ISUZU’S STRATEGY in India has always been a safe one. The Japanese manufacturer of pickups and pickup-based SUVs is know for reliability and comfort, but when the company launched their vehicles here, they were relatively dated. Gauging the market with tried and tested products helped Isuzu build a reputation for itself and soon after manufacturing started, the impressive D-Max V-Cross pickup was introduced. Enthusiasts have lapped this car up and that has given the manufacturer a lot of confidence for future products in the country. The follow up is the SUV you see in these pages, the MU-X.

The MU-7’s successor?
Didn’t we mention safe? Isuzu has had the MU-X in its arsenal since 2013, about the time when the aging MU-7 was launched in India, and to our surprise, it didn’t get all-wheel drive. A big and heavy SUV to take on the Endeavour and the Fortuner, the MU-7 didn’t stand a chance. What it did is offered something different, something with presence and something that established the premium card Isuzu was yet to play with the MU-X. Now its successor is here. Based on the Chevrolet Trailblazer, it clearly is much better equipped than the MU-7. In fact, it looks better than the Chevy, without being too imposing. Is it a worthy competitor though?

King of the segment
I may not be blessed with the soul of a data cruncher but numbers sometimes can tell a story. And in this case, they tell me that Indians really love their SUVs. Digest this, the contribution of the SUV segment towards the Indian car market has grown from 6 per cent in 2011 to 19 per cent in 2016. The Fortuner owns this space, and the new Endeavour is doing fairly well too so to get on top is going to be a herculean task for a company with 29 dealerships compared to Toyota’s 306 and Ford’s 458 outlets. So Isuzu isn’t going to be competing with these SUVs head-on. To make a mark, the MU-X is cleverly slotted at a much lower price point than its rivals.

Does it have presence?
You pay between `5-6 lakh less than the Ford and the Toyota and for that, you also let go of a fair bit of premiumness - hard plastics, fit and finish and a few features. The MU-X is all about its macho appeal and reliable engine though. It looks like a cross between the Chevrolet Trailblazer and the V-Cross but unlike the former that will no longer be sold after GM's exit from India and the latter, which is a pickup truck, the MU-X is a more conventional take on the SUV. In fact Isuzu engineers and designers have endowed this SUV with very nice proportions and dimensions. It doesn’t look as bulky and ungainly as the Chevy yet has massive presence. The MU-X, like its predecessor, eats up the view in rear view mirrors so expect a lot of respect on streets. Finding acceptance among consumers for its styling should be a piece of cake for this Isuzu.

What else?
If you have been behind the wheel of the V-Cross, then you will notice that the interiors of the MU-X are somewhat similar. Like the exterior, the cabin sports a simple design. Various shades of grey and different textures find space on the MU-X’s dashboard. What is missing though are the soft-touch materials that we have gotten used to in the cabins of competing products. The centre console houses the circular AC pods. There is a 7-inch infotainment system, a multi-functional digital display, start/stop button and a 6-way electrically adjustable driver’s seat. The addition here is a roofmounted 10-inch entertainment screen with roof-mounted speakers. It seats seven and quite comfortably in the first two rows, but the last row is cramped and will only be ideal for short trips.

Easy cruiser?
Under the hood, the MU-X gets a 3-litre turbo diesel mill (same as in the MU-7) tuned to produce 174bhp at 3600rpm and 380Nm of torque between 1800rpm to 2800rpm and is mated to a 5-speed auto gearbox. Currently, Isuzu is only offering the MU-X with this engine. There is no manual transmission available, but you could choose either from a 4x2 or a 4x4 variant. The latter gets a shift-on-the-fly system, where one can toggle between 2H and 4H at speeds up to 100kmph. If you are an adventure junkie, there is also a third driving mode - 4L, which enhances the SUVs ability to conquer the rough terrain.

The 3-litre diesel engine is not quiet for sure, especially in the first two gears as they are short and rev out quite quickly. But once the MU-X picks up pace, it becomes a lot quieter using the 380Nm of torque well. At engine speeds above 1800rpm up to about 3000rpm, the SUV is at its comfortable best, the torque converter automatic shifts seamlessly and good pace can be maintained. It’s just not one of those engines that like to be hustled.

Is it a roller coaster ride?
The MU-X is set up soft so at slow speeds, you won’t feel a thing inside the cabin. But that positive attribute turns out to be a drawback as speeds rise as the SUV doesn’t feel as stable as an Endeavour does. The nose dives when you brake with a little extra force and the body rolls a lot in corners. The steering too is heavy, but expected from the hydraulic power steering unit. It feels fine on the highway but makes for a proper workout while driving in the city. Tackling the rough road Owing to such a soft suspension setup, at first, I was a little apprehensive about whether or not the MU-X will be able to handle rough roads well, but I was sure in for a surprise. We turned off the highway outside Mumbai in search of a place where we could kick up some dirt. A small hill on the outskirts of Kharghar with steep inclines, rocks, descents and a dirt track to drive on turned out to be the perfect testing bed for this 4WD SUV. The 220mm of ground clearance made sure the MU-X did not scrape its underbelly even once. Slotted in 4L the MU-X clambered over rocks with ease. With a 30-degree approach angle and a 25-degree departure angle the MU-X felt at home as I feathered the throttle while crawling over rocks along the way. As with all off-road vehicles, articulation plays an important role in off-roading. It can also handle up to 47 degrees of incline angle, which is very impressive. This is useful information in the off-roading context since you will always scale a hill at an angle. Overall, the MU-X is a fairly capable off-roader but given how its focus was more on being a comfortable SUV, it has its limitations.

Should you buy one?
The Isuzu has its strengths and weaknesses. It is big and butch, which the Indian SUV buyers want, it is comfortable over all sorts of roads and trails at slow to medium speeds and comes with the option of a 2WD and a 4WD, depending on your needs. I’d pick the 4WD for its off-road ability, isn’t that the whole point of buying into this segment. On the down side, its competitors offer more features, feel more refined and offer wider service networks. To give it a fighting chance at survival in this competitive segment, it is being sold at `5-6 lakh cheaper - `23.99 lakh for the 4x2 and `25.99 lakh for the 4x4. Buy the MU-X for its good pricing and macho styling, but if you can stretch your budget, there are better allround SUVs in the segment.