4X4 AND TOWING, Feature Story, Features, Profiles

Isuzu D-Max 4x4ing in Victoria High Country

Isuzu D-Max Australia

Most foreigners believe we Aussies spend half our lives avoiding a grisly death.

If it’s not crocs snatching us from billabongs, great whites will swallow us whole while surfing the shallows. Survive that, and a snake or spider bite will do us in, while Outback road trips mean remote breakdowns and heat finishing us off in a few hours.

What our overseas cousins don’t associate with Australia is mountains, snow and freezing cold. It doesn’t really work with the stereotype, does it? As a pineapple-munching Queenslander, I’m not a great fan of the chilly stuff myself.

But what I do like are spectacular vistas and hardcore off-roading, which is exactly what’s offered with Isuzu’s I-Venture Club program. Even if, as I found, it means icy winds, thick fog and clothing totally unsuited for the climate.

Image: Iain Curry

To the (D) Max

Isuzu sells only two models in Australia, the D-Max ute and MU-X SUV, which shares much of the pick-up’s underpinnings and drivetrain. With these 4x4s respected for their robustness and off-road tendencies, the I-Venture initiative’s been in place since 2015 for owners to properly see and enjoy what their vehicles can do.

It’s not a club as such – there are no dull monthly meetings or annual fees – instead you apply for an event, pay the fee (it’s heavily subsidised) and join other like-minded Isuzu 4×4 drivers on a one-day or multi-day all-inclusive trip. It’s the only manufacturer-run 4WD training in Australia, and thousands have explored bucket list locations including K’Gari/Fraser Island, Tasmania and South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.

I hopped on its winter trip to Victoria’s High Country, piloting a range-topping D-Max X-Terrain dual cab 4×4 ute. The spectacular location was one thing, but I was keen on seeing things from a mechanically-minded position. How well do these modern, electric-everything 4x4s handle extreme off-roading? Are they up to the task? And what does Isuzu do to manage the risks and potential mechanical mishaps that could occur on such an odyssey?

“Planning is the key element to make sure we don’t get into a situation where vehicles get damaged,” said Isuzu Australia PR Manager Mark Harman. “Pre-event, we use standard vehicles, both a D-Max and MU-X, over the same tracks we’ll take customers, so we’re full aware the type of terrain they’ll go through.”

High (country) rollers

There’s expertise in spades, too. Harman himself is a highly skilled off-roader, and will be one of the first to grab equipment, lying in mud or sand, to attend to any little drama.

Then there are Isuzu’s off-road instructors and educators. They give expert briefings each day, help with vehicle preparation and give demonstrations on how to free a bogged 4×4.

Image: Iain Curry

“The guides have done these expeditions for decades, so we rely on their expertise to make sure they educate the customers so they can push the limits of the vehicles by themselves,” Harman explained. “It’s about finding the limit of where you’re comfortable and learning from that.”

It’s a noble cause. Too many 4×4 owners never scratch the surface of what their vehicle can do, missing out on epic adventures. And I soon found this out. In Victoria’s High Country the range of challenges were extraordinary. Using two-way radios we were carefully guided down a rock shelf smeared with slippery red mud, then into a river where the water almost submerged the wheels.

The thick of it

Next, we were ploughing through squelching mud and brown water – the ultimate puddle hunting – after a kindly instructor checked the depth for safety. All this while enjoying leather seats, warming climate control and our road trip playlist. Having utmost faith in our guides, I started believing it was all so wonderfully easy. The Isuzu 4x4s proved unflappable, and hasn’t off-roading become incredibly user-friendly?

Image: Iain Curry

I remember off-roading my old carburettor Suzuki Sierra (many years ago now), and whenever the going got tough, I had to clamber out and manually lock the hubs. This was typically with rain pelting my back or my boots sinking into muddy quagmires. In the Isuzu, you just shift into neutral, turn a rotary dial and a tiny clunk’s heard as you find low range.

You can engage the rear diff lock just as simply: kids these days will never know how hard we used to have it. Rolling vistas Highlight of our trip was the famed Blue Rag Range Trail – an epic climb into the mountains with open vistas for what looks like hundreds of kilometres.

We dropped tyre pressures to 20psi – “tyre management is so important,” preached Harman – while one Isuzu work ute with no load in the tray went down to 15psi front and 12psi rear after wheel-spinning dramas. Not many would have done that without assurance from the guides, but it immediately gave the traction needed to climb a particularly steep incline. “Find me a better 360-degree view in Australia,” a guide said as we stopped at the 1726m trig point, and it was hard to disagree.

Image: Iain Curry

We’d conquered loose rocks, sky-staringly steep sections and respect-demanding drop-offs, but the champagne view rewards were otherworldly. Our Isuzu’s underbody bash protection took a bit of a pasting over giant rocks by the Howqua River, but the real test came as the weather took a turn for the Baltic – evil winds and dark skies – at the base of Mt Buller.

We diverted up the dirt road to Mt Stirling, and visibility plunged the higher we climbed. At the summit, where we sought shelter from the extremes at Craig’s Hut, built for The Man From Snowy River movie, we agreed how fortunate we were to be able to reach such places in such nasty conditions.

Tough as terrain

The capability of these 4x4s is what made the difference. Over three days, not a puncture or bogging to report, just a couple of towball strikes. “I’ve only seen two punctures in all my years doing this,” said Harman. “Each vehicle comes with a full-size spare as standard, so we’re always covered.

Image: Iain Curry

We’ve never had a major (mechanical) failure on one of these trips, but we’ll take some basic parts for mechanical backup in case.” They also bring the necessary recovery equipment – compressors, deflators, snatch straps and recovery boards – plus a sat phone. All involved are first aid trained, and as they’ve pre-explored the route, always know how far they are from mechanical or medical assistance if required.

No wonder there’s a waiting list to get on one of these Isuzu I-Venture events: it’s close to risk-free adventuring in your own vehicle with so much expertise and advice on hand.

All in the mechanical trade know how the Australian market has gone bonkers for dual cab 4x4s. The Toyota Hi-Lux and Ford Ranger have been our best-selling vehicles for years, and Isuzu is Australia’s ninth best-selling brand (ahead of Volkswagen) despite selling only two models.

Image: Iain Curry

While many will never know exactly what their vehicles are capable of, thank goodness Isuzu is intent on its products getting wheels properly muddy, and in some of Australia’s most incredible locations. Just make sure, unlike me, you take a proper coat in winter.

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