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All-new Isuzu D-MAX vs Ford Ranger Wildtrak

By Fraser Stronach, 09 Oct 2020 4x4 Comparisons

All-new Isuzu D-MAX vs Ford Ranger Wildtrak

The next-generation D-MAX is finally here, but how does it shape up againt an established benchmark?

ISUZU Ute Australia calls its new-generation D-MAX a ‘third generation’ model, but that undersells its heritage.

It may be the third generation Isuzu ute sold in Australia since the brand launched here in 2008, but it’s the latest in a long line of Isuzu utes that stretch back more like six generations and all the way to 1972. In Australia, the earlier Isuzu utes were sold for 40 years, mostly as the well-loved and well-regarded Holden Rodeo. 

This new D-Max is not just of vital importance to Isuzu here in Australia but will have a wider impact in the overall ute market. Mazda’s soon-to-arrive new BT-50 is effectively a new D-Max also, just one with different body panels and interior fitout. It will end Mazda’s long product-sharing relationship with Ford in this market sector.

The new D-Max, and its Mazda twin, will also be the first entirely new-generation utes from any major manufacturer to arrive in Australia for five years, and will get the jump on soon-to-arrive new-generation models from Ford and Volkswagen.

To see how the new D-Max in the range-topping X-Terrain spec measures up we have pitted it against a Ford Ranger Wildtrak, one with the 2.0-litre four-cylinder bi-turbo diesel. We chose this powertrain over the Ranger’s older, more workmanlike 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel for its superior refinement and economy. Being the newest powertrain across the popular ute segment it seemed a better benchmark for the heavily revised D-Max powertrain.

The Ranger is also at the pointy end of the current ute market in terms of its on-road ride and handing, off-road prowess and cabin comfort and space, so again a good benchmark.

2021 ISUZU D-MAX

AT first glance, Isuzu’s new D-Max may just look like a revision of the D-Max that’s been around in one form or another since 2012 but in this case, appearances are deceptive.

The new D-Max represents a full generational change and, importantly, is an all-Isuzu design whereas the previous generation D-Max started life as a joint venture with General Motors. Before that, Isuzu always designed its own utes from the ground up anyway (rebadged here as the Holden Rodeo), so this new model is a return by Isuzu to doing what it has traditionally done.

The least changed aspect of the new D-Max is the powertrain, but even that has been significantly revised. More important in the overall scheme of things is an all-new chassis and cabin, and a comprehensive suite of advanced safety features right across the model range.

D-MAX POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

THE new D-Max’s 3.0-litre four-cylinder diesel is the latest member of an engine family that dates back to 2004. In this latest iteration it claims 140kW (up from 130kW) and 450Nm (up from 420Nm). More importantly the extra torque is on tap at a much lower rpm and it also produced higher up in the rev range with the 450Nm maximum produced from all the way from 1600rpm to 2600rpm.

The extra power and torque comes courtesy of a more efficient variable-geometry turbocharger and a new higher-pressure common-rail injection system. Other changes run to revised combustion chambers, new pistons, and modified cylinder block and crankshaft. As with the last of the previous generation D-Max engines (from 2017-on), the new engine has a diesel particulate filter as part of its Euro 5 emissions compliance.

The D-Max is available with both revised six-speed manual and automatic gearboxes, although the X-Terrain is auto only. As before, the manual gearbox is an Isuzu in-house design, while the automatic comes from Aisin.

On the road the driving experience is both familiar and different. The new engine still has much of the feel and workmanlike character of the older D-Max, but is noticeably quieter and more responsive in general driving. Pedal to the metal and at higher engine speeds it’s still somewhat harsh, but not as much as the old engine. It’s also more muscular, everywhere.

Where the previous D-Max was a fair way off the performance of the Ranger bi-turbo, this new D-Max isn’t, even if the Ford is still a bit quicker once it gets into its stride.

The revised Aisin automatic is also much improved with faster shifting and far more proactive and sporty shift protocols. The extra torque at lower engine speeds also helps to counter the very tall but unchanged gearing, which means less shuffling between fifth and sixth on undulating country roads at legal touring speeds, which was a less than likeable trait of previous D-Max.

D-MAX ON-ROAD

THE new D-Max sports an all-new, more rigid ladder frame with notably larger-section side rails and additional cross bracing, and new-design front and rear suspension.

At the front the upper and lower wishbones are far more substantial and are much farther apart in the vertical plane, while the sway bar now mounts to the top rather than the lower wishbone. At the rear the three-leaf springs are claimed to be lighter, yet stronger. Bigger front brake rotors with twin-piston floating callipers and electric power steering are also highlights of this all-new chassis. With the bigger brakes, 17s rather than 16s are now the smallest wheels that can be fitted.

On the road the D-Max’s ride and handling is much improved and is a far more noticeable advance than the powertrain upgrades. Where the powertrain offers a still somewhat familiar driving experience, the new chassis makes the D-Max feel like a completely different ute, especially on poorer roads and at higher speeds where it is far more composed, confident and engaging to drive than before.

The electric power steering means a light steering effort at parking speeds while still providing decent feel and feedback at highway speeds. The only glitch here is that the lane-departure warning and prevention safety tech can be over zealous at times on some roads. And while you can turn it off via the settings menu, this can’t be done on the move and it always defaults to ‘on’ when the engine is stopped and then restarted.

D-MAX OFF-ROAD

THE new D-Max has fractionally more ground clearance, and despite a 30mm longer wheelbase the body is shorter, so the approach and departure angles are marginally improved although the ramp-over angle remains the same.

The fording depth is now a claimed 800mm (up from 600mm) despite the engine air intake now being under the bonnet lip. For those wishing to fit a snorkel, the Australian spec D-Max has a prefabricated air pathway in the inner guard to make things easier. All 4x4 D-Max models are now also fitted with a driver-switched rear diff lock as standard, although the part-time dual-range 4x4 system remains otherwise unchanged.

WHEELS' REVIEW: 2021 D-MAX

Wet weather and the mud-adverse highway-pattern tyres put a limit to what off-road testing was possible, but the D-Max feels a cut above what it could achieve before, thanks in part to the extra wheel travel of the rear suspension. The rear locker is a bonus too, but perhaps not as much as it could be given it cancels the electronic traction control on both axles when engaged.

D-MAX INTERIOR

INSIDE the new D-Max you’ll find an altogether different feel and presentation than the superseded model, and one that’s more akin to that of a passenger car rather than a commercial vehicle.

The cabin is bigger, better finished and more carefully detailed, and the driver now has the luxury of tilt-and-reach steering-wheel adjustment, something that the Ranger doesn’t have. On this very well-equipped D-Max there’s still no heated front seats however, so the Ranger gets one back. The high-tech dashboard with its big 9-inch touchscreen also means no simple knob to adjust the audio volume, which won’t please everyone.

The long list of high-end safety kit across the entire range (see ‘What You Get’ for details) has seen the new D-Max achieve a maximum five-star rating under the stricter 2020 ANCAP safety criteria. Other utes previously achieving a five-star ANCAP rating (such as the Ranger) may not do so now under the new criteria, given the ‘moving goal posts’ nature of the ANCAP system.

D-MAX PRACTICALITIES

THE new D-Max’s extra power and torque (and bigger brakes) bode well in making it a better heavy tow vehicle than before, but that’s something we need to test in the future.

In the meantime the towing rating remains the same at 3500kg, as does the Gross Combined Mass at 5950kg. The Gross Vehicle Mass is 50kg heavier than the old model, but probably just to compensate for the higher the kerb weight.

The factory tub is the same width as before but fractionally deeper and longer, while the X-Terrain’s lockable roller tonneau (much the same as fitted to Ranger Wildtrak) means lockable and reasonably weatherproof storage but with some compromise to carrying bigger, and especially taller items. Surprisingly there’s no 12-volt outlet in the rear tub.

D-MAX EQUIPMENT LIST

THE automatic-only top-spec X-Terrain, as tested here, is distinguished from the lower D-Max models by its smart-key entry and start, remote engine start, self-locking on walk-away, leather seat trim, electric adjust on the drivers seat, a tub liner, lockable roller tonneau and ‘aero’ sports bar.

Like all D-Max models it has a long list of safety features headlined by autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning and prevention, emergency lane-keeping intervention, blindspot monitoring, rear-cross traffic alert and no less than eight airbags. Being an automatic it also gets adaptive cruise control (in addition to normal cruise control), and ‘Lane Keeping Assist’, which gives a degree of self-steering on motorways and the like.

As with the next-level down LS-U the X-Terrain also has a 9-inch touchscreen, sat-nav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and rides on 18s. Like all 4x4 models it also has a driver-operated rear differential lock.

2021 D-MAX 4X4 PRICES*

SX MANUAL: $47,900
SX AUTOMATIC: $49,900
LS-M MANUAL: $51,000
LS-M AUTOMATIC: $53,000
LS-U MANUAL: $54,900
LS-U AUTOMATIC: $56,900
X-Terrain AUTOMATIC: $62,900
*Prices do not include on-road costs.

FORD RANGER WILDTRAK

THE Ford Ranger you see here is a mixture of new, and not so new. The powertrain, a sophisticated but relatively small 2.0-litre four-cylinder bi-turbo diesel backed by a 10-speed automatic, only appeared in late 2018 but the basic platform dates back to late 2011.

Significantly for Ford, this Ranger was a Ford design from the ground up and not just a rebadged Mazda as was the previous Ranger and all the Ford Courier utes before that. The design and development of this Ranger was also headquartered here in Australia.

When the new powertrain was released in late 2018 for the 2019 model year, Ford took an each-way bet and retained the 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel that dates back to the debut of this model although significantly revised for the 2016 model year. Of the two, the ‘little’ engine wins on refinement and economy, and is punchier in general driving.

This generation Ranger has proved so popular that it’s done the unthinkable and challenged and even bettered Toyota’s Hilux for sales supremacy in the 4x4 class.

RANGER POWERTRAIN AND PERFORMANCE

A two-litre four-cylinder diesel may sound like a small engine for a big ute but thanks largely to its bi-turbo arrangement it claims an impressive 157kW of power and 500Nm of torque, thus putting it ahead of the new D-Max by 17kW and 50Nm, despite the D-Max having a 50 per cent capacity advantage. The Ranger’s 2.0-litre engine even claims 10kW and 30Nm more than the 3.2-litre five-cylinder Ranger engine.

The bi-turbo arrangement is sequential and uses a small turbo to improve the low-rpm response before a bigger turbo gradually takes over at higher engine speeds and higher engine loads. The transition from small turbo working alone, to both turbos working together and then the bigger turbo working alone is totally seamless.

On the road the Ranger is quicker than the D-Max, but not by much and that’s probably more to do with having more closely spaced gearbox ratios, which helps extract the best from the engine.

WHICHCAR REVIEW: Ford Ranger Wildtrak

The Ranger’s diesel is also smoother, quieter and more refined than the D-Max’s much-improved engine but the Ranger’s 2.0-litre also wins on refinement across the wider ute class, so the win here against the D-Max engine is not surprising.

On full noise the Ranger’s little engine actually sounds like a big engine in the way it hammers along and is more characterful and engaging than the blander and more workmanlike D-max engine.

For its part the Ranger’s 10-speed automatic offers slick and quick changes, which are often hard to pick especially on a light throttle but can occasionally be indecisive with gear selection, especially when going from light-throttle cruising to full-throttle acceleration. With all those gears to chose from, the Ranger swaps gears far more often then the D-Max, which makes it feel more frenetic at times even with the excellent shift quality.

RANGER ON-ROAD

FORD managed to achieve a high standard of ride and handling with the Ranger when first released and this is still evident today, helped by a few changes along the way.

In 2016 the Ranger gained electric power steering and then for 2019, alongside the introduction of the new 2.0-litre powertrain, the suspension was tweaked primarily for a better unladen ride, although at the time Ford also claimed better towing performance. We are convinced of the former, less so of the latter.

On the road the Ranger is still hard to go past for its steering feel and its general handing and ride quality but the new D-Max gets close, which is impressive given the previous D-Max wasn’t even in the same ball park.

Like all D-Max models, the Ranger Wildtrak gets lane keeping assistance, and while it can also be distracting on some roads by tugging the steering if you drive too close to the lane markings, as does the D-Max, you can easily turn it if off via a switch on the end of the right-hand steering column stalk.

RANGER OFF-ROAD

ALONG with Toyota Hilux and Volkswagen Amarok, the Ranger has always been a top-tier performer off road and, amongst the popular utes, there has been none better. This is largely thanks to its generous wheel travel and the fact that when the rear diff lock is engaged the traction control remains active across the front axle. With most other utes fitted with a rear locker, the new D-Max included, engaging the rear locker cancels the traction control on both axles.

The 2.0-litre Ranger also has a low crawl ratio thanks largely to its very low first gear, one of the advantages of having ten gearbox ratios. On the negative side, the Ranger’s departure angle could be better and it’s also a long ute.

While our time off road in this test was limited, the Ranger still proved more capable than the new D-Max, even if the new D-Max gets much closer than did the previous model.

RANGER INTERIOR

THE Wildtrak’s leather-clad cabin is big and comfortable, and no other mainstream popular ute, this new D-Max included, can match it for combined front and rear legroom and rear headroom.

However the Ranger still lacks steering wheel reach adjustment (tilt only) and the HAVC controls are also small and difficult to use. For those living in colder climates, the Wildtrak’s heated front seats are however a welcome bonus but, unlike the D-Max, the Wildtrak doesn’t get rear-seat air vents.

Being a Wildtrak model, this Ranger comes with plenty of safety kit (See ‘What You Get’) including autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure prevention and adaptive cruise control but misses out some of the D-Max’s safety features, although it does get tyre-pressure monitoring, which the D-Max doesn’t.

RANGER PRACTICALITIES

THE 2.0-litre Ranger is rated to tow 3500kg, the same as the 3.2-litre Ranger and the D-Max. Our previous comparative tow testing has demonstrated, however, that the powertrain of the bigger-engined Ranger is far better suited to heavy-duty towing than the 2.0-litre Ranger.

And not that we have had the chance to tow-test the new D-Max as yet, we suspect it would also be a better tow vehicle than the 2.0-litre Ranger, at least in terms of powertrain performance.

Like the D-Max X-Terrain, the Wildtrak also gets a lockable roller tonneau and it picks up a couple of handy standard items that the X-Terrain doesn’t have in the form of a towbar and 12-volt outlet in the tub.

RANGER 4X4 2.0BT PRICES*

XLT: $60,940
WILDTRAK: $65,790
WILDTRAK X: $67,790
*Prices do not include on-road costs.

RANGER EQUIPMENT LIST

THE Wildtrak is top-spec in Ranger, save for the special-edition, accessorised Wildtrak X. The Wildtrak comes with optional powertrains, the as-tested 2.0-litre four-cylinder bi-turbo diesel being automatic only, while the 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel is available as both an automatic and a manual.

The Wildtrak gets smart-key entry and start, leather seat trim, electric adjust for the driver’s seat, heated front seats, an eight-inch touchscreen, sat-nav, the usual phone connectivity features and self-park assist.

The Wildtrak’s safety features include adaptive cruise control (in addition to normal cruise control), autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning and assistance, and tyre-pressure monitoring.

The Wildtrak also gets a lockable roller tonneau, aero sports bar, a 12-volt outlet in the tub, a towbar, and rides on 18s. Like all 4x4 Rangers the Wildtrak also gets a driver-switched rear differential lock.

THE VERDICT

BOTH these utes start on the high side of $60K and by the time you get them on the road there won’t be much change from $70K. So, how does the new D-Max X-Terrain shape up against an established benchmark like the Ford Ranger Wildtrak?

Looked at from a value-for-money perspective in terms of features, the D-Max starts out just under $3K less expensive and has features the Wildtrak doesn’t get. These include tilt-and-reach steering wheel adjustment, rear cross-traffic alert, blindspot monitoring, a driver’s knee airbag, a centre airbag, remote start, automatic walk-away locking and ‘Lane Keeping Assist’, which is a next level-up technology from lane-departure prevention providing a degree of self-steering on motorways while still not allowing the driver to take his or her hands off the steering wheel.

Standard features that the Wildtrak gets but are absent on the X-Terrain include heated front seats, tyre-pressure monitoring, a towbar, a 12-volt outlet in the tub, and park assist, which self-steers the car into a parking spot. You can make you own mind up on what suite of extra features you’d prefer.

In more general terms, the new D-Max has come along way from its predecessor, and just not by offering a class-leading level of safety features right across the model range. More significant in terms of everyday driving is the far more composed ride and handling and the more confident road feel. The more muscular yet more refined powertrain also adds to the new-found driving pleasure. Off road it’s more capable too.

Still, for all that, the 2.0-litre Wildtrak with its more sophisticated and complex powertrain still shades the X-Terrain for on-road refinement, and while its chassis also has a few on- and off-road tricks the D-Max can’t match.

As a heavy-duty tow vehicle however, past experience and future expectation favours the D-Max of this pair, but if heavy-duty towing is your requirement you want a Ranger with the 3.2-litre five-cylinder diesel, not one with the bi-turbo 2.0-litre engine regardless of what the claimed power and torque numbers suggest.

SPECS: ISUZU D-MAX X-TERRAIN DUAL-CAB 4X4

ENGINE: 3.0-litre 4-cyl turbo diesel
MAX POWER: 140kW at 3600rpm
MAX TORQUE: 450Nm at 1600 to 2600rpm
TRANSMISSION: Six-speed automatic
4X4 SYSTEM: Dual-range part-time
CRAWL RATIO: 33.3:1
CONSTRUCTION: Separate-chassis
FRONT SUSPENSION: Independent/coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION: Live axle/leaf springs
WHEEL/TYRE: 265/60R18 110S
KERB WEIGHT: 2131kg
GVM: 3100kg
PAYLOAD: 970kg
TOWING CAPACITY: 3500kg
TOWBALL DOWNLOAD: 350kg (max)
GCM: 5950kg
FUEL TANK CAPACITY: 76L
ADR FUEL CLAIM: 8.0L/100km
TEST FUEL USE: 11.2L/100km
GROUND CLEARANCE (CLAIM): 240mm
APPROACH ANGLE: 30.5⁰
RAMPOVER ANGLE: 22.7⁰
DEPARTURE ANGLE: 23.8⁰
WADING DEPTH: 800mm

SPECS: FORD RANGER WILDTRAK

ENGINE: 2.0-litre 4-cyl bi-turbo diesel
MAX POWER: 157kW at 3750rpm
MAX TORQUE: 500Nm at 1750 to 2000rpm
TRANSMISSION: Ten-speed automatic
4X4 SYSTEM: Dual-range part-time
CRAWL RATIO: 42.5:1
CONSTRUCTION: Separate-chassis
FRONT SUSPENSION: Independent/coil springs
REAR SUSPENSION: Live axle/leaf springs
WHEEL/TYRE: 265/60R18 110T
KERB WEIGHT: 2246kg
GVM: 3200kg
PAYLOAD: 954kg
TOWING CAPACITY: 3500kg
TOWBALL DOWNLOAD: 350kg (max)
GCM: 6000kg
FUEL CAPACITY: 80L
ADR FUEL CLAIM: 7.4L/100km
TEST FUEL USE: 11.5L/100km
GROUND CLEARANCE (CLAIM): 237mm
APPROACH ANGLE: 29⁰
RAMPOVER ANGLE: 25⁰
DEPARTURE ANGLE: 21⁰ 
WADING DEPTH: 800mm

READ MORE: 2021 D-MAX vs 2021 Hilux specs compared