The Isuzu MU-X carries that uncomfortable SUV title. You know, the one that gets applied to everything from hatchbacks with black plastic wheel arches to dedicated off-road hardware.
In the case of the MU-X LS-U, the latter definition is the more accurate. This is a genuine 4x4 preloaded with a reputation for ruggedness and longevity, but don’t let that put you off – the big Isuzu is also approachable enough to double up as a family freighter too.
As the mid-spec model of a three-tiered range, the LS-U adds in extra niceties like chrome trim for the grille and door handles, front fog lights, aluminium side steps and 18-inch alloy wheels on the outside.
The inside gets brushed up thanks to the inclusion of automatic climate control, additional ventilation outlets to all three rows of seats, and a larger 8.0-inch infotainment package including satellite navigation when compared to the lower-spec LS-M model.
Under the bonnet, the MU-X shares its 3.0-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder engine with Isuzu’s D-Max ute range, rated at 130kW of power at just 3600rpm and 430Nm of torque between 2000 and 2200rpm.
The unchanged specification reflects that first deployed at the start of 2017 (as part of a MY16.5 update), while the styling carries over themes introduced as part of an update that arrived in mid-2017 with the MY17 model.
Isuzu’s latest touch-ups to the MU-X range are only minor, with much of the effort focussed on the D-Max ute instead, but you do still get minor (very minor, in fact) tweaks with more powerful internal USB points for faster charging of mobile devices (not actual fast-charging though) and the choice of a new Magnetic red hue for the exterior, which is obviously not the Obsidian grey of the car tested here.
Other attributes the MU-X carries over include LED headlights, cloth seat trim and cruise control. More advanced items like keyless entry and start, leather trim, and a powered driver’s seat remain the preserve of the top-shelf LS-T model.
That makes the MU-X simple and reasonably easy to operate, without being completely bare or basic inside. In fact, despite a slender features list, the interior is a rather pleasant place to be.
As a big and tall four-wheel drive, the front-row seating position is high, and the MU-X’s seats are spacious enough to fit drivers of most shapes and sizes at the upper end, though shorter drivers may find the pilot’s position a little oversized.
The middle row is equally as spacious with generous head and leg room, and good clear visibility out the side windows – not something every road-biased SUV can lay claim to.
Accessing row three is also nice and easy with a single lever to tumble the centre row out of the way, although the smaller fold section is on the traffic, rather than kerb, side of the car.
Once in the rear, it’s clear that adults won’t last long in the compact third row with a high floor/low seat cushion, limited knee room and a need to sit with legs skewed towards the centre of the car, forcing an offset seating position.
While it may not be the brawniest seven-seater diesel 4x4 available, there’s plenty to like about the way the MU-X drives. It’s no powerhouse, but with decent torque and a strong step-off, the big Isuzu hides its bulk convincingly, though with plenty of noise there’s a strong connection to this engine’s light-truck origins.
Once rolling, though, the limited rev range and slow-spooling engine start to show their light-commercial origins. It’s fair to call that for what it is: the MU-X isn’t perfectly suited to darting in and out of urban traffic, but is right at home loping along country roads, and is easily able to shrug off a full complement of passengers.
If you’re likely to add a trailer, caravan or camper trailer, the MU-X is rated to tow up to 3000kg (braked), giving it a towing capacity in line with its peers.
Particularly impressive is the way the MU-X rides. Softly sprung coil springs at each corner are able to absorb just about anything that even harshly rutted roads can throw up, although there’s also plenty of nose-dive under even moderate braking, and on long-haul drives – depending on the road surface underneath – the car can bob and rock a little.
With most of the major components under the skin shared with Isuzu’s D-Max ute, the MU-X also retains slow steering and soft-feeling brakes. It’s not a car ideally suited to city streets, but once you’re off-road and picking your way over precarious terrain, the LS-U’s set-up makes much more sense.
Some aspects of the car date it, particularly the dash design, which is mostly unchanged from the version that launched in Australia at the end of 2013. And even then the design and equipment were hardly cutting-edge.
Compared to more contemporary designs, like those of the Ford Everest and the particularly car-like Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, the MU-X shows its age, with the space-wasting circular climate-control panel and out-of-date steering wheel design in particular holding the MU-X back.
Thumb through some of the infotainment system screens, and a less than intuitive interface with dated-looking graphics is another step behind some of the best in class. That’s something particularly obvious to guys like me who hop in and out of new cars all the time, but it’s hardly an unworkable solution.
There’s no smartphone mirroring either. Sure, it’d be handy for composing text messages and playing music in the car, but outback owners know that as far as mapping goes, the Isuzu’s embedded sat-nav will be far more useful.
Those minor drawbacks become quite easy to forgive when you take into account how much car you get for the MU-X’s real-world transaction prices. It might list at $52,500 plus on-road costs, but a quick look at dealer ads and online listings shows there’s no shortage of brand-new cars listed under $50K, some even closer to the $45,000 mark.
There’s also a slight contemporary safety gap in the MU-X range, with no advanced safety assists like autonomous emergency braking, driver-attention monitoring, blind-spot monitoring or lane-keeping assist. The ‘usual’ features including six airbags, stability control with trailer-sway assist, and front seatbelt pretensioners are included.
If you do park an MU-X in your driveway, Isuzu Ute Australia offers a five-year/130,000km warranty with five years' roadside assist, and a capped-price service program for the same length of time that totals $2090 by the end of the term with 12-month/15,000km intervals.
Isuzu claims a 7.9L/100km fuel-use figure for the MU-X 4x4 (somehow less than 4x2 versions), but in general running about, including a couple of decent highways stints, real-world fuel usage settled on a still respectable 9.9L/100km.
It also bears mentioning that Holden offers the similar Trailblazer LTZ for a very similar list price of $52,490 with shared engineering basics, but a different engine and dash design. Not to mention, a more up-to-date infotainment system that includes Apple CarPlay, leather trim, heated front seats, and rain-sensing wipers.
While you might think that would make Isuzu’s job a difficult one, it appears to have made little difference on the sales charts with Isuzu outselling Holden’s Trailblazer by almost three to one. In fact, amongst body-on-frame large SUVs, only the Toyota Prado sells better.
That means something about Isuzu’s approach, be it simplicity, the promise of longevity, or perhaps some other X-factor, is winning the hearts and wallets of Aussie buyers. After a week behind the wheel, it’s not hard to see that allure.
Point the nose at a barely there fire trail etched into a gravel-strewn hillside and the MU-X only further cements its reason for being. Big wheel articulation and stable, sure-footed grip mean the MU-X feels like it’s only a set of more nuggety off-road tyres away from being almost unstoppable in the rough stuff.
The purpose of the MU-X is clear. This isn’t a soft-roading wagon in disguise, and it’s not trying to convey an amped-up image of ruggedness. It’s a genuine off-road appliance. Friendly to families, sure, but active ones that spend weekends camped riverside. The ruggedness in this one is real, and there’s no mistaking that.
For urbanites, an MU-X is never going to be the right choice, but for regional buyers, caravan and camping fans, off-road adventurers, and particularly those that prefer a more stripped back and simple approach, the MU-X makes no apologies for being the way it is. Nor does it need to.