The Isuzu D-Max outsells more well known rivals from VW and Nissan.
The Isuzu D-Max outsells more well known rivals from VW and Nissan.

Upgrades for bulletproof Isuzu D-Max and MU-X

FLASHY red bits! Leather seats! Tough-guy stickers! Jumping motocross bikes! It can only be a new hero-of-the-range ute, complete with obligatory high-fives soundtrack.

This time it's Isuzu, rebirthing its X-Runner nameplate on the D-Max 4WD dual-cab, the highlight from a 2019 model year update short on surprises.

Based on the range-topping LS-T grade, a limited run of 645 X-Runners feature comfy black and red perforated leather seats, push-button start, satnav, rear parking sensors, satin black sports bar and tub liner.

X-Runner decals adorn the body and interior, colour choices are pearl white or attractive cherry red, and the Isuzu badges look much faster now they're red.

Isuzu has added a range-topping X-Runner D-Max ute.
Isuzu has added a range-topping X-Runner D-Max ute.

At $54,990 drive-away the pricing's still sensible but hairy-chested D-Max fans may have wished for more.

Luxury and red bits are one thing but boosting off-road cred with snorkel, off-road tyres, heavy-duty recovery points and a roo bar, much like Toyota's HiLux Rugged X, would appeal to many.

Isuzu product planner Craig Bennett notes how well ute buyers responded to the hardcore Ford Ranger Raptor and says the brand was monitoring future options.

"Potentially we could go a bit further but it takes a while to develop those unique accessories, so we've pulled from the range of accessories we currently have for X-Runner," he says.

What about a higher powered Isuzu in the style of Ford's Ranger Raptor? "Down the track, never say never," Bennett says.

The Isuzu D-Max can tow up to 3500kg.
The Isuzu D-Max can tow up to 3500kg.

Isuzu is master of marginal gains rather than mighty leaps and so it proves for this year's evolution to its line-up of just two models, the D-Max ute and its large SUV companion, the MU-X.

The strategy is working. Isuzu outsold BMW, Audi and Land Rover last year, has enjoyed meteoric and sustained sales rises this past decade and is still logging growth in 2019 as the market cools dramatically.

Buyers love Isuzu's bulletproof 3.0-litre engine, effortless towing and its value proposition - in today's landscape of safety and technological innovation, however, the brand is treading water.

The D-Max is let down by its poor level of standard safety equipment.
The D-Max is let down by its poor level of standard safety equipment.

As ute rivals either promise or deliver advanced safety and infotainment this year - the D-Max's price-rival Mitsubishi Triton stands out here - Isuzu's kept updates conservative.

Perhaps too conservative. The mantra of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" can't be sustained.

Buyers, whether young tradies, families or grey nomads, see such lifesaving tech as autonomous emergency braking and desirable smartphone mirroring and want a slice of the action. Neither is available on any Isuzu with the new model year updates.

Isuzu loyalists must peek enviously over the fence at some of Ford Ranger's and Mitsubishi Triton's standard AEB and smartphone mirroring practically range-wide.

Why the lack of progress? The D-Max and MU-X are nearing the end of their life cycles and fitting such features to a clean slate design is the easier route. Nothing is confirmed but bank on the next generation Isuzu duo landing in 2021, rich with mod-cons.

Isuzu MU-X is a rugged seven seat family SUV.
Isuzu MU-X is a rugged seven seat family SUV.

If you don't give a stuff about the above, good news is both the D-Max and MU-X retain their truck-tough 130kW/430Nm engines, warranty has jumped to an excellent six years and there are minor aesthetic refreshments to wheels, bumpers and cabins.

For the D-Max, the high grade LS-T gets attractive matt black 18-inch alloys shod in more highway-specific tyres and matt black roof rails. There are new-look sidesteps for LS-U and LS-T grades, and matt black radiator grilles for all.

The seven-seater MU-X get tweaks to the grille, 18-inch gloss black alloys on all but the base grade piano black cabin trim and, for the LS-T range topper, ambient lighting.

Isuzu's listened to customers and revised the MU-X's steering to make it lighter at low speeds around town, and certainly the SUV trumped its ute cousin in this regard during our test.

The D-Max interior feels dated.
The D-Max interior feels dated.

AEB may be unavailable but the MU-X can be optioned with a blind spot monitor and rear cross traffic alert for $955, or front park sensors for $545. Isuzu can retrofit these to post-2017 models too.

The temporary six-year warranty introduced earlier this year has been locked in for good. Six years' roadside assist and seven years' capped price servicing seal the deal.

It's as-you-were on the driving fronts. Cabins feel large and simple in their layout with an abundance of hard plastics and the infotainment shows its age. There's soft padding where it matters plus loads of storage and, all-round, the feel of tough construction.

The 3.0-litre engine has buckets of low-down torque ideal for quick getaways, lazy cruising and towing but it's not the quietest of diesels. The ride is typically plush in the MU-X but the D-Max bounces over uneven roads with no load in the back.

A quick off-road test tackling gradients, water crossings and muddy tracks illustrates how effortlessly capable these Isuzus are. There's an assured feeling of simplicity and old-school toughness and, for many buyers, this outweighs any fancy features you can throw at them.

What's new

Price: The MU-X starts at $39,990 drive-away for a 4x2 LS-M, rising to $53,990 for a 4WD LS-T, up $1000 on current models. D-Max 4WD dual-cabs start at $40,690 drive-away for an SX up to $51,990 for an LS-T, again up $1000. Limited edition D-Max X-Runner 4WD dual-cabs are $54,990 drive-away.

Tech: Very little. Optional blind spot monitor and rear cross traffic alert for MU-X.

Performance: As before, with same old trusty 3.0-litre diesel and six-speed auto gearbox.

Driving: The MU-X gets recalibrated steering for smoother, lighter feel.

Design: D-Max gets new black grille, LS-T grade gets matt black alloys, highway-specific tyres, matt black roof rails and grippier side steps. MU-X gets gloss black alloys on all but base grade, piano black cabin trim, revised grille and ambient lighting for LS-T.

Verdict 3/5

Innovation may not be among Isuzu's strong points but happy customers and sustained sales growth are. The updates are minor indeed and some advanced safety features should be standard but the new D-Max X-Runner adds well-timed sparkle.

Isuzu D-Max X-Runner vitals

Price: $54,990 drive-away

Warranty/servicing: 6 years/150,000km, $2090 for 5 years

Engine: 3.0-litre 4-cyl turbo diesel, 130kW/430Nm

Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags, rear camera and sensors, trailer sway control, hill descent control

Thirst 7.9L/100km

Spare: Full-size

Towing: 3500kg