A couple of years ago, I had the chance to drive to the northernmost tip of Australia with Volkswagen in a fleet of Amaroks, and remember seeing an almost endless stream of Isuzu MU-Xs in some fairly remote parts of Australia.
Most of the cars I spotted had extensive modifications, and were towing either an off-road camper trailer or caravan as they made their trek around this great country of ours.
Starting from $42,900 (plus on-road costs) for the entry-level Isuzu MU-X LS-M 4x2, the price climbs to top out at $56,200 (plus on-road costs) for the top-specification seven-seat LS-T 4x4.
A one-minute search on the Isuzu website reveals one of the main reasons they sell so well – drive-away prices. Here's an example of the latest deals you can snag if you walk into a dealer and do zero haggling:
- 4x2 LS-T seven-seat: $45,990 drive-away with six-year warranty and six-year roadside assistance,
- 4x4 LS-U seven-seat: $48,990 drive-away with two years of free servicing, six-year warranty and six-year roadside assistance, and
- 4x4 LS-T seven-seat: $52,990 drive-away with two years of free servicing, six-year warranty and six-year roadside assistance.
From the outside, the MU-X remains fairly unchanged in terms of design. Just like a Hollywood celeb, it's only received a minor nip and tuck in recent years, along with a minor change to the powertrain more recently.
This high-specification vehicle comes with chrome finishes on the front, LED daytime running lights, and a number of dealer-fitted accessories that can be bolted on – such as a bull bar, window trim, side steps and so on.
Around the rear, a new LED strip panel within the tail-lights helps give this presence on the road at night, while the chrome strip along the tailgate helps break up the rear.
At this specification level, you get keyless entry and start, but you'll only find an access button on the driver's door, which means getting the key out if you want to open any of the other doors without walking around to the driver's side. It's only a minor complaint, but can get annoying after a while.
The cabin is pretty basic but nicely presented. Atop the dashboard is an 8.0-inch colour touchscreen infotainment screen, and beneath that is a section for the single-zone automatic climate control.
While the seats are comfortable, they lack electric adjustment or heating. In fact, this top-specification model is about as barren as some of the terrain you'll cross in it in terms of features and technology.
You won't find automatic headlights, automatic windscreen wipers, lane-keeping assistant, lane-departure warning, reach adjustment for the steering, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), forward-collision warning (FCW) or radar cruise control. Most of the MU-X's competitors have a combination of most of those features.
Another grievance with the cabin is the infotainment system. It misses out on voice-recognition technology and lacks the latest smartphone mirroring technology in the form of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. That means you're lumped with the unit in the centre of the dashboard that is quick to navigate through menus, but lacks the modern features you'd expect of a car on sale in 2019.
Thankfully that's where the negatives end. If you poke around the cabin, you'll find that it's screwed together nicely, with plenty of leg and head room in the first and second rows.
In the second row you'll find USB charging (in addition to ports in the first row), air vents, a centre armrest, and a row that folds and tumbles in a 60/40 split-folding configuration. There's also a DVD/Blue Ray (you remember them?) screen that folds down from the roof.
Access to the third row for adults is a chore, but kids will find it easy to use the side step and then climb into the third row. When there, they have their own cup holders and a storage bin between the two seats.
With the third row in place there's storage space beneath the floor, plus additional storage that adds up to 235L of cargo capacity. Fold the third row away and it jumps to 838L, while folding the third and second rows away expands the space to 1830L.
The 3000kg braked towing capacity is supported by a 300kg maximum downball weight on the tow bar, which meets the recommended 10 per cent rule.
Under the bonnet of the MU-X is a reliable and dependable 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine that produces 130kW of power and 430Nm of torque, which is mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox.
On the combined cycle, the MU-X uses 7.9 litres of fuel per 100km. With a 65L fuel tank, it's good for a driving range of around 822km per tank.
It's a fairly noisy diesel engine from the outside with a truck-like idle, but it's quiet enough inside the cabin (especially once it settles) to not really notice it all that much.
Peak torque hits at 2000rpm, so there is a noticeable turbocharged lag if you jump on the throttle from a standing start. If that doesn't mean anything to you, it's the delay between throttle application and the full force of the push in the back you get when accelerating.
Once you're moving, the six-speed automatic does a good job of always being in the correct gear. While it can be manually overridden using the gear shifter, you're better off just leaving it in drive and allowing the vehicle to do all the hard work.
The 430Nm torque capacity is more than enough for overtaking and getting the vehicle moving. It's worth noting that it weighs a good 200kg less than the Ford Everest, and as a result of that it's a little more nimble and easier to get moving.
In and around town, the ride and handling are some of the MU-X's real standout features. It soaks up bumps beautifully thanks to independent suspension at the front and a coil-sprung system with gas shock absorbers and stabiliser bar at the rear. This combination settles the rear over speed humps and controls lateral movements when travelling at speed on corrugated roads.
On test with a mix of city and highway driving, we managed a fuel economy of 8.4L/100km, which is near enough to the official fuel consumption claim.
We didn't get a chance to clock a huge amount of off-road driving, but have driven the MU-X and D-Max off-road extensively in the past. These vehicles aren't as well equipped as their competitors in terms of four-wheel-drive equipment, but manage to do a decent job with the equipment installed.
In addition to a low-range gearbox, the MU-X can be driven in two-wheel drive on sealed surfaces in high-range and in four-wheel drive on unsealed surfaces in high-range.
Yes, it does miss out on a rear differential lock, but the traction-control system fitted to the car does a good job of managing torque and working with the limited-slip differential fitted to the rear axle.
So, back to the question of why so many people drive these vehicles around Australia. While consistent drive-away pricing has a lot to do with it, it's really hard to fault the driveline of the MU-X. There's enough punch for driving around the suburbs, and more than enough for highway cruising or off-road driving. The 3000kg braked towing capacity also makes it good enough to tow a decent-sized caravan around Australia.
With a standard five-year, 130,000km warranty and 12-month, 15,000km service intervals, the MU-X is backed by a strong Isuzu dealer network. Over a five-year period, capped-price servicing comes in at $2090.
As always, if you're looking at buying an MU-X, it's worth at least test-driving the competitors in this segment, most of which offer more features in the same specification level. But, if you're after a fuss-free, dependable SUV, the Isuzu MU-X may just be the ticket.