Rugged, reliable and hearty – the Isuzu MU-X ticks all the right boxes. But, how does it fare when it's taken off-road? Paul Maric finds out.
A lot of people buy a big four-wheel drive with seven seats to carry kids, their friends, their friend's friends, and occasionally to tow a caravan.
But, little do they know their big SUV is capable of going effectively anywhere straight out of the box. One of those big SUVs is the 2017 Isuzu MU-X and we saddled-up to see how well it would deal with being thrown in the deep end, literally.
Recently the benefactor of a face lift, the 2017 Isuzu MU-X also received a heart transplant in the form of a meatier engine.
Now powering the MU-X range is a four-cylinder, 3.0-litre turbocharged diesel that makes 130kW of power (same as before), but is now Euro 5 compliant and offers up 430Nm of torque (50Nm more than previously).
The big advantage with this engine revision is that it produces 380Nm of torque between 1700 and 3500rpm, which is a wider rev band than offered but its predecessor. It also peaks at 430Nm between 2000 and 2200rpm, making it a versatile band to work with.
The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, with a claimed combined fuel economy of 7.9 litres per 100km, along with a 3000kg braked towing capacity. While the MU-X range is available in both rear- and all-wheel drive, we picked the mid-specification Isuzu MU-X LS-U 4x4 with an automatic transmission as our test vehicle.
Priced from $52,400 (plus on-road costs), the MU-X LS-U is $1300 more than before, but don't be too alarmed. Isuzu is already doing a drive-away offer, available until the end of 2017, that'll see you walk out the door with one for $48,990 – which is over $4000 off retail after on-road costs.
This review will focus on the MU-X's off-road credentials, so if you want to know how it performs on-road, check out our review of the new MU-X range here.
Offering 220mm of ground clearance, the MU-X is capable of clearing most terrain you'll come across in day-to-day off-road driving. An approach angle of 24 degrees is backed by a departure angle of 25.1 degrees and a breakover angle of 19.5 degrees.
These are fairly standard figures in this segment, with approach and departure respectively referring to the face angle of approach and departure respectively that you can attack before contacting the body. Likewise, the breakover angle is the maximum breakover angle of a hill you can travel over before contacting the undercarriage.
In terms of four-wheel drive equipment, the MU-X is a very basic offering. On sealed surfaces it operates as a two-wheel drive sending torque only to the rear wheels.
Flicking the dial to 4H mode activates the four-wheel drive system, which sends torque to all four wheels. It doesn't have a centre or rear differential lock, which means it can't split torque to vary distribution when in four-wheel drive mode.
Switching to 4L is the same as 4H, except it uses a low-range set of gears. The driver can switch between 2H and 4H at any speed up to 100km/h, while the move from 4H to 4L can only happen when stationary.
Unlike some of its competitors in this segment, the MU-X doesn't feature a rear differential lock. Isuzu says that its inbuilt traction control systems manage wheel-slip effectively enough, though.
We put this theory to the test with a number of different terrain types, including a muddy climb out of water, which works a system like this aggressively due to the build up of water on brake discs.
The MU-X has three stability control modes. The first mode leaves everything on. In this mode any twitches of the rear, or sideways movement, cause the stability control to activate quite aggressively. If you have momentum climbing a hill or are moving through a mud bath, this can sometimes limit movement and cause you to get bogged down.
While it's handy for on-road driving, we'd recommend switching to the first 'off' setting if you're trying to move through a bog with pace. This mode disables stability control and traction control, allowing wheels to slip more freely and it won't intervene if the car has a sideways moment.
It doesn't completely disable the safety systems though, because it's a form of brake traction control that Isuzu uses to simulate a limited slip differential. Instead of splitting torque between wheels or axles, the brake traction control system will brake a wheel to prevent it spinning, which allows the vehicle to then send torque to the wheel(s) with greater traction.
Surprisingly, the system works quite well. In this mode, it's a case of keeping the foot firmly planted to allow the car to gain momentum and move through the hole it's about to be otherwise stuck in.
We tested this driving through a sloshy mud bath and on a climb out of a river crossing. It can be quite noisy while it operates, but we found it to be very effective.
You can, of course, switch everything off, but in a car like this without any diff locks, it's a fruitless task.
With 600mm of wading depth on offer, we dropped the MU-X into a river crossing to see how it would cope with around five minutes of wading. As you'd expect, it was a fairly effortless exercise.
The throttle remained responsive and when we encountered deeper and softer areas, the throttle remained responsive enough to keep it moving along.
As we climbed out of the water, the traction control system had to work overtime to prevent the wheels from slipping as they scrabbled for traction. This often catches four-wheel drives out as there's a mix of wet rubber and wet brakes.
When we threw the MU-X at a hill descent, the lack of a proper electronic hill descent control was one of its shortcomings. Instead of a brake operated hill descent, it uses a transmission shift mode that runs back through gears to limit movement.
The automatic gearbox's gearing in first isn't quite short enough to keep it from running away. The problem is solved when you switch to low-range in first or second gear on a descent.
Unlike the Trailblazer and Everest, which both use an electrically assisted steering rack, the MU-X still uses a hydraulic steering rack that can be slightly heavy at times. It also offers up 3.84 turns lock-to-lock, which can be annoying when trying to move around objects off-road.
Despite the Everest not feeling as 'rugged' as older four-wheel drives, the quick steering ratio and light steering makes it easy to place off-road.
Updates to the MU-X for the 2017 model year are welcome. Extra torque helps the MU-X get along and its off-road credentials remain impressive despite missing out on a stack of four-wheel drive gear offered on its competitors.
Proper underbody protection, plus decent ground clearance and wading depth make the MU-X a great option for buyers who need the room of a four-wheel drive, but occasionally want to go off-road.
It's worth checking out if this type of vehicle is up your alley. For peace of mind, it's worth test driving it back-to-back with the likes of the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, which offers a lot more four-wheel drive equipment and a superior braked towing capacity (3100kg v 3000kg).
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