Isuzu D-Max V-Cross review: rugged pick-up feels out of its depth

High-spec lifestyle-focused version fails to match its rivals at the more expensive end of the pick-up market

I’m sure the Germans have a word for that disappointed yet sympathetic feeling you get when you see someone who excels in one field fall flat in another.

I’m thinking of Olympic athletes who get booted off Strictly in week three or comedians who can’t quite convince you they’re now a serious actor.

It’s not that they’re actively bad, or you think less of their main achievements, but there’s a niggling sense they should have stuck to what they’re good at.

I feel a bit that way about Isuzu.

For years the Japanese brand has been building rugged, reliable and high-value pick-up trucks that are the darling of farmers, forestry workers, utility firms and builders.

The D-Max has rightly earned a strong position as one of the UK’s go-to workhorses when you want something straightforward to do a job. But like every other pick-up maker out there, in recent years Isuzu has been keen to grab a share of the lifestyle market, where buyers want SUV levels of comfort and equipment along with the ruggedness and flexibility of a pick-up.

Hence the addition of various editions with funny names, fancy bodywork and bags of passenger car technology.

This latest generation of the D-Max is no different, with the line-up split quite clearly into three ranges - Business, All-Purpose and Adventure.

As a business model the D-Max is certainly impressive. It looks and feels basic, with cheap black bumpers, hose-down vinyl flooring and basic steel wheels but brings features such as cruise control, auto-dipping headlights, autonomous emergency braking and lane departure warning which would have been unthinkable in the segment just a few years ago.

It also has the various body and drivetrain options that business buyers demand and an impressive ability to tackle the most rugged of terrain.

But the car we’re testing here today sits at the other end of the range. Looking to challenge models like the Ford Ranger Wildtrak and Toyota Hilux Invincible, the D-Max V-Cross comes complete with 18-inch gun metal grey alloys, matching metal side steps and grille surround, plus leather upholstery and a host of SUV-like gadgets.

It’s impressively kitted out, with heated, electrically adjustable seats, a reversing camera, nine-inch touchscreen, eight-speaker stereo, keyless entry, dual-zone climate control, adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist among its high-end features. However, at this price point rivals offer similar levels of specification but a more premium feel.

Compared with the old model this latest D-Max is noticeably better, with a neater and higher-quality cabin that’s more comfortable, more spacious and more user-friendly. However, when put alongside the likes of the Ranger, Hilux or recently discontinued Mitsubishi L200, there is still a clear gap in quality and comfort, with the Isuzu’s inferior materials and ergonomics clear to see.

It’s a similar story on the road. The latest D-Max improves on the previous generation but the V-Cross doesn’t do enough to keep pace with similarly priced rivals. The 1.9-litre engine is less powerful than rival units and noisier too, and the vague manual gearbox feels like an odd fit in a high-spec lifestyle vehicle. The ride is likewise not as settled or controlled as key rivals and you never forget for a second that this is a commercial vehicle beneath the leather seats and shiny touchscreen.

What the D-Max gets right is the basic pick-up stuff. The chassis is stronger than before, the shift-on-the-fly four-wheel-drive quicker to operate and there’s a locking rear diff for all but the most basic models. Even in the most “premium” spec, it can haul 3.5 tonnes, carry a one-tonne payload in the load bed and traverse the boggiest building site or forestry trial thanks to low-range all-wheel-drive.

At the launch of this newest model in early 2021, Isuzu bosses said that while they were aiming to attract more lifestyle customers they would never abandon the brand’s roots as a utility pick-up maker.

That’s probably just as well. While the latest D-Max is a major improvement on the old model and represents an attractive proposition in the workhorse segment, the V-Cross can’t quite match the quality or refinement of rivals at the lifestyle end of the market.

Isuzu D-Max V-Cross

Price: £32,759 excluding VAT (£39,310 incl VAT); Engine: 1.9-litre, four-cylinder, diesel; Power: 162bhp; Torque: 266lb ft; Transmission: Six-speed manual; Top speed: ; 112mph; 0-62mph: 12.7 seconds; Economy: 33.6mpg; CO2 emissions: 220g/km