Car reviews - Isuzu - MU-X
Vastly improved road manners, class-leading interior ambience, spacious third row, quality of standard safety kit, tractable engine and slick transmission.
Room for improvement
Over-zealous traction control, front seat comfort, second-row seats a bit high for adults.
The new Isuzu MU-X seems to have skipped a generation or two over its predecessor
4 Aug 2021
OBJECTIVELY, and in comparison tests, the old – in every sense of the word – Isuzu MU-X came bottom of the ute-based large SUV pack, but in the sales charts it was by far the winner, even outselling popular urban-oriented options such as the Hyundai Santa Fe.
Those who parked one in their garage were charmed by the anti-progress, workhorse-like character and loved their agricultural-feeling Isuzus to bits. An old-fashioned SUV backed by old-fashioned customer service (the brand’s trophy cabinet bulges with awards to this effect).
But will this technology-packed, sleeker and slicker – inside and out – new MU-X appeal to fans of its rough-edged, honest-to-goodness predecessor?
Soaring sales of the latest D-Max, from which the new MU-X is derived, say yes. There’s also likely a rich seam of new customers who were put off by the previous model’s back-to-basics nature but could be persuaded by this new one’s freshness, features and capabilities.
We tested the top-spec LS-T 4x4 to find out if the new MU-X retains enough of the first-generation’s spirit to keep loyal customers happy while being good enough to attract new ones.
Having sat through the online press conference and digital test-drive presentation before trawling through the 12,000-word press release, it was both confronting and comforting to fire up the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine of Isuzu Ute Australia’s latest MU-X for the first time.
The big four-cylinder growls and rattles into life, quite audible from the cabin, which is now a comparatively plush environment compared to its plastic-fantastic predecessor.
Despite Isuzu’s claims of improved sound insulation and reduced vibration that would have you believe the MU-X is now as refined as a European luxury sedan, there is no mistaking that a commercial vehicle engine resides behind that sleek new snout.
But for many, this truck heritage is key to the Isuzu brand’s appeal. That purposeful, large-lunged diesel clatter is like a soundtrack to the sand island, the outback and the bush track.
For existing Isuzu customers, it sounds reassuringly familiar, despite the engine being like one of those reproduction Queenslander houses; tried and true design and construction methods but with modern materials and technology for improved liveability and energy efficiency.
Except energy efficiency is actually slightly worse on four-wheel-drive MU-X variants such as the top-spec LS-T tested here (up from 7.9L/100km to 8.3L/100km). This is offset by a larger fuel tank but it’s still going to sting a little at the bowser as fuel prices increase.
After a 100km motorway journey, our test vehicle reported 1045km of tank range remaining and average fuel consumption in the low eights as per the combined-cycle claim. For touring, this should ensure that cheaper capital city fuel lasts well into the mulga.
But a few days of suburban runabouts and dynamic testing on country roads and tracks pushed our reported trip computer figure into the high nines, reducing theoretical range substantially.
Good news is, while idle clatter and acceleration roar remain, the new MU-X is remarkably hushed once up to speed. Even notorious coarse-chip bitumen roads on our test route failed to raise a whisper, the primary sound being wind rustle around the mirrors.
More positive progress comes from the six-speed automatic transmission. Considering our test vehicle was relatively fresh off the boat and similarly low-kilometre old-gen Isuzus we’ve tested got their transmission logic in a twist until well run in, this updated cog-swapper is a peach.
Shifts are smooth and happen exactly when you’d expect, even when pushing hard along a twisty road during our dynamic assessment. It’s also smart enough to quickly drop a ratio or two down hills for additional engine braking.
On the subject of brakes, pedal feel and travel is pretty much perfect. Predictable, progressive braking is a real bonus on loose surfaces and the MU-X delivers in spades. It’s also remarkably stable under hard braking on gravel.
Also handy off or on bitumen is that Isuzu has lost none of the tractability for which its engines are famed with this new MU-X. If anything, it has become even better.
Peak outputs of 140kW and 450Nm – 10kW/20Nm more than before – are nothing to write home about compared with much of the competition and are low specific figures for an engine of this size but access to that torque comes in quickly and strongly without ever feeling peaky.
Like the brake pedal, the accelerator provides precise control and the cooperative transmission ensures smooth progress whatever the situation. As a result, the engine rarely feels hard-worked or thrashy and can leap readily into life when the going suddenly gets soft on sandy or dusty surfaces.
As a result, six ratios feels like enough in the MU-X, despite eight- and 10-speed units being available on the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport and Ford Everest respectively.
Isuzu says the engagement of four-wheel drive modes is quicker and slicker than before. They’re not exaggerating this time, as switching from 2H to 4H and back again at 88km/h happened almost instantaneously during our test. This is handy for those dirt roads that are interspersed with short stretches of Tarmac.
Dropping into low range is also less finicky than before. Select neutral, push and twist the knob and a couple of seconds later it is engaged. We found the diff lock (finally a standard feature) was a bit fussier about if and when it would activate, though.
So far so good. Despite the presence of 20-inch alloy wheels on this range-topper, ride comfort is impressive. It does make occupants aware of surface imperfections, but they are quickly absorbed and forgotten, such is the standard of body control.
It’s a similar story in terms of the typical chassis shudder exhibited by body-on-frame vehicles like the MU-X. Offset bumps and uneven surfaces still send a quiver through the cabin but it is soon shrugged off rather than resonating and remaining after the deflection that caused it has long gone.
This quick recovery from lumps and bumps, as well as the compliant, well-damped and not at all wallowy suspension tune really make the MU-X a pleasure to drive. Given the level of comfort, its composure and resistance to body-roll is also impressive. This also bodes well for travelling with children prone to motion sickness.
Soft leather wrapping the steering wheel is matched by the rack’s buttery smooth, friction-free action. Isuzu has also shaved 20cm off the turning circle, which makes much more difference in suburban reality than you’d think.
The MU-X also now needs a lot less elbow-twirling when negotiating faster corners and the steering is surprisingly accurate and confidence-inspiring on bitumen for a vehicle of this type. It even provides a genuine sense of connection to the road, particularly on dirt tracks where having a good sense of grip and traction levels is important.
But the stability and traction control system is a bit zero-tolerance, as well as being heavy-handed in its interventions.
It takes the most minor provocation – in fact provocation is too strong a word – for it to engage and sharply curtail progress with a big dab of the brakes and deadening the accelerator pedal, to the point where it could panic an unsuspecting driver into making mistakes while frustrating those who are more experienced.
We hope Isuzu backs this off a little in subsequent updates, or at least calibrates it more finely, as it can make an otherwise wieldy and predictable driving experience anything but. Accelerating through a roundabout or taking a bend well within the limits of grip for those big, wide 20-inch tyres should not result in drama.
Happily, the ‘rough terrain’ setting is available in all modes, including two-wheel drive, providing a traction control tune suited to the less predictable grip levels of gravel and dirt roads.
Compared to previously, where the MU-X’s road manners suddenly made more sense once the tyres had left bitumen, on these surfaces the MU-X is consistently confidence inspiring, its composure and compliance keeping the wheels on the ground by soaking up and dropping into undulations and corrugations.
The new exterior looks are now less obviously linked to the D-Max – lower roof height and increased ground clearance, as well as slimmer headlights, result in a significantly less boxy and less upright style – the MU-X interior is also quite different to the ute’s.
If you have experienced the latest D-Max, plenty in here is familiar but numerous detail changes really help belie this SUV’s commercial vehicle origins.
These include a padded and upholstered centre console that is much more sturdy feeling than in the ute, with an electric park brake that liberates space for side-by-side cupholders that are far more useful than those of the D-Max.
Plastics are mostly hard but cleverly textured to look soft and none of them feel flimsy or hollow; there is a sense of quality, robustness and tight build throughout the MU-X cabin and the LS-T has plenty of upholstered, contrast-stitched touchpoints.
The 9.0-inch touchscreen can seem a little impenetrable, with vague and hard-to-see little icons leading from the home screen to menus for smartphone mirroring, audio, navigation and settings. We also found the unit in our car a little laggy, including when using the steering wheel volume and track skip buttons.
Including wireless Apple CarPlay but requiring a USB cable to charge seems a bit pointless but at least – unlike most cars – there is the option to use wired CarPlay as well, which is far more reliable than the glitchy alternative.
Better is the colour info display between the analogue instrument dials – which have a weird and cheap-looking font – that (finally) has a digital speed readout and easy-to-understand graphics for the trip computer and alphabet soup of driver-assist and active safety acronyms.
These systems are as impressive as in almost any passenger car we have tried. Lane-centring and adaptive cruise control are accurate without the former feeling as though it is constantly fighting the driver. If we’re to nit-pick, the blind spot monitoring icons in the mirrors are a little hard to see in bright sunlight.
But to make tyre pressure monitoring exclusive to the top-spec LS-T seems mean when it can be a vital safety feature and useful when adjusting pressures for off-road driving, something you might think twice about doing on the flagship’s fancy 20-inch wheels.
Although the MU-X has lost the dash-top lidded compartment, it still has dual gloveboxes in front of the passenger and a smaller one by the driver’s right knee plus pop-out cup-holders below the outboard air-con vents and door bins that can hold big drinks bottles plus a glasses case or wallet. The bin beneath the centre armrest is a bit small but the phone tray in front of the gear selector is a decent size and there’s a sunglasses holder in the ceiling.
The addition of reach adjustment (as well as height) for the steering column addresses an MU-X bugbear but we’d like to see a little more telescopic range. The front seats also don’t quite go low enough, lack thigh support for taller occupants and take a lot of fiddling of the adjustment controls to feel comfortable.
For this reason, a memory function would be helpful as changing drivers leads to several minutes of button-prodding before comfort is restored. But once attained, comfort is long-lasting. In August, the heated seats are welcome but come December we’ll be wishing they were ventilated too.
We found the second-row seats to be a little comfier. Set even higher, they provide good forward vision over the front seats and their occupants but for taller passengers this results in slightly cramped headroom and peering downwards through the windows. For kids, though, they’re ideally positioned, and reclining the seat alleviates some of these problems for adults.
Big bottle-holding door bins, a slick cup-holder and storage tray in the fold-down armrest, phone tray, map pockets and a pair of USB ports plus ceiling-mounted air-con vents and fan controls mean those in the middle row are well looked-after. It’s plenty wide for three across – be they in or out of bulky child seats.
Although Isuzu has put the ‘40’ side of the 60:40 split facing the road rather than the kerb, making third-row access a bit more of a gamble on busy streets, accommodation in the very back of the MU-X is a pleasant surprise.
This tester’s 186cm frame fitted comfortably, even for headroom, and there was even sufficient space for toes. Cup- and phone-holders are also provided, as are more ceiling vents (but no USB or 12V sockets) and the second row can even recline slightly before impinging on kneeroom. These back seats also now individually recline, provided what remains of the boot is not full of stuff.
The boot itself is a big improvement over the old model. For starters, the carpeted floor is now slightly below the level of the load lip, meaning spherical fruit that inevitably escapes your shopping bags are less likely to roll into the gutter once the (now powered) tailgate is opened.
Capacity with all seats in use is up 68 litres, to 311L, making it one of the most usable among seven-seat rivals. With the third row stowed (now flush into the floor) there is 1119L (up 25L). A little flap behind the third-row seats provides a small underfloor storage area as well, and there is a 12V power outlet for your air compressor or camping gadgets.
The lower roof means capacity with all seats folded has shrunk by 24L, to 2138L, but that’s still a lot.
All in all, we’re impressed by the new Isuzu MU-X. This top-spec LS-T 4x4 version has risen in price by a not-insubstantial $8500 over its predecessor – unless you get the introductory driveaway offer that reduces the gap – but it also looks, feels and drives like a much more expensive car than before.
We’d go so far as to say it’s now good enough of an all-rounder to justify serious consideration against something like a Mazda CX-9 or Toyota Kluger as well as putting serious pressure on the big-selling Toyota LandCruiser Prado.
Not to mention, if you require heavy towing, the ability to compete with dual-cab utes, upper-large SUVs and luxury large SUVs that offer a 3.5-tonne braked trailer capacity. That’s something only the SsangYong Rexton and some Jeep Grand Cherokee variants can match, while providing significant margin for those towing something smaller.
We look forward to taking the new MU-X further off the beaten track to determine whether all that new-found plushness harms or complements its rugged, bush-bashing credentials.
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