SUVs have become more common than family sedans in recent times, offering practicality, a commanding view of the road and the enticing suggestion of adventure.
However, most have switched to mainstream passenger vehicle platforms, sacrificing off-road ability in the quest for greater on-road dynamics and fuel efficiency.
Fortunately there are still a few old-fashioned off-roaders on the market, which adhere to the traditional formula of a ladder chassis and low range transfer case that contribute to true mountain-climbing ability.
The Isuzu MU-X is one of the few with such off-road credentials, and promises seating for seven plus plenty of comforts to please adventurous families.
The MU-X could be one of the best value family SUVs with true off-road capability currently on the market.
The 4WD lineup kicks off with the $45,600 LS-M manual, but the MU-X is also available in less off-road friendly 2WD guise for as little as $40,500.
Our top of the range LS-T test car retails at $53,500 and comes fitted with a leather interior, satnav, reversing camera and 10-inch DVD screen for rear seat passengers. You also get an automatic transmission with cruise control as well as climate control air-conditioning.
Compared to the similarly sized and capable Toyota Prado, which starts at $55,990 and tops out past $90,000, the Isuzu seems like excellent value.
The MU-X is never going to win a beauty pageant. Its bulky proportions and cartoonish design aren’t particularly appealing but they result in a very spacious cabin.
Second row leg and headroom are plentiful, while front seat passengers enjoy comfortable armchair-like seats and an excellent view forwards.
The high-cut rear windscreen and thick C-pillars hinder rear visibility, but there’s standard rear parking sensors and a reversing camera to aid parking manoeuvres. Third row seating is easily accessible but is only really suitable for smaller children.
With the third row seating folded flat the cargo area is large although compromised by the extra pews that don’t fold into the floor. The floor does however remain flat as Isuzu has placed a small storage compartment behind the seat base.
Even with the extra seats in place there’s still enough space for a week’s worth of grocery shopping.
The interior lacks design flare and the materials look a bit low-rent, but they feel tough and scratch resistant which is what you want in a car that’s likely to be subjected to mud and or children.
The LS-T’s multimedia interface is simple enough to use, although the satnav struggled at times among high-rise city buildings.
The MU-X carries a maximum five star ANCAP rating, and is fitted with dual front, side and full-length curtain airbags and electronic stability control, which encompasses ABS, EBD, ESC and TC.
Engine / Transmission
Unlike the MU-X’s twin under the skin Holden Colorado 7, the Isuzu employs a 3.0-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder engine. The 130kW/380Nm unit is connected to a 5-speed automatic in our 4WD LS-T test car, while some lesser models employ a 5-speed manual transmission.
The automatic can be switched to manual mode for greater control when venturing off road or towing up to 3,000kg braked, and the official combined fuel consumption is a respectable 8.4L/100km.
Four-wheel drive and low range are selectable via a console knob, and 2H-4H can be selected at speeds of up to 100km/h.
The MU-X may look and feel like a family car inside and out, but there’s no hiding its commercial origins during a drive.
The steering is slow, heavy and cumbersome making the MU-X feel a bit truck-like, especially when parking or driving in tight areas. This isn’t helped at all by the clattery diesel engine, which is relatively loud under throttle.
Fortunately, throttle response is good and there’s a sufficient amount of power available, while the automatic gearbox is always willing to kick down a gear.
On the open road the previously loud engine becomes quieter as the gearbox settles into fifth. Combine this with a surprisingly smooth ride and ideal high-set driving position and the MU-X has excellent long distance touring capabilities. The fuel tank is only 65-litres, but this will still get you over 700km on the open road.
There’s some wind and tyre noise as you’d expect, but it’s not uncomfortably audible. And while the ride isn’t pillowy like a Range Rover or Mercedes ML, it is supple and a welcome surprise.