(Shame we lost the shopping)
Words & images Tim Scott
As I mentioned in my editorial last month, my holidays are loosely planned. I knew I was going away over Christmas, and had sourced the vehicle and caravan pairing you see here, but as for a destination? And then, on Facebook, a Ballina-based friend I have never met said “if you’re up this way stop in for lunch”. Sorted. We were self-contained, or so I thought (sack the researcher) so there was no need to book anything. It was on.
For images, videos and the full RV Daily experience, read this in our online magazine.
We have had the Isuzu MU-X LS-U on loan for several months and the model is a popular seller for its parent; Isuzu shifted 7834 units in 2016, an increase over the 6760 (source Vfacts) sold the previous year. It’s said that you don’t often notice a particular car elsewhere until you’re driving one. That was certainly true of the MU-X and this trip was to prove that a high concentration seemed to be touring the New South Wales coast, and looked most striking in white with black wheels, windows, and snorkel topped off with a black or white bullbar.
The MDC XT17t in its earthy two-tone livery and black chequer plate panelling matched nicely behind the gun metal duco of the MU-X. Designated as an off-road hybrid caravan that’s part of MDC’S Expedition Series the camper was to draw a lot of attention during our journey. At 7.1m (23ft 3in) from hitch to tail and a Tare of 2540kg the caravan was easily within the Isuzu’s legal comfort zone to tow (GCM 5750kg), but the conflict would arise if we loaded the van to its 3500kg ATM and exceeded the 3000kg towing limit of the MU-X.
So before we get letters, we can say that the caravan carried full water tanks (2 x 85 and 1 x 40L), the contents of the fridge and two Duvalay sleeping rolls at any time during the trip. There was my old 12-volt Waeco fridge on the forward fridge slide and two camping chairs/table also with everything else carried in the MU-X. And beyond two bags of clothes, the kitchen gear and non-chilled food in the car, it really didn’t amount to the max allowable of 375kg after subtracting the towball max of 300kg from the 675kg cargo limit.
Since launch the Isuzu D-Max ute and derivative wagon MU-X have been fitted with the 3.0-litre turbo-diesel. It’s not overly powerful and it’s quite a noisy unit amid more advanced competitors. However, over the time that we’ve been driving it the MU-X has proved itself willing and economical, offering around 9L/100km in general and recording a 15.1L/100km while towing on this trip (2136km).
The urge it takes on in the rev-range powerband is satisfying and very practical. There were, however, numerous times when we reached its maximum effort limit under towing when in auto on the sports select shifter. This is where long miles on the highway can dull your senses a little. When my foot was suddenly pushed flat to the floor responding to my perceived need for more power, nothing came. Reacting, with disappointment, I was reminded that 100km/h was perfectly adequate for forward movement and that the Isuzu was providing perfect service. So while the diesel may be a little noisy around town, it settles to a hum on the open road that’s obviously not intrusive by playing a strained tune under towing load. And, 100km/h was the sensible limit I had set for the trip in any case. The combination enjoyed this decision in terms of handling.
The MDC uses a Vehicle Components D035 hitch (or a McHitch option) and once we’d had the towball swapped off on the MU-X realised that we weren’t going to be able to connect to charge the batteries while on the move via the Anderson plug. Our test van was optioned with 300W panels and had an MDC brand 20-amp battery charger and a Projecta IDC 25A 12V DC – DC booster charger.
The journey north wound up the Pacific Highway in all its road-work strewn glory. Our first stopover was friend’s driveway in Smith’s Lake, just south of Fortser, to say hi for Christmas and to make sure everything on the towing set-up was working fine. We plugged in to their house via an Ampfibian 15-10 amp RV Plus unit and the comprehensive switch panel in the nose of the caravan told us all was well in terms of charge and draw.
In terms of set up the MDC is a little involved. It’s not difficult but it takes a few minutes. It’s a pop top, firstly, so you need to remember to unclip it. Then you need to un-pin and unclip the spare-wheel carriers and lower them to the floor. As they’re on gas struts weight isn’t an issue. Extending the usable area of the caravan, which becomes the main queen-size bed chamber, you undo a series of latches and bolts to lift the roof panel, swing out the sides before the rear window/wall panel lifts up and locks into place. Once you’ve done this you can push up the roof from within.
Questions this operation raises are the longevity and integrity of the catches and seals employed. Given the off-road designation of the caravan the unit could be subject to harsh conditions and even simply under heavy or careless use it appears that it wouldn’t take much to break something or have the dust sealing compromised. And while it could just be me, after I had re-installed the spare wheels, several times I almost forgot to fasten down the roof!
Once extended the bed area is filled by a very thick foldable innerspring mattress that was very comfy throughout the trip despite me not removing the protective plastic cover. Since the Duvalay I use has a memory foam base I managed to cope with the plastic. This van can be used as a four berth. The dinette easily seats two but four would be a squeeze, and converts to a child-size single that in this case was boosted with a bunk above the dinette that folds up at an angle to allow more headroom beneath. Or you can remove this bunk all together.
While Christmas temperatures weren’t quite as high as much of the east is currently experiencing, with most of our nights spent without mains power we took advantage of the generous window provision in the roof section (six) and the van walls (five). The latter all have insect/privacy screens while the roof section are vinyl zip flap closures and bug screens in the pop-top.
The XT17t is designed with as much outside living in mind as possible. While the interior has a three-burner gas stove and oven and a generous sink surrounded in black laminate, contrasting with the white timber cupboards, lengthy periods in here would become claustrophobic; hence the hybrid camper caravan designation.
Outside living is where the XT17t (and its MDC relatives) excels. After leaving Smith’s Lake, we had no fixed destination in mind. As the day wore on and the heat built we decided that a caravan park would be the go. Numerous calls to booked-out parks frustrated until we lucked out at Urunga Waters; it wasn’t full but the remaining powered sites didn’t suit and besides we thought the solar set-up and three batteries in our bank would suffice. So we took an unpowered site and we ended up staying three nights to take in NYE at Coffs Harbour. What we didn’t realise was that the battery charger wasn’t playing ball.
As I said, outside living is the strong point here. A stainless slide-out kitchen plumbed for gas and hot and cold water extends from the near side rear and also reveals the switch for the fully electric awning. External LEDs illuminate the area here but the camper also can be specified with a batwing awning to cover and enclose the van on the entry door side. We took advantage of this cooking arrangement at Urunga during our stay in this charming little town with a fantastic boardwalk by the sea. If you haven’t stopped here, do so.
However, by now our lack of reserve power was obvious as the interior Vitrifigo fridge wasn’t working, or shutting down when it would briefly crank up and the 12V lights cut out to tell us all was not well. With a lot of Christmas perishables in the fridge we couldn’t take the chance and had to bin the lot. So, what to do? We wouldn’t work it out until Ballina, where we found power and exorbitant overnight fees to park next to the power outlet and tap … and lunch (and dinner) from new friends we mentioned at the outset.
Through a phone call to the MDC electrician he’d diagnosed that the battery charger was the culprit, and so we bought a replacement at Supercheap Auto in town and ran a cable through the van to the batteries to charge them directly. Not ideal, but it proved an immediate solution.
The XT17t is the quintessential example of what I term the ‘combat caravan’. High off the ground on mud-terrain tyres and usually twin wheel independent suspension and lashings of chequer plate. Most look the goods but question marks remain re the strength in design and materials used and I can only judge on the unit that I had over the time that I had it. I am not a fan of mounting twin spares on the rear wall, adding weight where it really shouldn’t be but it reinforces the ‘I am really going somewhere’ intention.
Inside, this is a pleasing space, though. The black and white works well, there’s a decent amount of storage and the shower/toilet combo was roomy and very pleasant to use. There should be more power points for USB and mains, as the only outlets were on the front wall next to the gauges for the fresh water tanks. And I also think one of these tanks should be turned over to grey water, too, to make the van self-contained – an oversight that would add a selling point.
So while some preconceptions of the caravan, only gained by hearsay, were sort of held true, the Isuzu had dispelled my own opinions formed through limited use. With a seven-seat capacity and folding nature the cargo capacity is flexible. On this trip with two occupants the rear aircon wasn’t required but at other times rear USBs have – they’re not there. There is a 12V outlet in the cargo area.
The MU-X interior has a few items I am not a fan of, but mainly the touchscreen that’s difficult to read in sunlight, and not always bright, either, as it’s on angle that catches the glare. And the Bluetooth connection has to be the most irritating to set up. And the little rubber cover for the single in-dash USB plug is fiddly and breaks easily. The reversing sensors and camera are a big plus for towing scenarios and proved to be worth their weight in hand signals and arguments when I was having to hitch-up solo; I scored two holes-in-one.
Outward visibility is good and while the driving position is adjustable including for height the seats are now proving a little hard in the base (but seats are highly individual items in terms of comfort).
The five-speed auto is efficient and will shift down on downhills, and with steering that requires input to manage understeer and you have to be involved, as opposed to isolated from, with the driving experience. A good thing on long hauls.
Electrical failures aside, the experience was great. The caravan was perfectly behaved apart from over some particularly unpleasant road surfaces north of Forster where it became a bit wayward. The dynamics of the combination were fine and composed cruising at 100km/h and when overtaken by semi-trailers at that speed. Though involved, the set-up of the van is uncomplicated and all but an emergency departure would be unflustered. Build quality appeared to be on par with comparable models. The XT17t offers a great base for camping when fully deployed with the batwing awning, plus you can add a tent for the external shower too.
While close to the limit for its tow rating the MU-X performed faultlessly and presented as a great touring option and is one that will only improve from any model development Isuzu unveils over time.
Given that this was a road-based trip we cannot comment on off-road performance of either vehicle. (You can read an Unsealed 4×4 off-road account of the MU-X here.)
ISUZU MU-X SPECIFICATIONS
Model: Isuzu MU-X LS-U
Engine: 3.0-litre turbo-diesel
Gearbox: Five-speed auto
Kerb weight: 2040kg
Towing capacity: 750/3000kg
RRP: $58,193 (as tested)
- Basic and solid mechanics
- Cargo/seat configuration
- General bland cabin plastics
- Lack of second row power outlets
MDC XT17T SPECIFICATIONS
Model: mdc xt17t
Length: 7.1m (23ft, 3in)
Width: 2m (6ft, 6in)
Ball weight: 200kg
RRP: from $64,990
- Spec level/price
- Bedroom module longevity
- Lack of grey water tank
- Electrical issues on test