Our friends at Motoring.com.au recently took the D-MAX and MU-X to outback NSW to explore the natural wonders of the Mungo National Park while putting the both the Isuzu D-MAX & MU-X to a proper test of rugged outback driving.
Since the local launch of the Isuzu D-MAX in 2012 and its SUV sibling the MU-X a year later, we’ve tested and towed them on and-road off many times over.
They’ve proven to be competent and reliable performers; but in the shadow of the arrival of a raft of new and updated competitors, we were keen to see if Isuzu’s trade-tough twins still have what it takes to cut the muster.
To find out, we decided to head to outback NSW and the stunning Mungo National Park. The park is perhaps most famous for archaeological remains discovered here in the late 1960s and mid-1970s. Commonly known as Mungo Man, the remains are widely considered the oldest modern human remains found in Australia so far, and are believed to be between 40,000 and 68,000 years old.
The UNESCO World Heritage–listed park – which covers an expansive 110,967-hectares – is also well renowned for its stunning geology. The area comprises a series of dry lakes, various semi-arid regions, and impressive dunefields and lunettes.
The most famous landmark, colloquially known as the Walls of China, is valued not only by the local indigenous people, but also by scientists who continue to research the area’s vast undisturbed landscape. The area is prized by geologists and environmental scientists who say it gives an insight into our climate dating back more than 120,000 years.
Aboriginal history is equally rich here with artefacts, fireplaces, burial sites, middens and tools found in abundance. Mungo National Park is the traditional meeting place of the Barkinji (pronounced pbar-kan-tgee), Muthi Muthi (mutty-mutty) and Nyiampaar (nee-yam-par) tribes, but has also hosted European settlement since the late 1800s, with a number of woolsheds and ruined homesteads located throughout the park.
Situated in south-western New South Wales the Mungo National Park is an 875km drive from Sydney, 710km from Melbourne and 550km from Adelaide. Access is weather-dependant via the Wentworth-Pooncarie Road with condition updates available through the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
A signposted (one-way) 70km circular vehicle track allows visitors to access most of the park’s famous sites by 4WD. Onsite camping is available with limited offsite accommodation options via the visitor’s centre or its online booking service.
HIT THE (OFF) ROAD
Considering the abilities of the two Isuzus, our trip north would be a walk in the park, so to speak. But it’s trips like these that buyers of vehicles like the D-MAX and MU-X most commonly take – lots of highway driving, a fair amount of time on unsealed roads and maybe, just maybe, a little time in low-range; and usually with a camper-trailer in tow.
For us, the run was quite straightforward. Departing our Melbourne HQ we set a course north to the Victorian-NSW border town of Mildura, crossing to Wentworth for the run toward Pooncarie.
With limited fuel supplies the further north you travel, we decided to carry our own from the Murray River onward, also stocking with food and firewood for use in the park (the gathering of firewood is strictly forbidden within the park’s boundaries).
The trip so far had seen both vehicles average approximately 8.3L/100km of diesel fuel (8.4 for the MU-X). Both Isuzus feature a 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine, in this instance mated to a five-speed automatic transmission in each rig. Each of the vehicles is also equipped with a traditional three-mode four-wheel drive system offering 2H, 4H and 4L (low-range) capabilities. Away from the tarmac, it was the four-wheel drive system’s time to shine.
With the loose road surface demanding lower speeds and more grip, it was time to drop the tyre pressures and have a quick look around the car. We checked the tension of the wheel nuts and made sure the oil and water levels were spot-on, dropping our speed to reduce the chance of animal strike as the sun sank slowly below the horizon.
DOUBLE (NO) TROUBLE
When travelling in the outback – or in any off-road situation for that matter – it’s advisable you don’t go it alone. Australia’s harsh climate and the changing conditions of roads in these parts, can take their toll on the vehicle, which is why we took a second vehicle.
An extra vehicle can come in handy if one becomes stuck, or in the event of a break-down. Taking vehicles with a matching wheel stud pattern also means you double the amount of spare tyres available, which is handy when you are days away from the nearest tyre repair shop.
For our trip, the vehicles included an Isuzu D-MAX LS-Terrain and MU-X LS-T. Both vehicles feature body-on-frame construction, tough suspension and a proper low-range four-wheel drive system, while the 255/65-series tyres on 17-inch alloy wheels provide ample cushioning over corrugations.
The Isuzus felt at home on dirt, and though essentially identical beneath, feel very different when the going gets tough. The D-MAX’s obvious ‘hauling’ abilities give it a stiffer set-up which translates to a slightly firmer ride off-road. There’s still adequate travel and articulation in the suspension, mind you, but in higher-speed driving on unsealed roads, small corrugations and potholes are felt more readily than they are in the family-focussed MU-X.
However, we did note that that MU-X is a little firmer in the suspension’s initial compression; there’s stiffness in the early part of the rebound stroke that helps keep the body from swaying and pitching on-road. It gives the ride a dense feel on sharper, high-frequency corrugations off-road that initially feels quite brittle. But get into the larger lumps and bumps of narrow track and trail driving and the MU-X makes a lot of sense. It takes a lot of gnarly ruts and washouts in its stride, and keeps a settled pose over unsettling whoops, loose gravel and soft sand.
The mix of terrain for which the MU-X and D-MAX are designed to operate on are far more varied than we encountered in Mungo. Sure the circuit is challenging enough for novice drivers, but it was no match for the Isuzus’ abilities. Pleasingly, the varied surfaces encountered here (sand, clay, earth, gravel and mud) were telegraphed clearly to the driver through the hydraulic steering, the system providing assistance and feedback in measures appropriate to off-road work.
It was also welcome to find our fuel consumption average hadn’t blown-out offroad. In spite carrying recovery gear, spare wheels and fuel and a bit of camera equipment, the MU-X achieved 9.8L/100km and the D-MAX 9.9.
WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE
Honestly? Not much. The engine is a gutsy little unit. It’s efficient, reasonably quiet when warm and only really makes itself known vocally when you pull out to overtake.
The five-speed auto is also a solid performer. It responds well to throttle input and makes good use of the turbocharger’s variable geometry before deciding to drop a cog – probably why these things are so good on fuel.
There’s also a lot of space in the cabin and boot/tray. The D-MAX has the second-longest tray in its class and with a braked towing capacity of 3500kg, is sufficient for most large offroad vans (the MU-X offers a 3000kg braked towing capacity). We found both cabins easy to jump in and out of, and enough adjustment available (via the electric driver’s seat and tilt-only column) to get a good hold on the controls.
GET OUT THERE!
There’s something quite striking about Outback Australia; though not all of us have time enough to encounter its fullness first-hand. That’s part of the charm of Mungo. It’s close enough to three of our capital cities to experience in the school holidays (for example), and presents a variety of environments rarely gathered in such close confines.
It’s also a place that impresses with its connection to the past and its people. The dried lakes and their surrounds speak of thousands of years of Australians who just like you and I have seen this place in exactly the way it remains to this day. It’s an association the Elders speak of as spiritual, and one you can’t help but feel of in the same way. It’s a powerful place that awes with its silence and open skies, its amazing collections of insects, birds, reptiles and other wildlife, and its staggeringly beautiful landscapes.
The Elders and park rangers are also an amazing resource of Dreamtime stories and local history. It’s easy to while away hours at a time recounting tales of a past steeped in tradition, ceremony and conflict, and a resourcefulness that seems impossible given the apparent desolation of this semi-arid region.
In a few short days we learnt of the cooperation between the three tribes that border this sacred meeting place in overcoming a common foe, their deep understanding of bird and animal habits that enabled so many centuries of survival, and their overriding desire that this valuable knowledge is passed on to future generations.
If you’re keen to get out there and learn more about the Australia just beyond our back doorstep then there are few opportunities as rich as this. Whether it’s bird watching, photography, culture or simply adventure touring that piques your interest, Mungo National Park provides it in abundance.
motoring.com.au acknowledges the traditional owners of the Mungo National Park, and wishes to thank the Elders of the Barkinji tribe for their participation in this feature.