Nothing mysterious about revised Isuzu MU-X's function or form

This review was originally posted on Stuff

Word has it that when in 1989 Japanese truck manufacturer Isuzu created its first SUV and called it the MU, the letters stood for Mysterious Utility.

Almost three decades later the MU letters continue to be used, but there's nothing mysterious about this SUV. In fact what is now called the MU-X is probably the most straightforward SUV around - an honest vehicle that in every way favours function over form.

That's why MU-X owners love them, says Isuzu Utes New Zealand general manager Murray Greenhalgh.

"We basically have three types of customer for the MU-X," he says. "The first is existing Isuzu owners - maybe people who have had an MU or Bighorn and driven it 300,000km and simply want another one.

"The second is the serious 4WD-type person, using the vehicle in very rough conditions. It's got a high/low 'box and it's a true ladder-chassis vehicle.

"The third is the towing crowd. One of the strengths of this vehicle is that it will tow three tonnes day-in, day-out."

It is easy to like the MU-X. It's easy to follow the line that because Isuzu is primarily a manufacturer of trucks and not cars, it makes sense that it will make tough and reliable utes and SUVs. In the case of the MU-X that explains why it is built on a sturdy ladder-frame chassis and is powered by a robust 3-litre version of Isuzu's J Series diesel engines.

It probably also explains why Isuzu isn't known for making wholesale changes to its vehicle lineup. And its latest refresh of the MU-X is a classic case in point.

The revised MU-X has different front and rear styling, extensive trim changes to the cabin, upgrades to its engine so it is more powerful and meets Euro 5 emissions regulations, and it now has a six-speed automatic transmission that replaces a five-speeder.

But it's definitely not a new model, explains Greenhalgh.

"Isuzu is primarily a truck manufacturer - also the biggest diesel-engine maker in the world. Multiple running changes are how the company conducts its manufacturing. Some of them we know about, others are very subtle. But they're happening all the time.

"Isuzu is not big on model changes. It calls this [MU-X] a "big running change".

Case in point: Isuzu Utes NZ's first shipment of 30 vehicles had the new powertrain - but the old styling and interior. Go figure.

Anyway, as it stands now the running-change MU-X has a new bonnet, grille, LED lights and daytime running lights, front and rear bumpers, rear spoiler and a revamped interior with much greater use of soft-touch materials. Eighteen-inch alloys are now standard.

What this all means is that the refreshed MU-X is an improved version of a model that was pretty well loaded anyway - whereas our Australian neighbours sell the vehicle with six different levels of specification, in New Zealand there's just one highly specified model on sale, featuring three rows of seats, full leather upholstery, electric adjustment of the front seats, climate control air conditioning, satellite navigation, an entertainment system with a drop-down rear screen, and reversing camera.

As regards powertrain, the turbo-diesel has undergone substantial change including new-design pistons, a revised turbocharger and upgraded fuel injection systems, and it also now has a new exhaust gas recirculation system and diesel particulate diffuser that has allowed it to pass more stringent Euro 5 emissions regulations.

The engine, which is also under the bonnet of the D-Max ute, is also more powerful than before.

The J Series diesels have been around for years and have been progressively developed and refined over the years to meet a variety of uses. This latest iteration, the 4JJ1-TC Hi- Power, develops the same 130 kilowatts of power as before, but torque has been increased by 50 newton metres to 430Nm.

That maximum torque is now reached slightly further up the revolutions band - it now gets there at 2000rpm - but it continues to impress as a flexible unit. It's efforts are helped by the fact the automatic now has the six ratios instead of the old five.

What we have always liked about the MU-X is that it traditionally has been a no-nonsense, honest sort of large SUV.

It has real ability off the seal thanks to its substantial 230mm ground clearance and good approach, ramp-over and departure angles. It's easy to move from 2WD into 4WD too - you simply turn a knob to select 4WD High while travelling at speeds of up to 100 kmh, while 4WD Low requires the vehicle to be stopped.

On the seal the ride and interior environment is comfortable, and the infotainment system easy to use thanks to well-designed touch-screen. And while the MU-X is built using the same platform as the D-Max ute, for the SUV the rear suspension is independent instead of leaf-sprung, featuring multi-link coils. So it offers a settled and relaxed sort of drive.

What is significant about all these running changes to the MU-X is that they have been introduced at no extra cost - the retail price remains at $65,990 which is attractive for what is a big, robust, seven-seater SUV. No mystery there.

The MU-X, which shares its platform and basic body shape with the Holden Colorado 7/Trailblazer, was launched three years ago and accounts for 10 per cent of Isuzu NZ sales. That means around 250 units per year and a total carpark of approximately 700 vehicles.