Old school charm now there's phrase that's being used quite a lot these days around automobiles. I'm a particularly big fan of old school charm, but I'm an even bigger fan of bullet-proof reliability. Which is why, ever since the Isuzu D-Max V-Cross came out, I've been scheming of ways to stea...I mean, buy one. To me, it's simply one of the best buys in that price bracket! It's comfortable, capable, old school and most importantly, a proven-to-be-reliable vehicle around the world. So when Isuzu launched the new MU-X (well, new to India at least) I jumped at the opportunity to drive it to some secluded location to do some off-roading.
On the way there, I noticed several white SUVs pull up next to the MU-X to get a good look at the car. I'd have done the same because admittedly, it is quite a good-looking SUV. There are similarities in terms of the overall shape with the Chevrolet Trailblazer, but that won't matter too much now will it (oops, too soon?). At the same time, there are enough changes on the outside to give the MU-X its own identity and a better looking one at that. It gets a face that's similar to the D-Max V-Cross but with subtle and tasteful changes like a new dual-tone bumper which is a welcome change from the faux bash plates we see so often. It also carries forward the muscular bulges at the wheel arches which again mean it doesn't need any fake plastic cladding to make it look butch and those neat 17-inch diamond-cut petal-shaped alloys deserve a mention. All that said, I don't see why Isuzu couldn't bring in the facelifted model which is already being sold in markets like Thailand.
The MU-X's dashboard layout is identical to the V-Cross's, except it has an all-black colour scheme instead of being black and beige. It also has a revamped instrument cluster as well as leather seats and leather trims on the door pads, which make it feel more premium. The fit and finish of the dashboard is quite good, but the layout isn't what one would call ergonomic. The round centre console takes some getting used to and the switches for the rear AC and the traction control are inconveniently hidden under the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel.
Cabin space is pretty good, but unlike most seven-seater SUVs you can't slide the middle-row seats back for better knee room. The third row seats have decent kneeroom too and because the floor isn't too high, passengers won't have to sit with their knees in their faces. While the cabin is a nice place to be in, there is a fair amount engine noise creeping into the cabin, especially at the lower revs.
The MU-X uses a 3.0-litre turbocharged engine which produces 177PS at 3,600rpm and 380Nm from 1,800-2,800rpm. While throttle response is sharp and power delivery smooth, the engine isn't really free-revving with the redline set just over 4,000rpm. It feels very old school in that sense and I quite like it. With an engine like that, you'd think its 5-speed automatic transmission would be quite slow and annoying. But to my surprise, it was just the opposite. The transmission offers quick gearshifts and doesn't hesitate to shift down when you increase throttle input even a little. It essentially covers up for the slow-revving engine. At the same time, ease off on the gas and it'll quickly shift up to the highest gear possible at that rpm. And with all that low-end torque, you'll find that it's in fourth or fifth more often than not. Because of that, it returns a decent (by 3.0-litre turbo-diesel engine standards) 7.8kmpl in the city and 12.3kmpl on the highway. It also manages to do 0-100kmph in a respectable 11.54 seconds.
While on the highway, I found that the MU-X could comfortably get up to and then cruise between 130-140kmph. But progress beyond that is slow. At those speeds the MU-X feels well-planted and stable, even over the undulations. The damping is set up to be a just little more on the firmer side, so as long you're carrying enough speed over potholes, they'll feel like small undulations on the road. If not, there is a fair amount of movement in the cabin. At the same time, you won't be left bouncing up and down a few seconds after hitting a pot hole or undulation.
Having a ladder-on-frame chassis, I didn't expect too much from the MU-X in the handling department. But I found myself reasonably surprised. It didn't feel as nimble or as light on its feet as the Fortuner or Endeavour, but it didn't feel like a big heavy truck either. There isn't an unnerving amount of body roll and the steering offers a good amount of feedback sometimes too much feedback. The kick-back from the ruts and grooves on the road isn't ironed out at the steering and if you're used to driving newer cars from Hyundai and Honda, you might not like this feeling. While the steering weight is perfect at high speeds, it can feel very cumbersome to use inside the city.
But when we got out into the wild, it felt perfect. I knew exactly where the wheels were, which way they were pointing and what was happening below them. The MU-X seemed so comfortable in that environment that we got really excited and drove the MU-X right into some very wet mud where we go very stuck. It was then that I wished the MU-X came with a manual transmission. With the automatic, it was impossible to rock the car out of the deep ruts in the muck. I couldn't build up the revs and then dump the clutch in attempt to jerk the car back and forth. I also wished the MU-X came with a limited slip differential or diff locks. Without them, the wheel with the least traction received all the power, causing it to spin uselessly. The road-biased 225/65 section Bridgestone Dueler tyres weren't helping its cause either.
By the time we extricated the Isuzu, we had only a little bit of daylight left, I continued driving over almost anything in my path, as long as it was solid. In these conditions, the automatic transmission works well. The MU-X effortlessly crawls over large boulders with the slightest throttle inputs even in 4-high, without you having to worry about operating a clutch.
The several hours that we were stuck out there gave me plenty of time to fidget around with all the features in the MU-X. Although, I didn't really need that much time to run through all of them. For the price you pay (Rs 33.09 lakh on-road, Mumbai), the MU-X isn't what you'd call well specced. It gets you your basic creature comforts like keyless entry and ignition, climate control, a touchscreen infotainment system, electrically adjustable driver's seat, a pretty good 8-speaker sound system and even cruise control. However, you don't get goodies, like auto headlamps and wipers, auto-windows all around, Android Auto/ Apple CarPlay and drive modes. But let's not forget that you do get a proper 4X4 system with a shift-on-the-fly feature.
When it comes to safety, the MU-X is pretty well specced with ABS, electronic stability control, hill-start assist, and traction control as standard features along with dual airbags. However, in this price range, you'd expect at least six airbags on offer.
Until the launch of the new Fortuner and Endeavour, the price bracket for a full-size 4X4 in India was between Rs 30-35 lakh (on-road). The previous-generation Fortuner dominated that space. But the new one costs around Rs 39 lakh, which is around the same price as the Endeavour, leaving a large hole in the market. To me the Fortuner and Endeavour also feel a little too expensive and too sophisticated to want to do some hardcore offroading in for fear of scratching the paint or putting a small dent on it. That's where the MU-X fits in. It's rugged, reliable and feels like the kind of SUV you'd want to throw on larger tyres, fit an Ironman suspension kit and bumper and go mud plugging.
Until it was launched, a person looking for an SUV in that price bracket had to settle for a Hyundai Tucson. Don't get me wrong the Tucson is a great crossover. But a crossover isn't the same as a 4X4, even if it came with an all-wheel drive system. The MU-X might not feel as premium as the Tucson, but it is far more spacious and far more capable. It is one of the few thoroughbred SUVs this side of the Rs 35 lakh mark.
Images by Anis Shaikh