The Isuzu Alterra had been around since 2005, which means it had been around for nine years before it was replaced by the MU-X in September 2014. In car years, that's twice a regular lifespan. But for an SUV--specifically one that’s sold in burgeoning third-world markets--that’s par for the course.
So when word got out that Isuzu was finally replacing the Alterra with the MU-X, the market quickly took notice. After all, Isuzu is one of the most popular vehicle brands in the country, and its vehicles have always been a safe bet. It's no surprise then that a waiting list for the SUV started a month after it had gone on sale. As you read this, Isuzu Philippines hopes that its supply of the MU-X will have normalized by now.
So, is the public demand for the MU-X justifiable? We drove the top-of-the-line 4x4 LS-A variant with automatic transmission to find out.
The MU-X is arguably one of the better-looking SUVs on the local market today. While it's obvious that it shares the same body as the Chevrolet Trailblazer, it trumps the latter in the aesthetics department with a brawny chrome grille that neatly blends into the headlights, while the blacked-out lower grille and bumper give the vehicle a touch of class. The difference is even more dramatic at the back, thanks to the bigger taillights and the chrome tailgate garnish in between.
Helping add an element of ruggedness and utility to the MU-X are the pair of faux bumper guards that slightly jut out of the front and rear bumpers, and the flared front and rear fenders. Hidden roof-rail mounts mean the MU-X can carry even more cargo via a roof rack in case the space in the cabin isn't enough even with the second- and third-row seats folded down.
More important, Isuzu did a great job by not replicating the previous-generation Alterra's formula, which was basically a D-Max with a built-in camper shell and fitted with a third-row bench seat on the cargo bed.
The MU-X is predominantly black, with only the faux brushed aluminum trim around the center console and steering wheel, and the beige headliner breaking the monotony. All seven passengers seat on leather seats, with beige contrast stitching giving the interior a touch of class. Front seats could use a little more lumbar support since our lower back felt tense after a long road trip.
The twin-cluster gauges on the instrument panel are legible under different lighting conditions. Sadly, the same can't be said for the seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system and the climate control system display as both tend to wash out under the midday sun. Trying to scroll down the touchscreen is also an exercise in futility if you've got thick fingers. A USB port is cleverly hidden underneath a panel that looks like a button below the play/pause button.
Storage areas are plentiful in the MU-X. Besides the standard glove box, the front-seat passenger also has access to a shelf that's integrated into the dashboard. Third-row passengers, meanwhile, have a small shelf and cupholders integrated into the bulkhead.
While the MU-X can carry lots of cargo thanks to the collapsible second- and third-row seats, loading stuff inside isn’t exactly straightforward since the third row doesn’t actually fold flat into the floor. Good thing that the second row tumbles forward when collapsed, providing enough space to accommodate two balikbayan boxes.
The 2.5-liter engine of the MU-X is unmistakably a diesel, with the familiar clatter greeting you upon start-up. Once you get going, though, it quiets down so much that, even with the audio system turned off while you're driving on the asphalt sections of the MacArthur Highway, you can barely hear the engine over the usual road noise.
In the one week we had the MU-X and drove it all over Metro Manila and to Tarlac through NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX, we were able to get a combined 10.8k/L out of it. Not bad for a 4x4 SUV. Its five-speed semi-automatic transmission also shifts smoothly when left on its own. In manual mode, shift shock is negligible.
Despite these superlatives, with only 134hp and 320Nm, the MU-X is grossly underpowered and underequipped against its competitors, specifically against the Trailblazer which it shares the same platform with--with a difference of 66hp and 180Nm, to be exact. Fortunately, Isuzu plans to rectify this by bringing in the more powerful 3.0-liter powerplant later this year (although with a reported 175hp and 380Nm, it's still considerably less powerful next to the Trailblazer).
RIDE AND HANDLING
As expected of a vehicle with this ride height, the MU-X feels top-heavy when making a simple lane change. Still, the front independent double wishbone and rear five-link coil spring suspension setup makes for a capable and comfortable ride both on and off the road, with none of the harshness usually associated with vehicles in this class. There's only comfort that’s merely short of being called car-like. And since the MU-X is shorter than the Alterra, it’s a lot easier to park with the assistance of the reverse camera and parking sensors.
The MU-X's steering feels neutral when it's dead center, with just the right amount of heft added when turning to give you an idea where the front wheels are pointed.
While the most off-road driving we did with the MU-X was limited to gravel roads and dirt paths, the ride wasn't jarring enough to raise a ruckus from the wife and the kids.
One of the Alterra's selling points was its infotainment system, particularly the two video screens mounted at the back of the front-seat headrests for the viewing pleasure of the second-row passengers. Unless the passengers seated in the second row were kids, anyone sitting in the third row couldn't see a thing since the heads of the second-row occupants blocked the view.
The MU-X solved this problem by having a 10-inch screen mounted on the ceiling, giving the second- and third-row passengers a cinematic feel. The roof-mounted vents and the separate controls of the car's climate control system for the rear passengers are welcome features that only add to their comfort.
The Isuzu MU-X may be down on power output against its competitors, but everything else about it justifies the demand--at least for now.
It's a handsome SUV that looks a lot better than most of its aging competitors, and it is also well-equipped, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering it’s the successor to the Alterra. And since it’s an Isuzu, aftermarket support shouldn’t be a problem.
Then again, it's about to face an uphill battle in the very near future with the imminent arrival of all-new SUVs, including the Ford Everest, the Mitsubishi Montero Sport and the Toyota Fortuner. One thing's for sure this time: Isuzu can't rest on its laurels.
SPECS: ISUZU MU-X 4x4 LS-A AT
Engine: 2.5-liter in-line-four DOHC 16-valve diesel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Power: 134hp @ 3,400rpm
Torque: 320Nm @ 2,800rpm
Drive layout: 4WD
Photos by Patrick Everett Tadeo