What vehicle to choose for travelling around Australia?
We started with a few Land Rovers as our long time travelling vehicles. We've had a Discovery, a 90, a 110 and a 130 over the years as our camping cars, as well as several Range Rovers as city/touring cars.
Early on we had a thought that we'd like to drive from London to South Africa, in the time honored tradition of many Land Rover owners. Since we first had this idea the situation in a lot of countries we wanted to travel through deteriorated badly. The Arab-Spring made a lot of countries dodgy to travel in, and the conflicts in Egypt, Syria, Sudan, and so on didn't look like they'd be finishing up any time soon. So we thought it would be a simpler and probably a whole lot safer idea to get out and see our own country. We'll definitely still be doing the overseas exploring thing, but maybe not living in the back of a Defender.
I started a canopy build on our 130 Defender and after progressing some way with this decided that no matter what size canopy we put on it it wasn't going to be big enough to "live in", and we'd always be "living alongside". When travelling in Southern Portugal and Morocco in a wee VW Kombi, I was much taken with some of the big 4x4's getting around as fully equipped motorhomes and expedition vehicles (strangely, mostly owned by Germans!). So the seed of 'bigness' was planted.
Now, the search was on to find something bigger than a 130, where the canopy was big enough to contain a toilet and a shower, as well as a full size bed inside the canopy.
Some of the things we considered were:
- Ex-Army Mercedes Unimog
- Mercedes Actros 4x4
- Iveco Daily 4x4
- Iveco EuroCargo 4x4
- Fuso Canter 4x4
- Isuzu NPS 4x4
- HINO 500 4x4
- MAN TGM 4x4
- SCANIA P350
A lot of reading was done, and a number of vehicles were test driven! At this point I discovered that I needed to upgrade from a simple car license to a Medium Rigid if I was going to be able to drive a truck, so I went and did a one day driving course in a HINO 26-tonne tandem tipper, and came away with a Heavy Rigid truck license. 60Km/h was never so terrifying!
The relative merits of the various vehicles from my point of view were:
- Mercedes Unimog: Pinnacle vehicle for off-road work; Good size tray to build canopy; Disc brakes; Amazing fording depth; Easy to drive; 30 years old; slow on the highway; no airconditioning; Cabin was surprisingly cramped. 170HP and 520Nm of torque; Approx cost $75K by the time air-conditioning added.
- Mercedes Actros: Good but expensive; Not available as a dual-cab; Uses Ad-Blu for emission control; Drum brakes. Approx cost $175K
- Iveco Daily 4x4: This is halfway sized between a normal 4x4 like a Defender and a full sized truck, and has a host of interesting features built in right from the factory. 24 speed transmission (2 transfer cases); Easy to drive; Difflocks; Good wading depth; Parabolic springs; Drum brakes on the rear (but it did have ABS). My main concern was build quality, with pages and pages of people reporting problems with their Iveco. Having owned an Alfa Romeo, I didn't want to go there again! Still, a very interesting option that mostly impressed. Approx cost $90K
- Iveco EuroCargo: I really liked these! Available from the factory with Super Singles. The only real downsides were: Drum brakes on the 4x4 models, Ad-Blu for emission control; Speed limited to 90Km/h when running Super Singles; Questionable Iveco quality! Approx cost $150K
- Fuso Canter: Reasonably cheap price; Good dealer coverage; Available in dual cab; Can be made to fit into a container with the right canopy; Frame was a bit flimsy; cheap build quality; Suspension terrible; Drum brakes. Approx cost $70K
- Isuzu NPS: More expensive than the Fuso, but better value; Good dealer coverage in Australia; Available in dual cab; Had a DPF for emission control, which seemed complicated; Suspension terrible; Drum brakes. Approx cost $80K
- HINO 500: A step up in size and cost from the Fuso and Isuzu; Better quality finish; Suspension still terrible; Only available with dual rear wheels. Approx cost $140K
- MAN TGM: Expensive but very nicely made; Available in a dual cab; Parabolic front springs and air suspension on the rear; Disc brakes with ABS; EGR for emission control (no Ad-Blu required); Available in a Super Single Wheels (SRW - Single Rear Wheel) model; Very easy to drive (12 speed auto-clutch gearbox); Used by many mining companies for heavy duty off road work; 290HP and 1150Nm of torque; Dealer coverage not so brilliant in Australia; Approx cost $195K
- SCANIA P360: Good but expensive; Parabolic springs; ABS; Drum brakes only; 360HP and 1850Nm of torque!!; Maybe a slightly better truck than the MAN but the price difference ruled it out. Approx cost $210K
Both the Fuso and Isuzu could have suspension upgrades, to longer leafed parabolic springs, and converted to Super Single wheels, but this was about another $20K on top of the price for the truck. These upgrades are supplied by All Terrain Warriors up in Queensland, who were extremely helpful when I called and chatted to them about this improvement.
After all this testing, and much thinking, the two primary choices seemed to be a Unimog or a MAN.
In the end, the one I kept coming back to was the MAN. It didn't have the off-roadability of the Unimog, but still had centre, front and rear diff locks, and a low range transfer box for slow work. In reality, most of our travelling will be on sealed roads and dirt roads, rather than near impassable goat tracks, so the ultimate 4x4 performance of a Unimog would really only be useful (say) 1% of the time. The MAN was able to cover long distances at 100 Km/h in air-conditioned comfort in air-suspension seats, as opposed to the lower speed and lower comfort of a Unimog.
So that's what we decided. It would be a 15 tonne, 290HP 4x4 MAN TGM!