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Does any brand punch heavier above its weight in Australia than Isuzu? At the time of writing (early September 2018), Isuzu Ute is the 13th most popular of 50-odd brands locally. With just two products, it outperforms big names including Audi, BMW, Jeep, Land Rover, Renault and Suzuki.

It helps that those models – the D-Max ute and MU-X SUV – compete in two of the country’s biggest vehicle segments, yet Isuzu’s reputation for never-die diesel engines, dating to the 1930s, or its appeal to grey nomads should never be underestimated. Isuzu Ute has also expanded its dealer network in recent years.

Holden is an even bigger name here, of course, though the Australian brand’s rival for the MU-X – the Trailblazer – is indicative of its recent struggles.

In terms of sales, there’s no contest. Up to the end of August, Isuzu had this year sold 5819 MU-Xs – up 14 per cent year on year. Trailblazer sales are down 14 per cent for the same period, for a year-to-date total of 1753 units.

That gap is the difference between first and last places when looking at the five ute-based SUVs in the market, which also include the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, Ford Everest, and Toyota Fortuner.

Is there such a chasm in the way these two vehicles perform and present, though? That’s what we aim to found out in this comparison of these closely related models – each based on their twinned utes, the D-Max and Colorado, respectively.

We already know both are equally capable off-roaders in the bush and excellent tow vehicles from previous individual tests…

What we want to learn from this comparison is which is the vehicle evolving the most to be the least compromised by its light-truck origins? That is, which is closer in driving manners and cabin presentation to more conventional, monocoque-bodied seven-seater SUVs so that buyers can enjoy daily adventures on the road, not just the weekend getaways.


Pricing and equipment

You can grab an MU-X from $42,800 if you’re happy to forgo four-wheel drive, though we have the mid-range (auto) variant of the 4×4 series – the $52,500 LS-U – for natural parity with the $53,990 LTZ version of the 4×4-only, auto-only Trailblazer.

It’s worth keeping an eye out for deals on either model as they’re common – and could influence your buying choice. At the time of writing, for example, respective drive-away deals create a $5000 difference between the Isuzu MU-X LS-U 4×4 and Holden Trailblazer LTZ: $48,990 v $53,990.

The Holden, however, holds a big advantage in standard equipment – one that can’t even be closed by stepping up to the more expensive MU-X LS-T.

The Trailblazer LTZ’s unmatched features comprise blind-spot monitoring, forward collision warning, lane-departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert, tyre pressure monitoring, rain-sensing wipers, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration, digital radio, electric driver’s seat and leather-appointed upholstery (both MU-X LS-T only), heated front seats, heated side mirrors, front and rear sensors (rear only on LS-U), and roof rails.

LED headlights, extra underbody protection and aluminium (rather than plastic) side steps are features exclusive to the MU-X.

The Trailblazer is halogen lights only (but with auto on/off unlike the Isuzu), though has LED tail-lights, while each model has LED daytime running lights.


Ownership

Holden and Isuzu offer five-year warranties, though the former’s is unlimited kilometres whereas 130,000km is the maximum for the latter’s.

Both offer five-year complimentary roadside assistance, with Holden’s coming with the stipulation that scheduled servicing must be completed by an authorised Holden dealer.

Capped-price servicing costs are slightly in the Holden’s favour for owners driving the average 15,000km per year: the Trailblazer will cost a total of $1953 for five services compared with $2090 for the MU-X.

However, for those who would reach five years of ownership before 75,000km are clocked on the odo’, the Holden’s more regular servicing schedule – every nine months versus every 12 months – would make it more than 40 per cent more expensive to service over half a decade: $2953 versus $2090.


Interiors

A few years ago, it was obvious the MU-X and Trailblazer (nee Colorado 7) were two peas from the same pod. While not entirely identical underneath, the dash designs were largely similar.

No longer, though. Whereas the MU-X’s cabin has stagnated somewhat with only minor updates in recent years, Holden revamped the Colorado 7’s interior as part of the switch to the Trailblazer name in 2016.

While plastics lean heavily towards durability rather than desirability, there’s a nicely padded central dash section and some stylish trim on the doors that combines genuine metal inserts inside silver plastic surrounds.

There’s a suitably tough look to the bluff dash and its rubberised dials for infotainment, heating/ventilation and 4WD dials. Blue lighting for the centre stack controls – prominent at night or in tunnels – is also effective.

Fit and finish are generally okay, though our test car featured a slightly loose gear lever surround, inconsistent door-pillar trim joins, and some rough joins on the centre console.

The partial-leather front seats look a touch bland and could be more inviting. The cushioning is flat, the bolstering is half-hearted (especially considering the vehicle’s off-road focus), and the seatback’s shaping pushes your lumbar outwards rather than allowing it to sink naturally into the seat. An ideal driving position is then limited by a steering wheel that adjusts for height only.

The MU-X shares the same issue, though its cloth-upholstered front pews have the edge in comfort, despite a squab that could be more generous with its under-thigh support.

An almost identical centre console – two asymmetrically shaped cupholders and a 4WD dial – is about the only similarity between the cabins now.

Isuzu sticks with the large HVAC (heating-ventilation) dial that debuted on the 2012 Chevrolet/Holden Colorado and continues to occupy arguably too much real estate on the centre stack.

That combines with a general lack of design/material cohesion to form an impression that the MU-X’s cabin design is ageing fast, while there’s a lower sense of quality compared with the Trailblazer – notably the horribly cheap ‘mouse-fur’ roof-lining that doesn’t gel with a $50,000-plus price tag.

There are fewer areas of soft plastic, and the one place it is used – for the upper glovebox – seems incongruous. The steering wheel also looks cheaper than the Trailblazer’s.

The twin glovebox is a storage advantage over the Holden, though its doorbins are only useful for small- to medium-sized bottles, and we couldn’t access the dash-top storage section as the lid was broken.

Both present 8.0-inch touchscreens with navigation – each an upgrade over the 7.0-inch (non-guidance) displays of the respective base models (MU-X LS-M and Trailblazer LT) – though the Holden’s is less prone to glare on sunny days and uses graphics that look more contemporary.

There was poor response from the MU-X’s shortcut buttons, while the Map button didn’t appear to work at all.

Holden’s MyLink system also gives owners digital radio and the option of switching to an interface mimicking their smartphone with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The MU-X isn’t yet available with the smartphone-mirroring tech.

It’s back to Spot the Difference in the back seats. Both vehicles feature overhead vents, map pockets, centre armrest and decent space for heads and knees. The Trailblazer provides a 12-volt socket to add to the two up front and in the boot; the MU-X adds a USB port. The Isuzu’s (small) doorbins are harder to access.

Neither model provides a sliding second-row bench, so the boot/passenger space ratio isn’t adjustable. Each provides an extra row of seats, however, to cater for up to seven people.

Access to the third row is also the same… The 60/40 second-row seats tumble forward via a lever. For adults, the cramped space means short trips will be the strong preference.

You probably won’t be shocked by now to learn that the respective boot spaces of these cousins are, yes, identical. There’s a useful 878 litres behind the second row, or 1830L maximum with all seats bar the fronts flattened.

With all seats in use, there’s compromised cargo capability – 235L is hardly atypical for seven-seater SUVs, though the floors are narrow with an awkwardly raised compartment lid with big gaps either side.

Points to the Trailblazer, though, for hiding a cargo blind in its compartment. Both boots feature a 12V socket.


Drivetrains

The Trailblazer continues to run the 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel from Italian specialist VM-Motori that was introduced on the Colorado in 2012.

As a diesel specialist – and one renowned for bulletproof engines – Isuzu features its own engine under the bonnet of the MU-X. Naturally, it’s the same 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel found in the D-Max ute.

Whether it’s the power or torque category, it’s a Top Trumps win for those holding the Holden Trailblazer card.

The Duramax engine’s 147kW beats the Isuzu 4JJ1’s 130kW, while in the all-important pulling-power war, the Holden is comfortably ahead by 500Nm to 430Nm.

That extra grunt translates onto the road, because the Trailblazer’s drivetrain is the more effortless here. There’s far better response below the point where both vehicles develop their maximum torque – 2000–2200rpm – with the Trailblazer aided by the more decisive of the two six-speed autos.

Holden’s transmission is quick to determine when a downshift is required, and picks the right gear first time, whereas the MU-X’s auto can sometimes take a couple of stabs – most notably up hills.

Mostly, though, there’s an agreeable response from the MU-X when transitioning from light to medium throttle use, and the Isuzu’s engine is a touch quieter at idle and lower speeds.

However, the refinement tables are turned at higher revs (relatively speaking for diesels). Where the MU-X’s diesel becomes clattery, the Trailblazer ditches its low-down gruffness to sound pleasantly growly.

Only the MU-X is available with a manual gearbox, which saves another $2100 for drivers happy to operate gear changes.

The Trailblazer’s status as one of the heaviest vehicles in its group hurts it slightly at the bowser. Official consumption of 8.6 litres per 100km is joint bottom of the class with the Toyota Fortuner auto, though the MU-X’s 7.9L/100km (regardless of transmission) is unlikely to be a major factor in diverting buyers from Holden showrooms alone.

There’s no difference when it comes to the crucial towing stakes: the models share a 3000kg braked towing capacity that’s (impressively) typical of this breed.

Trailer Sway Control technology – which can dab your vehicle’s brakes and reduce its engine torque to aid stability – is also standard on both models.


Driving

WUV (wagon utility vehicle) or perhaps UUV (ute-based utility vehicle) might be better initialisms for these vehicles rather than SUV. The body-on-frame Trailblazer and MU-X have much more in common with the 4WD precursors to the modern-day, monocoque-bodied sports utility vehicle.

However, while both models are spun off the architecture of the Colorado and D-Max utes, respectively, load-bearing leaf springs are replaced at the rear with a multi-link coil-sprung live axle suspension targeting improved on-road manners.

The results are mixed for this duo.

The MU-X struggles the most around town. The suspension spasms over speed humps, you’re aware of any bumps or joins in the road surface, and the ride generally feels lumpy.

Glacial steering – 3.8 turns lock to lock! – should come with a warning sticker for entering multi-storey car parks. The hydraulic steering rack’s tardiness is compounded by a heaviness that might have some drivers breathing a sigh of relief, or massaging their arms, after (eventually) reaching the exit gate.

Holden used the introduction of the Trailblazer nameplate to bring a number of improvements to its off-road SUV; one of the most successful of which was the switch from hydraulic to electric steering.

It’s excellent – and not just in the context of ute-based SUVs. Welcomingly light for low-speed manoeuvring – including more relaxing navigation of car parks and parking – the steering picks up weight as the Trailblazer progresses to higher speeds. If still slightly ponderous compared with the best-driving SUVs, the steering is positively direct when considered in the company of the MU-X.

Holden engineers have allied the quality steering to a chassis that also feels more tied down on the road, too, making for a particularly more assured passage along circuitous country roads.

MU-X occupants are constantly jostled if such roads are bumpy, as the Isuzu’s body moves around excessively and dives under braking. The steering feels far more effortless on the open road, though.

The Trailblazer’s superior body control, however, is accompanied by a firmer ride that can also struggle for compliance on uneven urban roads, and some might prefer the MU-X’s softer springing and damping regardless of the extra, looser body movements.

Encounter damp roads, and both vehicles can be switched from rear-wheel drive to four-wheel drive up to 100km/h via a centre console dial – each providing strong traction even out of damp, tight corners.

There’s also the low-range of 4L, of course, when you’re in the mood for adventures with your average family seven-seater.

Those high seating positions contribute to good all-round vision in each case, though the Trailblazer is extra helpful to drivers with its ability to warn of vehicles approaching from behind in the adjacent lane (blind-spot detection), alert you if the Holden’s closing speed to the vehicle ahead is higher than ideal (forward collision warning) or you’re wandering into another lane without indicating (lane-departure warning).


VERDICT

If you were simply after an SUV with seven seats, all-wheel drive, and a commanding driving position for a circa $50–55K budget, the smart money would be on models such as the Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander, Mazda CX-9 Touring AWD or Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace 162TSI.

Such models would give you a more comfortable ride, better handling, posher interiors, and a higher level of active safety.

But how far would you dare go off-road, and how hard would you go, in these ‘soft-roaders’? Neither is a question your typical MU-X or Trailblazer owner would bother asking. The light-truck-based underpinnings and diesel engines of the Isuzu and Holden are built for doing the hard yards, not just easy kays.

The MU-X is even equipped with steel underbody protection for the engine, sump and transfer case, while it offers a bit more ground clearance than the Trailblazer. The Holden is alone in being equipped with a (helical) limited-slip differential.

And those aforementioned soft-roaders can’t match the Isuzu’s and Holden’s three-tonne braked towing capacity (though the VW gets closest with 2400kg).

If you’re looking for the off-roader seven-seater SUV that is easier to live with every day in a variety of environments – urban and country – then of these twins it’s the Holden that most closely mimics your average monocoque-based family SUV.

The Trailblazer delivers the smarter cockpit, better steering/handling, gruntier engine, and a longer feature list with a semblance of contemporary driver technology. The latter point places an emphasis on the need to pick up one of Isuzu’s strong deals.

Ultimately, the best way to enjoy these two honest vehicles is to head into the bush, or hook them up to your caravans or boat trailers as frequently as possible. It’s what they were born to do.

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