We take the all-new Isuzu MU-X for a drive ahead of its Australian launch to see if this thing can take on not just the rivals within its own price bracket, but those in the one above as well.

Launch Review | With Australia’s international border still set to remain closed for a while yet, it’s a scenario that has led many to explore our own backyard more by getting behind the wheel of something rugged and durable, and hitching a caravan onto the back of it.

That makes it a good time, then, for Isuzu to launch its new 2022 MU-X here in the land Down Under. Perhaps the quintessential grey nomad vehicle, the outgoing model – the top-selling ute-based SUV in Australia – was favoured greatly by caravaners, with around half of all Isuzu owners in Australia using their vehicles to tow, and as we saw with last year’s all-new D-Max ute, the changes made to it reflected this.

Given how much it shares with the D-Max, it’s safe to assume many of the changes target the same key area, but with this new model, there’s another big focal area – how to make this formerly rugged and somewhat agricultural brute into something that city-slickers will like as well.

Fittingly, then, the model I was loaned for a week prior to the new MU-X’s Australian launch was the one that focuses on this demographic the most – the top-spec LS-T 4×4, which brings more in the way of luxuries, technology, and style than any model in the range, and than the generation before it offered.

It does all come at a cost, though – pricing starts at $47,900 for the cheapest LS-M 4×2, while adding four-wheel drive to all models marks a $6000 premium. But for this, the most expensive model in the range, you’re looking at a list price of $65,900 which marks an $8500 jump over its last-gen equivalent, although it is being offered at a drive-away price deal of $63,990 upon launch. It’s a steep price hike, so does offer enough to justify it?

Sporting the biggest rims ever fitted to an Isuzu at 20 inches in diameter, and with it wrapped in a more angular and athletic body than before with a particularly high belt-line and aggressive nose, the curb appeal is certainly there with the new MU-X, and it looks like a classy thing in the metal. Does it look like $65k? I’d argue that it comes close, with nice detailing on the diamond-cut wheels, LED headlights, and Lexus-like mirror-effect taillights which all help it mask its work-ute origins.

It’s been classed-up big time on the inside, too, although this is unsurprising given how great a step up was made with the new D-Max‘s cabin. The key items you see here are effectively the same as in the D-Max – the nicely-sized multi-function steering wheel, the upper dashboard layout and centre screen presentation, the basic design of the instrument cluster, and the climate controls see little if anything in the way of changes.

Where the changes do start to come in is with the new centre console design that is more fluid thanks to a set of kneepads flanking either side of it that help bridge it with the lower dashboard. A few of the controls, such as the four-wheel drive selector, have been relocated to the centre console as well, with that in particular drawing your attention to one of the welcome additions it sports – an electronic parking brake with an ‘auto hold’ function.

Also new is a set of two-stage heated seats up front – something noticeably absent from the D-Max X-Terrain but available on its fraternal twin, the Mazda BT-50 GT – along with four-way power adjustment for the front passenger seat, along with eight-way adjustment for the driver. At the back, a power-operated tailgate on the top two trims is also a welcome convenience item for family buyers – a big demographic for it, given it’s a seven-seater. There’s a handy Walk Away Door Lock function as well to ensure you don’t forget to lock it in haste, along with Remote Engine Start to help warm it up on cold mornings.

Given the price tag, there’s plenty in the way of tech advancements for the new model as well, versus the basic offerings of its eight-year-old predecessor. A 9.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Here Maps satellite navigation is standard on LS-U and LS-T models, while the LS-M features a 7.0-inch screen and foregoes the navigation system, but all models do feature wireless Apple CarPlay and wired Android Auto.

The impressive IDAS safety system that debuted in the D-Max features as well, with the dual-camera-powered system offering everything from Level 2 semi-autonomous driving and adaptive cruise control to Autonomous Emergency Braking with Turn Assist, blind-spot and cross-traffic monitoring, and plenty more. There are eight airbags including a centre airbag, too – something that will aid it in its goal to secure a five-star ANCAP safety rating. The MU-X is yet to be tested, but the D-Max scoring top marks is certainly a good sign of that result being replicated.

I do have a few minor decisions to question with this new model, though. While the incredibly handy pop-out cupholders on the dashboard remain, the third enclosed storage bin that previously sat atop the dashboard has disappeared which I think is a shame. The upper of the two gloveboxes on the passenger side had some sort of fixed divider on one side of it that limited capacity for larger items, while the centre console storage bin was on the small side, too. One storage area I wouldn’t mind seeing lost is the tray ahead of the gearshift, though, as it’d be the prime location for a wireless phone charging pad which would be nice given how wireless CarPlay churns through your iPhone’s battery. On power, a three-pin household power socket would have also been nice to see somewhere.

During the Q&A session of the digital launch for this new MU-X, I also questioned the decision to retain the tumble-forward second-row seat mechanism rather than fit it on sliding rails to allow for more configurability and easier operation. Told that a new mechanism for it would make it easier to operate, I’m quite happy to say they weren’t telling porkies, despite my hesitancy.

Claimed to require 33 percent less effort to operate, the second row seats do, indeed, tumble forward easily and naturally with a pull on the latch, and the B-pillar having been moved 25mm further forward allows for easier to access to the more spacious third-row in which even I, at 6’2″, could sit in pretty comfortably, especially due to a redesigned second-row seat base allowing for more foot room.

The focus on rear passenger comfort is aided further by reclining seat backs for both the second and third-rows, impressively, along with roof-mounted air vents for all rear passengers and independent fan speed control for the rear as well. The rear entertainment system – although lets be honest, it was basically just a DVD player – for rear passengers has been a fatality of the generational update, however. At this price point, a sunroof, let alone a panoramic one, would also be nice to have as well.

Minor gripes aside, it’s a pretty thoughtful interior and the amount of gear it offers up is impressive, even if there are a few omissions I might hope to see addressed in a model year update, or eventual facelift. While all the interior niceties are all very welcome, though, MU-X buyers of before were all far more concerned with what was under the bonnet, as it’s quite the legendary engine.

Powered by the 4JJ3-TCX 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel, a direct descendant of the old model’s 4JJ1-TC, it produces 140kW at 3600rpm and 450Nm from 1600-2600rpm – not exactly earth-shattering figures, but maximum output isn’t really the point here.

For one thing, this engine being under-stressed is something that contributes to its famed reliability that has won over the road-tripping crowd, and although the new engine is almost entirely redesigned inside, the changes are all minimal and focused on improving NVH levels, which, as it already proved in the D-Max, has surely been accomplished.

What’s more, this engine makes the most of what it offers thanks to an incredibly broad torque curve. 300Nm is developed at just 1000rpm, while at least 400Nm is produced from 1400-3250rpm, and when you’re towing a caravan long distances all day, that torque is concentrated where you need it most at around the 2000rpm mark. Really, you couldn’t get a better-tuned torque curve if you tried. Also worth noting for the caravaners out there – revisions to the coil-sprung rear end have boosted braked towing capacity to 3.5 tonnes, which is a clear sign Isuzu knows and understands its buyers and their needs.

It’s a more economical engine than before as well, with a fuel consumption claim of just 8.3L/100km on the combined cycle. I only managed 9.5L/100km over the course of my 620km of testing, but that did involve a lot of city, off-road, and spirited driving. An Australia-exclusive 80-litre fuel tank helps give it a very impressive range, however, and is yet another sign of the company knowing its market.

Backing it is a proven transmission with some welcome revisions as well – the same Aisin six-speed torque converter automatic the the old MU-X featured, improved shift logic has helped reduce upshift times by 0.2 seconds, while a new oil pan and integrated transmission fluid heater and cooler aims to mitigate cold-start transmission wear.

Although rear-wheel drive (4×2) versions of all trim levels are available, they seem a touch pointless to me given this is a vehicle with a ladder frame chassis and coil-sprung solid rear axle, although it does represent a big saving for those who know they’ll never take their MU-X off the beaten path. The more enticing but expensive four-wheel drive (4×4) models like my tester feature an incredibly swift shift-on-the-fly transfer case and, finally, a locking rear differential for the extra six bands.

Like with the D-Max it shares so much in common with, a new variable-ratio electronic power steering rack and tweaked double-wishbone front suspension with high-mount upper control arms and a thicker anti-roll bar has helped the MU-X no longer feel ponderous from behind the wheel. The steering is light and quick, and the reduction in body roll makes for a night and day difference.

Wider wheels allow for a greater tyre footprint as well, helping it grip the road impressively. Too bad you can’t exploit the newfound handling abilities too much at times, though, as the traction control is a bit too eager to kick in through tight corners. It links sweeping bends together very nicely, though, which is really what it’s designed to do.

However, the enlarged wheel size on the LS-T is cause for a few concerns of mine. For one, such a large rim diameter means there’s less sidewall on the tyres, and not only does this mean you’re in danger of scratching up those alloys off-road, it makes the ride feel surprisingly brittle over corrugations. The old MU-X had one of the plushest and most relaxed rides around, and while I can understand the desire to make it feel a bit more sporty as it absolutely holds the road a lot better, as a lover of pure comfort in vehicles like this it’s a touch disappointing. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly still a pretty comfortable ride that offers very impressive rebound over big bumps – it’s just the little things that it struggles to mask as well as it once did. I’ll be keen to get into an MU-X with smaller rims at some point soon, as while I’m sure the shorter wheelbase (2855mm versus the D-Max’s 3125mm) masks less than a longer one would, I imagine different wheels and tyres will sort this problem out almost completely.

Off-road, the incremental upgrades and revisions it’s been given have definitely provided a clear edge over the old model as well. With ground clearance now increased to 235mm (a 5mm improvement for the LS-U and LS-T, while LS-M models see a 10mm increase to 230mm) there’s less chance of bottoming out or hitting at either end, with approach, ramp-over, and departure angles of 29.2, 23.1, and 26.4 degrees respectively on the LS-T meaning it’ll easily tackle what the majority of people would ever throw it at with ease. Should you manage to ground out, there’s an array of steel, aluminium, and poly-composite underbody protection panels to ensure you don’t damage any of the vitals as well.

Between the clearance increase and the new rear differential lock, it really picks up on the two weaknesses of the outgoing model when it came to hitting the rough stuff, and, like the D-Max, it now feels like a really well-rounded off-road performer even with the oversized rims (sorry to bang on about it, but 20 inches is simply too large in reality, no matter how good they look) and highway-terrain tyres that are pretty hopeless for advanced off-roading.

Regardless, both on-road and off, it does feel decidedly more polished than before, and is certainly a pleasant drive. Of course, given my position, I’m actively looking to pick at its weaknesses, but the reality is it’s competent all-round and I doubt it will disappoint any buyers, be it repeat Isuzu customers or those who are new to the brand.

High-level repeat ownership is expected, and for these buyers, this new model will seem like the step up the MU-X needed to be. The same old rugged build quality is there, but it’s been given a flashy finish on top of it all. When it comes to new customers, I doubt Isuzu will have trouble convincing them just why they might want to look their way, rather than returning to the brands that have traditionally dominated this segment – Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Ford.

The MU-X certainly needs to be convincing enough though, as at the launch, Ben Jaeger, General Manager of Sales for Isuzu UTE Australia, told me that the company “would be disappointed if [it wasn’t] selling more than 1000 units a month” even in the face of global and industry-wide production and supply issues, and that it even had lofty aspirations of becoming a top 10 brand in Australia off the back of a mere two-model lineup.

It’s a big goal, but offering a strong long-term ownership plan will no doubt help with bringing new buyers to the brand. A six-year/150,000km warranty is offered, giving it an extra year of coverage over most brands (although it trails Mitsubishi’s 10 years if servicing is done at a dealership) although it does trail behind in how much mileage it allows for. Seven years of complimentary roadside assistance sweetens the deal, however, as does seven years of capped price servicing which is cheaper than before as well, averaging around $482 per visit.

Even though it costs $3000 more drive-away than its closest rival, the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport Exceed, the MU-X LS-T being so much more advanced on the tech front and feeling far more sophisticated means that to my eyes at least, it’s worth the jump. Whether this underdog can manage to snatch some sales away from more expensive rivals like the Toyota Prado, given how much it offers for the money compared to the overpriced and ageing J150, is something else worth pondering as well. However, I reckon that if anyone could take on the establishment to that degree, it would be Isuzu, given just how formidably it’s performed in the charts already.

I don’t doubt one bit that it’s going to hold on to its segment-leading sales figures – what I’m interested to see is how much it can manage to grow that lead. Minor gripes aside, and they’re all ones that would be relatively easily addressed, I think it’s a very impressive product. Easily the most advanced in the class on the tech front and perfectly targeted towards its key demographics, and I truly believe there’s a strong chance Isuzu will deliver on those big sales goals with this.

2021 Isuzu MU-X LS-T 4x4 List Price: $65,900 | Drive-Away Price: $63,990
  • 8/10
    Performance - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Ride & Handling - 8/10
  • 8.5/10
    Tech & Features - 8.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Practicality - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: Bulletproof engine with a perfectly-tuned torque curve, classy interior that’s loaded with tech, feels far more polished both on-road and off-road
Cons: Brittle ride on 20-inch rims, overeager traction control system, big price hike

In a nutshell: If ever Isuzu was going to challenge the establishment in the large SUV segment, the new MU-X is the vehicle they had to make to do it with. Packing advanced tech and a clever, comfortable interior that will appeal to those new to the brand, along with an indestructible engine that traditional Isuzu buyers are drawn in by, it’s a great all-rounder. 

Photography by Marcus Cardone.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Isuzu UTE Australia for a week with a full tank of diesel. All additional fuel costs were covered by the author.

Patrick Jackson
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