5 Feb 2014

The Incident Involving The Outlander And The Mud

I had finished a meeting early and it was 2.30pm.  It would be daylight for another 2 and a half hours.  My day job means I sometimes need to go and check out rural sites for suitability for solar panel installations.  A member of the team had a site he wanted me to see, so I called him up and said I'd see him on site in half an hour.
The Mitsubishi Outlander parked up after 'the incident' in the mud

At 3pm I was driving round tiny roads in rural Somerset hunting for one particular field, amongst thousands of acres of fields.  The satnav had sent me to a location one mile west of where the field was.

I was in a Mitsubishi Outlander.  It's built to be a spacious road car but does have four wheel drive, locking diffs and a few inches of ground clearance.

Ignoring the useless in-car Satnav I stuck my TomTom to the windscreen and checked the map I'd saved on my phone and used the TomTom's map function to pinpoint the field by hand.

I was taken down a couple of miles of single lane road, then came across 20 metres of submerged track.  The Somerset levels are currently underwater.  This wasn't quite on the levels but it was still seriously wet.

I could see that the water wasn't too deep and set through it.  I was right, it was only abound 8 inches deep - easy for the Outlander.

Half a mile later I met my colleague, who I shall call H.  He was in a normal car but had braved the flooded road and parked up in a tiny track which, it turned out, lead down to the field.

It was then I remembered that I had left my wellies and coat in my own car, at home.  I was wearing  trainers.  H was dressed as I should have been - to walk a mile or so around the field in order to check out its suitability.

I couldn't do that in my trainers.  The field was 200 yards down the track, which was extremely wet and muddy.

"Hop in," I called to H.  "I'll drive it."

So he did and I did.  The track, as they usually are, was rough but had been peppered with hardcore (stones, bits of brick).  The Outlander rode across the bumpy surface with aplomb.

At the end of the track H jumped out to open the gate and I drove through.  The edge of the field had some hardcore laid under it and I parked up.  H closed the gate and we observed the field.

It looked suitable for our needs but in order to assess it properly we would need to walk to the other end.  I took and few steps and realised my trainers wouldn't fare too well in the grass and general oomska.

"Let's drive it," I said.  The ground looked pretty stony and the field surface itself looked quite firm, despite being very wet.

"You sure?" said H.

I was.  He jumped in again, I locked the diffs and turned the wheel to the right and set off along the eastern hedge to get to the northern edge of the field.

It started well.  We covered the first ten yards at about 10mph and everything seemed OK.  I duly observed what I needed to observe.

The Outlander had a manual gearbox but it didn't have a low ratio gearbox and was fitted with road tyres, but first gear had a lower than normal ratio and the turbo-diesel engine had a decent amount of grunt.

I nearly stalled it.  I dipped the clutch, revved it some more, found the bite point and increased the speed.  The pace increased slightly, but less than it should have done.  The wheels were spinning.

We carried on.  H was laughing nervously.  I was starting to fret slightly.  The car was continuing but I got the feeling we were sinking as well as moving forwards.  It nearly stalled again.  I increased the pace and soldiered on.

Have you ever walked across a muddy field in wellies and felt your feet get heavier as the more mud attaches itself to said galoshes?  If not I'm sure you can imagine.  You have to heave your legs more in order to walk.
The Mitsubishi Outlander in a bit of a state, but back on solid ground

This felt the same.  I was having to use more and more throttle in order to move forwards.  We were almost half way across the field.

It stalled.

H was increasingly concerned, and so was I.  I opened the door and looked down.  The car had sunk almost to its axles.  I looked behind to see two huge ruts where the wheels had cut through the sodden  ground, which was much more mushy than I had anticipated.

We were in trouble.

I reversed.  We went down instead of backwards.  A big chod of mud splattered on the passenger wing mirror.  Oops.  I opened the door again.  We were in serious trouble.

I'd never done proper off-roading - only playing about on concrete courses where manufacturers like to show off their SUV's approach, lean angle and wading depth.  Any SUV on road tyres will get stuck on a sodden field.

As far as I know the best approach in such situations is to take it slow, but this is difficult in an Outlander with no low ratio gearbox, and a modern turbo diesel with no torque below 1,250 rpm and tons after that.  Not so much smoothly does it, more like a switch.

Slow wasn't working.  It either stalled or spun the wheels.  I had visions of being stuck there for hours, in the dark, in that wet field, waiting for a farmer to come and tow us out, to our shame.

I thought I'd take it fast.  Reversing wasn't working, despite the field sloping very gently that way.  We just bogged down even more.  I stuck it in first, gave it revs and brought the clutch up.

The wheels spun, sending plumes of brown gunk all down the flanks of the Outlander, then, after a few seconds, we found some traction.


We carried on for a while at walking pace and then I brought it to a very gentle halt, aiming to sink into the mud as little as possible.  Selected reverse and went for it.  The car moved a bit, mainly sideways and towards the hedge.


Then we got some rearwards movement and I kept the throttle pinned.  We were moving.


I couldn't get the car out of the ruts we'd created on the way up, it just wouldn't escape.  I didn't want to jerk sideways and end up in the hedge so, looking over my shoulder, I kept it going in the ruts.  The car was sinking deeper with every yard of movement but at least it was still moving.

"Come on!"

It nearly stalled a couple of times but I just gave it more revs and ploughed on.

Finally we got back to the edge of the field and the hardcore track.  "Phew!"  I reversed the Outlander on to the track so we were facing back the way we had come in.  I didn't want to have to do a 3-point turn and get stuck again.

H and I were relieved.

"That was close."


I still had to 'observe' the field so had no choice but to walk it in my trainers.  Half an hour later I was back at the car with wet feet, bade goodbye to H and set off for home, a 2 hour drive.

The Outlander was caked in mud but had survived the ordeal unscratched.  It had done a good job in conditions that would have outwitted a heavier SUV.

I washed it off in the same deep puddle and found a 60mph road.  Over 40mph the car was wobbling like crazy.  "Hmmm."  I dipped the clutch and it was still wobbling so it wasn't drive-train related.  I thought it must be mud on the wheels causing an imbalance.

I found a place to park up and checked around.  The nearside front wheel had a huge chunk of wet clay-like mud attached to it.  I found a stick and scraped as much of the mud as I could from it and set off again.

It was still vibrating but at 50mph this time.  I stopped a total of four times, scraping more and more mud from the wheel.  It was hellishly sticky, and by the time I had finished my hands and arms were covered in it.

2 hours later I pulled into a jet wash half a mile from home and gave the Outlander a damn good blast of clean water, in the dark, cold and rain of a winter's evening.  I must have looked mad.

But I was happy.  The afternoon could have turned out a lot worse.  The Outlander did well.  I had eventually done the right thing, after a fairly disastrous initial decision.  The car wasn't damaged.  In hindsight I had enjoyed the situation.

"Put it down to experience."
The mud on the wheels causing the imbalance

By Matt Hubbard