In base specification and with only two-wheel drive, does Isuzu’s new ute still maintain its appeal?

While four-wheel-drive utes remain hot property in the Australian new-car market, sometimes the whole four-driven-wheels thing becomes incidental. Some Australians, after all, have no interest in going off-road. But, they still want something a bit heavy-duty for their day-to-day usage.

And if that sounds like you, then this 2021 Isuzu D-Max 4×2 SX Crew Cab ute might fit the bill. It’s priced from $41,900, and is joined only by the up-specced LS-U with the combo of dual-cab body and two-wheel drive.

2021 Isuzu D-Max SX 4×2 Crew Cab
Engine 3.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo diesel
Power and torque 140kW @ 3600rpm, 450Nm @ 1600–2600rpm
Transmission Six-speed automatic
Drive type Rear-wheel drive
Kerb weight 1950kg
Fuel consumption (claimed) 7.7L/100km
Fuel use on test 8.4L/100km
Payload 1050kg
Towing capacity 3500kg
ANCAP safety rating (year) Five stars (2020)
Warranty Six years/150,000km
Main competitors Mitsubishi Triton, Nissan Navara, Toyota HiLux, Ford Ranger
Price as tested (ex on-road costs) $41,900

The main competitor in this particular specification will come from the Mitsubishi Triton, which offers a comparable two-wheel-drive GLX. Nissan also offers its new 2021 Navara as a two-wheel drive in most variants, and Ford’s 2.2-litre Ranger XL 4×2 is similarly priced.

And, of course, don’t forget Toyota’s HiLux, which is available as a dual-cab Workmate 4×2 powered by a 2.4-litre turbo-diesel engine.

Although the lack of four-wheel drive and a low-range transfer case does limit the D-Max’s off-road ability, there are some advantages to this two-wheel-drive variant. Firstly, it’s some $6800 cheaper than an equivalent 4×4 model. Secondly, it’s 85kg lighter with a 1950kg kerb mass. Better on-road performance, better fuel economy, but not a greater payload.

High-ride means there is no choice of a low-ride option any more, with its lighter-duty suspension and payload. With a slightly lower 3000kg GVM, we’ve got a 1050kg payload. Slightly less than the four-wheel-drive equivalent and its greater 3100kg GVM, but good nonetheless.

The Isuzu’s braked towing capacity also remains at 3500kg to lend it more credibility as a hard-working ute. The gross combination mass also gets trimmed in two-wheel-drive format to 5850kg, which leaves it more or less level-pegged with the four-wheel-drive D-Max on paper.

And from our previous experiences, the relaxed, torquey nature of the powertrain makes for a good tow rig. Although, the steering can feel a little vague and light at highway speeds.

Despite no power going to the front wheels, the powertrain otherwise hasn’t changed. Isuzu’s trusted 3.0-litre turbo diesel making 140kW at 3600rpm and 450Nm at 1600–2600rpm runs through a six-speed automatic transmission.

While you might feel a little bit of extra perkiness from the driver’s seat, it’s mostly an experiential facsimile of other Isuzu utes. The engine feels relaxed and torquey, and prefers to lug through the middle rev range rather than redline. While not as outright fast or powerful as other utes in the segment, we think it’s a solid performer.

Only the single-cab 4×2 ute is available with a manual transmission; dual-cab two-wheelers are automatic only. Interestingly, this is at odds with the broader 4×4 range, where buyers can choose between manual and automatic transmissions in all specifications except for the top X-Terrain.

Listed fuel economy is 7.7 litres per 100km compared to 8.0L/100km for an equivalent 4×4 model.

But despite having fewer oily and greasy bits underneath, servicing costs don’t change between 4×2 and 4×4 models. With intervals set at every 15,000km or 12 months, you’re looking at $2215 over five years, or $3373 after seven years and the conclusion of the capped-price servicing program.

So, despite first impressions, a two-wheel-drive D-Max does make some sense for those needing a good payload and towing ability, but with zero off-road aspirations.

Around town, the experience is a mostly familiar one. The stiffer heavy-duty rear suspension option is only used on cab-chassis and space-cab SX variants, so our tester had the more supple suspension package. And even when unladen, it yields a good quality ride that’s easy to live with.

In our test model, an optional hard lid over the top of the tub ($2999) makes things like tall loads and forklift access more of a challenge, but secures the load area and keeps the rain out. It’s worth noting, however, that the tailgate remains unsealed, so driving on wet, dusty and unsealed roads would likely see water and dust ingress into the load area.

Our tester had a drop-in tub liner also fitted worth $670.

Electric steering adds in a lot of lightness to the steering feel, which allows for plenty of finger-and-thumb driving around town. At a stop, it feels particularly light. The turning circle remains 12.5m, and a decent quality reversing camera helps for those tight situations.

Moving from the hydraulic power steering also allows the D-Max to pick up a wide range of modern active-safety equipment. Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) works at speeds between 8–160km/h, in day or night, can detect pedestrians and cyclists, and includes intersection assist.

There’s also forward collision warning, traffic sign recognition, misacceleration mitigation, post-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and lane-keep assist rounds out a comprehensive and modern active-safety package.

And much to Isuzu’s credit, the entirety of this package is available right across the D-Max range. Some parts fall off if you choose a manual transmission, but the most important ones like autonomous emergency braking remain.

Infotainment, coming in the smaller 7.0-inch size in this specification, ticks the important boxes of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for easy everyday usage. The operating system isn’t the best out there, but most of the important features can be found with a bit of digging. But, it all becomes a little redundant when you’re in the habit of plugging your phone in and using the in-built mirroring interface.

The SX misses out on the additional slide-out cupholders underneath the outboard air vents, and only has one USB power outlet. There’s also a 12V, and the second glovebox of higher grades has been swapped for a small parcel shelf.

Otherwise, the D-Max SX’s interior is a hard-wearing sea of robust plastics and vinyl floors – just the ticket for something unlikely to be pampered.

Ergonomically, the new D-Max benefits from adjustable tilt and rake through the steering column, and seats that are much more comfortable and supportive than the previous generation. It’s plenty comfortable enough, even considering that many will be spending full days behind the wheel of this two-wheel-drive workhorse around town.

With its wide range of advanced safety tech and torquey diesel engine, the 2021 Isuzu D-Max SX 4×2 is still an impressive ute in two-wheel-drive guise. It will suit those who need a blacktop-bound workhorse, and will also appeal to those looking to update their fleet.