually upholstered in brown leather, and the contrast stitching is real. The leather might be (or is probably) synthetic, but still very nice. The materials used in terms of plastics are just better overall; the plastics are solid and don't seem brittle and cheap. No, cheap isn't what we would use to describe the interior materials.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

Everything feels natural and intuitive, particularly with the controls. The feel of the steering wheel is fantastic, as is the new automatic gear selector. The sport mode is to the right, not the left; clearly, that's a common part with right-hand drive markets like Thailand, where this truck comes from.

The instrument cluster is a huge improvement with the clearer dials and a nicer color multi-info display screen; the previous model had a red monochrome LCD only. The climate control panel is better with up/down toggles. The buttons and switchgear have been enhanced overall, despite the many empty or blank spaces where other features would have been. My main criticism so far is the parking brake; the scalloping on the console near the parking brake button has a rather rough bit that can scrape your hand if you pull too hard or abruptly.

For storage, it has larger bottle holders on the doors; Isuzu says it can take on 1.5-liter water bottles. There are still cupholders on the sides next to the air vents, and there's a deeper cupholder aft of the handbrake. The glove compartment is still a split type with an upper and a lower. The armrest compartment isn't that big, but decent. The dashtop compartment is still there, but it's been improved too; the button has been moved to the dash, so the door doesn't stay closed when you press it like before.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

The audio unit is a locally-installed AVT system; it's a 10.1” touchscreen unit with navigation, USB input, Bluetooth, Apple Carplay, and Android Auto. There's no CD player so leave your collection at home. This audio unit is standard for all variants except for the LT and Single cab which have a single DIN unit. While most vehicles have a 6-speaker system but the D-Max LS-E has is an 8-speaker surround system. The extra two speakers are on the ceiling.

Three things aren't so obvious until you start paying attention. Let's start with the safety equipment. For the LS-E, there's an enhanced safety suite in the vehicle. There are seven airbags in this vehicle; the other variants only get two. ABS, EBD, and BA are standard for all versions except the Single Cab. All LS variants or higher have stability control, traction control, hill start assist, and hill descent control.

But the LS-E steps it up with ADAS or Advanced Driver Assist System; this means it has next-generation safety features like forward-collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, front and rear parking sensors, a multi-collision brake system, and many more. Some versions get a few of those features, but most are really in the LS-E. There are too many to mention, so it may be better to check the brochure.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

The second thing is the rear seat. Isuzu improved on the comfort for the rear passengers with rear air vents and a USB port, but the more fundamental upgrade is when you get in and out of the back. Isuzu increased the gap between the B-pillar and the rear seat, giving you more toe room to get in and out. Also, they put in a pair of grab handles; that was a request from many Isuzu customers worldwide.

The third is the driving ergonomics, and we think much of it is because of Isuzu's partnership with another automaker: Mazda.

Before, Isuzu was teamed up with General Motors, specifically Chevrolet, to co-develop the D-Max and Colorado. At the same time, Mazda was teamed up with Ford for the BT-50 and Ranger. But both parties have since separated from their previous beaus. That freed up Isuzu and Mazda to work together for D-Max and BT-50.

Based on what we saw with the D-Max, that was the perfect move because Isuzu has a solid reputation as a reliable diesel and truck specialist, while Mazda has a reputation for superb ergonomics (AKA: Jinba Ittai). And with the D-Max, you can feel that influence when you sit behind the wheel; the driving position is natural and comfortable. If you take the D-Max on a long drive, you'll know.

Isuzu D-Max first impression image

What we're really curious about is how the Mazda influence helped make the D-Max drive better. Around a bend, it just feels much more composed and confident. Much of that can probably be attributed to the stiffer frame, the enhanced suspension, and the more powerful engine. But one not-so-obvious change is the way Isuzu moved the powertrain back a bit to shift more of the weight within the wheelbase. That helps with controlling body roll, something that we know the older D-Max had in boatloads.

Our time with the D-Max is limited. We don't have the time for a full-on review because we were in Tagaytay Highlands. There isn't much space, we can't take it off-road, nor do we have the space for proper fuel economy drives or performance tests. The guards here would probably intercept us if we tried to do our 100 to 0 braking tests in this property, so we'll save those all for another full review later on.

We can really only speak for the LS-E that we were able to inspect. It is the most premium model. Still, it's a level-up in so many ways. Actually, in every way, it's better, and by a huge margin.

What we think Isuzu did with this pick-up is this: they future-proofed themselves.

This is a product that -by initial impressions- will likely be very strong for the next 5-8 years (or more) of its production life. That's because they built a pick-up that marries the capability, durability, and utility that Isuzu has been known for. Isuzu also tossed in the better qualities of the right partner to take it even further such as a much better drive, better ergonomics, and many more.

This D-Max is the result of a match made in automotive heaven. And yes: this Isuzu is exciting.