THE role of light trucks has evolved over the last several years to put the vehicles once considered strictly utilitarian into an entirely new class that is a bit hard to define: Not exactly a car, not exactly an SUV, and certainly not exactly a truck in the classic sense, but a sporty amalgam of all three.
Whatever it might be called, the modern light truck is popular, with stiff competition among the usual suspects Ford, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Isuzu having created a big market in the Philippines, and even attracting a few upstarts like Mahindra.
In broad terms, Isuzu has a bit of an edge with its D-Max, having been producing the truck worldwide in one form or another since 2002; it shares a basic platform with several General Motors trucks, and relies on robust, uncomplicated basic components. The D-Max models sold here in the Philippines have the extra advantage of having been assembled here, products of Isuzu’s Biñan, Laguna facility.
No matter how iconic, any 15-year-old model line runs the risk of becoming a little stale, but that is a problem Isuzu deftly avoided with its updates for the 2017 D-Max.
The front and rear of the truck have both been redesigned for a bolder presence, with the more aerodynamic hood, wide radiator grill and chromed three-bar upper grill, sweeping main lamp clusters featuring LED daytime running lights, and lower corner foglamps giving the D-Max an aggressive, sporty appearance.
Larger LED rear lamps and a restyled tailgate with a mild spoiler shape complete the look, which appropriately rides on 18-inch alloy wheels fitted with 255/60R18 tires that are a good compromise between street and moderate off-road travel. Frequent four-wheelers would likely prefer a little heavier meat on the ground, but for the variety of road conditions one is likely to encounter here – from expressways to lumpy country lanes where goats and drying spreads of palay are normal obstacles – the stock package of the LS variant tested by The Manila Times was more than up to the task at hand.
In the wheelhouse, the comprehensively upgraded instrument cluster has a sportier look, with an especially driver-friendly colored multi-function display – options are controlled by a button on the turn signal stalk – placed between the tachometer and speedometer.
The D-Max also features other nice touches such as a keyless push-button start, passive entry system, power folding rear view mirrors, and attractively arranged climate controls below the 7-inch touchscreen information center, which now comes equipped with Isuzu’s excellent navigation system.
Interior space for four or five occupants is more than spacious, and made comfortable with leather seating, automatic climate control, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, and a liberal supply of storage spaces.
Power and economy
To power the 2017 D-Max, Isuzu turned to its reliable 4JJ1-TC (HI) double-overhead cam 3.0-liter 4-cylinder diesel, which with its Variable Geometry System (VGS) turbocharger and intercooler generates a punchy 160 horsepower at 3,200 rpm and 380 Nm of torque at about 2,000 rpm. Fuel economy is excellent; a tank of fuel carried the truck for a week’s worth of commuting and one day-long outing in Cavite and Batangas.
Paired with either the 5-speed sequential shift automatic (the model tested) or a 5-speed manual, the deceptively quiet 3.0-liter mill has plenty of power for quick acceleration, hard pulls on long hills, or fast highway travel. The 4WD version has the Terrain Command Select Dial that allows drivers to shift from two- to four-wheel drive with a simple twist of a knob at speeds up to 100 kph (although this driver, a product of an era when one still had to get out and lock the front wheel hubs to use four-wheel drive, was a little hesitant to test the on-the-fly capabilities of this feature).
Other driving assist features include Electronic Stability Control, Traction Control System, and Hill Start Assist. Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes with a well-calibrated brake assist system, and rear parking sensors with a tailgate-mounted camera complete the D-Max’s safety package.
On the road
To give the 2017 D-Max a realistic test, we subjected it to the varying normal road conditions likely to be encountered regularly by Philippine drivers, and all counts the D-Max performed admirably.
First, in city traffic: Although the truck’s rather beefy dimensions take a bit of acclimation, the D-Max is a competent machine in Manila’s congestion. Acceleration response for quick lane changes or green-light starts is almost instantaneous, and braking is reassuringly effective; the brake assist system drops the anchors as quickly as needed, but provides enough pedal feedback not to feel excessively sensitive. Steering response is smooth, with no tendency to over- or under-steer at speed.
On the highway, the D-Max has a car-like feel, although the somewhat stiffer suspension necessary for the four-wheel drive package (which has a center of gravity somewhat farther forward than a car or larger-bodied SUV) can’t entirely disguise the fact that the D-Max is, in fact, a truck. On bumpy roads such as the Cavitex causeway, which is unfortunately starting to show some signs of subsidence, the D-Max’s tail end when empty tends to be a bit lively, but not uncomfortably so, and not in a way that disturbs control.
To push the D-Max’s capabilities, we gave it a Saturday afternoon run on the Ternate-Nasugbu Highway, which winds up and over Mt. Palay-Palay on the Cavite-Batangas border, through the 300-meter Kaybiang Tunnel. With the drive selector set to 4H – essentially turning the truck into an all-wheel drive, we were able to take the serpentine road (fortunately, almost empty of other traffic, except for the gaggle of sightseers that always congregate at the tunnel’s mouth at the top of the hill) at respectable speed. The D-Max is not, of course, a race car, but proved surprisingly stable, obediently following the front wheels through sharp turns with no drift, and very little excess body lean. The five-speed automatic (the manual would have been better for this particular exercise) reacted well to quick speed changes, with smooth gear changes and little to no hesitation.
With the new features and overall upgrade of the D-Max for 2017, Isuzu has a winner. In what may be a sign of official confidence in the reliability and utility, the Philippine Statistical Authority (PSA) recently took delivery of 81 units of the LT version for distribution to its regional offices.
For the non-official driver, the D-Max offers it all: Eye-catching style, comfort, solid build and responsive machinery, excellent fuel economy, and competent handling. In a crowded class of very good vehicles, the Isuzu D-Max is a tough act to follow, and at P1.52 million for the LS model as tested, competitively priced.
In addition to the 3.0-liter 4×4 LS with automatic transmission, the 2017 D-Max is also offered in a 4×4 manual transmission version (about P1.45 million), and 4×2 automatic and manual versions with an price of about P1.21 million and P1.14 million, respectively (Prices are estimates; please see your nearest Isuzu dealer for the latest price and availability information).