Car reviews - Isuzu - MU-X - LS-T 4x4
Ride comfort, ground clearance, underbody protection, visibility, locking diff, rough terrain mode, 80L fuel tank, practicality, towing capacity.
Room for improvement
20-inch wheels, highway terrain tyres, no 360-degree camera or trail camera, no D-Max-style dash storage box.
The old Isuzu MU-X was rugged and charming, if not the most capable, how’s the new one?
10 Sep 2021
THE new second-generation MU-X has big shoes to fill when it comes to the sales charts; its predecessor was a customer favourite thanks to its rugged reliability, charming character and sharp pricing.
Despite not being a segment front-runner either on or off-road, the first-gen MU-X sold in droves and its replacement has been one of the most hotly anticipated vehicles to come to market in recent months.
We’ve already seen from our previous launch review that the new model, while noticeably more expensive, is a monumental step up in terms of refinement, quality, comfort and safety, but what about off-road?
The opportunity to take the new MU-X properly off the beaten track evaded us when it first came out, especially as all these ever-lasting lockdowns came into effect.
Now however, we have taken it off-road and it’s pretty accomplished, but so was the old model; it just didn’t have quite same arsenal of tech and mechanicals – a locking rear differential primarily – to match the segment leaders.
But the new one does.
Right from the get go, it needs to be mentioned that our test cars both at launch and for this more adventure-based review were flagship 4x4 LS-Ts, which ride on 20-inch alloy wheels shod with 265/50 highway terrain (H/T) tyres.
Any vaguely experienced off-roader will tell you that tyre volume – among other things – is key when it comes to four-wheel driving because it allows you to run lower pressures and create a bigger contact patch with the ground, resulting in more traction, a smoother ride and less damage being done to the track.
20-inch wheels are fine on the 4x2 version, which is unlikely to see anything more than gravel or a few hundred metres of grass, but a vehicle with 235mm of ground clearance, low range, a locking diff and four-wheel drive should really only be on 18s or smaller.
For reference, the mid-spec LS-U comes with 18-inch alloys as standard, shod with the same Bridgestone Dueler H/Ts, albeit in a taller 265/60 profile, while the base LS-M rolls on 17s wrapped in slightly more aggressive 255/65 Dunlop AT25s.
Looking past the style-minded wheel and tyre combo, the rest of the LS-T’s off-roading credentials are competitive for the class with approach, ramp-over and departure angles of 29.2, 23.1 and 26.4 degrees respectively, an 800mm wading depth and a multi-link, coil-sprung rear end.
As you would expect from coil set-up, the MU-X’s ride is a lot smoother than its D-Max sibling on-road with none of the pitter-patter jittering from the rear end and the same is true when venturing onto the dirt.
Where utes can sometimes feel a little uneasy over corrugations, the MU-X feels more stable and composed. The tail not once threatened to wander about, even on WA’s ball-bearing-like pea gravel.
It’s a similar story when it comes to low-range off-roading too; the MU-X’s rear flawlessly tracks the front and doesn’t easily succumb to cambers or abnormally-shaped trail features that can upset a leaf spring arrangement – the suspension just does its job and the big wagon continues chugging onwards fuss free.
Even larger obstacles like step-ups, rocky outcrops and bog holes were dispatched with minimal fuss thanks to the abundance of ground clearance and the lazy, torquey nature of the MU-X’s 140kW/450Nm 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine.
While it’s not a segment leader in terms of power of torque, the 4JJ1-TC has bags of character and never seems stressed when it comes to low-speed off-roading, whether it be a steep climb, mild rock crawling or using the lowest gear ratios for controlled descending.
Compared to other 4x4 ute-based wagons, the MU-X is one of the better offerings when it comes to visibility and manoeuvrability off-road thanks to its relatively short nose, low bonnet line and light steering, however in top-spec LS-T guise, we can’t help but lament the omission of a 360-degree camera.
At $65,900 before on-road costs, the 4x4 MU-X LS-T is an expensive car and Isuzu Ute Australia (IUA) has made plenty of noise about it being the brand’s most technologically advanced vehicle to date, so the lack of a Navara-style trail cam, let alone a 360-degree parking camera could be a tough pill to swallow for some buyers.
Another feature we missed was the D-Max’s dashtop storage box, which is ideal for storing maps, national park passes, brochures and the like – all relevant stuff when it comes to touring.
What the MU-X does have however is a new ‘rough terrain’ mode for the traction control system, which we put to the test twice during our time with the car; once going up a particularly steep and damp climb and again when negotiating a powerline track riddled with wheel-swallowing ruts.
The steep climb we tackled was a combination of clay dirt and granite rock with plenty of cambers, wheel ruts and even a suspicious looking bog hole, all of which was topped off by trickles of water and puddles from the previous week’s storms.
Plugging our way up the climb, we could feel the system doing its job as the grip levels for each wheel changed every metre but it ended up being a hiccup-free ascent, even with the road-biased tyres.
Hoping to really push the system, the next day we headed for our preferred stretch of powerline track – at road pressures – to see how the MU-X coped when it got a wheel or two up in the air.
Without rough terrain mode engaged, our test car wasn’t able to conquer a particularly wide uphill rut cross-over; the standard traction control system literally gave up after a few seconds of wheelspin by completely cutting power, leaving us rocking on two wheels and wondering if something in the driveline had let go.
Once the drivetrain decided it wanted to play ball again, we engaged rough terrain mode and had another crack – this time the MU-X clambered its way across, but still took a bit of asking.
It’s worth noting however that 412.6mm of rain fell in this part of WA in the weeks prior to testing so the ruts were more washed out than usual and remembering we were on 20-inch highway tyres at road pressures – lower pressures and or a more aggressive tread would make life much easier, but the whole point of the expedition was to test the electronics.
Thanks to the generous ground clearance and decent wheel articulation, the MU-X does well in rarely grounding out over rough terrain and even when it does, the sump, transfer case and the fuel tank’s leading edge are all protected by steel skid plates.
Speaking of the fuel tank, IUA has fitted all Australian-delivered MU-Xs with a more adventure-focused 80-litre unit; perfect for the outback explorer or extended road-tripper.
The extra range afforded by the bigger tank (up from 65L) also goes hand in hand with what for many buyers will be this car’s most appealing feature… a 3500kg braked towing capacity.
At the MU-X’s launch back in July, IUA said around half of its customers use their vehicles to tow, which made duplicating the D-Max’s segment-standard capacity a crucial priority in developing the wagon.
Of all the sub-$70,000 large SUVs, only the new MU-X and the SsangYong Rexton offer the full 3500kg towing capacity of their ute siblings with alternatives like the Ford Everest, Toyota Fortuner and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport all capped at 3100kg braked.
This should make it even more of a favourite among Australia’s grey nomad community while the seven-seat configuration mean it should prove popular with families, whether they’re urban or country-based, though we feel it’ll definitely appeal more to the latter.
While not as big as something like a Toyota LandCruiser, the MU-X offers up plenty of room in all three rows of seating with plenty of head and shoulder room in the front, decent leg, head and toe-room in the second row and generous levels of everything in the third row.
The ace up the MU-X’s practicality sleeve however is the cargo space on offer: 311L with the third row up, 1119L with it stowed and 2138L with both the second and third rows folded flat.
Like most of its key rivals, the MU-X’s second row uses a tumble mechanism to grant access to the third row and when stowing the seats, however unlike the Pajero Sport, the seat cushions can be rolled back into place with the backrests still folded flat, creating an entirely flat cargo bed.
Out of the box, then, the new Isuzu MU-X is a winner.
It’s comfortable on-road, more than capable off-road and hugely practical, however adventure types may be drawn more to the LS-M or LS-U as opposed to the flagship LS-T on the account of the more off-road friendly wheel and tyre combinations.
The LS-T will still go a long way off the beaten track, but it’s composure will eventually be hindered as conditions deteriorate on account of its 20-inch wheels and road-focused tyres.
We’ve had plenty of experience with the Bridgestone Dueler H/Ts before now and can confirm they’re pretty poor when the ground gets sloppy and a few angles are thrown in.
Thankfully tyres are an easy fix, but those looking to go genuine adventure touring should probably look at the mid-spec LS-U which comes with all the same mechanicals and most of the key creature comforts, albeit on 18-inch wheels and a more versatile tyre profile.
However, those looking for a new tow car with all the mod-cons, great fuel range and enough capability to still explore that unexplored track will be right at home in the flagship.
You could always talk your dealership into supplying the wheel and tyre package from a more modest MU-X if you want all the bells and whistles with maximum off-road chops.
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