Utility vehicles have come a long way since Ford developed the ‘Closed Cab’ pick-up truck in 1928. The earliest of these vehicles were built in response to demands mostly from ranchers and farmers in the US and Australia who wanted a vehicle that could take them and their families to church while also equipped to carry livestock to the market. However, over the decades these rugged ‘utes’ spawned more refined and sophisticated Sport Utility Vehicles, which despite their sturdy underpinnings, offered more sophistication and comfort to passengers. And by the turn of the century, the scene had changed even further with the market being dominated by soft-roaders featuring monocoque or unibody structure. Apart from a handful of large SUVs like the Toyota Land Cruiser, Nissan Patrol, Chevrolet Tahoe, and Ford Expedition, and mid-size SUVs like the Toyota Fortuner and Mitsubishi Challenger/Pajero Sport, most others adopted the more profitable but less off-road capable construction.

The Isuzu mu-X belongs to the latter group. Based on the robust platform of the D-Max pick-up truck, it also shares it underpinnings with the Chevrolet Colorado and Trailblazer. That means this SUV boasts some solid off-road credentials.

Equipped with Isuzu’s time-tested all-wheel drive system, it comes with 2-high, 4-high, and 4-low range gears. It also sports reinforcements to protect the transfer case and sump in the form of front steel plate shields and guards. These, along with a substantial 230mm ground clearance, and approach and departure angles of 30.1 and 25.1 degrees, respectively, make the mu-X a vehicle well-suited for the sand dunes and rocky wadis of our region. We promptly took it to the desert near Fossil Rock, and although we didn’t venture out deep into the sands, the mu-X had no trouble taking on the relatively smaller dunes in the periphery. As I mentioned earlier, the electronically-actuated transfer case is easy to use, and can be switched on the fly with the twist of a selector dial on the centre console.

This is where another aspect of the mu-X shines through. Unusually for our market, this is an SUV that can only be had with a diesel engine. The 2.5-litre turbocharged diesel four-pot makes 130bhp, which might seem a bit too low for a vehicle of this size. But this is compensated by the 320Nm of torque, which proves enough to allow the SUV to plough on without much effort over the dunes. However, the engine, with its coarse diesel clatter, takes away from the on-road experience. Those used to the quiet, serene cabin atmosphere afforded by modern petrol-engined people movers will find it a bit difficult to come to terms with the rather noisy air in the mu-X’s passenger cell. The cabin also betrays the SUV’s utilitarian origins with the general layout, the plastics used, the quality of switchgear all being a notch lower than what’s the norm in this category of vehicles now.

But Isuzu has tried to mask the commercial underpinnings with the leather-appointed seats and convenience features like keyless entry and push-button starting, electrically adjustable seats, Bluetooth connectivity etc. However, it doesn’t bring in the kind of separation Toyota has managed to achieve between the Hilux pick-up and the Fortuner SUV.

This is compensated by the 320Nm of torque, which proves ample enough to let the SUV plough on without much effort over the dunes.

The cabin provides generous space for five adults and two children across its three rows of seating, but the driver’s seat, despite its adjustability options, is a bit too high for tall drivers, which is good for off-road conditions but not so much on the road. It doesn’t help either that the steering isn’t adjustable for reach, making it more difficult to find the best driving position. Also, as with most such vehicles built on a ladder frame chassis, the mu-X, for all its great off-road abilities, lacks refinement and poise on the tarmac. While it offers a decently compliant ride thanks to the coil spring set-up at the back in place of the D-Max cousin’s leaf-springs, the way the suspension behaves at highway speeds is far from confidence inspiring for the driver. And at speeds above 100kph, the diesel engine’s noise seeps in through the firewall even more.

The way the suspension behaves at highway speeds is far from confidence inspiring for the driver.

While this is a five-star safety-rated vehicle in some markets, the same level of protection can’t be expected here, as instead of the six airbags available in those markets, the cars sold here will have just two front airbags as standard, and that only in the top trim. However, other safety tech including anti-lock brakes, electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist are provided as standard.

The Isuzu mu-X is quite a unique proposition in the mid-size SUV market. It’s diesel, and is a highly utilitarian, off-road capable vehicle. However, its Spartan interiors, not-so-great road manners and the noisy engine might not appeal to customers used to the comforts and conveniences of modern day petrol cars. That said, it will make sense for someone whose work involves transporting five to six people to places away from civilisation. It may not be the best example of a refined family SUV, but it’s a true workhorse in every sense.