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Isuzu D-Max and MU-X 2015 review

Taking your 4WD off-road for the first time can be daunting, but Isuzu's new I-Venture Club will help novice drivers get to grips with the basics.

Isuzu has found that first-time 4WD drivers often want to take their vehicles off-road, but are held back by nerves and can find approaching 4WD clubs a bit intimidating.

In an effort to help owners get the best out of their 4WD D-Max and MU-Xs, Isuzu has created the I-Venture club to offer a starting point for inexperienced off-roaders.

Headed by David Wilson – legendary 4WD trainer with over 20 years’ experience - Isuzu plans to expand the I-Venture club across Australia, with day-long events already planned in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, with overnight trips also in the works.

We were among the first to sample the I-Venture experience on the sandy beaches of Queensland's Moreton Island, exploring the 4WD capabilities of the new Isuzu D-Max X-Runner ute and MU-X SUV.

4WD basics

Our I-Venture began with an hour-long ferry to the island, and an expert briefing from David.

He explained the basics of how 4WD systems work, as well as how you should prepare your vehicle for going off-road.

The off-road focused D-Max and MU-X switchable 4WD systems work on two levels. High-range 4WD splits the power between front and rear wheels, using the vehicle’s standard transmission ratios.

Low-range 4WD uses a another set of gear ratios to multiply the torque going to each wheel, increasing the ability of the car to drive itself out of steep or technical situations.

High-range 4WD is generally enough when you're travelling on sand or gravel tracks at speed, whereas low-range is for slower situations when the surface becomes particularly slippery or very steep.

Low-range 4WD should never be engaged when driving on grippy surfaces like bitumen, concrete or paving. On those surfaces, keep your vehicle in 2WD or high-range 4WD. Using low-range 4WD in these situations adds considerable friction to the drivetrain and will eventually result in expensive mechanical failure.

Safety systems such as ABS, stability or traction controls may also need to be switched off. These systems are generally designed to work on the road, and their intervention can be a hindrance once you leave the black stuff.

Tyre pressure 

When you're off-road driving, the most important think you need to remember is to lower your tyre pressures.

Lowering the tyre pressures increases the contact patch the car has with the ground. This increases grip, as it spreads out the weight of the car over a larger area.

Our tyres were inflated to the road-recommended 36PSI when we arrived on the ferry, but David recommended a pressure of 18PSI for driving on the sand.

A good rule of thumb when reducing your tyre pressures is to remember that for every 20 per cent of pressure you let out, you should reduce your top speed by 20 per cent. 

As we had halved our tyre pressure, our top speed would be closer to 50km/h than the 100km/h we would be doing with fully-inflated tyres on the road.

In some emergency situations, you may need to reduce your tyre pressure even further. Once your tyre pressure is below 15PSI, you run the risk of the tyre coming off the rim, losing all pressure and control. So, drive very slowly and be very gentle with your steering inputs.

For the standard 255/65R17 tyres fitting to our vehicles, we used our car keys to open the tyre valve, which David had calculated would drop us to 18PSI in 45 seconds.

On the sand

The Moreton Island ferry arrives on the sand with a thud. There's no wharf, so the experience is a little ‘Saving Private Ryan’ as it lowers its ramp straight onto the sand.

Given the sand near the shore is wet, and therefore hard, we were able to set off with the D-Max X-Runner set to high-range 4WD.

The first portion of the morning was spent on the open beaches to help us get to grips with driving on the sand.

The biggest thing you notice is the vehicle's tendency to follow the wheel tracks of the cars in front of you.

The next thing is that the steering becomes less sharp than what you would be normally experience on the road.

The trick here is to be gentle. Longer, sweeping curves are the order of the day as we make our way from the firm sand down near the waterline to some softer, dry sand up near the dunes.

On dry sand, you also need to use significantly more throttle than you might expect in order to deal with the softer, slipperier surface.

This is where the low-down torque of the D-Max’s 130kW/380Nm 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel engine came in very handy, as it loped along the sand at surprisingly low revs.

On the tracks

Heading inland among the vegetation, the unladen D-Max was unfazed by some deeply rutted, but still sandy terrain.

As we continued away from the beach, the track became rocky, and was interspersed with the odd shallow water crossing. Given the shallow gradients involved, the D-Max continued untroubled in high-range.

As we circled around back to the beach, low-range was called on for the first time as we tackled a steep descent.

Switching between high and low-range is straightforward in both the D-Max and MU-X, with a centre console knob to cycle between the drive settings.

  • Isuzu Ute I-Venture Club on Moreton Island. Isuzu Ute I-Venture Club on Moreton Island.
  • Isuzu Ute I-Venture Club on Moreton Island. Isuzu Ute I-Venture Club on Moreton Island.
  • Isuzu Ute I-Venture Club on Moreton Island. Isuzu Ute I-Venture Club on Moreton Island.
  • Isuzu Ute I-Venture Club on Moreton Island. Isuzu Ute I-Venture Club on Moreton Island.

Manually selecting first gear in the D-Max’s auto transmission, the resulting engine braking kept the D-Max to a safe crawling pace to help maintain control.

Water crossings

As you’d imagine, crossing deep water can be a recipe for disaster if you don't know what you're doing. However, with a few simple tips you’d be amazed D-Max’s swimming ability.

When you come across a body of water you're not sure about, the best thing to do is stop and perform some on-foot reconnaissance.

This was called for at one water crossing we came across, where a quick wade suggested we might need to alter our path.

David pointed out the shallowest point to cross, which involved keeping the passenger-side wheels on the crown of the road, and the driver-side wheels on the shoulder of the existing track. This would boost the D-Max up a little bit higher, keeping the air intake and electricals clear of the water.

Keeping an eye on your speed is critical to crossing deep water safely. If you hit the water too quickly, it will wash back over the bonnet, and if you lack a snorkel you could find yourself with a waterlogged, ruined engine.

Go too slow and there won't be enough momentum to push the car through, which will lead to you unintentionally creating an artificial reef. 

Snatch recovery

It is inevitable that at some point during your off-road adventures you will end up getting stuck, but that doesn't mean your day of frolicking in the great outdoors is at a sad end.

Most importantly, be aware that recovering a stranded car with a snatch strap is a dangerous exercise. It is critically important that you have safety in the front of your mind at all times.

Only two people should be involved in the recovery process — the driver of the recovery car, and the driver of the bogged car. Everyone else should stand about 10-15m clear. To demonstrate best-practice, David intentionally bogged a D-Max in the sand for us to recover.

First off, inspect the vehicle to see just how it is stuck and familiarise yourself with the recovery points. You may have to dig around in front of the rear wheels and differential to help clear some space and create a bit of clearance.

Second, roll out two 9m snatch straps, make sure they are not twisted, and then loop the ends together to create a single, 18m long strap. Wrapping a newspaper in electrical tape and placing it in in the middle of the knot will make them easier to separate afterwards.

Using a shackle, affix one end of the strap to the recovery hook on the passenger side of the bogged vehicle.

Why the passenger side? Because if the strap fails, it will whip back with tremendous force and you do not want it impacting the driver's side of the windscreen.

Reverse the recovery vehicle so it is in line with the stranded car and about 10m ahead of it.

David then attached the other end of the snatch trap to the tow receiver of the lead vehicle, as seen in the gallery below.

  • Snatch recovery demonstration. Snatch recovery demonstration.
  • Snatch recovery demonstration. Snatch recovery demonstration.
  • Snatch recovery demonstration. Snatch recovery demonstration.
  • Snatch recovery demonstration. Snatch recovery demonstration.
  • Snatch recovery demonstration. Snatch recovery demonstration.
  • Snatch recovery demonstration. Snatch recovery demonstration.
  • Snatch recovery demonstration. Snatch recovery demonstration.
  • Snatch recovery demonstration. Snatch recovery demonstration.

He then filled a saddle bag with sand and hooked it over the middle of the strap. The bag is intended to absorb energy and act as an anchor if the strap fails, to minimise it whipping back toward either vehicle.

Like most things off-road, recovering a stranded car is all about momentum. The lead car should set off at a reasonable, but not excessive pace.

As the slack is taken up, the driver of the stranded car should also start to accelerate.

The snatch strap will act like a bungee cord — it will stretch and then rebound. It is the rebound action that helps to pull the stranded vehicle out of trouble.

And back in the MU-X

Armed with our newfound sand-driving know-how, we swapped to the MU-X SUV for the return trip to the ferry.

On the empty expanses of Moreton Island's eastern beaches, the MU-X skated across the firm sand with ease.

If you want to tackle Moreton yourself, you’ll have just as much fun in either the D-Max or MU-X.

As we turned inland, the bumpy and narrow track across the island provided the opportunity to test the SUV back-to-back against the ute.

The MU-X has the same turbodiesel engine and automatic transmission as the D-Max, but has a more family-oriented wagon body from the B-pillar rearwards.

The SUV’s shorter wheelbase makes it more nimble through technical sections, and its coil springs made for a more comfortable ride over rocks. 

However, over the terrain on test, both bodystyles were equally competent.

If you want to tackle Moreton yourself, you’ll have just as much fun in either the D-Max or MU-X.

Once aboard the ferry, we re-inflated our tyres to 36PSI for the road and selected 2WD ready for our return to civilisation.

Verdict

If you’d like to cut your off-roading teeth in a relatively risk-free environment with the assurance of expert instruction, the I-Venture Club is worth a look.

The Moreton Island experience will cost Isuzu owners $250, and includes ferry, breakfast, lunch and instruction. It’s BYO Isuzu though.

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Matthew Hatton
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