The Isuzu MU-X has become a surprise top-seller thanks to an unpretentious focus on back-to-basics toughness over fancy mod-cons. The MY17 update seeks to add some of the latter, without compromising the former, to match it with newer offerings.
The Isuzu MU-X has forged a reputation for itself as a dependable and rugged SUV since its arrival in late 2013.
Despite a host of newer (also Thai-made) direct rivals such as the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport and Ford Everest launching in the interim, the humble Isuzu has retained annual sales leadership and tripled the company's initial sales projections.
Moreover, Isuzu Ute Australia’s 23,377 sales last year from its 130-site dealer network – the eighth consecutive year it posted double-digit growth – allowed it to overtake Saudi Arabia to be the world's top export market.
Much of this has been driven by word of mouth. Talk to anyone who tows or regularly goes off-road, and they'll tell you the Isuzu range – MU-X and its D-Max ute donor alike – have proven very hard to break.
Now there's an updated MU-X for 2017, bringing to the table some improvements designed to make the high-riding wagon more palatable, to more buyers. Some of these updates are just for Australia.
With rivals such as the Pajero Sport, plus the Toyota Fortuner and the Holden Trailblazer – closely related to the Isuzu, but the possessor of a different diesel engine – sporting more upmarket cabins, Isuzu had to address this area.
Therefore the MU-X's nicer dual-tone cabin trimmings including lots of soft-touch contact points and better plastics, plus new infotainment screens that feel far less aftermarket, are welcome indeed.
The new screens measure 7.0- or 8.0 inches depending on spec, and all have rear-view camera displays. Satellite-navigation is standard on all but the base LS-M. That closing lid atop the dash has been updated as well, though the new one is still fiddly.
Every member of the MU-X range gets seven seats, six airbags, ISOFIX anchors, Bluetooth (of good quality), three USB points (including one for middle-row occupants, now), three 12V outlets and a full-size spare wheels.
The $2300 more expensive LS-U adds the 8.0-inch screen with sat nav, new 18-inch alloys, chrome exterior highlights, side steps, climate control, vents for all three rows in the roof and privacy glass.
Stepping up $3700 for the LS-T nets you new leather seats that don't feel like crappy cheap vinyl as before, keyless entry and go, roof rails and a 10-inch flip-down screen for the kids.
Cabin space has always been an asset for the Isuzu, the large boxy body making it a genuine seven-seater unlike the tighter Mitsubishi, with lots of outward visibility and a decent folding seat mechanism to access the third row.
Things still aren't perfect: the storage area behind the third row of seats if they're in use isn't great, though at least these seats fold flat unlike the Fortuner.
The layout of the fascia is less agricultural than before, but still doesn't come close to most rivals for ambience. And the steering column's lack of telescopic adjustment can make it hard to get comfortable for some.
The exterior changes are minor, but worthy. They include brighter new Bi-LED projector headlights, good for country owners, on all models. There are also new 16- or 18-inch alloys depending on spec, that actually look good. It's a more rugged and handsome offering than most, in a no-nonsense sort of way.
Of course, making the cabin slicker is hardly going to appease the rusted-on buyers drawn to Isuzu because of its lack of pretension, and its famous reliability and toughness.
Under the bonnet is the revised 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine introduced here a few months ago on the 'MY16.5' model, producing 130kW and an uprated 430Nm of torque from 2000rpm across a very narrow band, though 380Nm of which is on tap from 1700rpm. Still less torque than smaller-capacity rivals, but the engine is under-stressed.
Braked towing capacity remains 3.0 tonnes, but the lazy engine will do it without breaking a sweat, while fuel use kicks off at a claimed class-leading 7.9L/100km on the combined-cycle. The tank is 65L.
The gearboxes are an Isuzu six-speed manual or a new Aisin six-speed lock-up torque converter-style automatic that'll get 95 per cent of sales, and there remain 4×2 or part-time 4×4 drive styles – the former aimed at grey nomads in particular.
The revised engine gets new pistons, new injectors, a new fuel pump, new VGS turbo, new exhaust gas recirculation cooler and subsequent bypass valve, new ceramic glow plugs, new battery sensor and a particulate diffuser.
Isuzu also claims to have wiped a few decibels from the noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels – addressing a key weakness of the old car according to some buyers – by adding more insulation in the floor, firewall and windscreen.
The engine remains a coarse and truck-like unit, though the wind and tyre noise levels are quite low, complementing the surprisingly cushy ride over harsh, jagged-edges and ungraded gravel.
The revised engine does, however, remain strong and lazy in the right way, happy to tick along at 1700rpm at 110km/h, and using bugger-all more diesel when towing a few tonnes. It also has great engine braking, helped along by that new Aisin box's manual mode.
The five-year/130,000km warranty with roadside assist gives you peace of mind, and from the car park of about 100,000 units sold in Australia since 2008, Isuzu proudly claims a number of buy backs you can count on one hand.
On the flip side, the five-year/50,000km capped-price servicing plan sounds good, but the new intervals of 12 months or 10,000km (previously six-months/10,000km) are still too short. The cost of the first five visits totals $1500.
All versions of the MU-X get 230mm of clearance and a payload of at least around 600kg. Being ute-based, they're all ladder-frame designs with hydraulic steering assist, though they ditch the D-Max's rear leafs in favour of a five-link setup.
As mentioned, the ride is comfortable, though don't expect body control to rival monocoque offerings such as the Hyundai Santa Fe. The body rolls, the steering rack is slow and heavy, and the throttle response lazy. Deliberately so.
All derivatives get a revised rear diff but with the same ratio, and a new hill-descent control system. The 4×4 versions retain the same underbody and transfer-case protection, and low-range gearing with dial-operated shift-on-the-fly 4H up to 100km/h.
The MU-X remains a proper beast off-road, though hardcore crowd may lament the continued lack of a locking rear diff. ARB must be rubbing its hands together. The other problem: based on list pricing, the 4x4s command a ludicrous $7300 premium over the 4x2 models.
In fact, the pricing scenario overall is hard to swallow, with a $1300 increase on most models coming after a similar hike in February. Price increases are price increases, though the good news is Isuzu admits you'll never pay the recommended retail (RRP) list price.
Isuzu Ute has always offered permanent drive-away pricing on its website that's many, many thousands of dollars cheaper than the actual listed RRPs we're given, and the MY17 will continue this.
For instance, the MSRP of the LS-T 4x4 auto is now a steep $56,100 before on-road costs, equating to about $60k. However, the permanent real-world figure will be $52,990 drive-away. We wonder why it bothers with excessive RRPs at all...
All told, the MY17 upgrades to the Isuzu MU-X address some problem areas, principally by adding some modern glam to a cabin that has always felt a decade behind. It's better, though still not on par with a Pajero Sport or Fortuner.
Meanwhile the engine tweaks are commendable for meeting new emissions targets while upping torque output (Euro 6 will be another matter...), and the powertrain remains its relaxed and under-stressed trademark self with its new 6AT.
We aren't fans of the continued lack of a rear locking diff, the still-10,000km service intervals, and the second set of price increases in a few months, though we're somewhat reassured that the real prices you pay won't reflect the RRPs.
The MU-X remains an unpretentious and tough off-road wagon that sells in numbers beyond any rival - bar the Pajero Sport this year, which has skipped ahead capitalising on Isuzu's lack of MY17 stock - for good reason.
The fundamentals remains there, and to the bush-bashers, grey nomads and regular towers that have come to love the Isuzu for its lack of flash and its credible engineering, that'll be a relief.