By Tony O'Kane & Tim O'Brien
|Variants Reviewed||Fuel, combined cycle|
|Isuzu MU-X LSU 4WD||_130kW/380Nm||8.4 l/100km||11.7 l/100km|
|Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 4WD||_200kW/316Nm||10.0 l/100km||14.2 l/100km|
Let’s say you’re not Bear Grylls, but you’d kind-of like to be.
You know, you like to occasionally get yourself out under a desert sky to stand on a rock no-one has stood on for a thousand years.
But you’re more than just a marketing cliche. After all, not ALL of your spare time is spent leaping four-wheels in the air over sand dunes or plunging across fast-moving flooded streams.
You do, in fact, spend a lot of your time on ‘normal’ roads - even city ones - just getting yourself around.
So which 4WD suits you best? You’ll need one with a low range transfer case to get you to the back of beyond, but you also want one with a few creature comforts and not too much of a chore on road.
If you’ve got around $50k to spend there are a handful of options. The Toyota FJ Cruiser is one and the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited another - but the latter can be a little too agricultural for daily use and the former is a bit ‘wierd Albert’ in the styling department.
How about, then, the Isuzu MU-X LS-U and the flagship of Jeep’s bold new Cherokee range, the Trailhawk? They’re very close on price and 4WD capability, but a long way apart in design philosophy and execution.
The Isuzu is a diesel wagon based on a rugged 4X4 commercial ute, and the Jeep is a family-sized SUV that’s been roided-up with some trick 4WD mechanical hardware.
Both promise the ability to get you anywhere, but go about it in quite different ways. Let’s see what makes them so similar, and also examine what makes them unique. First up: the Trailhawk.
Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk
Vehicle Style: Medium SUV
Engine/trans: 200kW/316Nm 3.2 litre petrol 6cyl | 9spd auto
Fuel Economy claimed: 10.0 l/100km | tested: 14.2 l/100km
The Cherokee’s unibody construction makes it a little less suited to hard-core offroading than the ladder-framed Isuzu, but it does make it a lot more civilised on the road.
It’s quiet, the cabin is well-insulated from vibration and there’s a good amount of space inside for five people.
And while it’s nowhere near as tall as the MU-X, the Cherokee Trailhawk is still able to step over obstacles up to 221mm high - just 9mm less than the MU-X’s ground clearance.
And with a locking rear differential and a proper transfer case with low range gearing, the Trailhawk is not only radically different from the other AWD models in the Cherokee range, it’s completely unique in its segment.
This is no pseudo-4WD system. Jeep’s ‘Trail Rated’ status for the Cherokee Trailhawk is not some marketing gimmick, but a sober statement of the car’s capabilities.
In low range, the 3.2 litre V6 effortlessly pulls the Cherokee’s bulk over lumpy ground. With nine ratios to choose from, it's a versatile low range.
And, such is the off-road traction available that it's only in really heavy going that there is any need to engage the rear differential lock (but nice to know that it’s there to get you out of a jam if required).
Keep it in high range, and you can use one of five pre-set terrain modes to help you keep grip on snow, sand, rock, or just for a sportier drive on tarmac.
Or you could just keep it in auto and let it figure things out for itself - which we tended to do.
So it’s good in the rough stuff, but what about the daily grind?
Well, it’s not bad there either. As the range-topper in the Cherokee family, the Trailhawk is also the most lavishly equipped.
It’s got leather, radar-guided cruise control, dual-zone climate control, sat-nav, an 8.4-inch colour touchscreen display, heated front seats, front and rear parking sensors (with self-parking function), a reversing camera and bi-xenon headlamps.
And the list doesn’t end there. You get the idea though: for a medium SUV, the Trailhawk is pretty lavish.
It’s also a comfortable ride thanks to its long-travel dampers and softer suspension tune.
And, a little surprisingly, it handles quite well and is rather quick on-road. Outputs of 200kW and 316Nm make it one of the most powerful SUVs in its class, and the Trailhawk accelerates with vigor.
But there are downsides. For one, it’s thirsty. Big, naturally aspirated V6s used to be offered in this segment by Mitsubishi and Toyota, but woeful fuel economy killed them off.
Our stint in the Trailhawk saw an average consumption figure of 14.2 l/100km, which is pretty far from Jeep’s claim of 10.0 l/100km.
Isuzu’s claim of 8.4 l/100km is far easier to stomach, even when factoring in the higher cost of diesel.
Towing capacity is also well down on what the Isuzu is capable of. While the Trailhawk is capable of lugging 2200kg on a braked trailer, the MU-X out-muscles it with its 3000kg capacity.
Another debit, but only because it’s mismatched to the final drive, is the nine-speed automatic.
While it’s an asset in low-range having all those ratios, the gearing on road is so tall that you never go fast enough to use eighth or ninth gear.
But if you want a smooth-riding SUV that’s a capable off-roader, yet also tremendously car-like to drive and jam-packed with cutting-edge features, the Trailhawk is pretty hard to go past.
But is it the horse for your course?
Isuzu MU-X LS-U automatic
Vehicle Style: Medium SUV
Engine/trans: 130kW/380Nm 3.0 litre turbo diesel 4cyl | 5spd auto
Fuel Economy claimed: 8.4 l/100km | tested: 11.7 l/100km
We liked the MU-X when we first sampled it at launch nearly a year ago, and we like it still.
As far as tough 4WD wagons go, they don’t get much tougher than this Isuzu.
The proven drivetrain in the MU-X comes straight from the hard grafting D-Max ute. So does the ladder-frame chassis, the front-end and strong Aisin five-speed auto.
But where the ute has a leaf-sprung live-axle rear, the MU-X utilises a more passenger-friendly coil-sprung multi-link rear.
That multi-link MU-X rear notwithstanding, it's on the highway where the divergence in the design philosophy of these two cars is most apparent.
The Trailhawk - for all its off-road capability - has the on-road feel of a ‘soft-roading’ SUV.
The ladder-framed Isuzu however struggles to disguise its truck-ish origins; on-road, on the highway, it feels like a 4WD.
It’s not uncomfortable, but it jiggles over rippled tarmac and there is a fair bit of understeer thanks to a soft front end and rear springs and dampers calibrated for a heavy load (we think it's perhaps a little firm at the rear, and too soft in the front.)
The Trailhawk’s V6 Pentastar petrol bests the MU-X for power, 200kW to the diesel Isuzu’s 130kW, but the torque outputs of 316Nm and 380Nm are skewed in the MU-X's favour.
The diesel is the tougher workhorse. While compared to other diesels in the sector, the power and torque of the Isuzu’s 3.0 litre turbo-diesel - 130kW and 380Nm - are a little on the modest side, you’d hardly know it at the wheel.
That’s because it’s a loping, under-stressed unit with one of the fattest torque bands in the business.
And if you’re towing, working hard off-road, or chugging through soft sand, a wide torque band will have the engine working where it’s at its best and most efficient.
It also means that this diesel won’t be left with its tongue hanging out after a long day in desert heat with a big load hitched behind.
There's a bit of diesel clatter when cold, but it quietens down when warm and is barely intrusive on road (with just a muted groan signalling its presence). Importantly, it has a deserved reputation for durability and longevity.
With a stainless steel timing chain, bullet-proof internals and a low-stress low down torque output, it’s built for work and a long life.
Compared to the Trailhawk, the Isuzu is far the better tow vehicle for that round Australia trip.
Off-road though, there is really not a lot to separate these two. Each have the drivetrain and 4WD system to cope with nearly any rugged trail.
Each have tremendous articulation, good ground clearance, hill ascent and descent control, and smart traction control sending torque where its needed when the going gets precipitous.
The Trailhawk has more technological smarts, like selectable ‘rock’, ‘sand/mud’, ‘snow’ and ‘sport’ 4WD functions, and also comes with a locking diff.
But, while the Isuzu is more the ‘Grandpa’s axe’, its lugging diesel, tough 4WD drivetrain and long suspension travel will get it anywhere the Trailhawk can go.
The MU-X is also helped by rugged off-road underbody protection and good clearance for the front lower control arms. The alternator is also set high and the air-intake is tucked into the front fender.
In the final analysis, both of these cars can take you a long way off-road. Though each goes about things in quite different ways, in terms of climbing up and over something, we'd have to call it a draw.
But it’s not all even-stevens. For our week in the MU-X, we averaged 11.7 l/100km, and that included heavy off-road work and some long highway kilometres with a full load up.
Not bad we thought, and quite a bit better than the V6 petrol Trailhawk. (Caravaners are reporting as low as 9.0 l/100km for the MU-X for highway towing).
Lastly, there’s a bit of a gulf between the TrailHawk and the MU-X in terms of interior style and fit-out.
The tight-weave fabric seats of the LS-U model tested here are good, but not a match for the leather trim of the Trailhawk.
The MU-X is also shot to bits by the quality feel of the Cherokee’s interior. The Isuzu can’t hide its commercial origins, and the slabby interior, while tightly put together, looks pretty dull compared to the Trailhawk.
But the Isuzu has an ace up its sleeve: it’s a seven-seater and with surprising room (thanks to a scalloped footwell) in the third row.
That gives it a bit of extra versatility as a family bus over the Trailhawk.
MORE: MU-X News and Reviews
So, which one is right for you?
We would think you have an easy call here; you know best what matters most to you.
While both are very capable off-road, similarly priced, and marketed on notions of adventure and ripping yarns, they are in fact chalk and cheese: the suave, swift Trailhawk with its leather trim and technical wizardry, and the simpler, strong and honest-toiling diesel Isuzu MU-X.
We can sum it up like this: if, on every other weekend, you are going to drag horses around, or plan on taking a caravan to the Cape and back, it’s a no-brainer, it’s the Isuzu MU-X for you. This one is more the beast of burden.
Tough, capable, and comfortable enough, you can put it to work and you won’t pull its guts out doing it.
If, however, you plan on spending most of your time on-road, but on weekends want to get the trail-bikes to the top of some mountain somewhere, the Trailhawk is your choice.
On road, it’s as quick and as civil as any light-duty SUV wagon. And, while it might be filled with creature comforts, it will get you - like the MU-X - damn near anywhere you’d sensibly want to go.
The choice then is yours.