The Isuzu MU-X, lovingly referred to as the ‘Mux’, is a seven-seater 4×4 wagon that comes backed by Isuzu’s solid trucking reputation for mechanical reliability.
It also presents as one of the most adaptable mid-sized 4x4s in the market with a range of seating and luggage options, all of which have nothing to do with its off-road performance… or do they?
The MU-X is built (or based) on the same platform as the now-defunct Holden Trailblazer, originally known as the Colorado 7, aptly named for its seven seats.
The MU-X brings a diversity of refinements to the fore, though. Firstly, it just looks better. The exterior of the Isuzu MU-X has been tweaked, especially in the front end, to give a far more modern and muscular look.
Secondly, the MU-X rides a little better with a different suspension tune from factory. Thirdly, the MU-X really does bring reliability with its proven diesel engine and trusted transmission.
It has a far more alluring name, too: MU-X apparently stands for ‘Mysterious Utility eXtreme’, even though it’s a wagon.
Inside, you’re really pushed to spot the differences between the Trailblazer and the MU-X. Seating, fit-out, build quality and tech are all very basic, highlighting the massive need for an update.
But everything is where it should be – for example, the 4×4 selector dial is set easily within easy arm’s reach on the centre console and not tucked away low on the dash like many other vehicles.
Another downer for the MU-X is the engine noise. Let’s pull no punches, it’s loud and intrusive. But that said, a high proportion of MU-X buyers select the car based on the reputation and heritage of Isuzu trucks, and their legendary hard-working and reliable diesels.
That’s what you get, a noisy truck engine that will tow all day in Australia’s tough conditions. So let’s head out of town and see how the MU-X as a package handles some dirt roads.
Another win for the Isuzu MU-X is the large touchscreen infotainment system. Teamed with the reversing camera, this is seriously handy when hooking up a trailer or backing up in the bush.
The suspension, as mentioned earlier, is nicely tuned, absorbing bumps at low speeds and stiffening up for stability as the speed increases. With a front and rear coil set up, the MU-X rides well and the rear has surprisingly good flex for those tougher off-road situations.
The 4×4 system is basic, and easy to reach and activate. With a true low range transfer case it’s as capable as anything else in its class (unlocked). The diesel engine provides solid torque right through the rev range, and from slow technical crawling to quicker Hi-4×4 tasks you’re not left lacking.
It’s no rocket ship so don’t expect too much, but for what it is, it gets the job done with that proven Isuzu reliability… which brings up my next point.
Whilst posing for an off-road photo, we had the Isuzu MU-X parked at idle on a steep section of track for quite some time. We were also running on around a third of a tank of fuel when the fuel pump ran dry and the engine stopped.
With no power steering or power-assisted brakes it was a dicey situation, and the engine would just not start. I hear you questioning the ‘legendary reliability’ I keep plugging – well, there’s more to reliability than an engine that won’t stop.
I was able to roll the vehicle back carefully and find a flatter section of track. Popping the bonnet (and indicative of a basic, reliable set up) the fuel filter was easy to locate and fortunately was fitted with a manual primer. A few pumps and the engine leapt back to life as it should, proving my point reliability is about being able to keep going, even if things do go wrong from time to time.
With a slightly shorter wheelbase than the Isuzu D-Max (and the five-link coil rear end as opposed to leaf springs), the MU-X is far nicer to drive on- and off-road, with better suspension flex and a smaller turning circle making life easier.
The MU-X is relatively nimble, comfortable and stable and, whilst not outstanding, it’s a capable off-roader.
Without a factory-fitted differential lock though, its off-road performance is limited when compared to many other independent front suspension 4x4s currently on the market that do have them. Tyres are another let down, but it’s a common issue and an easy fix with quality aftermarket rubber.
Electronic stability control, traction control, and hill-descent control are all run-of-the-mill, but additions like hill start assist and trailer sway control offer tangible value in the real-world applications.
While not normally a topic for an off-road review, the interior of the MU-X is worth mentioning as its adaptable layout affords it a diversity of applications, making it perfect for families, tourers, 4×4 drivers and even tradies.
In a nutshell it‘s just a convenient vehicle to use. Combined with its off-road performance and towing ability, it’s no wonder the MU-X is so popular with the Grey Nomads.
From multiple angles, the Isuzu MU-X is simple yet attractive and ignoring what it lacks, it really is an easy vehicle to just pack how you like, jump behind the wheel and head off for adventure.
The six-speed auto transmission in the MU-X is spun up by the well-known 130kW/430Nm 3.0-litre turbo-diesel (‘4JJ1’).
It’s not the most efficient or powerful in its class, and while the larger capacity engine bucks the trend with other manufacturers going for smaller displacements, the increased cubic inches of the 3.0-litre simply means it doesn’t have to work as hard.
But it is 2020 and the 4JJ1 has been in the MU-X since it first launched back in 2013. It’s literally a truck engine, initially developed for the ELF light-duty truck range.
While the engine is dated, it has been continuously refined and sports some unique engineering and larger (stronger) moving parts for increased reliability. Things like the split-design camshaft gear, oversized roller rocker bearings and bigger ‘big ends’ all make the engine stronger and improve its life span.
The MU-X, like everything else in its class, will benefit from some performance enhancements in the engine department, and there are plenty of options when it comes to piggy-back diesel power chips, flash tunes, larger intercoolers, dyno tunes, larger exhausts, and pedal chips.
Similarly, with shared accessories from the Holden Trailblazer and Colorado, as well as the related D-Max ute, the MU-X can be well set up with a range of bull bars, side rails, suspension kits, roof racks and more.
All of which will give a good basic package and enhanced capabilities. Warning should be taken though, the IFS has a variety of weak points that limit lift and tyre size, and the CVs and intermediate shafts are often broken.
With the addition of stronger CVs, upgraded upper control arms and diff drop kits (all available from Roadsafe 4WD), many of the front-end weak spots can be overcome providing further performance and reliability. With no factory diff locks, off-road ability would also benefit greatly from aftermarket lockers.
Overall the Isuzu MU-X is a solid performer. It takes the reasonable platform of the Holden Trailblazer and gives it a far more aesthetically-pleasing appearance teamed with a more reliable engine.
The Isuzu MU-X dearly needs an update, however. It lacks the bells and whistles and could do with a few more luxuries. That said, many buyers simply want an adaptable multi-purpose SUV with basic comfort, solid off-road performance, good towing characteristics and a reliable package that will get the job done with no fuss or drama.
Given that wish list, the MU-X is on the money if you don’t mind the compromises.
The only other thing worth noting is that, like the Isuzu D-Max, the MU-X is supported by the iVenture club, an initiative from Isuzu head office that supports all Isuzu 4×4 new vehicle owners with trips, training and other great programs. It’s something a little different and a real plus for owners.