The Isuzu I-Venture Club is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month. Since its inception, many D-Max and MU-X owners have ventured far off the beaten track at one of these exclusive drive events.
South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria are all catered for with a number of opportunities throughout the year to come along in your own car, get it thoroughly wet, dirty, muddy (or all three) and learn its capabilities in a real-world environment - all under the watchful eye and expert guidance of one of Australia's most renowned 4x4 drivers.
The I-Venture Club is an Isuzu initiative aimed at encouraging D-Max and MU-X owners to get the most out of their vehicle and enjoy the ownership experience.
The program cost is subsidised and club members get access to these organised outings at a fraction of the price.
A number of manufacturers offer courses that help buyers learn about the features of their vehicle as an ownership perk. Some also offer drive days tailored specifically for owners, too, but the Isuzu I-Venture Club is a little different in that it's solely centred around 4WDing and costs are quite low for a driving course of this type.
I joined an I-Venture Club adventure to a stunning part of NSW in the Southern Highlands called River Island. It's a magnificent bush setting, accessible via a dirt road that winds its way down a steep hill. You'll trundle past the entrance to the River Island Nature Retreat, too.
What is that? Well, let me fill you in! It's a holiday facility for those who prefer to wear their birthday suit 24 hours a day. But (and more importantly for this particular adventure), the hills are peppered with paths to test ascent and descent capabilities of your car, and a river winds its way through the bottom of the valley offering plenty of options for water crossings and sand driving.
My test car for the day was the top-of-the-range four-wheel-drive MU-X LS-T with a genuine tow bar fitted. It's powered by a three-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine teamed with a five-speed automatic transmission and produces 130kW and 380Nm. It has an impressive three-tonne braked towing capacity too.
The MU-X is built on the D-Max platform with a coil-sprung five-link rear suspension system and a braking package that includes ventilated front discs with twin-pot callipers and solid discs at the rear. It's versatile off-road, yet I was impressed that the ride comfort remained quite pleasant over the sealed roads on the way out there.
Isuzu's reputation is based largely on its commercial vehicle pedigree. So, understandably, the MU-X has been accused of looking a little bare-boned and basic inside, lacking in little luxuries and cutting-edge technology. However, little by little, features commonly found in other passenger cars that you don't get in most commercial vehicles, are being finessed and added to the MU-X and D-Max. Isuzu is proving itself to be an emerging force in the realm of off-road-capable and affordable utes and SUVs.
The MU-X LS-T was more than comfortable enough during the 90-minute drive from Sydney to the Southern Highlands. From getting settled in the leather-appointed electrically-adjustable seats, to reversing out of my driveway at dawn using the rear-view camera, to cranking up the music via MP3, connecting my phone to the car's Bluetooth system, setting the perfect temperature on the climate control, popping the address into the satellite navigation system and setting cruise control on the highway - nothing that you'd use everyday was missing. If you have a family, the seven-seat MU-X even has a DVD player in the roof to keep rear passengers entertained.
We all met at the beautiful Peppers Craigieburn in Bowral and the day began with a satisfying breakfast followed by a briefing session with 4x4 expert David Wilson. Wilson is a wealth of knowledge and explained the importance of tyre pressure, how Isuzu's Terrain Command system 4H, 4L and 2H work and what type of surfaces each is designed for.
The group was taken through the correct process of engaging and disengaging four-wheel drive, and he explained the difference between high- and low-range modes, and how they alter what the drivetrain - differentials, axles, drive shafts and transfer case - is doing and why. I also now fully understand the concept of wind-up and why it's so important to avoid - at all costs - driving on sealed surfaces in low range.
As Wilson was quick to point out, the majority of 4WD owners in Australia hardly ever let the tyres touch dirt. He's incredibly passionate about 4WDing and says owning an off-road-capable vehicle is a ticket to adventure. Well, adventure is right up my alley and that was exactly what my fellow participants and I were expecting today.
There was a good mix of owners in attendance, some knew a lot about the mechanics of their car, others were experienced off-road and for the rest it was all new. I was really impressed with the way Wilson explained everything, he was entertaining and explained things in a way that was easy to get the information straight into your head.
I've done a bit of off-road driving but have tended to rely on instinct and direction from others to find a way through tricky terrain. Though I'd certainly been fed the right information and my instincts were generally correct, Wilson's entertaining explanations were thorough and made me feel far more confident as the day went on.
Our group stopped at an open area at the bottom of a hill for morning tea and to run through a few training exercises. The steep incline was riddled with deep ruts and the challenge here was to pick the right path. One side was a little easier, but the other wasn't impossible for the D-Max or the MU-X. After conquering the 'easy' track, the hard one required a little more control when it came to being slow and steady on the throttle and brake.
One of the participants had a modified tray-back that made it considerably lighter than the stock standard ute. Sure enough, the back wheels lost traction and he was going nowhere, sliding left and right without any forward momentum. Using this conundrum as an example, the driver was asked to try multiple ways to get out, including rolling back and trying to approach the problem area from a different angle, and using the steering wheel to aim in a different direction in the hope that the tyres would grip. None of these methods worked, so the next potential solution was to let more air out of the tyres. Success!
The downhill run had deep undulations that guaranteed a wheel or two would get off the ground, and when the inevitable happened, the Isuzu team were almost too happy to rock the car, letting you know all too well what you could feel but couldn't see from the driver's seat - without 4WD, you'd be in trouble.
We'd all been given a lunch bag at the hotel that morning and it was packed with enough food to last a couple of days, so after overindulging during the lunch break while getting to know others in the group, we moved on to the water crossing.
We approached the water on flat ground but would have to tackle a hill heading out the other side, and there could be rocks hidden in the sandy bottom. We stopped to take a look and waded in to pick the right path and check it was safe, then let a bit more air out of the tyres in preparation for the soft sand. The MU-X has a wading depth of 600mm, an approach angle of 30.1 degrees and a departure angle of 25.1 degrees with underbody protection, a steel sump and transfer case guard. This would be a piece of cake!
It was a pretty wide stretch of water so it was vital to maintain a slow and steady speed, then build momentum as we exited the water and headed up the incline. At the top there was plenty of soft sand to have some fun in, before the loop continued back through the water at a second crossing.
As anyone who regularly heads off-road would know, you need to always be prepared for the worst. If you're in a group, there's a good chance someone is going to get stuck somewhere and require rescue. Thankfully, Isuzu Ute had the hardware and experienced staff on hand to retrieve us amateurs from any situation we might accidentally find ourselves in. That hardware included Maxtrax recovery tracks and a scenario was set up to demonstrate how handy they are to have on board.
Since the program launched a year ago, 266 D-Max and MU-X owners have taken advantage of the Isuzu I-Venture Club to learn more about their car and go on an adventure. Isuzu is expanding the program and forecast that 420 will attend an event in the next year.
What's the point in buying an off-road-capable car if you don't use it? Brand-specific initiatives like this are a great way for owners to test the waters and gain the confidence to plan their own experiences and getaways. I thoroughly enjoyed my day out with this bunch of enthusiastic Isuzu fans, picked up a lot of handy 4WD tips and learnt an incredible amount about how the systems work.
Click on the Photos tab to see more images of the driving experience by Tegan Lawson.