The Isuzu D-MAX that used to be the KB

The D-Max name change is based on the curvature of the headlights, which to some resemble the upward sweeping, predatory eyes of a dragon. For those of you who have attended these colourful festivals, there is a certain parallel between the sleek LED headlamps and fire-breathing scaly monsters, but from a marketing perspective there are other reasons for the migration of the brand’s identity.

The D may refer to direct injection, design, durability (no arguments there) or diesel. The Max refers to the following adjectives borrowed directly from the press statement: DESIGN; SIZE; TECHNOLOGY; PERFORMANCE: SAFETY: DURABILITY and LINE-UP. With 30 models designated for South Africa, you cannot argue with that. At least they explain the renaming of the product.

Driving on our Gauteng roads in the Switch Blade Silver D MAX 300 LX 4×4 Auto creates a certain need for me to look for other Isuzus that share its heritage. The vehicles that I spy are older and look as if they have spent much of their tar life in industrial servitude instead of the more prevalent urban commuter segment that our province is synonymous with.

On the marketing side, the brand makes no pretence that it is now exploring the luxury 4×4 sector instead of attempting to dominate it. Taking delivery of our test vehicle represents a slight shift for us. The D-Max is sleekly attractive, with no nudge bar; the design finesse of the truck is stylishly accentuated, and while it is as large as the other contenders in this spot, it does not appear so. The chrome grill, chrome accents and chrome fog lamp borders with daytime running LEDs align with other brands on fashion and it works, simply, without creating much of an identity in its own right.

The brand is known for its rugged practicality, endurance and reliability and the entire range still broadcasts that ethos. The interior is practical in a way that allows you a glimpse of luxury but your subconscious knows that this is a work vehicle. Features such as an aggressively efficient air-conditioning system, and an eight-inch hint at infotainment make life easier, but the D-MAX is purpose-built for work.

I keep referring to the press statement of the Isuzu, as it strives to carefully position itself in the “new era for enhanced Isuzu bakkie range in South Africa”. This is an interesting strategy and indicates that even the workhorse Isuzu is conforming to industry pressures of slicker, smoother and more gimmicks per tonne of vehicle produced. The entire cabin is ascetically more pleasing to the consumer and borders on practical modernisation without compromising functionality. The steering feel is much harder than the other brands, but this is something I appreciated, because it reminds you that this is in fact an off-road vehicle first and an urban socialite butterfly second.

Functions are within easy reach and an interesting connectivity feature does not allow you to latch onto Bluetooth while the vehicle is in motion (good idea there). The LED touchscreen groans with the need for a proper update and although the sound system is adequate there is no desire to turn the music up, even with extra speakers; far better to keep it on 702FM and concentrate on navigating the farm. Remember that the D-Max is aimed at a mature audience and in this regard everything is well designed — millennials need not apply.

The mix of fake leather and remnants of darker plastic adds an air of tempered access to the luxury market, with more cup holders than the average touring bus. There is a strange storage compartment on the dash that works occasionally, even when new. The mid compartment is smaller than the industry average, but allows enough space for the usual techno accessories.

Seats are comfortable for urban movement, but once you start digging into the darker side of off-road travel, their ample softness comes to the rescue. The rear seating is also longer than the competitors, which allows you to transport more than just the neighbours’ kids. The space includes more cup holders, an armrest and isofix docking ports.

The D-Max drives much better than the previous generation, no doubt thanks to the three-leaf spring setup. It may not offer the taut road holding of the Amarok, or the solid feel of the Ranger, but it settles nicely after the odd bump or quick corner and provides a much better ride than the Hilux. The engine tips the scales at 130KW and may not win you a sprint, but the torque curve provides instant feedback and gives you the confidence that whatever you might be towing with its 3.5-tonne capacity, you will reach your destination.

Isuzu has also added a trailer sway component to the standard ESC (electronic stability control), which jumps in if the trailer starts showing attitude by trying to lead the dance. We hitched up an empty horsebox for a quick gallivant and found the engine steams along without much effort; the consumption did not rise much either, which was pleasantly surprising.

Isuzu sweetens the pot with a five-year/120 000km bumper-to-bumper warranty and a scheduled maintenance plan. The reliable nature of the trucking company means that once you sprinkle in the creature comforts, excellent consumption and blueblood heritage of the new D-Max, you have a versatile partner that can escort you to the matric dance, tow a trailer or fetch the laundry from the local shopping centre without giving you any undue grief. Some might say the technology is dated and the interior could be better, but one must remember this is a company that builds trucks — trucks that do not break.

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