The spiritual successor to the Frontier might just have what it takes to shake up the local bakkie-based SUV establishment. We test the new Isuzu MU-X…
Published in the September 1998 issue of CAR, the last line of copy in the Isuzu Frontier’s road test reads: “More stylish than the Nissan Sani but also more expensive, the well-equipped Frontier is bound to make many friends.”
Indeed, Isuzu’s bakkie-based SUV made so many friends locally that it it could well claim to have proved the catalyst for the introduction of similar bakkie-based SUVs from Toyota, Nissan, Ford and Mitsubishi. The Fortuner, of course, has gone on to become one of the best-selling vehicles in South Africa.
Sadly, for many with fond memories of the Frontier – complete with its spare wheel mounted on its tailgate – Isuzu’s path of ownership through Delta Motor Corporation and then General Motors meant any plans to re-enter the lucrative segment it essentially pioneered were always going to be decided at GMSA boardroom level.
And to be fair, the arrival of the Chevrolet Trailblazer in 2012 did at least slightly dent runaway Fortuner sales of the day. At the same time, 10 000 km away from our shores, the Trailblazer’s Isuzu-branded cousin was destined to conquer the Australian body-on-frame SUV segment, remaining a best-seller to date.
While market comparisons with Australia may ultimately be skewed, General Motors’ recent departure from SA and the subsequent investment by Isuzu Japan into the company’s Struandale plant has breathed fresh life into a brand that remains both close to many South Africans’ hearts and widely respected by its local rivals. With this restructure comes the arrival of the Frontier’s spiritual successor, the MU-X.
Sharing its KB-derived ladder-frame underpinnings (and thus its wheelbase) with the Trailblazer, the MU-X is nevertheless 62 mm shorter and slightly narrower (by 42 mm) than its Chevrolet-branded cousin. Fortunately, these tighter dimensions have a minimal impact on interior space and the new Isuzu offers class-competitive levels of comfort throughout each of its easily manipulated three rows of seating. Like the Trailblazer, the 50:50-split rearmost pews can be neatly folded away into the floor when not required. With these stowed, the MU-X boasts 416 litres of packing space, up from both the Chev and the current Fortuner (with third-row seats that fold upwards rather than stow).
Offered with one specification level throughout (more on this later), the only choice to make when purchasing your MU-X is whether to opt for a 4×2 or 4×4 drivetrain. Both models in the initial line-up are powered by the brand’s venerable 3,0-litre, common-rail turbodiesel mill, mated with a six-speed automatic transmission. Offering 130 kW at 3 600 r/min, it’s a pity (according to Isuzu South Africa) the quality of our local fuel doesn’t allow for a recent Euro 5 update to this motor as available in the Australian market. That additional 50 N.m (from 380 to 430 N.m) the Aussies enjoy might well have added a welcome amount of gees to an engine that, as in the KB, thrives on leisurely rather than spirited progress.
This languid pace isn’t in any way aided by the relatively slow workings of the Aisin-sourced torque-converter transmission. Slow, steady and somewhat agricultural in its workings (including being fairly audible inside the cabin), the benefits this long-serving drivetrain brings to the MU-X party include an undisputed reputation for both durability and reliability. There’s also the matter of a 3 000 kg (braked) towing capacity. Some 100 kg heavier than the rear-wheel-drive derivative, the 4×4 model tested here recorded 8,9 L/100 km on our standardised fuel route.
In conjunction with a shared 230 mm of ground clearance on both models, 4×4 versions offer a shift-on-the-fly transition into all-wheel drive. A further turn of a conveniently sited dial draws a low-range transfer case into action. Two tonnes of overall mass aside, the MU-X makes the most of its proven KB-sourced underpinnings to render light work of most off-roading challenges. As with other vehicles of this ilk, it’s ultimately the MU-X’s standard-fitment runner boards that will hamper any serious off-road work. Hill-descent control is standard in both models.
Like the outgoing Trailblazer (and the current KB), the MU-X’s tall stance, combined with a suspension setup designed for maximum bump absorption, does translate to a relatively floaty ride quality. Well suited to traversing long, ideally straight sections of gravel road, it’s a setup which lags behind the likes of the Ford Everest and Toyota Fortuner in terms of body control and on-road handling prowess. Combined with the hefty weighting and relative vagueness around the hydraulically assisted steering’s centre point, the Isuzu, once again, exudes all the qualities of a brilliant leisurely adventure seeker rather than an about-town pavement hopper.
The MU-X also shows its relative age compared with rivals such as the Everest when it comes to the look and feel of its cabin. A notable upgrade on the current KB double-cab’s layout it may be but there is still a frustratingly narrow range of adjustment on the steering column, together with the presence of some scratchy plastics and dated-looking instrumentation.
For better or worse, this lends the MU-X a somewhat old-school character, although Isuzu has countered this by loading as much modern specification as is currently available to the brand into the local MU-X package. This includes full leather upholstery, a reverse camera (but optional sensors), climate control (with vents in the rear), keyless entry and a comprehensive audio/Bluetooth setup operated via both the multifunction steering wheel and a 6,5-inch touchscreen.
Another area brought up to modern standard is the MU-X’s safety-features list. It includes a full complement of airbags (including curtain), Isofix child-seat anchorage points, stability control and ABS-assisted brakes.
On the latter, those aforementioned soft damper settings result is a fairly aggressive pitching motion before bringing the MU-X to a stop in an acceptable (for this segment) average of 3,37 seconds. It should be noted, though, that its two main competitors do offer a few extra safety features: the Everest and Fortuner both boast knee airbags, as well as trailer-sway control, and the Ford adds roll-over-mitigation.
Just as the collective population of modern smartphone users smiled reminiscently when Nokia recently released a reimagined version of its 18-year-old 3310 cellphone, it’s impossible not to feel a tad nostalgic at the sight of a “new” Isuzu-branded SUV. Like the 3310, the MU-X exudes all the ruggedness and dependability its maker has built its reputation upon and is arguably missing from some of the newer offerings of the day.
Unlike those days of the Frontier, though, the new Isuzu SUV faces stiff (and established) competition in the market. While both the Fortuner and Everest feel appreciably more modern and refined than the MU-X, it’s easy to forget the current Pajero Sport range offers as much standard specification and as much adventure-seeking ability. Its maker also happens to share a similar reputation for proven reliability as Isuzu.
While it’s relatively easy to find reasons its modern rivals offer more – whether refinement or equipment levels – than the MU-X, like its KB relation, it’s also impossible to ignore the old-school charm and built-in toughness that make the Isuzu badge such an endearing alternative.
*From the August 2018 issue of CAR magazine