The MU-X is Isuzu’s D-Max ute made into a 4x4 wagon, thanks to little more than fitting a new body – a job made relatively simple by the separate-chassis construction – and changing the rear suspension from leaf to coil springs.
The booming ute market has led to a rich crop of such vehicles and, given utes are built with simplicity, strength and durability at their design forefront, the resulting wagons also inherit these admirable 4x4 qualities.
This is the second time the MU-X has made the 4X4OTY shortlist, the last time being four years ago when it first appeared off the back of what was then the new D-Max.
The MU-X returns to the 4X4OTY fray with engine revisions largely brought about by compliance to the latest round of ever-stricter emission laws, in this case Euro 5. This brings the addition of a diesel particulate filter but also a new low-inertia variable-geometry turbo and more sophisticated higher-pressure common rail injection, which combine to boost the maximum torque from 380Nm to 430Nm, even if the 3.0-litre four-cylinder’s peak power remains unchanged at 130kW. A new Aisin six-speed automatic (replacing the previous five-speed) completes what is effectively a new powertrain.
At the same time, the MU-X has undergone a significant revamp of its sound and vibration isolation measures, and it has refreshed interior and exterior styling.
Thanks to these changes, the MU-X is a much improved touring vehicle. It’s noticeably quieter and more refined than before, and the extra torque means the engine produces more power at lower speeds and is more flexible than before. It also carries the taller top gear that the new six-speed automatic brings, courtesy of its extra overdrive ratio, without fuss.
Pedal-to-the-metal, as when overtaking, the MU-X isn’t anything special (as you’d expect of its 130kW) but it’s otherwise effortless and relaxed and rarely has to work hard to get the job done.
As ever, it’s thrifty on fuel. Comfortable ride, too, from a suspension set-up that’s nicely sorted, even if the live axle at the rear can’t help but make its presence felt on some rough roads and corrugations.
In this company (not that we are comparing the vehicles directly) the MU-X also stands out as being the only vehicle with part-time 4x4. While this is easy enough to use, it lacks the convenience and safety of full-time 4x4 on varying (dry to wet; sealed to unsealed) road conditions.
The MU-X’s robust ute-based underpinnings are reassuring once you hit trails – and they need to be, as the clearance isn’t it all it could be. This is especially noticeable on descents, when the front suspension is compressed and it can easily belly out.
Still, the MU-X is an effective and easy-to-drive vehicle on the trails thanks in part to its simple 4x4 system – once you have it in four-low there’s nothing else to fiddle with – even if it can start to struggle a bit when things get gnarly. The engine’s air intake is via the inner guard, which is reassuring, and there are solid recovery hooks back and front.
SET-PIECE HILL CLIMB
The MU-X’s tendency to struggle in tougher off-road conditions was laid bare on our set-piece hill climb. It was the only one of the finalists that couldn’t get up the hill on a direct line. In fact, it didn’t even get past the first bit of rough track where all the other vehicles walked through with ease.
With a bit of effort it got to the top of the climb, but more by driving around the obstacles rather than through them. The problem is a lack of wheel travel, which is an issue with this MU-X, the pre-update MU-X and the closely-related Holden Colorado 7 and Trailblazer.
Sibling rivalry: Isuzu D-Max v MU-X
Even the two utes from which these wagons are derived (the D-Max and the Colorado) suffer in the same way. Across all these vehicles there’s also no rear locker or an electronic traction control system that’s effective enough to make good this shortfall.
CABIN AND EQUIPMENT
Perhaps it is its ute background showing through, but the MU-X feels a bit ‘low rent’ inside, even if the cabin is comfortable enough in all three rows of seats: the driver gets by without steering-wheel reach adjustment; the second row can take three adults, but is better for two adults and a child in the centre; and the third row has room for adults, even if it is a bit of a squeeze.
A generous equipment list extends to leather, electric-adjust seats, smart-key entry and start, and rear DVD on the top-spec models, while the mid-spec model has sat-nav, climate control and side-steps, but no leather.
It’s a good thing the MU-X is thrifty, as the 65-litre fuel tank capacity is on the smaller side; although, fitting a long-range tank isn’t a problem. Likewise, there’s reasonable aftermarket enhancement for the MU-X, given its popularity.
Check out 4x4 Australia's Fuel tank buyers' guide
The MU-X runs 255/60R18s, which is one size smaller than the Prado. Larger Prado/Hilux tyres (265/60R18s) can be fitted of you want, or you can swap to 17s to open up the tyre choice even further.
Above all, the MU-X comes across as a very honest four-wheel drive that does all that is asked of it. It does all of this in a simple and robust package that has already earned a strong reputation for reliability and low running costs.
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2018 ISUZU MU-X LS-U SPECS:
Engine: 3.0-litre 4-cyl turbo-diesel
Max power: 130kW at 3600rpm
Max torque: 430Nm at 2000-2200rpm
Gearbox: Six-speed automatic
4X4 system: Dual-range part-time
Kerb weight: 2097kg
Towing capacity: 3000kg
Fuel tank capacity: 65 litres
ADR fuel claim: 8.1L/100km
Test fuel use: 9.9L/100km
Touring range*: 606km
Price: $52,400 (+ORC)
*based on test average, tank capacity claim and a 50km safety margin.