Apart from tackling one of Australia's iconic 4WD tracks, I couldn't think of a better place to test the credentials of a brand's flagship offroad van.
Landcruiser Mountain Park, located at Jimna, 2.5 hours north of Brisbane, is one of Australia's premier 4WD parks. Recently, I made the journey to the park to see how the new Marvel Thunder Storm Mark II stacks up when it comes to the rough stuff.
LET'S GET OFFROAD
I first met Chris Michel, owner of Marvel and Sunseeker Caravans, a couple of years ago when photographing the 2018 Best Aussie Vans in Echuca/Moama. That year, their ‘pocket rocket’ Sea Breeze Sport took out the sub $65k and Best Value Van categories.
Throughout the event, Chris was always looking for harder tracks to put the Sea Breeze to the test and find its limits. Needless to say, when reviewing Marvel's top-specced offroad van at a designated 4WD park, I was looking forward to seeing just how far he was willing to go.
I was not disappointed with the outcome and can honestly say that these guys get out and test their vans past the point the majority of their customers will take them. For the prospective buyer, that's good peace of mind.
Case in point was with sunset fast approaching, we made our way to an extended hill climb with a very loose surface and a couple of rocky step ups. After several attempts at the obstacle, reversing the van back down (not the easiest feat with a 20ft 6in van and diminishing light), letting more pressure out of the tyres and having another red hot go, the boys from Marvel had to concede defeat and get a little help to the top. Don't mention it, boys.
Earlier in the afternoon, we had tested the tolerances of the DO35 hitch by subjecting both tow vehicle and van to some rather severe angles through gnarly ruts and undulations. At one point, we had close to a 90-degree angle between the ute and van.
The extra ground clearance provided by the 4in suspension riser and the 285/75R16 Mud Terrain tyres ensured that even though we were pushing the envelope, the Thunder Storm didn't scrape or bottom out once.
However, the entry step had been removed prior to our offroad exploits, so this may have got caught up at some point. The good thing is, if you know you’re going to get into some nasty terrain, it can be easily removed.
Having a good spotter in these situations proved itself time and time again, with many minute adjustments required to safely negotiate the obstacles.
The AL-KO Enduro Outback suspension, with independent trailing arms, coil springs and twin shockers on each corner, also performed well in this test. The well-matched suspension system helped keep the wheels of the van on the ground as much as possible, for as long as possible.
While it is of great benefit to know your suspension will enable you to tackle the hard tracks if the need arises, it's also great to know your van is going to be able to eat up all of those long, corrugated dirt kilometres between the hard stuff.
During my tow test, the van felt solid behind the Triton over dirt roads that featured long, fast straights, off-camber corners, corrugations, dips, undulations and plenty of 'whoa boys'. At no point did I feel like the van was trying to steer me around from behind, even though the Triton was getting close to its maximum towing capacity.
Pulling the big van up on the dirt wasn't a problem either thanks to disc brakes all round. Impressively, I watched John from Marvel pin his ears back along one long straight section of dirt road and reach 85km/h before throwing out the anchors.
With only the slightest amount of wheel lock up, the van stayed true and straight behind the tow vehicle and pulled up with a minimum of fuss — and a lot of dust!
I didn't get a chance to tow the Thunder Storm on the bitumen, but with what I experienced on the gravel, I don't think there would be an issue.
Coming from a background in the building industry, I was always told that you can't build a good house without solid foundations.
That same principle applies to building a caravan. It would be senseless to have a fancy big box without a decent chassis underneath, especially when it's an offroad van.
Thankfully, the design team at Marvel must have had a chat to a couple of my old chippy mates and put together a mass of galvanised steel to handle the rigours of extended remote area travel.
Up front, a 150mm x 50mm x 3mm SupaGal drawbar attaches to the tow vehicle by the aforementioned DO35 hitch from Vehicle Components. An AL-KO jockey wheel allows for the van to be unhitched from the vehicle and a hand brake stops it from rolling away.
A pair of Anderson plugs (one for 12V charging, the other for the disc brakes) as well as the standard 7-pin plug are also found here.
A full-width stone guard protects the two 9kg A-frame mounted gas bottles, as well as the checkerplate toolbox with twin jerry can holders mounted to each of the doors. The off-side toolbox storage has a slide for easy access to your generator.
A pair of oversized mud flaps, which hang beneath the stone guard, also helps with minimising the chance of rock damage to underbody components.
The chassis of the Desert Storm consists of a 100mm x 50mm x 3mm SupaGal beam and the same sized suspension riser. This provides a solid backbone for the numerous 50mm x 50mm cross braces and gives plenty of support to the single piece, 19mm marine grade plywood floor.
A single 90L grey water tank is positioned behind the independent suspension, while two newly designed 95L roto moulded freshwater poly tanks are located forward of the trailing arms.
For an offroad van, it was reassuring to see that all of the sub-floor services had been tucked up high and out of the way, minimising the chance of damage. Wiring and gas lines were run through split tube convolute and water lines utilise the popular John Guest fittings.
When a new model or an update, such as the Thunder Storm Mark II, is let loose on the buying public, we've come to expect that there will be a few upgrades over and above the previous model.
Well that general rule of thumb has been applied to the Mark II, especially when it comes to the electrical system.
The Thunder Storm now runs three 150W solar panels as standard (up from two panels on the Mark I), which doesn't leave a lot of room for any more panels to be added in future.
But that's OK, as the battery capacity has been increased to 200Ah of lithium power (up from two 100Ah AGM's on the Mark I). The batteries are contained in a pair of aluminium checkerplate battery boxes which are mounted to the off-side chassis rail.
The Projecta PM300 battery management system makes sure the batteries are kept in an optimal state of charge thanks to a 30A MPPT solar charger, 12V DC and 240V AC chargers. Monitoring of the electrical system, the water tank levels and controlling the lighting is done by an LCD panel mounted just inside the rear access door.
We now know what goes about making up the Thunder Storm's foundations, but what about up top?
Just like in my days back on the tools, the frame of the Thunder Storm is constructed from timber. We're not talking 70 x 35 pine studs and pink batts here though. No, this is built with a Meranti frame with 25mm polystyrene insulation.
The external walls have been clad with an aluminium composite panel in charcoal grey for a clean, modern look over the traditional frame. Powder coated black aluminium checkerplate, which has become course de riguer for any offroad spec van, adorns the lower section of the walls, back and front.
Helping to eliminate those pesky water leaks, as well as providing additional thermal insulation, the Thunder Storm sports a one-piece fibreglass roof.
I know all of the vans that we get to review have fancy interiors with cafe dinettes, comfy beds and sleek kitchens, but I'd like to think we prefer to spend most of our time outside.
With this in mind, the Thunder Storm ticks a lot of the boxes.
Firstly, there's the near full-length awning that provides protection from the elements and a fold-down table to keep your cheese and crackers off the ground and away from the dog.
Then there's external speakers, TV connection and mounting bracket as well as 12V power if you want to listen to some tunes or watch your favourite team on the weekend.
But, for me, the best thing would have to be the fully stainless-steel pull-out kitchen that slides out from the front tunnel boot. It is a little ripper. It's neat, tidy and compact for storage, but folds out to create a very usable space.
There's a sink with hot and cold water and a Dometic two burner gas cook top. Sliding out from under the cooktop is a preparation/server bench with cutlery storage beneath, while a larger bench flips open to provide the ideal spot for your Baby Q or Ziggy.
To allow for both the cooktop and the BBQ to be used at the same time, twin quick release gas outlets have been plumbed underneath the tunnel boot, along with hot and cold water outlets.
COME ON INSIDE
If you can manage to drag yourself inside, you'll find a modern and well-appointed interior, with a rear door entry, front island bed, kitchen and dinette in the middle and the rear ensuite.
It has been finished well with ‘on trend’ colours and finishes used throughout. Contemporary blacks, greys and whites have been used for the cabinets, drawers, doors and soft furnishings, with a timber laminate used on all bench tops and the dinette table. A roll-form edge on the bench tops will help to limit chips and other damage.
All cabinets are made from lightweight ply with no MDF or chipboard to be found. Piano hinges have been used on all doors and positive catches on all drawers and doors make sure they remain closed even after a tough day on the tracks.
Thanks to some clever re-jigging of the shower unit in the rear, the team from Marvel have maximised the amount of available storage space inside the van.
The re-positioning of the shower has allowed for extra full-height pantry storage to the right of the entry, with the lower space being a great location for commonly used external items.
The vanity under-bench storage has been converted to drawers, which allow for a greater amount of storage while taking up less floor space. This, in turn, makes the ensuite feel larger than what it really is. More personal item storage can be found behind the mirrored medicine cabinet drawers.
Back in the main living area, there is a heap of space available in overhead cupboards, kitchen cupboards and a full-height pull out pantry which is next to the 224L Dometic 3-way tropical rated fridge.
For the bedroom, there are the typical robes with hanging space on either side of the bed, as well as two large overhead lockers. Beneath the robes, each side gets a bedside unit with a drawer and small cupboard.
With all of this storage available inside, plus the tunnel boot and big toolbox outside, you'd be right in thinking you'd have to be careful with how much weight you're adding to the van.
While you definitely don't want to be overloading your van and taking surplus things away with you just for the sake of it, you'll be happy to know that the Thunder Storm has a pretty decent payload. With an ATM of 3500kg and tare of 2649kg, you've got 851kg to play with.
So even if you add another freshwater tank for extended forays into the wild, you will still have plenty of payload left over.
Marvel runs each one of their vans over the scales prior to delivery and provides the owner with their own weighbridge certificate.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The crew from Marvel have upped the ante with the latest incarnation of their Thunder Storm model range, adding a lot of ‘optional upgrades’ to the standard Mark II package.
There has been a hike in the price, with the Thunder Storm Mark II now retailing for $79,990, up from $74,990. However, the extra inclusions of more solar, lithium batteries, disc brakes and that external kitchen are great additions to an already pretty darn good offroad and off-grid package.
RVMAP Accredited? No
WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
Body length 6.25m (20ft 6in)
Overall length 8.96m (29ft 4in)
Width 2.34m (7ft 8in)
Overall Height 3.1m (10ft 2in)
Internal Height 2m (6ft 7in)
Payload (calculated) 851kg
Ball weight 222kg
Bed Size Queen (island north/south)
Cladding Aluminium composite wall panels Chassis SupaGal 100 x 50mm Chassis Rails and 100 x 50mm riser
Drawbar SupaGal 150 x 50 x 3mm
Suspension AL-KO Enduro Outback coil-spring independent suspension with twin shocks
Coupling Cruisemaster DO35 Hitch
Brakes AL-KO ventilated disc brakes with IQ7
Wheels/Tyres 16in 6-stud alloy wheels with 285/75R16 MT
Water 2 x 95L (potable), 1 x 90L grey
Battery 2 x 100Ah Lithium
Solar 3 x 150W panels
Air-conditioner Dometic IBIS 4 A/C unit
Gas 2 x 9kg
Sway control Optional
Kitchen Custom stainless-steel slide out kitchen
Cooking Swift Gas Cooktop (3 x gas/1 x electric) with grill and oven
Fridge 224L Dometic 3-way tropical rated fridge
Bathroom Ensuite w/ separate shower
Hot water Swift 28L gas/electric HWS
Microwave 25L Sphere Microwave
Washing Machine 2.6kg Sphere top loader
Custom stainless-steel slide-out kitchen
To enquire about this caravan, visit marvelrv.com.au