Australia is ute country. Our top-selling vehicle in May was a ute, the morning commute is packed with utes, the weekend beach run is dominated by them and we are the second-biggest market in the world for Isuzu's D-Max ute, after Thailand where it's made.
We were led to believe the new D-Max would be a totally separate platform to the Holden Colorado (and previously Rodeo). However, the two still share chassis, body panels and much of the interior, except for instruments and some features. That's not a bad thing; the new Colorado is a bolder, bigger, safer, more powerful and frugal machine and so is the D-Max.
Isuzu Ute Australia spokesman Dave Harding says prices are up "slightly" even though it has much more safety and creature features. The new D-Max starts at $27,200 for the manual single cab chassis model which previously cost $25,100.
"But you get a lot more car for your money," Harding says.
Prices now range up to $51,700 for the new five-speed auto LS-Terrain, almost $10,000 more than the previous flagship model. The top-spec car not only has a reversing camera, but also leather upholstery and a satnav system with 10,000 off-road destinations and live traffic updates. Colorado doesn't have satnav available.
Value is further increased by a doubling of the service intervals to 20,000km and one year. Isuzu does not have fixed-price servicing like some of its competitors such as Holden, although they are "considering it".
The biggest difference between the Isuzu and Holden is in the powertrain. While the Colorado has two diesel engines: a 2.5-litre (110kW/350Nm) and a 2.8-litre (132kW/470Nm), Isuzu has refined its 3.0-litre diesel engine for more power (130kW up from 120kW) and torque (380Nm up from 333Nm).
Meanwhile, fuel consumption is down from 9L/100km to 8.1-8.3, which is better than Holden's more powerful unit. It still has a five-speed manual transmission, but it has developed a super-smooth and responsive five-speed auto to replace its somewhat outdated four-speed box. While Holden has a six-speed auto, the extra gear really isn't missed in the Isuzu. Tradies will welcome iPod and Bluetooth connectivity throughout the range.
It is longer, wider, bigger inside, with a larger tray and more muscular, flared guards, just like the Holden. But with that bold chrome grille and big door handles - all the better for tradies wearing gloves to operate - somehow it seems more purposeful.
"A tool, not a toy," says Harding.
Aerodynamics were tested in the same wind tunnel used for the Japanese Bullet train and have been improved for a quieter ride and better economy. Beach anglers and off-roaders will welcome the increased clearance and better approach, departure and breakover angles.
Isuzu has joined Holden in hoping their new utes will join the Ford Ranger, Mazda BT50 and Volkswagen Amarok with a maximum five stars in the Australian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP).
While there is no schedule yet for ANCAP testing, Isuzu believes its new model will record maximum safety stars. Harding says the D-Max will have "the same safety features or better than its competitors".
"We're aiming for the highest possible score," he says.
"But we're not speculating on scores and there is no schedule yet for testing."
The superseded D-Max has a poor three-star rating against much of the competition which has four stars. However, with the federal government and BHP Billiton recently announcing their fleets will be all five-star vehicles, Isuzu needs to score maximum points. Harding says the improvements are largely in the area of pedestrian safety which held its current scores down.
The new model features recessed headlamps, impact absorbing bonnet and front design that will lift a pedestrian rather than run over them. It also comes with six airbags across the range, stability control and advanced brakes in all models and a reversing camera in the new top-of-the-line LS-Terrain model.
Isuzu launched the D-Max with a comprehensive and varied drive from Port Douglas in North Queensland. It included straight highway, twisting tarmac, rainforest gravel roads, sandy creek banks and some radical clay and loam hills. On the highway, the new aerodynamics and extra sound dampening in the cabin made for a quiet drive while the longer wheelbase makes it more composed and stable.
The twisty tar revealed a settled vehicle with slightly less "squishy" suspension than before. It's still a small truck, but it behaves with more car-like handling thanks to its independent front suspension, stiffer rear leaf springs and more rigid chassis. Up these mountain passes, the extra torque of the diesel engine is perfectly matched to the spread of gears in both the manual and auto.
Hitting the gravel road didn't increase the cabin noise greatly although we are concerned about the life of some of the flimsy wheelarch plastics. Here the ute was fun in rear-wheel drive, but safe and predictable in high-range four-wheel drive which can be selected on the fly up to 100km/h. Even with tyre pressures at normal road levels, the ute churned effortlessly through deep sand in low-range 4WD.
It also tackled some of the steepest ascents and descents thanks to its traction aid system which brakes free-spinning wheels and delivers traction where needed. The Clarion satnav and entertainment system is a delight to use in the new top-spec LS-Terrain, but it means it loses the audio controls from the steering wheel.
Cabin comfort is fine for five adults in the crew cab, which will be the most popular variant, and there is added practicality in the space cab now with "suicide" (front-opening) rear doors that include the structural B pillar. The interior is very similar to the Colorado, even down to the hard and cheap-looking plastics. The only real difference is the satnav and some of the instruments.
Isuzu has refined the product, added more features and most importantly increased safety making this ute a must-consider for families and fleets.
Isuzu D-Max Crew, Single & Space Cab
Prices: from $27,200-$51,700
Warranty: 3 years/100,000 km
Service interval: 20,000km/12 months
Safety rating: 4 or 5 stars
Engine: 3.0-litre turbo-diesel 4-cyl, 130kW/380Nm
Transmission: 5-speed auto and manual; RWD/4WD
Body: 5-5.3m (L); 1.7-1.9m (w); 1.7-1.8m (h)
Towing: 3 tonne
Thirst: 8-8.3L/100km; 212-220g/km CO2