Out of these two best-selling 4X4 wagons, which one is the best bet? Sam Purcell takes them on-road and off, to find out.
For those who want a big seven-seat 4WD, but don’t want to go to the extent (or expense) of something like a LandCruiser, Discovery or Patrol, there’s a nice selection of ute-based alternatives. The best sellers amongst that gang are the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport and the Isuzu MU-X.
Other options include the Holden Trailblazer, Toyota Fortuner and, to a lesser extent, Ford Everest. Out of this gang, the Isuzu MU-X is the best performer racking up 5519 sales thus far in 2019. Second up is the Pajero Sport (4309), followed by Everest (3476), Fortuner (2190) and Trailblazer (1816).
Looking at the broader 4WD segment, Toyota’s LandCruiser Prado is the far-and-away best seller (12,890), followed by the combined tally for the LandCruiser 200 and 76 Series wagon (9621). Taking up much smaller slices of this pie are the Jeep Grand Cherokee (2037) and Nissan Patrol (1356).
Right, enough numbers. Let’s take a closer look at the two in front of us today. The Pajero Sport is Exceed specification, right at the top of the tree. With a retail price of $54,200, it packs a fair amount of punch in comparison to all rivals, not just the MU-X.
The interior is probably the most marked difference to the Isuzu. Big, leather seats flank a raised centre console, replete with plenty of piano-black finishes. There’s a premium feel to the design and finishes, especially when compared to the MU-X.
Dual-zone climate-control buttons are simple, sitting below a 7.0-inch infotainment display. This has Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and digital radio, and is standard across the range.
While the cabin certainly presents well, it is a little bit short on practical storage nooks, which come in handy during the chaotic life of family management.
The centre console bin isn’t particularly huge, and the way the console on a whole sits high and flat robs you of typical storage slots along the transmission tunnel. There are a couple of cup holders there, and room for a bottle in each door card, but that’s about it.
And while that high centre console looks flash, it does impede on the spaciousness of the interior, making it feel cramped.
If that’s the yin, then the MU-X interior is the yang. Firstly, it’s noticeably more dated, and lacking in creature comforts. The seats are cloth in this $52,600 LS-U specification, and you need to move up to the $56,400 LS-T to gain electric leather seats.
Take these prices with a big pinch of Murray River salt, however. Both of these manufacturers aren’t afraid of a decent discount, and you should be wearing your bargaining pants before stepping into the dealership.
For example, Isuzu seems to have taken a leaf from Rivers and has everything at a permanent sale price: $49,990 drive-away for the LS-U we have here, or $54,990 drive-away for the top-spec LS-T.
The Pajero Sport is less discounted, with a $56,990 drive-away price listed as a special on its website. Mitsubishi throws in a sweetener of a seven-year warranty, two years of free servicing and $1000 worth of free accessories. Don’t be afraid to bargain further.
On a side note, this is the exact same price (and sweeteners) offered on the long-serving Mitsubishi Pajero in top GLS specification. It’s a much older platform and drivetrain, but is certainly bigger. It’s worth having a look at, even just to rule out.
I digress, back to the MU-X interior. Not much has changed since the Isuzu wagon was first driven by us back in 2013. There’s a big rotating knob for the single-zone climate control, and an 8.0-inch infotainment display. The majority of surfaces are a fairly basic plastic, save for the steering wheel and hood over the instrument cluster.
The infotainment display is bigger than the Mitsubishi’s, and it has native navigation, but that’s where the positives end. It’s a clunky system that feels every day of its age, and lacks the smartphone mirroring, clarity and general intuitiveness of more modern systems.
It’s not all bad, however. The MU-X smokes the Pajero Sport when it comes to storage practicality. A lower, more traditional transmission tunnel gives you stowage option fore of the gearstick, and a bigger centre console and cup holders will work better for the family duties.
There are additional cup holders underneath the outward air vents, twin gloveboxes (one has a 12V plug) and another lidded storage spot atop the dash.
Both had reasonably spacious second rows, with enough leg room and head room for your typical two adults. Three is a squeeze, unless the middle occupant is on the small size (or a kid).
Both models have high-mounted air vents for the second row, but those in the MU-X will be fighting over a single USB port. The Pajero Sport gets two, as well as a 12V plug and a 230-volt outlet within the centre console.
Moving on to the third row, both of which are fairly cramped. It’s best to think they are suitable only for the youngsters amongst us, or adults on short runs.
This is typical of the range of competition: a ladder chassis and underslung spare mean the seating position is high, there isn’t much footwell, and the wheelbase they have to play with is relatively short.
Both models have air vents and curtain airbags for the third row, so while your occupants might not be comfortable, they shouldn’t be sweating too much (physically and mentally).
Let's talk boot space. Neither have large storage apertures when all three rows are utilised. I'll save you from the quoted litres of space, because they are misleadling.
Safe to say, you'll squeeze a few bags of groceries into the back of each with this configuration. When you need to pack in a lot of gear, drop that third row into the floor (they both fold flat), and you've got a relatively huge amount of space for gear.
The only major difference between the two in this regard is that the Pajero Sport's base squab folds forward into the back of the 2nd row, while the MU-X has a more traditional folding arrangement into the floor. Both are operated by pull straps on the back of the seat.
The drive and the ride
What lies under the bonnet of these two antagonists are four-cylinder turbo diesel engines, which have very similar outputs despite the disparity in displacement. From 2.4 litres, the Pajero Sport makes 133kW at 3500rpm and 430Nm at 2500rpm, which runs through an eight-speed automatic gearbox.
Using its three litres, the Isuzu makes a skerrick less power (130kW at 3600rpm) and equal torque (430Nm at 2000–2200rpm) at lower revs. After the flexplate sits a six-speed automatic gearbox sourced from Aisin.
Rather than the Pajero Sport’s unique and versatile ‘Super Select II’ that gives you 2WD, AWD, 4x4 and low-range, the MU-X gets by with a more traditional part-time 4WD system. That is: 2WD only on the blacktop, and 4x4 and low-range for off-roading.
Both vehicles sport similar suspension set-ups, as well: independent front suspension is copied directly from their utility precursors, while the rear leaf springs are adopted out for a five-link coil-sprung set-up. The wagons don’t have the big payloads and towing capacities of the utes, so the ride gets softened off noticeably.
It lets both the MU-X and the Pajero Sport soak up rough roads and bad surfaces quite well, feeling cushy and relaxed. The downside to this is some noticeable body roll and slow-ish steering when cornering, and both cars can start to wallow around on their suspension after big hits or undulations.
Both ride very similarly, although the steering of the Isuzu does feel a bit more choresome and heavy around town.
After a few days behind the wheel, I found myself preferring the more gruff but torquier experience behind the wheel of the MU-X, even though there is precious little splitting them apart.
They both returned good fuel economy figures, with the Isuzu being slightly more efficient. Claimed numbers are 7.9 versus 8.0 litres per hundred, on the combined cycle. We came within one litre per hundred kilometres of these numbers, across a variety of driving scenarios.
Using the eight-speed gearbox, the Pajero Sport is undoubtedly the more refined of the two. Its wider range of ratios allows the revs to stay down, keeping a reasonably muted engine stay mostly hushed under the bonnet.
The gearbox can get caught out, however. During my driving, I did experience a handful of odd clunks and awkward thuds as gears and throttle inputs didn’t meet harmoniously.
The Isuzu’s gearbox is simple, basic and mostly faultless. It shifts slowly and methodically, with little in the way of extraneous activity. Having part-time 4WD means it’s not as sure-footed on-road across low-traction surfaces, while the Pajero Sport’s centre differential and front axle disconnect literally gives you the best of both worlds.
While Isuzu has made good progress in quietening down its stalwart 4JJ1 performer, it’s still a bit rough around the edges in comparison to the Pajero Sport. It ticks away with an industrial hum, which turns into a gravelly roar when revving hard. It’s an engine made to live best between the idle and mid-range, with a nice delivery of torque right across the area.
In this regard, it feels more accomplished than the Pajero Sport, which has a less relaxed, shift-happy nature about it when cruising about town. When working hard, my seat-of-the-pants tells me that there is little that separates them.
Servicing and warranty
While the Triton gets a better deal, the Pajero Sport has to make do with five years and 100,000km (special offers not withstanding) worth of warranty. It’s decent, but is beaten by the Isuzu MU-X: six years and 150,000km.
The Isuzu gets seven years' worth of capped-price servicing, which is needed every 12 months or 15,000km. Each visit is set at $350, $450, $500, $450, $340, $1110 and $400, totalling $3600. That sixth visit blows things out a little, but you can’t knock the long program Isuzu has.
The Pajero Sport is only covered under a capped program for three years, costing a flat rate of $299 every 15,000km or 12 months. So, while it’s a bit cheaper than the MU-X in the few years, you’ll be in uncharted waters for the next four.
What’s surprising about these two vehicles is how closely matched they are when you take them off-road, according to the off-roading I did with them back-to-back. One would assume the Mitsubishi has the ascendancy, thanks to the brag sheet of hardware and tech at its disposal. Along with a locking centre differential and 2.566 low-range transfer case, the rear end is also lockable.
Electronically, there’s hill descent control and a variety of driving modes available. These recalibrate the throttle, gearbox and traction-control systems to help progress on mud, rocks and sand.
The MU-X, on the other hand, feels like somebody has broken in and cleaned out the cupboard. There’s no locking differential and no driving modes, just a rudimentary hill descent control and a 2.482:1 transfer case.
However, in our testing, we found the Mitsubishi needing to use all of its tricks in the book to scrabble up a hill that the Isuzu made look easier. This could be simply Isuzu’s tyre offering slightly better grip, or more supple suspension tune. But with the same line picked on the same hill within 15 minutes of each other, it’s hard to ignore.
There’s one small technicality worth pointing out here, as well. When you select the locking rear differential on the Pajero Sport, it turns off the traction-control system. So, while your rear end is now 100 per cent locked, your front is, figuratively, 100 per cent unlocked.
Both of these vehicles have traction-control systems that are decent but not the best in breed, and need some wheelspin and scrabbling before engaging.
Both vehicles would benefit from better tyres for off-roading, and depending on how hard one wants to go off-road, modifications can be made to the usual suspects: suspension, protection, traction aids. For a bit of weekend frivolity here and there, they’re plenty good out of the box.
Since we’ve already covered off the infotainment, there are a few other tech-based inclusions we need to address. One main element is safety, where the Pajero Sport leaves the Isuzu in its wake. The MU-X is light on with safety and tech, across the range, with no autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control or lane-departure warning. A recent update has added front parking sensors, blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert, but they are an extra-cost option.
The Pajero Sport is a different story: autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and forward-collision mitigation are standard across the range. Exceed specification also gets blind-spot warning, 360-degree camera, auto headlamps and auto wipers, front parking sensors, and smart key with push-button start.
If you’re interested in towing, you can reference this story for the Pajero Sport and this one for the MU-X. While the Pajero Sport has a slightly higher towing capacity (3100kg versus 3000kg), there’s more to the picture than that. The Isuzu weighs more (2142kg versus 2105kg), and gets a similar payload (608kg versus 605) from a higher GVM.
The MU-X has a more generous gross combination mass, 5750kg versus 5400kg. This is important, because it dictates how much payload and towing capacity you can use at the same time. In this regard, the Isuzu stacks up better (on paper).
The MU-X seems to make more sense the further down the specification tree, where you miss out on things like bigger alloy wheels, exterior chrome and, well, not much else. What you do keep is what makes the MU-X a compelling choice: old faithful under the bonnet, and a simple, effective six-speed auto and part-time 4WD system.
If I were looking at the MU-X, I’d be saving my pennies and zeroing in on the bottom-spec LS-M. It’s currently listed at $46,990 drive-away.
The Pajero Sport is strong across the specification board as well, undercutting the MU-X with the five-seat GLX at $44,990. This is the only spec that misses out on leather seats, dual climate control and more than four speakers.
The Exceed is also equally impressive at the other end of the scale, packing in a lot of tech, safety and creature comforts for the asking price.
In this comparison, and speaking more broadly across the range, Mitsubishi’s Pajero Sport is the clear winner, save for a couple of caveats. Its looks might not be to everyone's tastes, and some might prefer to forgo tech and value to get that Isuzu driveline. From the prices we see, the Isuzu is the cheaper choice.
The Pajero Sport is a more refined vehicle around town, and seems to have very similar off-road ability compared to the MU-X.
For those less experienced off-road, the inclusions of a locking rear differential and some driving modes will make it an easier vehicle to pilot off-road.
The Pajero Sport has better safety credentials, and a lot more tech and convenience built into the platform, helping with the value proposition. And while the interior feels a little cramped and light on in terms of storage, there is no doubt it's the better-presented offering between the two.
And with that in mind, it’s hard to go past picking the Mitsubishi as the winner.