Look at the VFACTS rundown of large SUVs under $70,000, and there are 23 listed. It ranges from options as varied as the Jeep Wrangler to the Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace.
It's wide, varied and competitive – SUV is a term without any real strict definition. The leader, by a long shot, is the Toyota Prado. The fourth best-selling unit amongst this set is the somewhat humble Isuzu MU-X, which we are driving today.
It's a seven-seater 4x4 transposed from the D-Max ute. It's not a direct swap, however. The wheelbase is shorter, and coils replace the leaf springs in the rear end. We’re in the top-spec LS-T variant, which has an attached price of $56,400. Going down the range, you’ve got the LS-U at $52,600 and the LS-M at $50,200.
Those prices are all 4x4 – you can option an MU-X without a transfer case and front differential. You can save between $6200 and $7300 on losing off-road capability depending on the specification.
It’s worth noting drive-away deals are common across the MU-X range at most times, so listed prices are only really useful as a guide to know how much not to pay. As always, bargain hard. Especially this time of year, in a market that is currently experiencing a bit of a decline.
With all seats deployed, you have a reasonably small 235L of space at the rear. Fold down the third row and you've got 878L of very usable, flat floor space. Go all out and there is 1830L of space with the two rearmost rows folded down.
The MU-X as you see it here has been around since 2013, with some minor updates here and there as time goes on. Go back further on the family tree, and you'll find models like the Holden Jackaroo and Frontera along with the Isuzu MU and rare Vehicross.
It’s mostly the same recipe since coming onto the market: 3.0-litre, four-cylinder ‘4JJ1’ diesel engine, which currently makes 130kW at 3600rpm and 430Nm at 2000–2200rpm. This runs through a six-speed automatic gearbox (no manual) to either a 4x4 or 4x2 driveline.
If you do opt for four-wheel drive, you get a low-range transfer case. There’s hill-descent control that operates at around 5km/h, but no off-road modes or locking differentials to call upon.
The latest additions and changes to this now venerable SUV range include rejigged steering tuning and the option of some additional safety. There’s blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and front parking sensors.
It’s worth noting these aren’t standard and incur a cost. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic cost $955, and front parking sensors cost $545. These can be retrofitted to any MU-X, 2017 onwards.
There’s a five-star ANCAP safety rating for the MU-X, which comes from the 2013 testing. Requirements for the maximum five stars have really tightened up in the past six years, and the Isuzu wagon would not score five stars if it were tested again.
There are six airbags, with full-length curtain airbags that cover the third row.
The blind-spot monitoring works with a yellow warning light embedded in the A-pillar. It works well enough, but is perhaps a little overly cautious with safe merging space, and it throws up the odd false negative.
The driveline of the MU-X is a set-up that just keeps on keepin’ on. Three litres of displacement gives you the biggest engine in the class, save for Ford’s 3.2-litre five-cylinder option lower down the spec list. The Isuzu's outputs aren't at the pointy end, however.
Its 130kW at 3600rpm and 430Nm at 2000–2200rpm means it has equal-lowest power (Fortuner, 130kW at 3400rpm) and torque (Pajero Sport, 430Nm at 2500rpm) to its competitors. It’s a little on the noisy side as well, despite Isuzu’s attempts to quieten it down via firewall insulation.
The engine is happy to lug along below 2000rpm with reasonably quiet composure, unless you’re accelerating reasonably briskly. Get above that, revving up towards 3000rpm, and the engine does get a bit clattery.
It's a good operator on fuel, returning between 8.5 and 9.7 litres per hundred kays, depending on what kind of driving we were doing. Combined quoted fuel economy for the MU-X is 7.9L/100km.
While the engine is outgunned on paper, it’s worth pointing out the light-truck provenance of the motor, which has been around since the early 2000s and has seen plenty of use in Isuzu’s N-Series light trucks. Furthermore, it comes from a long and respected lineage of tough diesel donks from the Japanese brand. Engines not respected for their refinement and peak power, but for their durability, tunability and low-down torque.
The 4JJ1 is building a good reputation for itself, despite the increase in outputs over the years.
The suspension, a five-link coil spring at the rear and independent struts at the front, is nicely sorted. It’s comfortably sprung without feeling too loose, and handles the bumps pretty well.
The 593kg payload is telling here: unlike the D-Max, and despite a shorter wheelbase, the MU-X preferences ride comfort over load-hauling ability. Nearly 600kg is not a huge number, but it’s probably enough for most punters.
The retuned steering has paid some dividends for the MU-X on-road. It’s no longer as heavy as the D-Max, making it easier and more pleasant to punt around town. It's not as refined as others, but it's a definite improvement.
Off-road ability of the MU-X remains the same: quite good. Ground clearance is good, and the rear end has a nice amount of travel to keep traction in control.
The change in tyres to a highway terrain isn’t necessarily good for off-road driving, but those keen to go exploring are well advised to swap out some proper light-truck all-terrains regardless. It would be a lot better with a well-tuned off-road traction control, which is unfortunately absent.
On top of a very good six-year, 150,000km warranty, Isuzu also offers six years of roadside assistance and seven years’ capped-price servicing. That sticks it ahead of the pack in terms of time, unless you include the new Ssangyong Rexton (at seven years) in the mix.
The kilometre limit only becomes a potential issue if you're planning on driving more than 25,000km per year.
With service intervals of every year or 15,000km, each subsequent visit to a dealership will cost: $350, $450, $500, $450, $340, $1110, $400. Total: $3600, or an average of $514 per year.
In this upper echelon of specification, you get some seats that are nicely finished, but they unfortunately lack good comfort and support. Pajero Sport seats, for example, are noticeably more comfortable.
The interior is certainly aged, and feeling a bit left behind compared to some of the contemporaries. The infotainment unit is a good screen and has native navigation. It’s lacking Android Auto/Apple CarPlay, however, and isn’t exactly laden with heart-warming tech otherwise. But hey, it does the job.
The interior on the whole is very practical: you can fit water bottles into the door cards, there are two glove boxes for storing your bits and bobs, along with a decent-sized bin in the centre console. There are another couple of cup holders, along with a funny lidded bin atop the dash. In terms of power connections, you have two USB points, along with a 12V socket and a HDMI port.
Move into the second row, and it’s all a pretty similar story. You’ve got plenty of space to get comfortable, with vents in the roof likely popular when loaded up.
There’s even a drop-down TV screen in the roof – 10.0 inches in size and able to play any DVDs you have at the ready. ISOFIX is a welcome feature for this family wagon, and something that’s neglected on the closely related D-Max.
What’s that HDMI port for up front then? Good question. I nicked a cable to check: you can run the main infotainment unit up front like a display. The resolution leaves HD YouTube videos looking a little short in the colour department, but it might be a handy feature.
Trundle-flip the second row forward and you’ve got nice access to a pretty cramped third row. The second row is stuck with no ability to slide, so any human the size of a small teenager will have knees, toes and (maybe) head in contact with the vehicle. Kudos to cup holders and air vents for the rearmost row, though.
The MU-X is based upon the D-Max, which is itself embedded amongst Isuzu’s light-truck heritage. That’s a good thing, and if you’re looking for something that you’ll hold onto for the full warranty period (and beyond), then the Isuzu might be the safest bet.
The six-year warranty is a good one, especially if you’re looking to cover roughly 25,000km per year. Likewise, six years of capped-price servicing and six years of roadside assist all help the value proposition.
The MU-X is outgunned in terms of refinement, on-road performance, cabin niceties and technology by similarly priced competitors. The Pajero Sport Exceed packs plenty more punch in the cabin and tech side, and the Trailblazer has a lot more to offer on-road with an LSD and 70 more newton-metres.
And while the Toyota Fortuner doesn’t stack up as well with value, it does seem to be more capable off-road.
In comparison to those, the Isuzu does have a kind of honesty about it, which sounds dangerously like a cop-out for feeling dated and under-specced. That being said, the MU-X still sells strongest from all other ute-based 4x4 wagons.
Maybe you can wrangle a great deal without too much angst, and maybe people value the sense of longevity more than the spec-sheet rundown and peak power figures. The MU-X is simple, but effective.