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Sales of large SUVs are on the rise, and not just urban-centric family haulers. Big, tough, off-road capable SUVs make up about 40 per cent of segment sales, and that number is growing.
There are three trim grades in the MU-X line-up, and our test car is the top-specification $53,500 2016 Isuzu MU-X LS-T 4x4.
Think about it, Australia is a landmass that covers some 7.7 million square kilometres where roughly 80 per cent of the 820,000-kilometre road network is unpaved. Throw in any travel that actually occurs ‘off road’ and you can start to see why a proper 4x4 makes sense.
A big country means big distances, and the Isuzu’s reliable 3.0-litre turbo-diesel truck engine and seven-seat family practicality seem to be the right mix that buyers are looking for.
It’s no futuristic, whiz-bang design study, though - the MU-X gets by on its honest capability and solid value, proving that you can’t beat the basics.
On the outside, the MU-X (which apparently stands for ‘Make U eXciting’, hmmm) bares a strong resemblance to both its D-MAX pickup sibling as well as its Holden Trailblazer cousin. In a way it looks a bit smarter than both, the bob-tailed wagon having a more stylish treatment front and rear than the other family members.
Headlights are acceptable as projector halogen units, but if you do lots of night driving in the bush you might want to invest in an accessory light-bar, as they don’t have great high-beam throw. There are no snazzy LED tail lights or running lamps on the MU-X either.
The LS-T scores a set of integrated roof rails, a rear spoiler assembly, side steps and lashings of chrome trim here-and-there. Wheel designs have never been Isuzu’s strong point, and the 17-inch alloys on the MU-X are no exception; they are a little bit bland.
You can select from six colours with only the flat ‘Splash White’ not attracting a $450 premium paint premium. Our car is a pearlescent Silky White.
We saw a modified Obsidian Grey MU-X on the freeway recently, and while it was substantially helped by its giant mud-terrain tyres and aftermarket black Sunraysia style alloys, that would be our pick of the palette.
Inside, the MU-X continues the ‘honest’ theme by combining some handy convenience features with rather basic material selection.
You get great storage by way of the twin gloveboxes, dash-top cubby, center console cup holders and stowage bin, sunglasses holder, door bins and vent mounted cup-holders.
The climate control is a simple, rotary dial with giant LED numbers that can be seen from space, and the rest of the switchgear also pretty basic but ergonomic in its layout.
The LS-T gets a push-button start function (to complement the keyless entry) but the button isn’t where the key used to be – it’s down by your left knee, the old ignition barrel replaced by a blanking cap. Not the greatest implementation, we have to say.
For peace-of-mind with the full family on board, you have ANCAP-rated five-star safety as well as stability and traction control programs, and six airbags around the cabin, including curtains for all three rows.
You get a rear-view camera with parking sensors, too.
Despite lots of good points, living with the MU-X is not an unspoilt paradise.
The non-powered tailgate is heavy and doesn’t open particularly high. This means that despite the high-riding stance of the wagon, you may need to duck your head.
Like the Colorado 7 and Trailblazer, the boot floor sits high with the cargo-blind storage box forming a false floor so that there is a level surface with all the seats folded. This results in the cargo often falling out the back when you open the hatch, as there is nothing to stop it.
With all seats up there is just 235 litres of space, which can expand to 1830 litres with all seats folded. We’ve found the MU-X works best as a five-seater and boot, with the knowledge that the third row is there if you need it.
When you do, the space is enough for adults and there are air vents and cup holders in all rows. Access is via a 60:40 flip and tumble second row that also offers plenty of room. The seats themselves are quite comfortable but the leather throughout feels decidedly cheap.
More importantly if you are travelling in the back for a long distance, is the 10-inch flip-down monitor in the roof and eight-speaker surround sound system for movies on the go.
Media files need to be AVI or region-4 DVD, though. None of the newer Pirate Bay torrents - ah, ‘purchased legally online’ - MPEG and MP4 files worked for us.
The head unit itself has an 8.0-inch touch screen and is reasonably well-featured, despite looking totally aftermarket.
Navigation functions are easy to use and you get a cool mini MU-X on the screen to identify your current location. There’s even some pointless functions like being able to see the sun’s current position anywhere on earth – which is handy for those long-haul trivia questions from the seven-year old down the back…
As we mentioned earlier, the Isuzu’s 3.0-litre 130kW/380Nm truck engine is very much a strong point of the car. While it may not have the big numbers of some of its rivals, peak torque is available between 1800 and 2800rpm and the engine feels relaxed and capable both in town and on tour.
It’s a great unit for towing and the MU-X has a 3.0-tonne braked capacity.
The Isuzu’s five-speed automatic transmission is also a basic but effective unit. You can tip it across into a manual-shift mode for better off-road or towing control, too. Overall, it does a solid job of getting the big wagon moving smoothly and we’ve seen fuel consumption around the claim of 8.3L/100km on a combined cycle quite regularly.
Proof again that you don’t need nine ratios or multiple clutches to do the job.
For off-road adventures, the MU-X has an on-the-fly ‘Terrain Command’ 4x4 system that allows for in-cabin switching between two- and four-wheel-drive high-range while on the move. When stationary, you can shift into a low-range four-wheel drive which operates without a separate locking rear differential.
With short overhangs at both ends, the MU-X has a 30.1-degree entry and 25.1-degree departure angle. We’ve put the MU-X through all kinds of terrain and found it to be solidly capable.
Low-range manages some pretty decent obstacles and the only real issue the MU-X has for ‘weekend’ off-roading is the low-side steps that can be susceptible to ruts and edges despite the car’s 230mm ride height.
How do we know? Oh… lets just say we’ve learned through experience (sorry again, Isuzu).
More conveniently, though, the MU-X scores a bash plate for the sump and transfer-case, which protects more crucial and expensive components.
There are coil springs all-round, with the rear using a five-link solid axle to allow decent articulation as well as comfort on-board.
It’s a pretty simple and well-rounded system with the MU-X offering a firm but comfortable ride on most surfaces.
Around town the car will wobble a bit due to its higher stance, particularly on the down-side of bumps, but it compresses well, giving a solid but comfortable ride.
It feels heavy on the road, the steering needing a lot more input that some urban-focused SUVs, but not in any unmanageable way. It is big and feels big, but that’s almost part of the appeal.
This continues off the beaten track where the MU-X tends to drive over smaller ruts and corrugations, although you can feel it skipping around corners in rougher areas. Touring is its specialty though, and longer highway sections are easy and comfortable.
You get standard Bridgestone highway-bias tyres, too, which we found clogged up with mud very quickly in the wilds of Toolangi, but did a good job in both wet and dry conditions around town.
Ownership, too, is a sensible proposition, with Isuzu offering a five-year warranty with roadside assist along with a three-year capped-price servicing program. The downside being the MU-X needing a service every six months or 10,000km.
Over a three-year period, this will set you back $2325. The 24-month interval is a biggie at $790.
This doesn’t seem to deter buyers, especially since Isuzu regularly offers drive-away deals that see you out the door for thousands less than list.
Australia isn’t getting any smaller and the spirit of adventure is only getting bigger, with more families looking to explore this wide-brown land, a simple yet capable 4x4 wagon still makes a lot of sense.
The 2016 Isuzu MU-X LS-T 4x4 makes a solid but basic value-packed argument for family buyers, and those who need towing and touring ability without the fuss. Just be mindful of those service intervals and you too can leave the paved 20 per cent behind.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.