At the start of 2022 we bought a brand new, bog stock Isuzu MU-X with the intention of transforming it from a suburban family wagon in to something with some off-road touring ability.
We chose the base model LS-M specification as it comes standard with 17-inch wheels and a manual tailgate, and it wasn’t going to stay in standard trim for long.
To achieve our goal with the MU-X, we spoke to some of the leading manufacturers of aftermarket 4×4 equipment to see what they had for the Isuzu. Interestingly, many companies didn’t produce gear for the MU-X as it’s not on their radar despite being the second best-selling vehicle in its class in 2021, behind the Toyota Prado. More products have come online since the start of the project, but it’s been a tough haul.
Over the following 12 months we were able to get the kit we needed to transition the MU-X in to what we had in mind for it. That is a 4×4 that you can take just about anywhere, be it the Central Australian deserts, Cape York or the Victorian High Country. This is now a car that will get you there and back.
Hopefully, potential wagon buyers will see what we’ve done with the MU-X and maybe give it another look when thinking about their next 4×4.
As some brands were still developing products for the 2022 MU-X, they wanted to get our car in their workshops to engineer the gear to be just right. This meant sending the car interstate from our Melbourne HQ, but there were a few products we could get fitted before it left town.
One of those interstate stops was to be Tough Dog Suspension’s headquarters in Sydney, but before we had the suspension fitted we wanted to get some of the extra weight we had planned for the car fitted. Specifically, this meant the front and rear bars and rear storage systems as they would be some of the heaviest aftermarket components.
All along we had to keep in mind the MU-X’s modest payload and GVM, so we did hold back on some of the products we might have liked to install on a touring 4×4.
Working with a relatively small wagon like the MU-X did bring with it some limitations, and that 625kg payload certainly stopped us from including items like a long-range fuel tank, full bar work and a winch.
The first stop was to the workshop of Offroad Animal in Mornington to check out its Predator bar for the MU-X. We ordered the relatively light weight bar with the Stealth hoop, and colour-coded it to the car.
Dave at Offroad Animal told us that Narva’s LED light bars would fit in both the bar and the hoop and, as Narva was our lighting partner on the build, we grabbed a pair of Explora single-row bars to fit. Then we dropped the whole package off to our friends at OnTrack Automotive in Ferntree Gully for the installation.
Phil and the team at OnTrack have helped us out with all our project cars and, as four-wheel drivers themselves, we trust them with all our cars. They said the lightweight Predator bar instal was reasonably easy with no dramas, and the product looks awesome.
The MU-X did look a bit odd with that striking bumper fitted and everything else stock, so before it went interstate we wanted to get the wheels and tyres on it. Maxxis is another brand that has supported us in all our projects and we’ve had fantastic results with its RAZR tyres in both the AT811 and MT772 patterns.
Going with the intended use of the MU-X, we chose the AT811s for this build and went up a size from the standard 255/65R17 highway tyres to 265/70R17 RAZRs. The bigger size gives us a little bit more ground clearance and better fills the wheel arches of the Isuzu.
The Maxxis RAZRs were fitted to 17×9 ROH Trophy alloy wheels by the team at Competition Tyres & More in Murrumbeena, again long-term supporters of our builds and our go-to local tyre shop.
With the wheels and tyres fitted and wheels aligned, the MU-X was ready to hit the highway – next stop, Queensland. But before we set off we replaced the standard starter battery with a Century Batteries Dual Force hybrid starter/deep cycle battery.
The 750CCA output of the Century Dual Force gives us more powerful cranking for easy starting in all conditions, while the hybrid nature of the battery allows it to cope better with discharges from running accessories, making it excellent for life in a 4×4.
MSA 4×4 Accessories doesn’t have an off-the-shelf drawer system for the MU-X, so the team made one especially for us. Give them enough demand for MU-X product and they might put it into production.
Again, considering our 625kg payload, we elected to go with a single drawer and a straight pull (not a drop-slide) fridge slide in the cargo area.
After removing the third-row seats, a mounting frame was fabricated to secure a new floor on which the SL40 slide and single drawer were secured. We also fitted an MSA fridge barrier to keep our fridge clear of luggage and anything else that might sit against it, plus a table that clips on the front of the fridge slide providing a usable work/food-prep space.
Lastly, MSA fitted a set of its towing/touring mirrors, and these have become one of my favourite additions to the MU-X simply because of the fact I appreciate the improved rear-view vision they provide every time I drive the car, no matter whether we’re towing or not. I’d recommend these mirrors for any build.
While in South East Queensland, we then took the MU-X to TAG Towbars where they had been working on a new product for 4×4 wagons. We’d seen TAG’s XR Recovery/towbars on utes we’ve featured in the magazine but never on a wagon, and the company had been busy looking at ways to make them possible.
The TAG XR bars incorporate 4000kg rated recovery points at each side of the bar as well as the central recovery point in the 50mm square hitch point. The MU-X’s 3500kg towing rating is also retained. The XR bar has a well-integrated look at the back of our MU-X and gives us the additional versatility of the extra recovery points when we’re pulling other 4x4s out of the bog.
Our MU-X was the first production application of the TAG XR bar and we had some trouble with the space for our bigger-than-standard spare tyre. The taller tyre was wedged hard in-between the bar and the Panhard rod on the rear suspension, so we had to swap back to the standard-size spare tyre.
We took this information back to the team at TAG and they held back the launch of the MU-X XR bar. TAG’s engineers were able to redesign the bar using different dimension steel and free up the extra space for a 265/70R17 spare – the new bar should be available by the time you’re reading this.
That’s the advantage of designing and manufacturing your products locally in Australia; TAG was able to take another look at the product and amend it to make it more suitable for what Aussie touring 4x4ers would be doing with their cars. Great work!
From TAG in Brisbane, we drove the MU-X to Tough Dog in western Sydney for our suspension instal. Fitting a Tough Dog suspension kit in a car like the MU-X is a relatively simple job, especially when Tough Dog can sell you complete assembled struts to suit, so you don’t have to risk life and limb messing around with spring compressors and the like.
It’s simply a bolt-in affair and the rear coils are so much easier to deal with than the heavy leaf springs on most utes. After originally over-springing the rear of the car, we ended up with 300kg constant-load coils and the back and front struts to suit the weight of the no-hoop bumper without a winch.
After driving around on the suspension for a few months, it’s settled in to leave us with around 40mm of extra height over the standard suspension, and it’s a package that provides much more control both on the road and in the bush. In fact, the suspension really came into its own in the High Country where its low-speed performance was exceptional, allowing plenty of wheel movement to keep the Maxxis rubber on the tracks.
Since getting the Isuzu back to Melbourne, it’s been a constant tour of workshops as we get more and more kit fitted to it.
We threw a set of Maxtrac 3D carpet mats on the floors front and rear to protect the carpets before it got any dirtier. These are a great fit and perfect to keep carpet in good condition and the mud and grime out of them.
Then we slipped the MU-X into the workshop at Rola roof racks where again our Isuzu was the production mule for some new product. This time it was Rola’s new Ridge Mount system for the Titan Tray that provides a long and strong mount for the full length of the 1800 x 1200mm cargo tray chosen for this car. While ours was the first MU-X to get one of the Ridge Mounts, they are now available to suit most popular 4×4 models.
The Titan Tray’s slotted cross slats and edges allow you to mount all manner of load-carrying accessories for no matter what you want to carry on the roof. Which is important when you consider the MU-X roof is rated to carry 100kg up top, and the relatively limited space available inside the car.
The first products we had fitted to the Titan Tray were some yet-to-be-released LED light bars from Narva. The new Ultima light bars come in both a 24-inch unit and an eight-inch double-row configuration, and as we were looking for something around the 40-inch mark to spread across the front of the MU-X, a combination of both worked out perfectly.
Narva sells a joiner kit to link the bars together, and the eight-inch light bars come in a twin-pack; so again, perfect for our needs.
Aside from the incredible light output the new Ultima lights produce, the smart thing with them is they are compatible with Narva’s new Connect+ controller. Connect+ allows you to control the outputs of two different light sources so you can tailor the beam to what suits your needs.
For our application, we have the two eight-inch flood-beam bars set on one channel of the controller and the 24-inch bar on the other. You can then adjust the outputs of either channel to vary the beam ahead of you and, if you want more power, hit the Boost button to deliver 15 per cent more power for a 30-second burst of intense light.
These new Narva Ultima light bars and Connect+ controllers will be released to the public early in 2023, so keep your eyes out for them.
For when we hit the tracks in the MU-X, we have a full suite of recovery gear from MaxTrax on board. Of course, it starts with a set of MaxTrax recovery boards and we’ve gone with the Extreme in the new shade of red, just for something different. They’re mounted up on the Titan Tray using MaxTrax’s own flat-rack mounts to keep them secure and ready to access.
For more serious recoveries, we have a MaxTrax ‘Beach’ Recovery kit on board. The kit includes a 10m kinetic recovery rope, a three-metre static rope, two Fuse synthetic rope shackles, three Core rope shackles, and a rope dampener. It’s all kept tidy in a durable carry bag. It’s an extensive kit that suits our MU-X which doesn’t have a winch fitted.
Next up, we threw an OZtrail ‘Birdsville’ 1400 rooftop tent up on the Titan Tray and sent Tristan away to test it out. While Tristan reckoned the Birdsville tent was perfect for couples heading out for time on the road, it didn’t really fit in with what we wanted for the MU-X so it was taken off and replaced with an OZtrail Blockout 270° awning.
The awning is much better suited to our uses of the car, and having it on the roof and not the RTT frees up space for other gear up top. As well as keeping a lower profile. The Blockout 270° is the 2.5m version, so it gets an extra extension at the front which you can either peg to the ground to provide a wall against the weather, or support it outwards on tent poles for more open space.
A 270° awning is very handy for providing cover from the sun and rain, but they are not ideal for wagons with a lift-up tailgate that will interfere with the awning when open. Yes, the Isuzu’s tailgate can’t be opened all the way up with the awning in place, but it opens enough that we can still access the drawer and fridge in the back, and it’s an inconvenience we’re prepared to put up with when in the bush. Still, it’s something to consider if you’re choosing an awning for your 4×4 wagon.
We fitted the OZtrail awning using a set of mounts from RacksBrax. These clever brackets attach to both your awning and your roof rack and allow quick and easy removal of the awning for storage when not in use. They are lockable to secure the awning to the brackets, and the easy-pull pins to release them once unlocked make removal a cinch.
Century Batteries launched its range of Lithium Pro batteries for cars in the latter part of 2022, and these are perfect for 4x4s that run accessories such as fridges, lights and charging appliances. We don’t have an inverter in the MU-X so our auxiliary power needs are not huge, but available space was a consideration so we went with the 100Ah slimline Lithium Pro battery for our installation. Century Batteries also has a full N70-size 100amper and a bigger 200Ah unit in its Lithium Pro range.
Powering the Century Lithium Pro is a charging system from CTEK that was professionally installed by the team at Autobarn Bayswater. The CTEK system is relatively simple and could be installed by the home handyman in an afternoon.
Our set-up comprises both a CTEK D250SE and a CTEK Smartpass 120S unit, to give strong charge to the Lithium Pro battery while isolating the Century Dual Force starter battery from accessories current draw. The D250SE is a 20amp DC-DC charger, but by partnering it with the Smartpass, the charging output is boosted up to 140amp as required.
Autobarn completed the instal with all the required wiring and fuses, an extra fuse box for any future accessories to run off the auxiliary set-up, an Anderson plug for solar power charging input, and various different power outlets to keep our accessories running and charged.
Even as 2022 rolls to an end, there’s still work to be done on the MU-X. We had planned to fit a Pacemaker King Brown exhaust system to the car, but Isuzu kindly changed the OE system just enough that when we put it up on the hoist to get it fitted, we found the existing Pacemaker system wouldn’t suit anymore.
Again, the benefit of working with a company that designs and manufactures its products in Australia means that the Pacemaker team can head back to the factory and redesign that front section of the system to allow it to be fitted to our car, and other MU-Xs in the New Year.
Then it’s time to get the MU-X out on more tracks for some more adventures, while we’re also getting stuck in to our 2023 build of a Ford Ranger V6.
Accessory price list
|Tough Dog Suspension||$1542 supplied with unassembled front struts, or $1722 with pre-assembled struts (plus installation)|
|MSA Single Explorer Drawer||$1338|
|MSA Straight Slide SL40||$446|
|MSA Clip-On Table 30009||$145|
|MSA Fridge Barrier FBSL40N||$419|
|MSA Towing mirrors||$887|
|OZtrail Birdsville 1400 rooftop tent||$2499.99|
|OZtrail Blockout 270° awning||$1199.99|
|MaxTrax Extreme Red recovery boards||$499|
|MaxTrax flat mounts||$109|
|MaxTrax Beach recovery kit||$699|
|Maxxis RAZR AT811 tyres 265/70R17||POA|
|ROH Trophy 17×9 wheels||$436 each (at Bob Jane)|
|Rola Titan Tray||$839|
|Rola Ridge Mount for MU-X||$551.55 (plus fitting)|
|RacksBrax XD Hitch||$245|
|CTEK Smartpass 120S||$549|
|Century Lithium Pro Slimline battery||$1399|
|Century Dual Force battery||$440|
|Century BM12V Bluetooth battery monitor||$59|
|Offroad Animal Predator bar||$2950 (plus colour-matching, Stealth Hoop, and fitting)|
|Narva Explora 22-inch single-row light bar||$299 each|
|Narva LED light wiring harness||$79|
|Narva Ultima 24-inch light bar||$990|
|Narva Ultima 8-inch light bar twin pack||$880|
|Narva 40-inch Joiner kit||$129 (needed to combine 24-inch and two 8-inch light bars)|
|Narva Connect+ controller||Approx $120 (TBC)|
|TAG XR tow bar||$964|
*sans tyres; and not including $2499.99 OZtrail Birdsville 1400 rooftop tent
Keyword: Final build: MU-X transformed into touring beast