Have you looked in new car yards lately? It’s ridiculous. Row after row of Jetson-style mobiles disguised as 4x4s all vying for your money. The salesman glosses over the engine details, couldn’t tell you what suspension or drivetrain it’s running, and has absolutely no idea of the tow rating. But they can recite the list of fancy tech it’s got, like my 14yo nephew rattles off the only thing he knows how to say: “Would you like fries with that?” Yep, as much as it pains me to admit, new 4x4s all compete on whose bells and whistles shine shinier and ring louder than the rest. The days of an honest-to-god 4x4 that’ll do the job without fuss are all but over. Now don’t take me as a Luddite, my weekend toy might have a carburettor, but my daily beeps and flashes if it thinks I’m tired, not realising I’m swaying in and out of my lane due to Johnny Cash belting out the speakers at 11. But I digress.
So what do you do if you’re after an affordable 4x4, with a proven track record of reliability, and a no-fuss ethos that makes it the modern equivalent of the original do-it-all SUVs? You can either buy a second-hand offering with all the dramas that come with it, or if Isuzu Ute has their way, you pick up a set of keys for a new MU-X.
IT'S NOT THAT BASIC IS IT?
A big part of the MU-X’s appeal is it’s basic, but only by comparison. It’s more a comment on how far everything else has strayed from their roots rather than the MU-X being less than it should. It’s got all the tech you’d expect from a last generation Prado and costs less as well. It punches in right around the $50k mark depending on your haggling skills and how much gambling debt your salesman has. So what does your money get you? Well for starters, you get a genuine 7-seater wagon with plenty of space for everyone. The third row isn’t a token offering either, so if you’ve got a large family they can be permanently left in the up position without your kids knowing which one is your least favourite.
You also pick up a modern drivetrain and one of the few that seems to be shirking the trend of high-strung small capacity engines. The interior is markedly modern too, with a huge 8in touch screen arrangement taking pride of place. It sports all the usual suspects like built-in sat nav, Bluetooth and a whole host of others like audio connectivity and USB charging points. In fact, the only thing you’re really missing out on are the tech that many 4x4 owners complain about. Things like adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, large digital gauge clusters and adaptive suspension systems. It’ll turn some potential customers off, but you’re hardly pushing it along like Fred Flinstone.
THE FAMILY WAGON
Let’s get one thing clear. If you’re a burly lumberjack on the hunt for a hardcore 4x4 to do manly stuff with the MU-X shouldn’t even be on your radar. You wouldn’t judge a fish on its ability to climb, so it’s not fair to judge the MU-X against the likes of traditionally tough off-roaders.
The MU-X is aimed squarely at adventurous families, and to that end it does the job bloody well. Despite being comparable in size to older full-size 4x4s it does a great job at hiding its large dimensions, never feeling imposing in the bush or the urban jungle. Rear parking sensors help swing it around in tight confines, although it’d be great to see front sensors included to avoid what my wife refers to as ‘touch-parking’. There’s also a tailgate mounted reversing camera that helps hitching a camper that performs well in low-light conditions, though it’s still not on-par with the Ford offerings.
It drives much smaller than its size would suggest too. Steering is light and responsive, and with extensive updates in NVH levels it drives far more like a lifted family wagon than a diesel 4x4. If you’re doing any towing at all you’ll need to ditch the stock side mirrors though, there’s blind spots a plenty and no adjustment will fix it without moving to a physically larger mirror.
Back seat passengers have little to complain about, with plenty of leg room in the rearmost rows, although all 5 passengers will have to compete for the single USB power outlet in the rear of the centre console. The up-spec LS-T picks up a roof mounted DVD player, but if you’re in an LS-U expect the rear rows to resemble Thunderdome after a few hours on the road, although they do pick up rear AC vents so at least they won’t be complaining it’s too hot/cold.
The cargo area is one massive disappointment, though. Tie-down points are lightweight and up high making them only suitable for strapping down novelty sized carnival stuffed toys. And precious storage space is eaten up by a goofy spacer Isuzu fitted to make the third row seem like it folds flat when it really doesn’t. I’m wise to your games Isuzu.
THE LONG HAUL
Coil sprung wagons are notorious for not coping with the weight of a loaded camper on the back. Even modest tow-ball weight is often enough for them to do their best dog-with-worms impression as they drag their bums across the country. It’s an unfortunate downside to the hunt for a more refined and comfortable ride. Despite having a familiar 5-link and coil spring arrangement as more ‘unsuccessful’ offerings, the MU-X didn’t suffer the same issues, at least not to the extent many of its competitors do (looking at you Ford). Loaded up with the CUBs 150kg towball weight pushing down on the rear bumper and a boot full of camping gear the MU-X sagged by a relatively insignificant 20mm in the rear. With it riding high in normally it meant that despite the suspension sagging almost an inch there was no noticeable ill-effects in performance and handling. I did a sneaky 400km loop to the NSW Central Coast just to make sure. Hey, gotta be thorough, right?
Weights are generous too. With a GVM of 2750kg and GCM of 5750kg you can tow the full rated 3T even if the tow-tug is loaded to the hilt with accessories.
As I mentioned at the start, the MU-X is decidedly light on the tech front, so don’t expect anything trailer specific like trailer sway control either. Although hill start assist is still present and a huge boon for getting a heavy camper moving in steep terrain.
In fact, most of the technical advancements in the MU-X are under the bonnet. The 3.0L 4-cylinder turbo-diesel donk has just had a major refresh to make it Euro 5 emission compliant which came with the benefit of an additional 50Nm of torque up to a maximum of 430Nm at 2000rpm. This puts it well in line with the other offerings on the market, and backed by a 6-speed auto transmission the Isuzu never felt lacking in terms of power. It was quick off the line with a camper in-tow, had plenty up its sleeve for overtaking and performed exceptionally well up the various steep ascents we climbed.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Modern traction control is a hell of a thing. It’s comparable to a diff-lock in many situations. In some it’s slightly worse, in others it’s far better. Why am I telling you this? Well because it’s all you really have in the MU-X. On paper, the wagon is the perfect off-roader. Torquey diesel engine, light-weight, impressive approach and departure angles and a coil sprung rear end. But that’s all you really get. The front independent arrangement is great on road but lacks travel off-road. The 4x4 system is a simple dial that selects between 2-high, 4-high, and 4-low. There’s no adaptive off-road modes that raise suspension and smooth out throttle inputs when you’re in the rocks, and nothing that automatically juggles the traction control with a limited slip diff to push you further. Its competitors are far more advanced in this front and the result is the MU-X simply isn’t as capable off-road in stock form.
There’s plenty of factory accessories available, but sadly a diff lock isn’t one of them, even though they’re standard equipment in most 4x4s these days. Of course, like most older 4x4s there’s plenty of aftermarket support for the MU-X, so you can put the money you save on the purchase price into modifying it how you see fit.
If you’ve stuck around this far you’ve probably noticed the MU-X comes across as… well… average. And it is, but that’s kind of the appeal of it. You don’t buy an Isuzu because it has some fancy feature you can’t live without. You’re not buying one because of tradition. Or because they’re bargain basement offerings that can get traded in before the odometer gets into the six-figure range. You buy a vehicle like this because you want something that does the job, and that’s something that it’s bloody good at.
It’ll handle everything you can throw its way. It’s a great family car with plenty of space for a troop of kids, it’s frugal on fuel, compliant enough you can put even the most inexperienced driver behind the tiller without being concerned, and plenty capable off-road if you’re not doing anything too silly. In fact, I recently punted one through the Old Tele Track at Cape York. The only real question is if you can live without the bells and whistles.
HITS AND MISSES
- Spacious interior
- Proven drivetrain
- Value for money
- Dated interior
- Tare 2095kg
- GVM 2750kg
- GCM 5750kg
- Towing Capacity 3000kg
- Engine 3.0L 4-cylinder turbo-diesel
- Torque 430 @ 2000rpm
- 4x4 System Part time
- Fuel Consumption 11.4L/100Km as tested
- Suspension F/ Independent double wishbone coil R/ Live axle coil spring
- Brakes F/ Disc R/ Disc
- Seats 7 2/3/2 configuration
- Wheel/tyre 18in alloy 255/60R18
- Style Wagon
PRICE AS SHOWN
$52,400 + on roads