Back to the Future

WRITTEN BY: Iain Curry

Ah, 2008. Has it really been a decade-and-a-half? Kevin Rudd was at the crease for his first innings, Obama won the race for the White House, petrol snuck under $1 a litre, and if you fancy a giggle, Greater Sydney’s median house price was $500,000.

Isuzu UTE Australia was founded the same year, entering our hotly contested one-tonne ute market with the 3.0-litre D-MAX. Just 15 years later, Isuzu is a top 10 brand here. That’s despite only two models in showrooms: the still tough, increasingly techy D-MAX, and the MU-X, its seven-seat, family SUV sibling.

A celebration was in order and how better than by bringing together one of the very first D-MAXs in the country with the very latest? Enter Michael Ashauer’s immaculately presented 2008 build (but 2009 Model Year) D-MAX LS-U, a vehicle he’s proudly owned and cared for since 2011.

A current model Granite Grey Mica D-MAX X-TERRAIN would be its wingman, highlighting the rig’s smart evolution over 15 years, but also demonstrating how robust capability and style are timeless.

A little like North Stradbroke Island.

Tea and cake seemed a little tame, so instead, we decided to ask the youngblood and its OG forebear to take on Straddie in tandem.

Although just 30 kilometres south-east of Brisbane, the island is a world away from the big smoke. It’s the perennial bridesmaid, being the world’s second largest sand island (after K’gari, that headline-hogging cousin), but in this case, it’s just as delightful.

Reached via a 45-minute ferry crossing over the inviting blue waters of Moreton Bay, Straddie is 38 kilometres long and 11 kilometres wide. It has three small towns, bitumen roads, decent pubs and restaurants, and an array of accommodation options. For water activities there are surf breaks - Ethan Ewing, the strikingly handsome, exceptionally stylish runner-up in the 2022 WSL world titles, calls North Straddie home - but there are also sheltered swimming beaches and ample fishing spots.

For our D-MAX duo, we’d be focusing on Main Beach - a 32km stretch of sand where four-wheelers can cruise (er, ideally at low tide) with the bright blue Coral Sea filling window views.

We drop tyre pressures to navigate the soft sand cutting and head onto the firmer stuff. Michael confesses that this is the first time his ’08 D-MAX has been on sand and the first time he’s used low-range 4x4 since he tackled an I-Venture Club trip in Queensland’s Gordon Country.

I surmise his ute has had an easy life - hence its pristine condition. But on the contrary. It’s simply been very well cared for. It’s serviced every 10,000km and has, says its owner, “never skipped a beat”. Michael’s a personal trainer and has been hauling truck tyres, ropes, bars and weights in its tub these past 10 years. The D-MAX is a working ute, then, but its rock-hard-abbed owner insists it’s always garaged and often cleaned.

Despite its 145,000kms and 15 years, the body of Michael’s D-MAX is in time warp condition. We park it beside the new D-MAX on golden, powdery sand and contemplate the evolution. Their horizontal radiator grilles may be similar, but the later D-MAX’s face has certainly received a more aggressive touch-up with more prominent snout and sporty, edgy LED headlights. Grandpa might’ve been ruggedly handsome in his day, but it’s Junior’s cheekbones that get the kids swiping right in the Tinder age.

Back in 2008, when the Holden Commodore was still our best-selling car, utes were primarily the choice of the workman, those towing, or both. How things have changed. While those same buyers remain, D-MAXs are now a hugely popular choice for modern families, too. Improved drivability and safety, comfier cabins and a burgeoning suite of impressive tech features have all helped, backed by the aesthetics evolving to reflect adventurous family life.

Our X-TERRAIN’s black 18-inch alloys (the ’08 D-MAX rode on 16-inchers), black wheel-arch cladding, taller stance, highersided tub, larger door apertures and longer windows all ooze modernity, but cues of the lineage remain. The ’08 D-MAX looks totally work-ready with its flared wheel arches, side steps and giant tiered rear bumper to help reach your kit.

Bigger changes are noted inside. I climb into the 2008 D-MAX LS’s cabin and love how charmingly old school it feels. Where have those last 15 years gone? Cloth seats, a metal key goes in the ignition, not a button to be found on the steering wheel, a CD player - all the better for your circa-2008 mates to leave their new albums in - and an LCD panel showing radio stations. But this model was pretty high-spec in its day. Note the electric windows, dual airbags, remote central locking, air conditioning, power folding mirrors and padded centre armrest. Worksite envy, right there.

The new D-MAX is a bit of a show-off. Power and heated leather seats, red stitching, 9-inch audio display with Android Auto and wireless Apple CarPlay®, climate control, eight airbags, rear camera and countless safety aids. But hey, where’s the CD player gone? I’ve got my Powderfinger and Kings of Leon collection ready when it makes a comeback.

I’m blown away by how solid the ‘vintage’ D-MAX feels to drive. No rattles or squeaks, bumps are well-managed, and the 3.0-litre diesel has ample pull. Its 120kW and 333Nm may be shaded by the new ute’s 140kW and 450Nm, but there’s confident muscle from Michael’s older model. He uses it to lug a pop-top caravan around the country and says he barely knows it’s there when driving.

Speaking of towing, the new D-MAX manages 3,500kg versus the 2008’s 3,000kg. There’s now a rear diff lock, wading depth’s up 200mm to 800mm and electric power steering’s been introduced. The 3.0-litre turbo-diesel’s a completely new unit and a six-speed auto gearbox replaces the old four-speed, all helping drop fuel use from 9.0L/100km to 8.0L/100km.

Our brace of 4x4 Isuzus - we have a third ute in support, for photos - happily ploughs through the softer sand, obviously enjoying this natural playground. A white-bellied sea eagle, hunting for food, casts a shadow over our beach, and this time of year (October) we spot humpback whale spouts out at sea. These majestic giants are heading south to cooler waters with their newborn calves.

Low range engaged - a dash button on the 2008 D-MAX, a rotary dial on the new car - we leave Straddie’s eastern beach and cross the island to the laid-back fishing village of Amity. Judging by the number of fisherfolk on the jetty, the marine life’s abundant in these calm waters.

We hop onto a beach just out of town and have time to enjoy the sun going down behind us and marvel at the colours changing over the ocean. In no time we’re on the ferry to the mainland as the sky delivers a light show of oranges and purples. Our D-MAXs old and new have an open-air view across the sea, both looking content after a day’s island time.

Fifteen years of change are wholly evident aesthetically, as well as under their skins, but its more than that. From the feel behind the wheel, to the quiet confidence as you abandon the tarmac, these D-MAXs’ shared DNA is obvious.

Class has always been there and age is just a number. A decade-and-a-half might feel like an age, but it’s recent enough to look back upon clear-eyed, with neither rose-coloured glasses, nor bitterness.

At least, it is if you’re talking utes.

K-Rudd probably recalls it pretty fondly. Everyone who missed out on a $500K slice of Sydney suburbia may be a little more circumspect.

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