Isuzu D-Max 2021 review – first test of tough new pickup

  • Massively improved second-generation D-Max driven
  • Thai-spec test reveals great refinement, smooth ride
  • On sale in the UK early 2021, complete with latest tech

The Isuzu D-Max is a fabled workhorse within the pickup sector, renowned for its build quality and reliability. After nine years, the first-generation D-Max will be replaced by an all-new model in early 2021, and we've travelled to Thailand for a super-early review.

Is the new D-Max all Isuzu’s own work?

As with panel vans, there is a lot of manufacturer collaboration for developing and building pickup trucks. For over 30 years, Isuzu had produced its pickup trucks in partnership with General Motors (think back to the Vauxhall Brava and Bedford KB) but, for this latest generation, Isuzu has joined forces with fellow Japanese manufacturer Mazda instead.

Isuzu D-Max 2021 - orange, side view

Replacing the Rodeo in 2012, the existing D-Max has built up a reputation as a tough, dependable grafter, which has proved to be a big hit with physically demanding industries such as farming, landscaping and forestry.

However, the Isuzu soon found itself lagging behind rivals for refinement, comfort and technology. While the new model doesn’t quite feel like it sets the benchmark on this first encounter, it’s certainly a more serious challenge for the likes of the Ford Ranger and Nissan Navara.

Is the 2021 D-Max all-new or a facelift?

The press releases were only available in Thai and some of the questions and answers may have got lost in translation, but we’re led to believe that while the basic floorplan and engine remains the same, virtually everything else has been modified or changed.

Isuzu has switched to an aluminium prop shaft and opted for higher tensile steel (980MPa) to help shed around 70kg off the kerbweight, and this has also increased the structural rigidity by 20%.

How does it look in the metal?

We’re very taken by the new looks. Isuzu has opted for thinner, more aggressive-looking lights with a distinctive ‘U-shaped’ LED strip and a larger, more-imposing grille. On entry-level models, this will be black, becoming chrome on mid-spec models and piano black on a so far unnamed flagship trim, as shown in the pictures.

Isuzu D-Max 2021 - facelift front looks, orange

Rather unusually for a pickup truck, the rear bumper has been integrated into the body panels and it sports some bespoke petal-shaped alloys – the jury is still out on that one.

What’s it like on the inside?

Equally impressive and quirky. The designers have used hexagonal boxouts for the infotainment system (which includes a 9.0-inch touchscreen display on high-end models) and air-conditioning controls, and there’s a nice contrast of hard and soft-touch leathers.

Isuzu D-Max 2021 - cab interior

Thanks to the collaboration with Mazda, there’s a huge step-up in terms of technology. The new model gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, voice recognition and a host of safety systems like rear cross-traffic alert and blindspot monitoring, as well as hill-start assist, brake assist and hill descent control, although it lacks autonomous emergency braking.

As ever with Isuzu, there’s a vast amount of storage space. There’s also a huge rear window, which provides great visibility to the rear when manoeuvring around those tight worksites.

Engine and driveline

While Thai customers get the choice between a 1.9-litre and 3.0-litre engine, we believe only the 1.9-litre engine will make it to our shores due to increasingly stringent emission regulations. The 1.9 in Thailand can produce up to 150hp and 350Nm, with peak torque cutting in at just 1,800rpm, although European models may get more power.

The engine is hooked up to either a six-speed manual or the newly-developed six-speed ‘RevTronic’ automatic transmission. Isuzu has also stated that room has been created to accommodate lithium-ion batteries, which means electric or hybrid versions could be released in the future.

Ride and handling

There’s no denying that this is a huge step up in terms of comfort and refinement. The engineers have gone to great lengths to cushion out all that unwanted engine and road noise, and gear changes are much more seamless on both the manual and automatic.

Isuzu D-Max 2021 - rear view, orange

While we found the 1.9 a little underwhelming, we did notice the torque cutting in earlier and, as previously mentioned, we imagine Isuzu will offer more power for European customers with the absence of the 3.0.

With up to 240mm of ground clearance, the ride height is slightly higher than the current model which provides better visibility but, surprisingly, it hasn’t negatively impacted the ride; the new D-Max feels even more connected to the road and has less body roll. The steering is more accurate and effortless, thanks to a lighter feel and a significantly smaller steering wheel. 

What about driving off road?

The good news for the more ‘extreme’ operators is that Isuzu is once again offering a rear differential lock – something they haven’t offered since the D-Max was launched in 2012.

The electro-magnetic diff-lock combines with the shift-on-the-fly system to provide extremely quick shifts between 2WD and 4WD.

The wading depth is now best-in-class alongside the Ranger at 800mm.

What can it carry?

Isuzu hasn’t homologated European models yet so we’re unsure of what we’re going to get, but it’s unlikely that the company will downgrade from the current one-tonne payload and joint class-leading 3.5-tonne towing capacity.

Isuzu D-Max 2021 - load area

The load area is exactly the same width (1,530mm) as the current model, although it is slightly deeper (490mm) and longer (1,495mm). Even so, this is still one of the shortest in the segment.

First verdict on the 2021 Isuzu D-Max

This new model addresses Isuzu’s traditional shortcomings in terms of luxury and refinement. Having tech-savvy Mazda onboard to help out with the advanced safety and comfort systems has paid dividends, and the difference in noise between the current and upcoming model is quite spectacular. If Isuzu maintains its excellent track record on reliability, they have a true winner on their hands.

The all-new model is due for launch in the UK in early 2021 (having been delayed from the previously predicted September 2020 arrival by the coronavirus pandemic) and will be backed by Isuzu’s reputable five-year, 125,000-mile warranty.

Also read:

>> Brand new Isuzu D-Max on sale in 2021

>> Full Isuzu D-Max (2012-on) review

>> New pickups coming soon