The new apex predator?
By now, many have read about or watched our videos of previews of the all-new Isuzu mu-X for the Philippine market, and with good reason. Isuzu does have a very strong and loyal following, and the prospect of a new Isuzu product in a very competitive category is indeed exciting.
Now that we've had some seat time with the all-new mu-X for a few days, the question we want to answer is this: Is the mu-X the new apex predator of the PPV category?
First things first: pronunciation. If you watch my video below, go ahead and chuckle at how I get the pronunciation of mu-X wrong: according to Isuzu it's “myoo-ex” not “m-u-x”. That will take some time getting used to because Isuzu once marketed the original JDM “myoo” SUV as the “mysterious utility”. Oh well. Pow-tay-tow, po-tah-tow.
The vehicle sent to us is the top-spec mu-X LS-E 4x4 (or 4WD on the badge). We've all had to wait a long while to get our hands on these vehicles, as Isuzu first premiered the mu-X a year ago in Thailand. The pandemic definitely set things back, but perhaps what's more significant is the delay caused by the parts and semiconductor shortage.
Honestly, when I first saw the mu-X during our preview of it a month ago, I was a bit underwhelmed. I like the curb appeal of the new generation D-Max with its macho look, but that doesn't seem to have translated to the mu-X. Clearly, Isuzu wasn't going for the tough 4x4 look anymore because they're aiming for a more upscale and family-friendly look.
I may still prefer the 4x4-oriented designs, but I have to say that Isuzu's new strategy is clever. They wanted to differentiate the mu-X not just from the D-Max, but from the rest of the competition. Isuzu wanted upmarket curb appeal; an SUV that won't look out of place in a high-end gated community, condo, or in the trendiest party spots in town... once they fully reopen, of course.
The exterior definitely looks more sculpted rather than chiseled. I really like the new headlights, somewhat of a departure from the angry “Bad Boy” headlights seen on the previous generation. There's an unusual new grille that doesn't look to be inspired by any other Isuzu model (e.g. that 6-hole grille) apart from those “fangs” on the horizontal slats. Surprisingly Isuzu held back on the chrome which isn't something they normally adorn their vehicles with. Even the door handles aren't chrome. But for customers that like that extra “shimmer” in the sunlight, I'm sure there will be plenty of original accessories or aftermarket bling doodads you can install later on.
The wheels are big at 20”, and despite this being a 4x4 the tires aren't the all-terrain variety like the ones on the D-Max 4x4 LS-E. Isuzu doesn't have much experience going to this size of wheels, but later on, we'll explain why that is. There's also a slight error with the brake size on the specification sheet from Isuzu. The brochure says those discs are 17” in diameter, and that's what I mentioned in the initial preview video of the vehicle a month ago. But there were some eagle-eyed viewers that pointed out that the discs are too small to be 17, so this time I measured. They're 12 or just a little over. We've already informed Isuzu of that error, and they'll do their own verifying.
The rear of the mu-X is perhaps the most unusual. It does look good with the minimal chrome and those taillights that almost seem to be borrowed from Lexus, but there are some things that need discussing. The first is the position of the rear sensors; the shape of the bumper (with the rear reflectors) forced Isuzu to install two sensors in an unusual spot.
The other thing is actually the material they used for the tailgate: it's polypropylene plastic. Isuzu chose that material to reduce weight, and it is strong, but some would definitely have concerns over a plastic body panel that is integral to the structure of the cabin. Isuzu chose to beef up the vehicle with an integrated bumper beam to compensate for it, and it seems to have worked well. During the latest round of crash tests, the mu-X performed very well, though I would have wanted to see a rear-end test to visually check how the PP tailgate held up.
Under the hood, this mu-X has a 4JJ3-TCX engine; the same as the D-Max. 190 horsepower and 450 Nm of torque aren't class-leading figures especially since the mu-X now has the biggest engine in the class after everyone downsized their engine offerings. That does have an added benefit though because that means the 4JJ3 isn't being pushed to produce high numbers even though it can clearly handle it. The conservative tuning means it should be reliable long term. The transmission is the same 6-speed automatic from Aisin, and this version has four-wheel drive.
The outside may not look 4x4ish, but if you peek underneath, you can spot a lot of details that speak of 4x4 ruggedness. Critical components are protected by bash plates such as the oil pan and the transfer case. The prop shaft to the rear differential has been made thicker (supposedly), and there's now a breather tube (like a mini snorkel) that prevents water from getting into the diff.
The suspension is very much different compared to the outgoing model even though it still has double wishbones in front and a solid axle in the back. The front suspension is different from the previous one; actually, it's pretty similar (if not identical) to the one on the D-Max. The rear suspension also has a lot of changes, the most visible of which is the revision that Isuzu made to the mounting of the panhard bar; it's now bolted onto the passenger side frame rail. And speaking of the frame, this uses a variation of the new stronger frame from the D-Max, but with a shorter wheelbase for enhanced cornering. More on that later.
What will really surprise many who have driven or owned an mu-X before is the changeover with the interior. The new model is just better in every tangible or intangible way that we judge and evaluate interiors. The driver's seat feels great. The steering wheel feels great. The leather has a nice smell, the dashboard materials have a nice texture, and the gaps in the panels are very consistent.
It just looks, feels, and smells so much better. That's not to put down the previous mu-X's interior. I'm sure it's reliable and can take a beating, but this is like stepping up from an apartment that has furniture from Mandaue Foam to a condo that was furnished from the Pottery Barn catalog. Minus the apothecary table.
The middle row is very much a big improvement; Isuzu reworked the lower part of the B-pillar to give more toe room for ingress and egress. The space here is good and I like that there are a lot of charging options in this seat, including a 220-volt outlet. The only gripe is the lack of a slide function; the seats recline and tumble, but do not slide.
The third row, however, is what surprised me. It's quite generous with space and very comfortable for the automotive equivalent of GA seats at Araneta Coliseum. The headroom is far better than the Fortuner's, and there's even a recline function for the backrest which is pretty awesome.
The cargo area is another big improvement. Actually, this might be the new standard in the class. The third row and middle row fold completely flat to give you a load space that's 79” long or about 2 meters. It's not long enough or wide enough (width at the narrowest point is 43”) to accommodate a full 4x8 sheet of plywood, but it's still very spacious.
What I really like is the extra compartment behind the third row; you can store stuff there to keep it away from prying eyes. I'd rate the cargo versatility of the mu-X right up there with the Everest. It probably edges out the Nissan Terra and is most definitely ahead of the Montero Sport (because of the cumbersome folding mechanism) and the Fortuner with the flip-up third row that just consumes a lot of space.
The feature package of the mu-X is also very attractive. It has a decent multi-info display that has all that you need to know. The dual-zone climate control is nice, and I like that there are overhead A/C vents for the rear. The audio system is a huge 10.1-inch screen that has Android Auto, 8 speakers, Apple Carplay, navigation but no drop-down screen for the rear passengers. Isuzu says that customers didn't bother using that much, so they didn't include it. This system, however, has a clinometer function; I have a strong feeling this is the same 10.1” unit as seen in the Suzuki Jimny and Vitara because of the clinometer's graphics.
Safety is Isuzu's new big thing, so this being a top-of-the-line version means it has (almost) everything they can put in. It has anti-lock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution, brake override, traction control, hill start assist, hill descent control, and even 7 airbags if things really go wrong. But Isuzu doesn't want it to get to that point, so they fitted this with ADAS; or their equivalent of systems like Toyota Safety Sense.
That's why this mu-X has adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and even that SUA-preventing pedal misapplication mitigation system; perhaps the silliest name for a safety feature ever.
After about a day of driving in the city, the first thing that became apparent is the lightness of the steering wheel. The difference is big, and Isuzu did that without resorting to an electronic power steering unit. This is still hydraulic, albeit geared to be lighter. The other observation I had is the ride quality. It wasn't comfortable, which I found surprising. I had thought the 20” wheels and lower profile tires were the culprits, and in a way I was correct: it was the tire pressure.
Oddly enough this mu-X didn't have a TPMS and I didn't have my gauge with me, so I had to go to a gas station to check. The reading was 36 psi. Normally that would be okay, but the recommended pressure for the 20” tires (based on the sticker on the B-pillar) is 30 psi. Once I lowered it, the ride greatly improved to what the factory had intended: a really good balance between cornering and comfort.
The engine had plenty of power and torque down low, and not once did it seem like it struggled. Acceleration from a standstill is 10.9 seconds; I'd say it's quicker than the Fortuner, Terra, and Montero Sport. But what I like is how the mu-X just cruises very nicely and effortlessly. On the decibel meter, the mu-X was definitely quieter than the previous model with the 4JJ1, averaging about 79-81 dB versus 83-85 dB. Granted, the previous model we checked had some mileage on it, but it's worth noting nonetheless. And the fuel economy is great too: 9.9 km/l in the city and 16.1 on the highway.
The handling is perhaps the single biggest improvement of the mu-X that you won't find in the brochure. Isuzu has never been known for exciting handling unless we go all the way back to models like the Bellet or Gemini. But this mu-X feels far more confident and far more capable when tackling a bend; including an off-camber hairpin-like turn you would experience on roads like Kennon.
Isuzu isn't saying how that was done, but we have a feeling that it's a bit of Mazda rubbing off on them when they worked on the D-Max/BT-50 collab. It just feels so much better behind the wheel as the vehicle doesn't roll like a yacht when you take on a bend. The brakes, while not the correct size on the brochure, are a good match for the weight of the vehicle, and there was a good degree of grip on the tires.
The greatly improved handling, however, comes with a trade-off: ride comfort. This will not be anywhere near as plush riding as the previous generation mu-X or the Alterra. But the caveat is that it will improve if you have passengers in the vehicle; most of my time with the mu-X was solo. So expect the vehicle to soften up a bit for out-of-town family trips.
Impressed as I am with the drive, mu-X is not perfect. I found the lane departure warning system a bit too eager and intrusive, so I had it off most of the time. The reverse camera is also lackluster, especially when there are systems like the 360 system in the Nissan Terra. But more importantly, I see a lot of blank spaces on the dashboard, beside the shifter, and even on the steering wheel. Perhaps the most significant feature missing is associated with the 4WD system: the rear diff lock.
That's why I didn't take it to any serious trail or course because I don't think that's Isuzu's intended market for the mu-X 4x4, which is odd. Clearly, the vehicle can handle it with the extra ground clearance and the underbody protection, but they're not aiming for 4x4 enthusiasts. This is made for occasional or “accidental” off-roaders; like if you were on a road trip and you get lost and have to go on a rough dirt road or path. In those kinds of instances then you can rely on the 4x4 to get you through, and it even comes with a torque vectoring-style rough terrain mode for that. And yes, it does work.
If you have to wade through a stream, river, or flood, you can go up to 800mm. But if you really want an mu-X for off-road, you'll have to spend a bit more for a rear diff lock and maybe even a front diff lock as well. And definitely, the H/T tires and wheels will have to go as well.
Doing all that sounds simple enough, but we also have to factor in that this 2022 mu-X 4x4 retails for PHP 2.45 million. When they announced that pricing, it became the most expensive PPV in the class... for a little while. Just recently Toyota announced that the new high spec Fortuner will cost the same as the mu-X LS-E 4x4, and they'll even breach the 2.5 million mark with the GR Sport kitted variant.
Nevertheless, I think Isuzu has a solid four-wheel drive SUV here even if the pricing has increased to heights we've never seen before. You may have to spend a bit more to get some true 4x4 capability out of it, but if you're not looking at a 4x4 model then you can check out the other variants. Personally, I'm quite liking the spec and pricing of the mid-level 3.0L 4x2 LS-A. But we'll save that review for another time.