Isuzu D-Max: The car that killed the Defender?

Need simple, unpretentious off-road transport that isn't the Land Rover? Time to try one of the alternatives.

“Here are an interesting couple of facts to begin with, before you dismiss this story as complete balderdash: not only does Isuzu have a bigger share of the pick-up market than both Nissan and VW, it also currently sells vehicles through five Land Rover dealerships. Isuzus are sold through Land Rover dealerships. Perhaps not killing the Defender then, but certainly making the most of the old stager’s demise.

The Defender garnered quite a following on PH. Those that liked the car enjoyed its unpretentiousness, its off-road ability and its significance in British automotive history. The notion of a Defender being cool would probably (hopefully?) be lost on them. Those that disagree would cite its sluggish performance, odd driving position and cost as reasons to stay well away.

As well as private buyers, the Defender was used by various local authorities too. The demise of the Defender stands to benefit quite a few essentially, and potentially Isuzu by quite a bit.

Where the D-Max will not succeed in a post-Defender world is in the cool stakes. Despite the presence of a Huntsman model, whatever is added to the D-Max it remains a Japanese pick-up. The Defender has the whole cool Britannia thing going on and however gentrified the Isuzu is made it will never quite compare.

But where Isuzu does stand to benefit is in rural sales. “The biggest win for us is the Land Rover Defender’s demise” says PR man Will Brown. Think all country folk are still using Defenders? No sir. That isn’t just Isuzu’s PR machine either. Honest. Up in Wales for Rally GB a couple of days after our D-Max drive there are loads around, and Dan will tell you there are plenty up in that there Yorkshire. Furthermore, as well as those Land Rover dealers, it’s being sold at John Deere and Massey Ferguson outlets, plus a few 4×4 centres. If you live in the country there’s a place nearby that will sell you an Isuzu pick-up, which hasn’t always been the case. In fact it used to be sold through Subaru retailers, which isn’t really where you would first look to find an Isuzu.

Isuzu is refreshingly honest about the limitations of the D-Max too. It knows other pick-ups, stuff like the Mitsubishi L200 and Toyota Hilux which outsell it, are more composed on road or have nicer interiors, so it doesn’t pretend to make one. It makes a durable, dependable working vehicle for, well, durable and dependable working people who need a sturdy pick-up for work. To that end it was the first pick-up to be offered in the UK with a five-year warranty and the first to have a 3.5-tonne towing capacity. Apparently this is a concern specific to northern Europe, all other markets concerned with payload. Think about our obsession with track days and that towing capacity thing makes more sense; it’s for pulling horses or horsepower! The D-Max Fury also starts at less than £20K, which is made to look even more affordable when you consider a Nissan Navara is just over £22K.

Enough of the favourable facts from Isuzu; time to feel the fury of a D-Max. First things first; it’s not really a £20K pick-up. With the Pioneer touchscreen (£930), the leather (£1,325). The ‘Black Roll ‘n’ Lock load bay cover’ (£1,122.50), BedRug (£385) and Sports Bar and Front Bumper Lazer [sic] Lights (£1,069), the test car had a commercial vehicle OTR of £24,830.50.

Anyone who fondly remembers the way a Defender drives will be at home in the D-Max. Alright, it’s not quite that bad and there’s certainly more space, but ‘agricultural’ best describes it. The gearshift is sloppy, the driving position awkward and the twin-turbo diesel not that refined. No doubt judgement has been skewed by spending time in modern cars but this is certainly not the pick-up to replace the family estate.

Again though, it’s a case of appraising the D-Max from the perspective of those who actually buy them and not of a spoilt motoring writer. That diesel may clatter on but it feels torquey and ideally suited to lugging along significant weight. The ride is choppy unladen, but the journo I’m driving with speaks of how much it improves “with a tonne of sand in the back” from a previous launch. The ventilation dials will make a TT owner stare mournfully into their TFT dash, but their chunkiness means they can be operated with big gloves on. The fiddly infotainment definitely can’t but you get the idea; fitness for purpose is key with all cars and Isuzu knows just as well as anybody else what its customers are after. And the demise of the Defender only opens up a larger pool of customers to dip into, indeed for all pick-up brands to dip into. Certainly Isuzu’s situation will have been helped by only having one vehicle to market but its strategies for doing this should be applauded.

The best of these, from the PH perspective at least, is the D-Max used in British Cross Country Championship. If you thought ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ was dead, think again. The D-Max racer competes in a production class, with the only modifications over standard are the usual motorsport safety paraphernalia, new suspension and a remap. So when it survives some of the brutal BCCC rounds (seehere for the videos), it actually serves as a very good advert for the car’s mechanical durability. The only reason it failed to finish in the past two seasons is when driver Jason Sharpe crashed it. Just the once. It has in fact won the production class in both 2014 and 2015.

A drive in the BCCC car on the Goodwood rally stage is revealing. That suspension means it deals with bumps better than the road car, absorbing the ruts on the rally stage more competently than the regular pick-up deals with pot holes. But it’s really hard work, the slow steering in particular making the tight turns challenging. The 50:50 torque split remains as well, meaning any slides have it pulling quite a bit from the front too… See below for some terribly slow driving interspersed with the pro doing it properly.

Back to the original hypothesis then. Did the Isuzu D-Max kill the Land Rover Defender? No, in a word. Various factors will have contributed to that car’s demise, ones that will keep speculators entertained for a long time after production has ceased. What the Isuzu is doing, or so it appears, is benefitting the most. It will be interesting to see how other pick-ups fare too. With so much apparent demand for vehicles that can cover every base, to find something so unapologetically focused on one fairly unglamorous job is rare but also praiseworthy. There will always be people who require simple, capable and reliable off-road transport, privately and commercially; with the Defender gone the D-Max looks a more than worthy substitute. Just don’t expect to look cool, even in a Fury.

2,499cc, four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel
Transmission: Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 163@3,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@1,400-2,000rpm
0-62mph: N/A
Top speed: 112mph
Weight: 1,978kg
MPG: 38.7
CO2: 192g/km
Price: £24,830.50 (Basic CVOTR of £19,999 with £930 for Pioneer multimedia and Sat Nav, £1,325 for Black/Red Fury leather interior trim, £1,122.50 for Black Roll ‘n’ Lock load bay cover, £385 for Bedrug and £1,069 for sports bar and front bumper Lazer lights)


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