For those who really want to go bush, the vehicle options are dwindling. Yet the family-friendly, seven-seat Isuzu MU-X is one of the big surprises - eminently capable in the dirt, very comfortable in the city, fuel efficient, durable and, it could be said, good looking. But it's not for pretenders.
There are three models and two transmissions and, though based on the Holden Colorado 7, there are important differences. The Isuzu has fewer kilowatts and one cog less in the automatic transmission than the Colorado, but has a superior five-year warranty, is more economical, has a full-size spare wheel and in the $53,500 LS-T model, a rear DVD player.
The excellent iGo satnav, eight-speaker audio (but no Bluetooth audio streaming), reverse camera, aircon in all three rows, leather upholstery and electric driver's seat are all standard. There's no capped-price service and servicing is six-monthly. The LS-T tested is expensive and $49,300 LS-U is better value.
The Thai-built wagon is a good looker. The "happy face" nose and the neat side profile with blackened rear-side and rear glass cleverly shrink the MU-X's proportions. The wagon is high off the ground but side steps give good access to the third seat row via a split, fold and tumble second row.
The cargo floor is high — courtesy of the bulky live-axle rear and coil suspension — and interrupted by a box containing the luggage blind. Space is 235 litres (all seats up) to 1830 litres. The third row of seats folds flat but the tumble-fold second row reduces the boot floor length.
Top marks for the rooftop vents for all rear passengers, two gloveboxes and dash top-box, grab handles, cupholders, storage space and lap-sash seat belts for all seven occupants.
The MU-X ("Mysterious Utility" is how SUV translates in Thai) dispenses with the Isuzu D-Max dual-cab ute's live rear axle and leaf springs, bolting in a long-travel coil spring arrangement. The 3.0-litre turbo diesel (130kW/380Nm) and the Aisin five-cog auto are not shared with Holden's products. There are disc brakes all-round and two big skid plates, it's relatively light at 2060kg yet has a 3000kg tow rating.
Despite its truck origins, it gets a five-star crash rating, six airbags, rear camera, rear park sensors, hill holder, electronic stability and traction control, full-size alloy spare and brake assist. Hill descent is automatic and built into the gearbox's sensors, though isn't as effective as a switchable system.
I expected a truck and happily realised this is something between a 4WD ute and a Toyota Kluger. It is a confident cruiser and sits solidly on the road and is barely affected by sidewinds or rutted bitumen. The engine is torquey and forgiving — more docile and feels more powerful than the Colorado — with surprising economy. An electric switch controls the two-speed transfer case.
Gravel and sand failed to slow this wagon and the high ground clearance and long-travel rear suspension made short work of washouts. The turning circle is large — typical of the genre — which can frustrate city owners. Good ride comfort over rough terrain and quiet highway cruising makes it one of the better all-rounders.