WRITTEN BY: Ben Smithurst
Its multi-award-winning D-MAX sibling set bold new benchmarks and smashed expectations. Can the new-generation Isuzu MU-X match it?
The first-generation MU-X was a landmark model for Isuzu UTE. Launched in 2013, it became a fixture of Australian garages and best-seller lists alike. Along the way it spent six consecutive years as the most popular ute-based SUV in the country—racking up 50,000 local sales mark by November 2020—and well and truly established itself as a worthy sibling to the indomitable D-MAX.
Even more importantly, it helped countless Australians get the most out of their wide, brown land. Ours is a continent that’s as tough on vehicles as it is breathtaking. To paraphrase My Country poet Dorothea Mackellar, this sunburnt country is ragged mountain ranges and sweeping plains, from far horizon to ‘jewel-sea’. Droughts and flooding rains alternate throughout. Australia’s variety is endless. Which makes it a unique proving ground for any SUV. But that’s not all.
The single most challenging thing about Australia is that drivers must literally be prepared to take the rough with the smooth. Goat track hill climbs rougher than a Russian hangover and freeways smoother than a Frenchman’s pillow talk. Whether they live in Killara or Kakadu, Australian motorists see it all—and, occasionally, drive over it.
Here, a successful SUV has to do everything, in comfort, and with style. To be a true all-rounder. Australia’s embrace of the first-gen MU-X proved Isuzu’s debut seven-seat SUV fit the bill. Which meant that hopes were even higher this time around. First signs were good.
Ahead of its July 2021 launch, Chief Engineer Chifumi Saito announced that new-generation Isuzu MU-X would be “robust, yet luxurious”, a completely re-engineered vehicle built to “represent the Isuzu identity of durability, reliability, fuel efficiency, off-road ability, ecology and safety”. It will “offer the pleasure and pride of ownership,” said Saito, “and the enthusiasm to spur the driver to endless horizons.”
With the third-generation Isuzu D-MAX also having been very well received—snagging silverware almost as soon as it appeared in mid-2020, including Drive Car of the Year’s Best Dual-Cab Ute award—local MU-X fans were even more primed.
Now the new-generation Isuzu MU-X has arrived. Interest is high, because the benchmark has been set. What’s the verdict? Does the MU-X have what it takes to chase Australia’s bounty of endless horizons? As well as sweetly servicing the everyday dynamic of its modern, crowded, occasionally chaotic cities? This MU-X is ready, willing, and capable of meeting them all. And with more style, technology, safety features, and—yes—durability than ever. It’s built for a sunburnt country.
Incorporating Australia into the Isuzu DNA: Outback feedback for Australian conditions.
Dependability is the bedrock upon which Isuzu UTE’s reputation is built. Like the latest D-MAX, the MU-X is powered by the 4JJ3-TCX 3.0-litre common-rail four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine.
It’s an evolution of the legendary 4JJ1-TC HI at the heart of the preceding MU-X and, accordingly, it boasts better numbers: 140kW at 3600rpm and 450Nm at 1600–2600rpm. That’s a boost of 10kW and 20Nm. There’s also a hefty dose of low-down usability, with fully 300Nm available from just 1000rpm—a tick above idle.
“Australia is the world's largest market for the MU-X outside of Thailand,” noted Isuzu UTE Australia’s Managing Director Hiroyasu Sato at the model’s launch, and that means good things for locals. Specifically, it allowed Australian feedback to influence the specification of the vehicles built for here.
Australia stands out for its huge distances, variety of road types, and the penchant of its inhabitants for touring, towing and exploration. As such, Australian MU-Xs have a greater focus on drivability, bigger, 80-litre fuel tanks and more linear and progressive torque across the entire rev range. In favourable conditions, the best of the MU-X range can top 1000km on a single top-up.
The intake system substantially reduces turbo lag, while gear shifts are smoother, faster and more efficient thanks to a sophisticated 6-speed automatic ‘Rev-Tronic’ transmission. With dynamic coil spring five-link rear suspension and an overhauled set-up up front, ride quality is also smoother—particularly when towing. And with Trailer Sway Control (TSC) included across the range, your load will mind its manners, even when sudden buffeting by strong winds prompts even stronger language from the driver.
The Road Less Gravelled: Going Your Own Way – every day.
Less than 50 per cent of Australian roads are paved—leaving us behind such hyper-developed superpowers as Azerbaijan (52 per cent), Indonesia (58 per cent) and Iran (63 per cent). Which makes the MU-X—an all-rounder SUV that’s equally at home on tarmac, gravel or totally off-grid—ideal for ‘down under’.
In fact, with an improved 800mm wading depth, superlative steel-plated underbody protection, and a rear axle differential lock as standard on every 4x4 model, the MU-X is as comfortable in Kakadu as it is in Kooyong. Especially with five-link rear suspension both optimising comfort and minimising body roll.
All 4WD MU-Xs feature both ‘Terrain Command’ and ‘Rough Terrain’ modes, providing peace of mind no matter the surface. The latter, exclusive to the MU-X, is an off-road-biased electronic driver’s aid that maximises drivability in technical, slippery and rough conditions. The former allows you to switch between 2WD-high and 4WD-high in less than a second at speeds of up to 100km/h or seamlessly between low- and high-range 4WD in the same time when stopped.
Safety in numbers: Isuzu’s Intelligent Driver Assistance System.
Isuzu takes road safety extremely seriously. That much was apparent in the full suite of standard safety technology provided in the new-generation D-MAX, a vehicle that hauls an increasing share of families, but is just as likely to be toting a tray full of hard-to-break tools. Or, at least, a second row crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with even harder to break apprentices.
So, it’s no surprise that the seven-seat MU-X is fastidious when it comes to safeguarding its occupants. The model’s focus on passenger protection is demonstrated in its eight redesigned airbags, a lighter but-stronger chassis, and stopping power that’s been boosted by bigger brakes. Even with all that, however, it’s the MU-X’s Intelligent Driver Assistance System◊ (IDAS) features that steal the headlines.
Operating both actively and passively, IDAS◊ monitors the world around your MU-X via a network of stereo cameras and radar assistance. Ever alert, the system stands ready to intervene in an emergency with systems including Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) and Emergency Lane Keeping (ELK).
The Intelligent Driver Assistance System’s full bag of tricks is too full to unpack here, but even a quick review will settle the nerves of any driver. There’s Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA), which monitors vehicles approaching from the side when you’re reversing into a stream of cars. There’s the Automatic bi-LED Headlights with high beams that deactivate autonomously so as not to dazzle other drivers, and an autolevelling feature which adjusts the headlight beam to the appropriate angle when the MU-X is loaded up. Traffic Sign Recognition (TSR) displays speed limits on the 4.2-inch Multi-Information Display. Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) maintains both vehicle speed and distance to the car in front—and, in stop/start commutes, can even stop, hold for up to five minutes, and accelerate again when traffic begins moving.
Parking sensors make you look like a reverse Jenga-ing Lewis Hamilton when you squeeze into a tight spot. Automatic rain-sensing wipers toggle on and off independently as needed. Misacceleration Mitigation prevents you from accidentally accelerating into a column at low speed in the shopping centre car park. In almost every situation, IDAS◊ has an answer.
The Captain’s lounge: Effortless design, intuitive technology.
If Chief Engineer Chifumi Saito’s division team was aiming for the stars, matching strength to sophistication, then the devil is in the detail inside the cabin. Combining technology and comfort, every inch of the MU-X was rigorously refined.
“We scrutinised how each interior part could be structured and how each decoration could be combined,” Saito said. “We sought every inch of interior features, from the taste and brightness of ambient light to the slight width and appearance of the stitches.”
Perhaps the most prominent piece of kit is the high-definition 9.0-inch central touchscreen (7.0-inch in the LS-M), which features DAB+ digital radio, Android Auto™ and wireless Apple CarPlay®, as well as voice recognition. All important information is prominently available to the driver via the 4.2-inch MID, from tyre pressures (LS-T) to whether every child in every seat has buckled up.
Multiple flourishes add to everyday enjoyment. There’s the LS-T’s auto-dimming rear-view mirror, to the electric park brake with auto hold that’s standard across the range, to the powered tailgate— with buttons on the key fob (LS-U & LS-T), in the cabin and on the tailgate itself. Every seat has softer cushioning and firmer lateral support. LS-T halo models feature electrically adjustable front-row seats, both of which can be variably heated at the touch of a button.
Those stellar levels of comfort extend to the back. Second and third row seats each have their own air-conditioning vents and all can be reclined. And there are a pair of USB ports to keep device addicted tweens—and adults—satisfied (read: quiet) on longer trips.
Like dining at Camelot’s Round Table, there’s definitely a king—they’re the one behind the wheel. But in the MU-X, there are no bad seats.
Style for Miles. Literally: The MU-X is as confident in the city as it is Outback.
From the entry level LS-M to the LS-U and range-topping LS-T, the MU-X is sculpted to make a grand statement. And while it shares elements with its D-MAX sibling, the MU-X has a decisive silhouette all of its own.
A broad, bold grille flows decisively into robustly flared wheel arches, drawing the eye along an SUV that’s wider, longer and even more distinctive than its predecessor. Along with dynamic styling comes more streamlined performance. Air spats in front of the wheels divert airflow laterally, channelling it smoothly along recessed creases across the doors. Up top, a longitudinal channel in the roof funnels airflow cleanly towards the integrated roof spoiler, minimising turbulence at speed. Each innovation boosts the MU-X’s aerodynamic performance for better efficiency, improved stability and lower wind noise.
Improved aerodynamics aren’t always eye-pleasing; only an aesthetic masochist would choose a Prius over a Pontiac Firebird. But the MU-X manages to maintain muscularity, adding charisma even as it reduces its resistance.
There are further highlights. The eyes have it—or, in the MU-X’s case, the automatic headlamps—with ultra-bright Bi-LEDs with LED daytime running lights (DRL) adding a high-tech look as they light the way. Rugged and practical side steps add style and amenity, particularly for anyone putting something on the roof. The range-topping LS-T steals the show on huge 20” alloys, with 18” and 17” alternatives on the LS-U and LS-M respectively; each delivers a distinctive—and decisive—impression of refined everyday toughness.
Cool, confident and capable, the new-generation Isuzu MU-X is as eye-catching as it is commanding. Festooned with leading-edge tech, designed for comfort, and with all the durability for which Isuzu is renowned, it’s perfectly suited to Australian conditions.
The anticipation was worth it. The Isuzu MU-X delivers like never before.