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OFF-ROAD TEST

Isuzu MU-X: tackling a new frontier





5 December 2017


Isuzu’s KB bakkie-based SUV is on its way to South African shores, with the first homologation units already clocking up local testing miles. Called the MU-X, it is the modern-day reincarnation of the popular Isuzu Frontier. Here’s some more information on the MU-X, and what it’s like to drive.

A divorce can be a pretty nasty business. But sometimes it can also be a blessing in disguise. When General Motors (GM) recently announced it is pulling out of the local market, it caused a right stir. But a number of Isuzu fans lit a braai and tanned some cow in celebration. This divorce between GM and Isuzu meant that Isuzu models like the KB bakkie-based SUV could finally be sold here (instead of the Chevrolet Trailblazer). Sold in overseas markets as the Isuzu MU-X, the latest version of the vehicle South Africans got to know (and love) as the Frontier has been a sales hit in other markets.

Some perspective: in the Australian market, the Toyota Hilux is the top-selling bakkie (or ute, as the Aussies call it), followed by the Ford Ranger and the Isuzu D-Max (as they call the KB). So that’s very much in line with the South African market. The picture looks completely different in the bakkie-based SUV class, though. In July this year, the Isuzu MU-X was the top-selling vehicle in this class, recording sales of 638 units. The Ford Everest followed in second place with 456 units, the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport in third with 311 units, and the Holden (or Chevrolet) Trailblazer with 249 units in fourth position. The Toyota placed fifth, recording 246 units. In South Africa, that picture looks completely different: the Toyota Fortuner is the market leader by a long way, recording sales in excess of 1 000 units per month. The Ford Everest is in second here, too, but still a long, long way off the Fortuner.

Here the Toyota has remained mostly unchallenged, with the likes of the now discontinued Chevrolet Trailblazer and the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (which was recently updated with an all-new model) competing for the scraps in this popular segment. Now the Isuzu MU-X could change the sales picture in this segment. Much will depend on pricing and packaging, but there is no question about the loyal following Isuzu enjoys in South Africa. If the company can get the pricing right… well, at the very least it will sell much better than its sibling, the Chevrolet Trailblazer. What are the similarities between the MU-X and the Trailblazer? Is it just a case of an Isuzu badge and different lights, or are there more fundamental differences?

With some KB, please
The discontinued Trailblazer and MU-X share some components, yes. This includes the platform. However, the Isuzu features the same drivetrain as its KB bakkie cousin. Instead of the Chevrolet’s top 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel mill, the MU-X is powered by the KB’s familiar three-litre D-Teq engine. It delivers 130kW of power and 430Nm of torque at 2 000r/min (up from the KB’s 380Nm), and is coupled to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic gearbox. The latter features manual shift control, too. The part-time 4×4 drivetrain is also similar to the KB. A twist dial in the cabin allows selection between the default 2H, 4H (4WD with a 50/50 lock between the axles) and 4LOW (50/50 lock between axles, low range). It’s a shift-on-the-fly system, so the driver can select between 2H and 4H at speeds up to 100km/h.

 

The MU-X rides on an independent front suspension with coil springs, upper and lower wishbones and a stabiliser bar. At the back there is a multi-link coil set-up, with a stabiliser bar. In the Australian market, the MU-X comes standard with a traction control system (TCS), electronic stability control (ESC), emergency brake assist (EBA), hill start assist (HSA) and hill descent control (HDC). Here’s hoping the newly established Isuzu South Africa will also include this kit… nowadays many clients prefer to tick at least the ESC box if they are in the market for a new SUV. In the Aussie market, top models get plenty of kit, too. This includes Bi-LED projector headlights with auto-levelling feature, LED daytime running lights, climate control, ‘Sky Sound’ roof-mounted sound system with eight speakers, roof-mounted DVD system, a comprehensive infotainment system with satellite navigation, and leather detailing in the cabin.

The MU-X is, like the Trailblazer, a seven-seater, with the last row of pews folding into the rear cargo area floor. Time will tell what specification levels will apply for South African versions. The new MU-X will go on sale here early next year and, truth be told, we reckon it will fare better with a more competitive asking price than fancy roof-mounted whatnots that hike up the price.

Let’s take it for a spin!
4×4 Mega World head honcho Deon Venter recently travelled to Australia to sample the new MU-X. Firstly, there is the subjective matter of the look of it. “I reckon the latest Isuzu KB is the best-looking double cab on sale in South Africa, so the MU-X certainly is easy on the eye for me,” says Deon. He is less complimentary about the interior, though. “The style of the cabin seems dated, and the plastics used are a bit old school. Compared to the Fortuner, it is all very truck-like, instead of SUV-like,” Deon says. The same principle applies in the driving department: the Isuzu KB’s 300 D-Teq engine may be bulletproof, but it’s not a paragon of refinement or power. In fact, driving the MU-X hard, revving the engine, is a bit like asking Bakkies Botha to play wing for the Springboks… it’s just not its thing.

Instead, the engine is much happier chugging along at lower revs, getting stuck into a scuffle around the scrum. Says Deon: “The three-litre engine has enough power and torque for its all-rounder 4×4 application. It’s just not as comfortable as some of its rivals when you start chasing the red line. I wasn’t so fond of the six-speed automatic gearbox. Just like the automatic ’box in the Fortuner, the Isuzu’s gearbox gears down way too often, resulting in unnecessarily high revs. And as mentioned, this is not something the Isuzu engine particularly enjoys.” The ride, says Deon, is on par with the Toyota Fortuner. “The suspension setup is softer than on the KB but, just like the Fortuner, it does get a bit unsettled on a badly corrugated road, with the tail a bit on the bouncy side. Other than that it is comfortable and composed,” explains Venter.

And his overall impression? Would he rush out and buy an Isuzu MU-X if he could? “I know both the Fortuner and the Everest well, as we run both models in our 4×4 Mega World fleet. Apart from the MU-X’s old-fashioned dash-board design and slightly iffy finish, it is on the same playing field as both the Fortuner and Everest, with little to choose from between them. For me it will depend on the pricing… if Isuzu can bring the MU-X to the SA market at a keen price, it will do really well, and especially the Everest may feel the heat,” he adds.

And in summary
We agree with Venter about the pricing issue. If Isuzu can get the pricing and packaging spot on, the fully imported MU-X should give at least give the Ford Everest a few sleepless nights. As mentioned, there are plenty of loyal Isuzu fans out there who have been champing at the bit to get behind the wheel of this SUV. Will it outsell the Fortuner? That’s unlikely, we reckon. Still, we suspect it’ll do better than its slow-selling cousin, the Chevrolet Trailblazer. The Chevrolet Trailblazer is dead. Long live the Isuzu MU-X!

In 1998, we tested the Isuzu Frontier 320 V6 LX. Back then it sold for the princely sum of R191 326: at the time you could buy a Land Rover Discovery V8i, a Nissan Sani 3.0 or a Jeep Cherokee Sport for about the same. The V6 petrol engine, borrowed from the Isuzu Trooper, produced 140kW of power and 265Nm of torque at 4 200r/min, and it allowed the Frontier to sprint from 0–100km/h in 12.35 seconds, which was rather brisk for the time. But, it drank an average of 15.3 litres/100km! Diesel fans were catered for by the Frontier 280DT. The 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel model delivered a rather bleak 74kW and 230Nm of torque. It was easier on the pocket in regard to refuels though, and could go anywhere.

The Frontier featured the same 4×4 drivetrain as the period KB, so it also came with a part-time 4WD system (with selection between 2H, 4H and 4Low). A rear differential lock was standard on both 4×2 and 4×4 models. The Frontier was a local Delta Motor Corporation development, and was on sale in South Africa between 1998 and 2006. To this day, the hardy Frontier, with a massive boot that can swallow a couple of rhino calves, remains a prized commodity… even high mileage examples are snapped up quickly when they enter the market.

Going the ARB route
ARB 4×4 Accessories, sold locally through the 4×4 Mega World network, has developed a range of aftermarket accessories for the popular new Isuzu
MU-X. This includes Old Man Emu suspension upgrades, ARB replacement bumpers, underbody protection, snorkels, and more. The products will be available locally when the MU-X is launched early next year. More information: 4x4megaworld.co.za

Isuzu MU-X
Engine
2 999cc, four-cylinder turbodiesel
Power 130kW @ 3 600r/min
Torque 430Nm @ 2 000r/min
Gearbox Six-speed manual/automatic
Front suspension Independent, coil springs, upper and lower wishbones, stabiliser
Rear suspension Multi-link coil suspension, stabiliser bar
4WD system Terrain Command shift-on-the-fly (2H, 4H & 4Low)
Traction aids Traction control, stability control, emergency brake assist, hill start assist, hill descent control
Ground clearance (claimed) 230mm
Fuel tank 65 litres
Towing capacity (braked trailer) 3 000kg

Photographs: Isuzu Thailand, ARB 4×4 Accessories

  • teofli

    Good review. This car was always going to be compared to the Fortuner, and as indicated in the article, it will have to beat the Fortuner on price.