Australia’s already hyper-competitive SUV market is about to get another hardcore contender with the upcoming launch of the all-new seven-seat Isuzu MU-X.
Based on the tough-as-nails D-Max ute, Isuzu’s entry to the popular automotive segment will see it line-up against fellow ute-based, turbo-diesel SUVs, including the Mitsubishi Challenger and the co-developed Colorado 7 (the Prado also has plenty in common with the HiLux).
Isuzu is hoping that an aggressive pricing strategy and significant variant line-up will help its new Isuzu MU-X gain a major foothold in the market.
Although the company has announced pricing for the five-variant range (including a pair of two-wheel-drive versions and three 4x4s) of between $40,500 and $53,500 before on-road costs, it has all but confirmed significantly reduced drive-away deals from the moment the MU-X hits showroom floors in December.
Those drive-away prices are expected to include a sub-$40,000 price tag for the entry-level 2WD auto 3.0-litre LS-M, and less than $50,000 for the range-topping 4WD LS-T.
In comparison, the Holden Colorado 7 is priced from $46,990 plus on-road costs for the 2.8-litre LT auto, while the Toyota Prado range kicks off at $55,990 for the 3.0 GX with manual transmission. The all-wheel-drive entry-level Mitsubishi Challenger starts at $42,490 for the 2.5-litre manual, but only gets two rows of seats as a five-seater.
Apart from the sharper pricing, Isuzu’s main point-of difference with its MU-X is its 2WD, auto-only variants that will allow the company to target specific fleet buyers.
While the Isuzu MU-X is a brand new design for Isuzu, the Japanese-owned truck manufacturer has sold SUVs in Australia before as the Holden Jackeroo and Frontera. The company also produced the MU-7 (based on the previous D-Max) for Thailand and other developing markets.
The styling is therefore commensurate with its tough, heavy-duty positioning in the family-size SUV segment with a D-Max-style grille and high ground clearance.
Under the bonnet of all the MU-X variants sits Isuzu’s own common-rail 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel with 130kW of power, and 380Nm between 1800rpm and 2800rpm, matched to either a five-speed manual or automatic transmission.
That compares with 147kW and 500Nm for the Colorado 7, though Isuzu say that its truck-based engine is less stressed than competitive powerplants, citing a minimum expected life cycle of 500,000km.
We tried both auto and manual versions on an off-road proving ground and favoured the automatic for its ability to creep more smoothly across large rocks and bumps. In each case, the engine pulls effortlessly and is relatively quiet and refined (as far as diesel clatter inside the cabin goes) on what was a limited test drive program in Thailand.
The manual version gets a light clutch pedal (arguably too light) and there are long throws between each gearshift.
However, despite fewer gear ratios than some competitor models, the gears are suitably wide to take advantage of the engine’s flat torque curve.
Although Isuzu’s new SUV is built on a full-length ladder chassis architecture, it swaps the live rear axle of its D-Max cousin for a more refined five-link arrangement, as well as an independent double wishbone and coil spring set-up at the front.
Those same boulders and large purpose-built mounds at Isuzu’s own 4x4 facility near Bangkok also highlighted the MU-X’s general off-road refinement and ability to cushion the ride over rough ground and large obstacles.
The Isuzu MU-X is being billed as a large SUV, so fittingly there’s plenty of space inside the cabin as well as plethora of storage compartments – including 14 cup-holders.
Not so cavernous is the luggage space behind the third row of seats, replaced by a raised storage bin suitable for laptops and other valuables.
However, there’s impressively easy access to the third row seating, with second row seats that tumble forward with a flick of a lever.
Rear-seat passengers also benefit from roof-mounted cooling vents.
Carrying longer objects such as ladders and surfboards won’t be an issue, either, as both rear seat rows fold almost flat.
While the general fit and finish throughout the vehicle is more than acceptable, don’t expect to find any soft-touch materials outside the leather upholstery – it’s all durable plastics inside the MU-X.
Interestingly, though, while the D-Max offers a slight dash variation to its Colorado twin, the MU-X even copies the circular heating and ventilation panel with central dial of both the Colorado ute and Colorado 7 SUV.
Driver and front passenger seats are comfortable and sufficiently bolstered, but the lack of reach adjustment for the steering wheel means short-legged drivers might struggle to find the ideal driving position.
While there is no doubting the MU-X’s off-road prowess and general family-hauling ability, it will be interesting to see how this vehicle holds up in local conditions at the end of the year.
With Ford about to join its rugged off-road competitors in 2015 with its Australian-designed and engineered Everest that's based on the Ranger, Isuzu’s MU-X will need to show plenty of on-road flair if it is to keep up with a competitive and growing market here in Australia.