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Garage Test: Blazing a Frontier Trail with Isuzu MU-X

It’s been two decades since Isuzu effectively founded the bakkie-based SUV segment in South Africa. A market which is now worth millions in profit for Toyota, who took advantage of Isuzu abandoning the market it had established by introducing Fortuner.

Back in the late 1990s, if you wanted an affordable five-door off-roader tough enough to follow most of the way behind Land-Cruisers, there was only one option: Isuzu’s Frontier. It was station wagon version of the popular KB double-cab bakkie, with a rear-mounted spare wheel. A visionary vehicle, but South Africans hadn’t yet sacrificed their sedans for SUVs and Isuzu discontinued it locally after only one generation.

In 2018 that heritage has returned with MU-X, an SUV evolution of the current KB and in some way, a cousin of Chevrolet’s Trailblazer. It differs from Trailblazer in being better built, with more logical cabin ergonomics and a 200cc larger 3-litre engine. With Fortuner and Everest dominating the market, MU-X is very much an outlier’s choice – but there is sound logic to it as an ownership prospect.

Isuzu builds more diesel engines than any other manufacturer and, in my experience, their in-line four-cylinder diesels might not be the most powerful, but they are utterly reliable. MU-X’s engine peaks at 130kW and 380Nm, with six sensibly spaced ratios ensuring you achieve a fair balance between relatively swift performance and economy.

The other enduring element is ride-quality which is some way better than their KB cousin. MU-X now defends that Isuzu reputation in the ladder-frame SUV space with suspension calibration which appears perfectly tailored to South African gravel roads, and especially those inadvertent local pothole encounters. Even on the worst dirt roads, it remains planted without transferring any harshness through the steering or into the cabin structure.

Debits? I found the touchscreen infotainment system on the MU-X counter-intuitive and it wouldn’t recognise some of my mixed media spread across different folders when reading off a device. The absence of a mechanically locking rear-differential isn’t ideal either, this is something which annoyed me no end with Trailblazer.

Isuzu has equipped the two-wheel drive MU-X with a rear axle traction control system, but that relies on wheel slip to trigger its intervention algorithm. And when you are trying to navigate some challenging terrain in a rear-wheel drive only SUV, you need momentum and a locked rear drive axle, which isn’t possible with the South African specification MU-X. Pity.

If you’re looking for a gravel traveller seven-seater with great ride comfort and an engine that will probably outlast you, the Isuzu MU-X can be all those things for you. Despite common components, Isuzu’s SUV is remarkably better than the Trailblazer it has replaced. Lance Branquinho

  • R568 000
  • 2999cc, 4cyl turbo diesel, RWD, 130kW, 380Nm
  • 7.3l/100km, 194g/km CO2,
  • 0-100km/h: n/a
  • 1990kg

Tester’s notes Isuzu’s vehicles are much like the Cheetahs rugby team: nobody hates them.

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