LOCK & LOAD!
Frontline’s high-riding HiAce takes you further off the beaten track...
by Malcolm Street
An eon or two ago, campervans based on the venerable Toyota HiAce and Volkswagen Kombi were much more prevalent on Australian roads and there were a considerable number of conversion companies around. Time and taste (mostly larger and more expensive) have moved on and the number of manufacturers has reduced; most being a minor part of a motorhome manufacturing organisation. However, Brookvale, NSW-based Frontline Camper Conversions, under the direction of Peter Farrugia, has stuck to its roots and a fair chunk of its output is the true and tried campervan. Although a number of base vehicle manufacturers have come and gone, Frontline is still using both the HiAce and Kombi – both in many ways legends in their own time.
For this review I opted for the HiAce-based Adventurer conversion, but one with a difference: designed with a bit of rough/off-road use in mind. Not a full off-road vehicle mind you, but one with a lift kit to give a bit more ground clearance and a differential – or ‘diff’– lock to give more traction when needed in slippery conditions.
This is probably a good time to give a bit more of an explanation on a diff lock for those who would like to know. A vehicle’s differential is designed to allow each wheel to turn independently, thus allowing a wheel to freewheel during a turn. However, this becomes a problem in an off-road situation where the engine will try to power the wheel with the least resistance; i.e. the one without traction. The end result is much spinning of wheels but not much else. Vehicles fitted with limited slip differentials improve things but not greatly and some vehicles are fitted with an auto-locking mechanism that is also partly successful.
What a diff lock does is use a 12 V (usually) air compressor to activate a locking mechanism within the differential. When turned on it prevents the differential gears from rotating and thus prevents the axle shafts from turning independently of each other. So when the driver pushes on the accelerator, equal traction is applied to both wheels. When back on-road, the air compressor can be switched off and the differential returns to normal operation. A diff lock therefore gives the driver control on both on-road and off-road situations. It’s more common in 4WD/AWD vehicles, but does have a good application in something like a HiAce.
In many forms the Toyota HiAce van is a vehicle that has been around for many years. It has gained a good reputation for typical Japanese reliability and in some owner’s eyes is the only base vehicle that should be used for a camper conversion. In its current form the HiAce is available with either a petrol or diesel engine and with either a five speed manual gearbox or four speed automatic. It isn’t, however, available with 4WD/AWD capability. Like most small vans the HiAce comes with a nearside sliding door and a top-hinged door at the rear. When compared to its main rival, the VW T5, it certainly does have a price advantage, but it’s slightly smaller overall and does not have walk-through access between the driver’s cab and the rear of the van.
To the untrained eye the Adventurer might look like a normal Toyota HiAce van, but there are a few clues to its camper conversion including the impressive looking pop-top roof that integrates neatly into the HiAce roofline. The awning also gives the game away, although from some angles this camper looks like a normal van and its optional flush-fitting, glazed tinted windows certainly look good. Our review van came in white, which is the cheapest option and I’d suggest fairly easy to keep looking clean. With a different coloured van, matching the pop-top roof and awning costs extra.
ON THE ROAD
Clambering into the driving and passenger seats of the HiAce, especially given the slightly raised height, is helped somewhat by the grab handles located on each window pillar. When sitting behind the steering wheel, all the necessary control and safety functions are close to hand. One feature – the umbrella-style handbrake – looks a bit dated but certainly works okay. I guess given there are three front seats it makes fitting anything else a bit difficult, unless a foot operated parking brake were fitted.
Although there is no walk-through access to the rear, the centre console (the folded-down back of the middle seat) provides excellent storage and is also a good place to park the iPod/MP3 player and other essentials like maps.
Safety wise, both the driver and passenger get front airbags as standard. For the uninitiated, sitting over the front wheels rather than behind them can be a little disconcerting but it doesn’t take long to get used to. Certainly the rack and pinion steering is very precise.
On the driving note, although the HiAce has light commercial origins and is less passenger-like than say the VW T5, it has improved in both appointment and comfort levels over the years and is a much better proposition than it was. It is, however, still a van rather than a car in terms of driver and passenger comfort. Keep that in mind if planning long distance driving.
My HiAce came with the standard 111 kW 2.7 litre petrol engine and the optional four speed auto gear box. Diesel fanatics can get the 100 kW 3.0-litre turbo with its 300 Nm of torque; a clear winner over the 241 Nm from the petrol engine. There is a price to pay, however, and long distance travellers considering the diesel option might also like to consider the cost – an extra $4000 for a manual or $6,200 for the diesel/automatic combination.
Close to the city there weren’t a huge selection of places to try out the off-road/rough-road characteristics of the optional diff lock, but not long ago Sydney had about two weeks straight of rain, so there were plenty of muddy tracks around! That is certainly where the diff lock performs well and switching it in and out was quite easy. It’s not hard to imagine that the same facility might also be useful in the snow country, where traction is more important than ground clearance.
A slight problem that proprietor Peter Farrugia had with this vehicle was finding an appropriate set of tyres. Whilst there are plenty of boofy off-road tyres around, finding a size that also fits under the Toyota wheel arches, particularly at the steering end, was much trickier. You’ll be pleased to know an appropriate size has been located!
How long does it take to set up the Adventurer for a night? Well, about as long as it takes to park on a reasonably level site, open the sliding door, release the four pop-top roof straps and push up the roof – something made quite easy by gas struts. Oh, and if boiling the kettle is desired, then unstrapping the kitchen cabinet that sits on a pivot behind the passenger seat, swinging it out (although it can be used inside) and firing up the methylated spirits cooktop.
Awnings are just great, especially on campervans. Unless the weather is really cold, an awning does a good job of protecting the side of van from both sun and rain. A partially open awning is terrific for sliding door vans and very effective in keeping the rain away from the opened sliding door. In addition, for long term stays, awning walls are available, as is a small tent for the rear door.
Inside the Adventurer the layout is quite simple, with a kitchen/storage area cabinet along the offside and a day/night lounge taking up the mid section. The day/night lounge can be used for passengers (two optional seat belts fitted) or just for sitting on when camped by day or folded down into a bed by night. The rear area has a platform and large cushion for that purpose.
The bed measures 1.91 m x 1.22 - 1.12 m (6ft 3in x 4ft - 3ft 8in) and is narrower at the front end, but setting it up is relatively simple and is done by releasing catches on either side of the rear seat and laying it flat. An optional wider bed is achieved by not having the offside rear cabinet, but that does mean a substantial reduction in storage space.
Fitted into the offside rear area is a sliding door cabinet, the front half having shelves and the rear having a small hanging space. Right in the rear corner is a small shelf that on this camper held the optional external shower hose.
Under the bed at the rear is a good storage area; the front half being a good sized drawer (optional) that’s accessible from inside, whilst the rear area can be reached by opening the rear door. Part of this space is taken by the house battery and charger, but the rest can be used for general storage.
In reality the only internal camper seating is the two seater lounge in the rear, since neither of the cab seats can be swivelled. A single pole-mounted table can be used in conjunction with the rear seat for eating, but is not overly large given its intended use by two people. When not being used the table is stored behind the driver’s seat.
Catering in a campervan this size is going to be simple. The Origo two burner cooktop uses methylated spirits for fuel, thereby making the Adventurer LPG free. The spirit fired cooktop might be a little slower than LPG but also saves on the space needed for a cylinder. It is definitely easier to use outside, being at standing height, and a plus is that internal cooking odours are minimised.
Along the offside bench top there’s a stainless steel washing up bowl supplied by a flick-mixer tap directly behind the driver’s seat. That leaves room for a surprising bit of benchtop space. Under the sink is a two shelf cupboard and beside that, an 80-litre Engel fridge is fitted under a good sized drawer.
Alongside the fridge the space contains three storage compartments and the 12 V fuse and switch panel. It’s surprisingly handy and can be accessed easily when sitting in the rear seat, unlike some I have seen. Our review van didn’t have one, but an optional microwave oven can be fitted in this area, with a subsequent loss of storage space of course.
Lighting in the van consists of two fluorescent fittings in the ceiling and two LED reading lights in the rear for bed time use. I reckon an LED light fitted to the rear door and one above the cooktop would be useful items.
WHAT WE THINK
It seems to me the diff lock feature on the Toyota HiAce is a welcome addition. Whilst the HiAce is a very capable vehicle, it’s not available in 4WD/AWD form from Toyota Australia, but only as a grey import. So the addition of a diff lock is a nice little compromise that also suits people who really don’t want an off-road van, just one with a bit more ground clearance and traction.
From the living-in-the-campervan perspective, there’s no doubt that interior space is limited, particularly with the lack of through-cab access. Whilst a smallish interior might be seen as a downside, it’s the opposite from a driving and parking point of view. The HiAce’s relatively small size makes it easy to park and manoeuvre around town. What is great about this rear bench seat layout, though, is that the van can be used easily as a multi passenger vehicle if the optional rear seat belts are fitted. It certainly has all the basic essentials for light weight camping and travelling, both long and short term, too. If nothing else, for the city slicker the Frontline HiAce Adventurer with diff lock makes an ideal weekend escape machine!
- Small – excellent for around town and bush camping
- Rear differential lock
- Toyota reliability
- Excellent/internal storage
- Bed easy to set-up
- Optional rear seat belts allows extra passengers
- Mirror above rear door for reversing
- No cab to rear van access
- No light above cooktop when used outside
- Methylated Spirit powered cooking slower than LPG
- Bed might be too small for larger persons
Click HERE to visit the Frontline website.
Click below to download a PDF of the full test, including specifications, photos and contact details.