I have a confession to make. Not only am I the youngest member of the CarAdvice team, but I have never been off-roading. Besides a few brief jaunts along smooth gravel roads, my cars have stayed entirely on the blacktop.
To gain a basic understanding of what it takes to survive off-road, and to see if your average skinny-jean wearing, latte-sipping city boy could deal with life in the Sunshine State, CarAdvice nominated me for the latest Isuzu I-Venture Club trip to Fraser Island. How could I say no to that? (Contractually, I couldn't...)
Early signs in Queensland suggested the jean-wearing latte-sipper (erm, me) would struggle. After rising early – although, 5:30am feels later without daylight saving time – and driving 3.5 hours from Brisbane to Hervey Bay, just 45 minutes in the sun on the ferry to Fraser Island left my nose and forehead red with sunburn.
Turns out, sunscreen is always necessary when your complexion is more Casper the Friendly Ghost, less Tahitian Princess. Slip, slop and slap. Lesson learned.
Before my flight to Brisbane, CarAdvice CEO, Andrew Beecher, shared a few tips for off-road driving. Well, one tip: "momentum is your friend," he said. Turns out, our lead instructor didn’t quite agree. “Momentum is a tool for when you run out of talent,” is the first thing he says, completely unprompted, in front of a crowd of D-Max and MU-X owners.
Trips like ours are sold as an opportunity for owners to experience their cars in a more exotic, off-road environment, with the support of a knowledgeable team and, on this trip, pre-booked accommodation and meals.
All the owners on our four-day adventure were returning I-Venture customers driving a range of lightly modified Isuzu cars. There are ex-Nissan and Holden owners among the crowd, along with repeat Isuzu buyers, drawn into the brand by the promise of light-truck reliability and solid off-road capability.
Rather than barrelling into obstacles and trying to crash-and-bash to the top, Dave Darmody from Australian Off-Road Academy highlights the importance of nailing your tyre pressures and thinking your way through situations.
With no highway driving on the radar, we drop our Dunlop Grandtreks from 32 to 20psi. Instead of trying to make the tyre's footprint broader, this makes the contact patch longer, helping disperse the (considerable) weight of the ute over the shifting sands.
Sand is the constant companion of driving, walking, sunbathing, swimming or eating on Fraser Island, also known as the largest sand island in the world. At one point, it also served as a base for global logging companies drawn by an abundance of satinay trees. Not only were they used to rebuild the London Docks after WWII, the trees – which are resistant to deterioration at the hands of salt water – form a crucial part of the Suez Canal's construction.
Rather than logging companies, the island now hosts more than 100,000 tourists every year. It’s also heritage listed, and provides a home to a big population of dingoes. Lesson two is a bit more obvious, even to a city-slicker like me: don’t feed the dingoes. Don’t try and pat them, either. They’re wild (protected) animals, even though they look like your pet dog.
Measuring more than 120km long and 25km wide, with sandy four-wheel-drive tracks crisscrossing its surface, Fraser is something close to paradise for off-road tourers searching for action. You can also drive on the beaches, with a speed limit of 80km/h where conditions allow.
But beaches aren’t the focus of our first venture into the national park. Instead, we’re bound for Lake McKenzie, a freshwater lake buried in the middle of the giant sandy island. The access tracks don’t really trouble the D-Max, which clambers over tree roots and handles a ‘roller coaster’ downhill run with aplomb.
Four-wheel driving on the hard-packed tracks isn’t particularly difficult when they’re in good condition, especially with the benefit of a lead car to mimic over rougher sections. Our ute is pulling 2500rpm in fourth gear using low-range, but the grumbly engine note is the only real blight on refinement, with very little vibration making its way into the cabin.
With plentiful low-down torque and a relatively intuitive shift map from the six-speed torque convertor, there isn’t much that could convince me to hop into the manual, either.
It also dispatched the highway drive to Fraser Island with a minimum of fuss, delivering a settled ride and decent refinement from the 3.0-litre diesel engine at cruising speed. Just don't expect the ute to overtake comfortably at highway (or any, really) speed – it's noisy and slow under heavy throttle, preferring instead to surf a lazy wave of torque down low.
Like most unloaded work trucks, the D-Max becomes a little jittery over tightly packed corrugations, but the overall ride is respectable.
Less ‘respectable’ is the infotainment touchscreen, which is flanked by fiddly, unresponsive buttons. The official line from Isuzu is, and we paraphrase here, that the set-up is designed to suit farmers with gloves on, but it’s near-on impossible to use accurately on a bumpy section of road – or off-road, for that matter.
Sitting on the Lake McKenzie shoreline, the D-Max isn't really front of mind. The lake is utterly stunning: it’s crystal clear and properly fresh, like a gigantic chlorine-free pool. Nothing under the water will bite you, or take off a leg for that matter – barring a busload of frisky backpackers – making it a safe spot for nervy swimmers to take a dip.
Alternatively, you could just take hundreds of photos and make all your social followers jealous.
It’s a 45-minute cruise from the lake to Central Station, which is an old logging base and our picnic spot for lunch. Before it was a heritage-listed tourist attraction, the island was home to more than 10 logging operations, but persistent protests driven by the diverse wildlife and rich indigenous history saw the practice banned in 1993.
Bordered by a crystal-clear stream, Central Station is lined with signs containing information about the island’s history. It also sits at the centre of a popular network of walking trails. From this hub, it’s another relaxed hop back to the hotel in the as-yet unflustered D-Max for a beer at sunset. Lesson four: drinking XXXX is only marginally better than drinking urinal runoff.
The second day of full-on driving sees the convoy crossing the island, as we transfer from Kingfisher Bay to the Eurong Beach Resort. There are a few different routes you can take, each offering a unique look at the forestry of Fraser Island. As one group branches off to Land of the Giants, our ragtag team skirts the other (plentiful and very pretty, as it turns out) freshwater lakes populating the body of the island.
Having spent the early stages of the trip in a D-Max, we switch into the MU-X for day two, and the differences are instantly apparent. Although they share a powertrain, the MU-X gets extra sound-deadening and, crucially, coils instead of leaf springs at the rear. It also has a shorter wheelbase. There’s extra leather inside for a more luxurious feeling, but neither car will be causing Audi any sleepless nights.
The engine still isn’t quiet in the MU-X, especially when you tip the throttle past 50 per cent travel, but the rest of the experience is noticeably more refined. Whereas the unloaded ute can feel brittle, pogoing over sharp dips and undulations, the seven-seater has a softer secondary ride. The difference in NVH is noticeable on-road, although the change to overall ride quality isn’t quite as pronounced.
As day two wears on, the impact of tour buses loaded to the brim with backpackers on the trails is becoming clear. Although no-one is in danger of getting bogged, more concentration is required to avoid the deeper, sharper ruts that have started to emerge around Lake Birrabeen. Our cars soak up the punishment, the 3.0-litre engine chugging away in low-range.
After a brief stop at Birrabeen – where the group played a weird type of ‘football’ popular in the northern states (apparently it's called rugby) – we wind our way toward the eastern Fraser Island coast. The closer the dunes become, the more the scenery transitions from dense rainforest into mangroves and then, eventually, wide-spaced ferns and low-brush trees. It’s small, but the island isn’t lacking in biological diversity.
But for this total off-roading newbie, biodiversity isn’t the highlight of the trip. That honour goes to driving on the beach. After bursting out of the undergrowth onto the sandy expanse of 75 Mile Beach, we’re given a quick rundown of protocol: watch out for tidal ‘washouts’, indicate to show oncoming vehicles which way you’re going, turn traction control off before tackling the soft stuff and, perhaps most importantly, have fun.
It’s a short hop along the hard sand to our hotel, but a small group of keen drivers dump their bags and jump straight back into the cars for a trip to the Maheno shipwreck. The ship ran regular trips between Sydney and Auckland until World War I, at which point it was turned into a hospital ship. It was sold for scrap in 1935, but never reached the intended owner in Japan, after a storm snapped the tether and left it to float onto the Fraser Island coast.
Driving toward the wreck along beach is entirely unique. Driving on hard sand is like driving on a highway, but with lanes loosely defined by the tide and dunes. Feel bored? Pop up into the softer sand higher up the beach, and put the car through its paces.
Driving back from the shipwreck with the sun beating a hasty retreat from the sky, Cigarettes after Sex blasting over the stereo and miles of beach to play with, is a proper postcard moment. The sense of freedom is palpable, the vista stunning. It’s like being in a commercial, minus the Fleetwood Mac backing track.
Lesson four: four-wheel driving is as much about where you’re going as how you get there. Feel free to put that on a quasi-motivational Instagram banner, by the way.
With the sun fully set, most of the off-road driving for our trip is done. Having eaten, the group settles in for the best part of any holiday: a few drinks, and a chat about what's unfolded over the past few days. XXXX still tastes horrible, but the company is good. Most owners have enjoyed their time on Fraser Island, and the majority are impressed with how their cars have handled the trip.
"Thirty years ago, before we had kids, we had a Suzuki Sierra," says Trevor Deegan, one of the MU-X owners on the Fraser Island trip. "We used to go four-wheel driving around Agnes Water (Queensland)... We really liked it, we camped a lot – and then we had kids and sort of got out of it.
"The kids got older, and we said to each other 'I think we should get a four-wheel drive again," he says, flicking a look to his wife, Alicia, sitting next to him. "We did a fair bit of research and liked, value-for-money wise, what the car was."
The couple have done three Isuzu I-Venture trips since selling their Ford Focus, and take the car off-road on their own, as well. Although they have some experience, both Trevor and Alicia say the Fraser trip has taught them about when to use high- and low-range, along with more about tyre pressures.
"For me, this morning, having someone beside you who knows it all, is an expert in his field [helps]," Alicia says. "And being given the confidence to do it... I really learned, today, about going into high and low. And actually doing it myself was really good."
My experience was similar. Off-roading, even on simple trails, is daunting for anyone who hasn't done it before. Talk of tyre pressures and low-range mean very little if you aren't confident manipulating them, and confidence only comes with practice. I feel more confident after two days of off-roading, even though none of the trails we drove were particularly terrifying, with a better understanding of why tyre pressures and low/high range matter.
I'm also impressed with the MU-X and D-Max as off-roaders. One of the categories in the CarAdvice scoring system is 'fit for purpose' and, provided you don't expect too much in the way of luxury, both cars nail that criterion. They're tough and capable, as proven by the fact owners actually take them off-road, and (mercifully) are entirely devoid of pretence.
Maybe next time we'll be able to test them on roads closer to the Melbourne office... Also, given my newfound expertise, if any car manufacturers are looking for an off-road test driver, you have my email address.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss the I-Venture Club below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.