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CLARENS, Free State – While the first Isuzu-badged pick-up was produced in South Africa back in 1978, and the latest iteration of the KB continues to sell well on local shores, the Isuzu Frontier from the 1990s is still one of the brand's recognisable products, with many still going strong on our roads today. Now, however, we have the new Isuzu MU-X, with the moniker standing for "multi-utility crossover".

With the exit of General Motors from the South African market at the end of 2017 (along with the Chevrolet brand and the Trailblazer with which this MU-X shares some components), Isuzu SA became wholly owned by the parent company in Japan. Interestingly, though, the MU-X is imported from Isuzu’s factory in Thailand, rather than built locally alongside the KB.

Styling is distinctly Isuzu, with a strong front treatment, a fair deal of chrome and bi-LED headlamps. The rear is also neat enough. Only from the rear-quarter view does the design seem to lose the plot somewhat.

At the heart of the MU-X is the familiar and highly regarded 3,0-litre turbodiesel engine from the KB series. As with KB, this unit produces 130 kW and 380 N.m of torque. The local range comprises just two models: a rear-driven derivative and a 4x4 variant, both with automatic transmissions as standard. The 4x4 model boasts selectable drive so grunt can be directed to just the rear wheels or all four wheels, the latter including low range. The gearbox has six forward ratios and both versions use 18-inch wheels.

With a power output of 130 kW and a body mass of nearly 2,1 tonnes, acceleration in the Isuzu MU-X is not particularly brisk. There is minimal turbo and torque converter lag, but the resulting slow gear shifts are at least very smooth. Sequential shifting using the gear lever is possible, but the engine management system will decide if your revs are suitable for a gear swop and block you if not.

Unlike the Frontier, this is a proper SUV designed for the purpose of transporting seven occupants in comfort. The rearmost seats are suitable for adults and fold flat into the floor to create a huge luggage space. Upholstery comes in the form of good quality black leather with white stitching, and the steering wheel is also trimmed in this material.

A 6,5-inch touchscreen comes standard, although there is the option of specifying a larger, nine-inch version (both systems, however, include sat-nav and a reversing camera). A neat addition to the infotainment setup is a second USB port in the back of the centre armrest, catering for rear passengers. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality is also included.

While the MU-X doesn't boast particularly modern mechanicals (or all the latest bells and whistles) in the form of its 3,0-litre engine, many pundits prefer older designs that have proved their reliability over the years. Whereas some Toyota Fortuner and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport derivatives use newer, smaller-capacity engines that have yet to prove their extended service credentials, it's worth noting that the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado still uses the virtually unburstable 3,0-litre D-4D engine.

We completed a serious, mountainous 4x4 route near Clarens and the ease with which all the MU-X coped with the rocks, mud and steep slopes was impressive. In addition, the relative comfort despite the exuberant boulder-hopping suggests that the suspension has been cleverly tuned to make light work of poor conditions.

Switching from 2H to 4H to 4L is via the usual console-mounted switch, while the ground clearance is excellent at 230 mm. Furthermore, extended wheel articulation and five-link independent rear suspension means that the wheels are almost always in contact with the ground. Electronic stability control, hill descent control and trailer sway control are standard, but take note that there is no selectable rear differential lock (although a similar effect is achieved using the braking system).

On tarmac, you might expect a floaty ride, but we didn't notice any problems here. The MU-X is simply a pleasure to drive, featuring something similar to the good ride that the KBs are known for, just a bit softer as befits an SUV that does not need to load up a tonne of goods behind. That said, should you need to move plenty of heavy things, you'll be glad to hear that the towing capacity is a full 3 000 kg.

There is minimal wind- or road noise in the cabin, although the engine is not quite as quiet as the latest diesels. Fuel consumption is a claimed 7,9 L/100 km, so an everyday index of just under 10 L/100 km can be expected.

Safety features, apart from all the usual suite of electronics, include six airbags and Isofix seat anchors. Some convenience features found on competitors (such as an auto-dipping rear-view mirror, automatic headlamps and rain-sensing wipers) may be missing here, but these are often a matter of personal preference anyway.

The Isuzu MU-X's main rivals? Those would be the Ford Everest and the aforementioned Fortuner and Pajero Sport. If you're in the market for a bakkie-based seven-seater SUV, I'd suggest you include this newcomer on your short list due to the Isuzu heritage and record of reliability. Dealer support should be strong, too, as the company has a solid reputation throughout the continent. A five-year/90 000 km service plan (with intervals of 15 000 km) is included in the price along with a five-year/120 000 km warranty.

Years ago, the Opel Rekord was nicknamed the poor man's BMW. Could the Isuzu MU-X be the poor man's Prado? Based on these first impressions, I'd say so ... and that's by no means a slight.


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