A POSITIVE INFLUENCE

Australia’s love affair with the Japanese brand’s tough workhorse remains strong.

WORDS JUSTIN WALKER

THE ISUZU D-MAX has been a runaway sales success for the Japanese company since its 2008 launch in Australia. It has steadily climbed up the local 4x4 ute sales ladder to an impressive sixth position in 2016, finishing ahead of Mazda’s BT-50 and Volkswagen’s Amarok. The D-MAX was only just pipped for fifth position by Nissan’s former sales king, the Navara, with less than 400 sales separating the two. That’s an even more impressive result when you compare the respective model range of these two vehicles.

With this type of result, combined with the impressive sales performance of the MU-X 4x4 wagon since its late 2013 debut, you’d think Isuzu UTE Australia (IUA) would be happy to rest on its laurels and retain the status quo. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the company’s determination to grow sales further was more than evident at the recent launch of the 2017 D-MAX and MU-X (officially called the MY16.5 variant, as it receives the new engine but not the exterior styling/design tweaks the MY17 D-MAX does).

The biggest news from the launch is the all-new, Euro-5-compliant, 3.0-litre common-rail turbo-diesel powerplant, developed exclusively for Isuzu’s Australian market. The engine – official moniker: 4JJ1-TC Hi-Power – carries over the 130kW output from the previous-gen and significantly ups torque. The newbie’s 430Nm at 2000-2200rpm is not only 50Nm higher than previous, but is now available across a far wider rev-range, with 380Nm on tap from 1700-3500rpm – a big improvement on the previous gen’s 1800-2800rpm. Backing this increased grunt is a new six-speed manual (Isuzu’s own MVL-6N) and smooth Aisin six-speed automatic gearbox, along with a toughened rear diff to cope with the extra punch.

UNDER THE BONNET

IT IS always good to be heard, and in IUA’s case this adage rings even more true. Asking a number of local D-MAX and MU-X owners their thoughts on their vehicles’ performance and usage, and also collecting what IUA dubs Driving Record Module (DRM) data, allowed IUA to come up with a strong argument in regards to developing a new engine that retained the 3.0-litre capacity (rather than opting for Isuzu’s smaller Euro-spec 2.5TD or 1.9TD).

“As with any relationship between distributor and the factory there is always some negotiation,” Dave Harding, IUA’s Assistant General Manager of Marketing and PR, explained.

“The Australian market is crucially important for Isuzu, as the Australian market is the number one export market for Isuzu LCV. So it follows that Isuzu regards, with a very high priority, the development of a product fit for Australian conditions and expectations. Therefore, purely for the Australian market, a Euro 5-compliant 3.0-litre 4JJ1 engine and six-speed transmission drivetrain – an Isuzu world first – has been developed.”

On paper, the new 3.0TD engine is impressive. It features a new variable geometry turbocharger and intercooler, new graphite-coated pistons, injectors, fuel pump, robust steel timing chain, larger EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) cooler, tough cast roller rocker arms, and more. All of this is aimed at confirming the Isuzu reputation for bombproof powerplants.

A Diesel Particulate Diffuser (DPD) was the final piece of the Euro-5 compliance puzzle. Put simply, this technology results in collected particulate matter being burnt off once the filter is full or at a given distance. The process is dubbed ‘automatic regeneration’ by Isuzu and you can even watch its progress via the on-dash display,

which shows both the level of particulate matter as it builds up and then the regeneration process.

With regards to the impressive Aisin automatic gearbox, a lock-up torque converter and adaptive shifting combine with sequential shifting to give the driver plenty of control, especially when off-road. It also ensures the 3.0TD engine works in its most effective rev range for every driving situation.

The in-house six-speed is a closeratio gearbox that includes triple-cone synchronisers on first, second and third gear, with the aim of improving shift quality and longevity of the ’box. With the closer ratios and more torque, Isuzu is aiming for less necessary gear changes (auto, too) which in turn will increase longevity of working parts and boost fuel efficiency by up to five per cent.

A NEW FACE

THE 2017 D-MAX has been refined (the MU-X keeps its current styling at this point) with a sleeker appearance. The bonnet and the grille have been redesigned, with Isuzu managing to improve the coefficient of drag by a claimed 0.4 per cent while still retaining the rugged appearance that is part of the D-MAX DNA. Other tweaks include revised headlights, with the LS-spec D-MAX copping LED daytime running lights and the lower-spec EX and SX receiving new halogen headlights. The 18-inch alloy wheels on the LS-T have also been redesigned.

New audio systems with a seven-inch touchscreen are available for D-MAX SX and LS-M variants, while the higher-spec LS-U and LS-T cop an eight-inch touchscreen display. Only the LS-U’s display unit includes standard sat-nav. Puzzlingly, only the LS-M and LS-U models get a standard reversing camera (it’s optional on all other models as an in-rear-view-mirror jobbie).

All D-MAX models come with six airbags as standard that, when combined with myriad electronic driving aids, help the vehicle attain its five-star ANCAP safety rating. The cabin is now a quieter place to be, too, owing to the addition of soundproofing insulation behind the bulkhead and between the fenders and body metal.

The spacious MU-X interior carries over from last year’s model but receives a reversing camera for the LS-M model. The popular wagon also gets more soundproofing with insulation added throughout the vehicle.

To celebrate Isuzu’s 100th anniversary, IUA has released a limited-edition X-Runner model, available in either Silky White Pearl or Cosmic Black. This auto-only model is aimed at the active adventurer market. Black and red dominates the colour scheme of both variants, with a black sports bar and dark grey alloys externally. The seats are also a sporty mix of black and red.

ON- AND OFF-ROAD

THE test route for the D-MAX and MU-X launch was designed to showcase the vehicles’ all-rounder capabilities, with a return loop starting from Queensland’s Gold Coast and heading south along major freeways and B-roads to the beach at Evans Head, NSW, before heading into a deserted quarry for more off-road driving.

IUA makes no qualms about the D-MAX primarily being a workhorse, but one that is more than comfortable doing family duties while serving as an escape vehicle for weekends. To this end, the vehicle’s suspension is slightly biased toward its loadlugging capability but, surprisingly, the expected overly hard ride didn’t eventuate. Our first test rig was an unladen X-Runner and it impressed both with its surprisingly compliant ride and its on-road dynamics; there was little in the way of pronounced bodyroll. Even on tight corners approached at a decent clip, the D-MAX remained

TOUGHNESS, RELIABILITY AND GREAT BANG-FORBUCK FACTOR

composed and didn’t lean dramatically. The ability to switch the Aisin six-speed auto into manual mode for winding downhill sections was also appreciated. The auto kept the revs well within the optimal working range, ensuring minimal hesitation if you stomped your right foot. The NVH levels have definitely improved, with engine noise well muted and only really noticeable once you drop down a couple of cogs.

The driver’s position in the X-Runner is relatively comfortable, the only negative for taller people is that the bottom cushion on the seats is a bit short and the seat base is set quite high. Another bugbear is that the steering wheel has no reach adjustment. The high-spec MU-X’s six-way powered leather seats were appreciated when we swapped into it, though. The base of these seemed longer, and the additional adjustability was most welcome, allowing for a very comfortable driving position.

Off-road performance of the D-MAX and MU-X reflects the brand itself – they just go out and get the job done. There’s no LSD or rear locking diff option so the updated models still rely solely on electronic traction control, but IUA has added Hill Descent Control (HDC) which works well – one steep descent was reduced to a doddle thanks to the effective HDC.

Wheel articulation is quite good, and there were only a few instances on noticeably deep ruts where the rear wheel lost contact.

But the ETC kicked in quickly and, after some wheelspin, got it through. Isuzu has a lot of confidence in its ETC for these vehicles, but it would still be nice to be able to add a rear locker, especially when most of the D-MAX’s competition has them as either standard fitment or a factory option. The underbody has been beefed up with a steel sump and transfer case guards, a steel front skid plate, and protection for the fuel tank all standard.

The Isuzu D-MAX and MU-X have been the quiet achievers in the Australian 4x4 market, but they’ve been very successful for the Japanese company thanks to their toughness, reliability and great bang-for-buck factor. Isuzu also offers 12-month service intervals, five years capped price servicing, and excellent dealer service. These latest upgrades and refinements will see IUA confident of continued success in the coming years.