In my mind, there’s nothing better than loading the 4WD up and exploring another bit of Australia, piece by piece. With the right 4WD and camping setup, you can travel for months in comfort, seeing the most incredible places in the world and having a ball while you do it. However, it all comes down to having a setup that works for you.
Some time ago, I committed to selling our 80 Series Land Cruiser (which had seen a lot of this great country) and moved onto something new. I spent a huge amount of time finding a suitable replacement, purchasing it, planning the build and then fitting it out.
I wanted something that would be comfortable, functional and reliable and also double as the daily driver for the family.
The Dmax not long after it rolled out of the factory.
Buying a suitable touring 4WD
Eventually, I settled on a 2016 Isuzu Dmax dual cab, bottom of the range with vinyl flooring and very few cosmetic upgrades. The Dmax runs a 3.0L turbo diesel motor and is the last of the motors without a DPF (Diesel Particulate Filter), which was important for me to avoid.
It’s married to a 5-speed automatic Aisin gearbox, and together they have one of the best reputations for reliability in any modern 4WD.
The aim of the game
When I was building this 4WD, I had a number of things I wanted to achieve with it. During the process, I used all my knowledge and experience that I’ve picked up over the years to achieve the final result.
Our 4WD at Kalgan’s Pool.
If you missed last month’s post about needing to put your 4WD on a diet, check it out. There’s nothing worse than a 4WD that is hugely heavy. I did everything possible to ensure the Dmax was as light as possible, and with the weight distributed as well as possible. Dual cab utes are notorious for bending chassis rails, and it’s often due to excess weight and/or having it in the wrong place.
There are some truly incredible 4WDs out there. Lithium batteries, solid axle swaps, engine conversions and the list never ends. I wanted to build a vehicle on a more constrained budget, without compromising extensively on quality or functionality, and thankfully I’ve done just that.
The vehicle had to be super easy to use. No fuss, no complications, just quick, easy and simple to travel and live out of for long periods of time. This meant lunch stops, charging electronics, accessing gear and a whole heap of other little things.
Making our 4WD functional for all kinds of use – including lunch stops was very important.
Reliability is key
There’s nothing worse than a 4WD that constantly gives you grief. I’ve been down that path before, and it’s incredibly frustrating. Often, on a 4WD, it’s what you change from the factory to upgrade that gives you issues, and I was distinctly aware of that on this build.
There are a lot of illegal 4WDs out there. Tyres and lift kits that are too big, too much weight or whatever it might be. The risks are simply too high to ignore, so the vehicle had to be legal. That meant a lift kit and bigger tyres that meet the criteria in WA, ensuring it was under the maximum weight and that other modifications met the standards required.
Our vehicle bogged near Walpole.
Our previous Land Cruiser was amazing off road. Bigger tyres, twin lockers, plenty of power and great suspension meant it went most places without a fuss. I knew the Dmax wouldn’t ever be in the same league, but at the same time, I didn’t want to be getting stuck every couple of minutes off road!
Cheap to run
Modern turbo diesel 4WDs are nothing short of amazing when it comes to fuel consumption. 8 – 9L/100km is easily achievable for most modern turbo diesel motors from the factory, but that jumps up once you start adding gear or towing.
What did it end up like?
Here’s what the Dmax turned out like. It’s not completely finished (is it ever?!). But the remaining items are mainly cosmetic tidy ups and small accessories, like some more LED lights inside the canopy and doors!
Our 2016 Isuzu Dmax and soft floor camper trailer.
Where did we start?
Replacing the tub with a canopy
The biggest change to the Dmax was removing the factory well body tub, and replacing it with an aluminium gull wing canopy from Bull Motor Bodies. This mounts directly to the chassis, has loads of storage, is built with extremely high attention to detail, is lightweight and is completely dust and waterproof.
For utes, I find this by far the most practical setup in terms of storage, security, accessibility, weight, cleanliness and customisation. I managed to pick a second-hand unit up which saved about A$7000.
Lorella Springs in the Dmax.
Fitting the canopy out
Knowing that drawer systems are fantastic except for their weight, I opted to build something as light as possible from 12mm marine ply. This incorporated a fridge slide for the 55L Evakool Fridge, and 6 plastic Oates drawers from Bunnings that people have been using in the back of their 4WDs for years now.
I built an electrical box to house a DCDC battery charge/solar regulator, dual battery monitor and lots of Anderson, cigarette and USB outlets. A 150aH Bosch deep cycle battery was purchased and fixed to the very front of the canopy.
The process of building the fridge slide.
The canopy came with a 50L water tank and 12V pump, which is one of the best modifications you can do to any 4WD. I mounted a 200W solar panel on the roof which is more than enough to keep the battery full under any weather conditions. And I can park up for weeks and still have a full battery at the end of each day.
On the other side of the fridge slide/drawers, I simply use a big pelican case for various gear and a couple of small ones for spare parts and tools. This is easily removable and gives me at least half a ute to use if I need.
Fridge slide and electrical box.
Bar work and winch
I wanted a solid bull bar that wasn’t too heavy, and AFN fitted the bill. With built-in recovery points and limited overhang, it meant I didn’t have to buy extra gear and it just (by about 5mm) fits in the garage at home! Leaving the vehicle outside was not an option – there are too many people who would happily walk off with your gear.
Doing a lot of solo travel meant the need for a winch was obvious. It’s rarely needed, but when you do want it, you really want it. I fitted a Runva XP11 Premium. It’s yet to be used in anger!
I was also concerned about the low hanging components under the Dmax and went with a set of 4mm Bushskinz bash plates to cover the radiator, sump and transmission.
The tow bar is a genuine Isuzu one, rated at 3500kg towing.
Bash plates to look after the underbody.
Suspension and tyres
This time around, I went with all-terrain tyres instead of muddies, and fitted 265/75/16 Toyo AT2s which have been great so far. They are wrapped around the factory LSM alloy wheels to keep the weight down.
The suspension was done by ARB and includes a GVM upgrade of 270kg over standard. The 4WD is just legal without it, but is extremely close with the trailer on the back and not worth the risk. It runs 600kg rear springs, the heaviest springs on the front for the Dmax and they are made by Old Man Emu.
Old Man Emu GVM upgrade suspension.
I’ve limited the work under the bonnet, to maintain reliability. It has an HPD catch can, Fuel manager secondary fuel filter, N70 Amaron starter battery and various cabling for the dual battery and winch. That is all.
A fairly mild engine bay.
On the roof, sits a big 42 inch Stedi ST4K light bar, which turns night into day. Given the new laws in Western Australia allowing you to install light bars on the roof, it was a no-brainer. LED light bars have become super affordable over the last few years.
In the cab, there’s an ICOM 450 Pro UHF, Redarc Towpro and an Ultra gauge to keep an eye on things like automatic transmission fluid, engine temperature, boost and battery voltage.
Ultra gauge to keep an eye on the vehicle.
How does it perform?
Now, whilst the above list of modifications and accessories might look intimidating, it’s relatively mild in the scheme of things, and I like it this way.
I’ve just come back from 3 months of travelling from Perth to the Pilbara, Kimberley, Northern Territory and Coral Coast, then back to Perth. The vehicle has been absolutely exceptional, and I am really pleased with it.
We averaged 13.8L/100km over the 15,500km towing a 1.5-tonne camper trailer and had an absolute ball. It is so much more functional than the previous 4WD and does everything I need it to well.
Soaking up Cable Beach in Broome.
The beauty of it is simple – it’s practical and economical enough to drive as the family vehicle, but ready to throw clothes and food in at a minute’s notice to head away and explore this magical country.
We have plenty more trips in the pipeline and would love to do a big lap of Australia down the track. The 4WD is set and ready to go, and I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out.
If you are looking to build the ultimate touring 4WD, take your time. Really think about what the end result should be and buy gear that you need and will use.
See you out there!
Are you building your own 4WD? What’s the biggest challenge of the process so far?
About the writer...