Australia is a bloody big continent, and while many cling to the coast living among small city streets, there are large families beyond the suburbs who may need seven-seat space and proper off-road capability.
That equation can’t be provided more affordably than the $39,990 driveaway Ssangyong Rexton. It comes in a single specification with a choice of high- and low-range four-wheel drive and a single turbo-diesel engine – the preferred choice for heavy off-roaders.
It makes sense to compare the Rexton with the Isuzu MU-X, which ousted its near-twin the Holden Colorado 7 in a comparison test earlier this year as the best proper large four-wheel drive (as opposed to a large, on-road-biased SUV).
The Nissan Pathfinder has morphed from a ‘proper’ contender to one that will rarely see mud under its wheels, while the Mitsubishi Challenger is almost as archaic as the Mitsubishi Pajero. It joins the Toyota Prado in being too expensive for this contest.
The Isuzu MU-X starts at $40,500 plus on-road costs for the LS-M two-wheel drive model, while getting traction to all four wheels requires an extra $5100. While we’ve tested the flagship $53,500 MU-X LS-T here, it is mechanically identical to the rest of the four-wheel drive range.
Despite being less expensive than even the base MU-X, the Ssangyong Rexton gets more equipment, including full leather trim with electrically adjustable driver’s seat, climate control air conditioning with vents for all three rows, and front and rear parking sensors.
All of that kit except front sensors is included on the flagship MU-X, but you certainly pay for it.
It’s also possible to see where a metal-for-the-money regime has over-ruled other considerations in both models.
A reverse-view camera, for example, is standard only on the top MU-X and isn’t available at all on Rexton. The Ssangyong also forgoes the curtain airbags included on every grade of its rival, leaving only dual-front and front-side protection. We’d strongly recommend quick fixes in both camps, as these safety omissions are unacceptable given the family-hauling roles.
Both interiors are also built down to a price, with the MU-X sharing its design and finish with the D-Max ute on which it’s heavily based.
While its finish is superior to that of the Holden Colorado ute and Colorado 7, some of the controls and the aftermarket touchscreen audio system would rival only a $13,990 driveaway hatchback.
The Rexton has similar issues. Its combination of woodgrain and plastic chrome finish, and green dotmatrix audio display, makes it feel like a 1980s definition of luxury, though admittedly these family offroaders aren’t meant to make fashion statements.
There are some sweet surprises in the Ssangyong, though, such as a flock-lined centre console and glovebox.
The audio system, while basic, also connects with then syncs to Bluetooth for phone and audio connectivity faster than the fancier touchscreen unit in the Isuzu, which is ergonomically challenged but at least includes satellite navigation – not available at all in the Ssangyong.
Disappointingly, neither model gets a digital speedometer.
Swapping between the pair, it’s immediately apparent that the Rexton has way better front seats and a far superior driving position than even this top-tier, leather-clad MU-X.
The Ssangyong driver’s seat can be tilted heavily for great under-thigh support, where its rival can’t to the same degree, and its seat is heavily bolstered where its foe’s is flat.
Jump one row behind and there is similar legroom to be found in each.
Above: Ssangyong Rexton.
Ssangyong stations its air vents in the lower console, where the Isuzu positions its vents above each outboard passenger’s head – though remember you’ll at least need to spend $42,000 on the middle-grade MU-X LS-U 4x2 ($49,300 4x4) to keep your kids cooled.
The Rexton’s middle backrest also reclines further than its competitor’s – far enough that you’re laying almost flat – though that may only restrict what is the least third-row legroom here, and the most difficult access to it.
Both models include a fold-and-tumble middle row, but the Isuzu’s needs a pull of only one lever to access the rear where its rival requires a two-step process.
Above: Isuzu MU-X.
Both are also clearly designed for left-hand drive markets, as the smaller ‘40’ portion of the 60:40 split middle rear is placed roadside in our market – so picking up the kids kerbside from school means the larger, more cumbersome ’60’ portion has to be flipped for back-row access.
Ssangyong then places the thin cushion for the sixth and seventh passenger essentially on the floor, resulting in a knees-up position for anyone beyond the early years of primary school.
The upside to this is excellent headroom, yet there are no headrests for either back rider nor the centre passenger in the middle row.
The Isuzu third-row is generally more accommodating, with a seat base that sits higher than those further ahead to deliver fine legroom and under-thigh support, even for this 178cm-tall male.
There are headrests but not headroom back there, though, with my cranium banging the headlining unless travelling legs-splayed and crouched down – which is more comfortable than you’d think given there’s decent space between the two rear seats. There is, in fact, room enough for a storage tray between them, and a cupholder on either side, which are both lacking in the Rexton.
Ssangyong offers only netted storage areas for its rearmost riders, though twin air vents with separate fan control are positioned on the driver’s rear pillar, leaving the left passenger to politely ask the one on the right for air – a great form of blackmail for a young sibling back there, no doubt.
It’s not as though you can choose to accommodate only a sixth passenger in the Rexton – leaving the seventh seat folded down for luggage space – because the backrest isn’t split in half; it’s either fully down or up. The MU-X offers a more practical 50:50 fold-down option.
With all seats in place, the boots of this pair look almost identical. Each have a plastic box sitting above the floor that has partitioned wet storage beneath it; handy, but also bulky and space-restricting with all seats in place.
Neither provides boot space figures, though despite appearing virtually identical, the 4.83 metre body of the Isuzu is 70mm longer than the Ssangyong’s (it must go into the rear legroom).
Interestingly, the 2.85m wheelbase of the MU-X stretches only 10mm further than its rival’s, while the Rexton is actually 40mm wider at 1.9m, and the pair are identical in height at 1.86m.
The statistics couldn’t be closer with this duo, with each entry-level four-wheel drive tipping the scales at 1985kg (though our flagship MU-X LS-T came in at 2060kg).
The Isuzu has more power and torque from its 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder, which produces 130kW and 380Nm respectively.
The Ssangyong cedes 15kW and 20Nm to its rival, but its 2.0-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder is actually more efficient given that it’s working with 33 per cent less capacity yet power is down 13 per cent and torque falls by only 5.0 per cent.
On-paper economy is superior in the Rexton – 7.8 litres per 100 kilometres versus 8.4L/100km – though on our mix of urban, freeway and offroad test loop the MU-X actually claimed victory with its 9.3L/100km result ousting its rival by 0.3L/100km.
If the little Ssangyong engine is trying harder to keep up with its foe, then it doesn’t feel like it. Except for some diesel clatter off idle, this is a remarkably smooth and refined engine with little of the uncouth nasal snort you get when accelerating in the Isuzu.
Both four-wheel drives here get automatic transmissions with five gears. That may seem off the pace in a price bracket full of even eight- and nine-speed transmissions, but given the low-rev urge and narrow power bands of these diesels it isn’t a problem.
Both upshift to the next gear at 3800rpm, so there’s no cliff-face fall between gears.
However where the MU-X makes its power at 3600rpm, the Rexton needs 4000rpm showing – so the transmission never quite allows it to get there. In a straight line, the Isuzu feels noticeably faster.
That said, with the MU-X making peaking torque from 1500rpm, the Rexton only 300rpm later, and both holding their peak figures strong until 2800rpm, they are relaxed tourers with no holes in their delivery.
If you do want to manually hold gears, the Ssangyong gets buttons on the steering wheel to go up and down the ratio set, where the Isuzu gets a proper tipshifter in its centre console.
The Rexton is not only quieter than its rival, it is also smoother both in its steering and suspension. Around suburbia its low-speed ride can be a bit clunky, but it tackles big hits such as speed humps remarkably well and becomes more settled at speed.
By contrast the MU-X wobbles its body over uneven surfaces and thumps hard over larger irregularities. It feels less car-like and more ute-based – which of course it is.
Both have steering systems that are ponderous in the urban environment, with nautical levels of arm twirling required in each just to get them into parking spots. It’s the Isuzu’s that doesn’t improve away from the city, though, with weird response that feels more like pulling an elastic band than actually turning the wheel.
At least it comes back to centre when winding off lock, though, unlike the Ssangyong’s that has a propensity to stick at the amount of lock you’ve selected rather than self-centering. Beyond that curio, the Rexton has pleasantly light and direct steering that is superior to some passenger vehicles.
Neither have handling characteristics that allow you to enjoy them as you would a car, so if you don’t go offroad you’ll find a far greater depth of on-road finesse in a Ford Territory or Mazda CX-9.
Of the two here, the MU-X feels the most top-heavy and the least planted, although when both have chubby tyres – 16-inch Ssangyong, 17-inch Isuzu – and tall ride height ready for bush work, neither can be expected to be a dynamic star.
Head off the beaten track as we did and the MU-X starts to show its true colours.
Its ground clearance (at 230mm) is only 14mm loftier than its rival’s.
Start to tackle an incline, and its 30.1-degree approach angle is only 2.1 degrees more generous.
Head back down a hill and the 25.1-degree departure angle is an insignificant 0.4 degrees superior, an advantage reduced to just 0.1 degrees for the ramp-over angle.
On one very steep and rocky decline, we must have used those advantages in our favour because the Isuzu didn’t bottom out and the Ssangyong did.
The MU-X then cemented its advantage by finding traction in places the Rexton couldn’t, simply because its wheel articulation is so much better.
It’s the difference between crawling down a hill with finely measured tentacles keeping the body high, and clumpy shoes waddling downhill.
That said, with low-range gearing engaged in both models and hill-descent control available, both four-wheel drives transcend the Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) acronym to find paths far further than a Territory or CX-9 would.
If you’re into towing, both models tested here will pull 750kg unbraked but only the MU-X will manage a three-tonne braked capacity – 400kg up on its competitor’s.
Isuzu will also push the Ssangyong’s three-year or 100,000km warranty further by two years and 30,000km.
Isuzu's MU-X hauls up ground towards the end, and chances are if you’re buying this sort of vehicle you’ll be prioritising off-road ability, towing performance and third-row space – areas where it strides ahead of its rival. It also has the longer warranty to partially offset its less impressive value equation.
The absence of a reverse-view camera on all but the top-spec MU-X is disappointing, though the Ssangyong Rexton not only misses out on this completely but its lack of curtain airbags and some headrests in a family vehicle can't be excused.
So while the Rexton is the better on-road drive, it's the MU-X that takes a narrow win.