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...
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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?
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
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