WHEN THE MERCURY PLUMMETS AND THE DAYS GET SHORTER, THE ‘MEXICANS’ FROM THE SOUTHERN STATES START LOADING-UP THE CARAVAN TO HEAD NORTH.
And based on recent sales figures, many of them, ‘grey nomads’ and families, are hitching-up to an Isuzu MU-X.
Fact is, towing a large trailer even for short distances is not for the faint of heart – man or machine! – and the strong built-for-work Isuzu MU-X excels where some rivals wither.
Of course it’s not just caravans – the equine set and boating enthusiasts also demand a lot of their towing vehicles. (And, to be honest, we’ve all seen set-ups on the freeway which must be borderline illegal.)
Vehicle Style: Large SUV
Price: $54,000 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 130kW/380Nm 3.0 litre 4cyl turbo-diesel | 5sp automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 8.3 l/100km | tested: 10.1 l/100km
TMR got behind the wheel of a range-topping Isuzu MU-X 4x4 LS-T. Priced at $54,000 (plus), when it comes to value-for-money, the MU-X LS-T beats all-comers in this specialised sub-segment.
Like newer rivals - Toyota Fortuner and Ford Everest - the Isuzu MU-X is not just about rugged style, it is as tough as boots and has genuine off-road credentials; you can take this car to the Cape, or through the Simpson without wondering what’s going to fall off, or break off.
And on-road the Isuzu MU-X surprises. It is a tad coarse but quite a bit better than many will expect of a ladder-frame wagon sitting on a commercial chassis and drivetrain.
The workhorse diesel under the bonnet is at the noisier end of the spectrum, but plays a big role in the Isuzu MU-X being so accomplished as a heavy-duty tower. Its key feature – besides an unburstable reputation – is a wide torque spread that makes for easy driving when you have a weight out-back.
- Standard features: leather-trimmed seats, satellite navigation, cruise control, multi-Information Display, electroluminescent gauges, Terrain Command 4WD system
- Infotainment: eight-speaker audio with two roof speakers and Aux-in, DVD, USB, SD, CD, MP3, Bluetooth audio streaming and iPod connectivity plus roof-mounted 10” DVD monitor for rear seats
No shortage of leather in the range-topping MU-X LS-T. And while it’s not Mercedes-Benz grade leather, we’ve seen worse (from Korea actually) and the front seats are nicely supportive.
Points deductions for no steering wheel reach adjustment, the plastic trim is a bit naff (and cheap-looking) and the operation of the navigation system had us baffled.
Yes, we probably weren’t operating it correctly, but we do drive a lot of different cars with different nav set-ups without too much issue. In the MU-X we struggled to get a destination set or route guidance operating.
You sit high in the MU-X – the commanding position desired by many SUV buyers – and even those in the second and third seating rows aren’t compromised for visibility.
We’d venture second-row leg-room would be a contender for best-in-class while the third row is on par with rivals. Importantly, it has a ‘well’ at the base of the second row which allows extra footroom for third-row passengers.
Overall the Isuzu MU-X presents a reasonable interior but the design/style doesn’t match the best in this league. That said, it holds a $10k+ advantage on the classier Fortuner, and a vastly bigger advantage on the up-specced Everest range.
The Pajero Sport is perhaps its closest price competitor, and betters the Isuzu for interior feel and quality, but lacks a third row (which will have it out of contention for some).
ON THE ROAD
- Engine/transmission: 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel/ 5-spd sports automatic
- Power/torque: 130kW/380Nm
- Towing capacity: 3.0-tonnes (braked), GCM 5.75-tonnes, tow ball download 300kgs
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front/Independent multi-link rear
- Steering: Power-assisted speed-sensitive rack & pinion/3.84 turns lock-to-lock
- Brakes: four-wheel disc (300mm front/318mm rear)
The Mastercraft XStar ski boat (prices start at $159,990) and its brilliantly engineered trailer (alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes and adjustable height gooseneck just for starters) come from California.
It isn’t just eye candy - at 3000kgs all-up, that boat and trailer combo would make any SUV break into a sweat. But while the MU-X certainly ‘knew it was there’, even that load, right on the edge of the car’s maximum tow rating, posed no problems for a freeway run.
The bigger task we put before Isuzu’s finest was a much less glamorous grind: a two-way caravan haul from Melbourne to Waratah Bay in the shadows of the world famous Wilsons Promontory, and return.
We took a new Jayco down and brought back the old van – brand indiscernible - to the wrecking yard.
First-up, never forget that towing a big trailer long distances can be downright miserable if you don’t take the time to balance the trailer itself and the vehicle towing it.
Fortunately we had some expert assistance (from a mate who is an MU-X owner and frequently tows his Jayco Expander) and, after a bit of adjustment, our rig looked as balanced as a Mark Waugh cover drive.
Once underway, the Isuzu MU-X proved its mettle. Though its 380Nm of torque is quite a bit less than the 470Nm of the Everest, and the 500Nm of the Colorado7, the Isuzu’s wide torque band makes towing – and the inevitable changes of speed – easy and stress free.
In particular, the acceleration mid-range is quite strong, and, despite the heavy load on the rear, gear-changes from the conventional five-speed sports automatic are smooth and nicely ‘settled’ (with minimum hunting, even through the Strzlecki foothills out of Meeniyan).
It’s a commercial transmission, straight from Isuzu’s truck range; it won’t leave you by the side of the road waiting for the oil to cool.
Suspension calibration is also pretty good when towing. Despite the van at the back, the MU-X is nicely compliant over bumps and the combination felt quite impressively stable on this trip.
And, yes, that 3.0-litre turbo-diesel can be a bit noisy when working hard, especially when asked to pile on a few revs, but all things considered, the MU-X makes light work of a caravan run.
(But whichever SUV you choose, or whichever van you buy, get that GVM and GCM sorted out before you commit: GVM is the total load sitting on the tow-vehicle’s wheels, the weight of the SUV and whatever clobber you’ve thrown inside.
GCM, the Gross Combination Mass, is the total maximum weight of the whole shebang, the combined weight of the car, the occupants and clobber, plus whatever you’ve hitched behind – the weight of the caravan or horse float.
You’ll end up with the caravan or plant trailer doing the steering – and it won’t be pleasant – if you get this badly wrong)
After jettisoning the trailer for the last time, it was back into the working week – trips to school, the city and Melbourne Airport in the peak-hour.
And the same vehicle which towed so well felt light and easily manoeuvrable in the city environment. It’s easy to see out of, and in fact is not large by family wagon standards.
On country roads, the heavy-duty Isuzu MU-X is no sports car, its commercial origins are pretty close to the surface.
But we like the steering response, the ride is quite ok – not too hard and not too floaty (the latter often a complaint with heavy-duty SUVs) – but there is too much body-roll when pushed harder in tight corners.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - this model scored 33.58 out of 37 possible points (tested 2014).
Safety Features: ABS anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency brake assist, electronic stability control, traction control, six airbags, reversing camera, rear park assist, three ISOFIX child seat anchor points in second-row seats.
Warranty: five-years/130,000kms with roadside assistance
Service Intervals: six-months/10,000kms
Capped Price Servicing: three years/60,000kms
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The hard-as-nails seven-seater branch of the ‘SUV Large’ segment has been a headline-grabber in recent times with the arrival of three all-new models in the same genre as the Isuzu MU-X – the Toyota Fortuner (based on the HiLux), Ford Everest (on the Ranger) and Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (on the Triton).
If we’re buying one of these tough boys we’d limit our choice to one of these four. (And perhaps also throw in the similar Holden Colorado 7 – substantially based on the Isuzu but with a different drivetrain.)
Look specifically at range-toppers to take on the $54,000 (plus on road costs) Isuzu MU-X LS-T we tested, and things get very interesting.
Ford Everest is a great vehicle but the line-up starts at $54,990 (plus) for the base-model Ambiente, and to get to Isuzu MU-X LS-T sort of specifications (with leather seats, nav etc.) you’re looking at $76,990 for the Everest Titanium (pictured, above).
Of course for those who tow big trailers, Everest boasts a significant trump card in the form of the segment’s mightiest powerplant – the 143kW/470Nm 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel.
Toyota’s Fortuner stakes a strong claim but again - with prices ranging from $47,990 (plus) for the spartan GX to $59,990 (plus) for the Crusade – looks pricey when parked alongside our Isuzu MU-X LS-T.
The Mitsubishi Pajero Sport makes the comparison interesting. Starting at a compelling $45,000 (plus), it tops out at the very well-equipped Exceed at $52,790 (plus), bettering the older, but arguably stronger, Isuzu. But it doesn’t have seven-seats.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
We’ve previously tested the Isuzu MU-X over some gut-wrenchingly tough off-road tracks so we know just how competent it is in that environment.
But the focus for this review – and indeed for many buyers in this segment – was towing.
Fact is, for ‘hitchin and haulin’ your confidence gets a shot in the arm thanks to Isuzu’s track record with the D-MAX ute range – after all, this company knows how to make a hard-working commercial vehicle, and one that will run reliably for a very, very long time.
OK, so Isuzu’s 3.0-litre turbo-diesel may not match the Fortuner or Pajero Sport for refinement and the five-speed automatic transmission might be short a ratio or two, but the wide torque band and well-sorted automatic translates into fuss-free towing.
And that’s exactly how our Isuzu MU-X performed – fuss-free, whether with a load behind, or not.
On the downside, one look at the interior will tell you the MU-X isn’t the freshest design in this league and those who tow won’t be thrilled by the relatively small 65-litre fuel tank.
On balance however, for hard work, it is hard to recommend against the MU-X. That drivetrain is a trump card; it’s a bit coarse, but strong as old boots, as is the rest of the car.
It’s still very good buying – among the best for all-round value – even if the interior is a generation out-of-date.
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