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The Mysterious MU

We test the Japanese import Isuzu MU 4WD - a very mysterious ute...

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • Japanese import Isuzu MU
  • Two seater lift-back ute
  • On-demand high/low range 4WD
  • A very mysterious beast!
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There are some Japanese import vehicles that go unnoticed amongst the sea of locally built and locally delivered cars. But this is not one of those vehicles. The Japanese import Isuzu MU is a bizarre 1990 interpretation of what a modern SUV should be. It drives like a miniature truck, offers decent off-road capabilities and has seating for only two.

And that name? Well, aptly enough, MU stands for Mysterious Utility...

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The Isuzu MU was released in Japan for the 1990 model year with the choice of two engines and three body configurations. Base models were powered by a 2.6 litre petrol four-cylinder and came with either a soft-top or removable ute hardcover (like our test vehicle). Upmarket versions were powered by a 2.8 litre turbo diesel and came with the removable ute hardcover or a wagon-like fixed metal top. All early generation MUs used a 5-speed manual gearbox and on-demand 4WD.

On-road performance is poor by conventional car standards. The short 2330mm wheelbase, high stance and indirect steering conspire to create a vehicle that pitches and bounces over broken bitumen and is unnerving to steer. It’s no wonder many MU owners suggest they aren’t comfortable for high-speed, long distance trips.

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The MU rides on torsion bar live axle front suspension and semi-elliptic leaf spring live rear axle. Traditional 4WD stuff. Braking is through ventilated front and solid rear discs with optional ABS control.

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The base 2.6 litre petrol engine (coded 4ZE1) is a relatively low-tech unit with just a SOHC, 2-valve-per-cylinder head and a 8.3:1 compression ratio. Power output is 88kW at 5000 rpm and there’s 196Nm of torque at 2600 rpm. With 1520kg of Mysterious Ute to lug around, the 2.6 litre petrol engine feels acceptable in normal light-throttle driving – but it’s not so flash when you really need some oomph. Passing manoeuvres are at your own risk and you certainly won’t be able to challenge anyone at the traffic lights.

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The MU’s standard 5-speed manual gearbox has the correct set of ratios to match the petrol engine and, when the going gets tough off-road, you can slip into low-range 4WD without leaving your seat. Slide the transfer case lever from 2H (high-range 2WD) into 4L (low range 4WD) and the MU’s auto locking front hubs give you all-paw traction without fuss. High-range 4WD can be engaged for medium to high speed use off-road – but make sure you return to 2WD for the bitumen. Drive the MU on bitumen in 4WD and you will damage the driveline.

From an off-roading perspective, the MU offers plenty of ground clearance (240mm), the short wheelbase makes it very manoeuvrable and many owners suggest there’s enough grunt in low-range 4WD to get you out of almost any situation.

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The MU is very well suited to two person camping/leisure trips. Grab your mountain bike, camping gear and fishing tackle and pile it into the ute section. As seen here, the ute hardcover lifts like a hatch and the tailgate swings out of the way to improve access. The rear load area is quite generous and there’s a handy luggage section found behind the seats. There’s good cargo capacity but don’t expect to take more than one passenger - the two seat capacity of the MU is a severe limitation.

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The cabin of our base-spec test car was fitted with wind-up windows, manual air conditioning and fabric covered seats. The Momo steering wheel seen in this photo is an aftermarket fitment. The instrument cluster contains a tachometer, speedo/odo, fuel level, coolant temp, battery voltage and oil pressure gauge. The interior trim and fitment is quite basic and you’d better not be sensitive to interior squeaks and rattles – the MU has plenty of those!

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The MU has a shape that’s quite unlike any other 4WD of comparable size. The flared guards give a muscular appearance while some upmarket versions are tricked up with side steps, a sunroof and fog lights. A full-size spare wheel is mounted on the tailgate and, when required, the ute hardcover can be removed for open-air motoring.

So what’ll an Isuzu MU set you back?

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This particular example (with 127,000km on the odometer and in good condition) is currently selling for AUD$7775 through Adelaide Japanese Imports. This price includes ADR-ing and registration. You can find many other MUs available through private sellers but you’ll struggle to find one as cheap as this. Upmarket turbo diesel versions start at around 10 grand.

The MU has a reputation for ruggedness and most parts can be sourced locally. We believe that the cabin and many body parts are shared with the contemporary Holden Rodeo and the mechanicals are shared with the Holden Jackaroo SWB. But, yes, the MU does have some exclusive body panels that are difficult to find at a reasonable price.

Interestingly, Holden released a similar vehicle to the MU in 1995 – the Frontera. Early Fronteras were powered by only a 2-litre petrol engine and came with a wagon-style rear which gave seating for four. It’s a more practical vehicle than the imported MU - but it doesn’t come close to matching its mysterious appeal...


Adelaide Japanese Imports
+61 8 8369 1156

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