In pursuit of self sufficiency…
By Richard Robertson
Autarky, by definition, is the quality of being self-sufficient. To Nick Reed, proprietor of Gold Coast-based Xcentrix Campervans, surfer and lover of the outdoor life, self-sufficiency is paramount. It's why he’s called this unique vehicle the Autarky 4X4 and it’s one of the reasons he started Xcentrix.
Nick is a talented and passionate cabinetmaker who cut his teeth on high-end motorhomes working for Swagman and Paradise Motor Homes. Xcentrix specialises in custom van conversions, alterations and fit-outs and has also produced camper conversions of Mitsubishi’s popular Delica four-wheel-drive people mover, brought in as low-volume used imports from Japan. Delica supplies have dried up and Nick has been casting his eye around, not just for a replacement, but for a new vehicle he can transform into his vision of the ultimate, self-sufficient getaway machine.
A meeting with Brisbane-based Bus 4X4 Australia, specialists in four-wheel-drive conversions of buses and vans for the mining industry, steered Nick from initial thoughts of using a Mercedes-Benz 4WD Sprinter. Instead, he opted for Bus 4X4’s Toyota HiAce conversion and has produced what is, arguably, the most capable and fully-featured compact motorhome in Australia today. It’s also the most expensive for its size, I believe, with the heavily optioned test vehicle providing little change from $200,000 on the road. Ouch!
The good news is Nick says he can also offer the same conversion on a low km used all-wheel drive HiAce from Bus 4X4 for about $90,000. If you’re quick you can snap up this demo for $170,000 plus onroads – a considerable saving!
“I’ve built the Autarky 4X4 for a very specific market,” Nick said. “Obviously I can’t compete with the big manufacturers, so I’ve chosen a very small market who want a very specific vehicle that will take them almost anywhere and let them stay there for as long as possible, in total comfort.”
In effect what Nick has done is create his ultimate surfing vehicle. Given the base vehicle’s off-road pedigree, however, it should be just as much at home exploring the Kimberley, crossing the Tanami or navigating the rainforests of Far North Queensland.
Down to Business
The business end of the Autarky 4X4 is a Toyota SLWB HiAce with a 3.0 L 4-cylinder intercooled turbo-diesel driving through a 4-speed automatic transmission. Producing just 100 kW and 300 Nm the Toyota engine is no ball of fire, but should be quite under-stressed for the capacity. Similarly, the 4-speed auto is a ratio or two short of its competitors, but should go the distance with expected Toyota reliability. Indeed it's the lure of Toyota reliability, as proven Australia-wide in the mining industry and backed by a massive parts and service network that is a major part of the vehicle's attraction.
The HiAce is as well specced as you can get and features anti-lock brakes, dual airbags, cruise, cab air-conditioning, power steering, power mirrors, electric windows, a reversing camera and a multimedia sound system with Bluetooth and USB input. There’s little Nick could have done to disguise the HiAce’s basic commercial origins, but a pair of Stratos suspension seats or similar would be a good move.
It's underneath the Autarky where Bus 4x4 Australia has done its work – and the magic begins. It is also where a big part of the purchase price originates, with Nick reporting the conversion costs about the same as the HiAce itself! But this is no ordinary bolt-on aftermarket kit. The HiAces’s standard independent front suspension is replaced by a Dana live axle with a limited-slip differential, under-axle protection, coil springs and Bilstein shocks. Upgraded rear leaf springs with matching Bilstein shocks and a limited-slip diff in the rear axle are also included. Both axles drive though a custom transfer case with high and low ranges, which are electronically controlled via dash-mounted buttons.
The four-wheel-drive system is part time, meaning under normal circumstances only the rear wheels are driven. That’s fine, but given this level of sophistication and price I was surprised to see manual freewheeling front hubs retained. At least they have simplicity in their favour. The vehicle receives a 140 mm body lift, upgraded 16 inch steel wheels and rides on 245/70R16 LT Sailun Terramax all-terrain tyres, with two spares at the rear. Interestingly, the demo vehicle rode on an older set of wheels and tyres, in anticipation of the caning they were likely to receive during this test! Do I look that scary?
All-in-all it’s a comprehensive package that transforms a Clark Kent delivery van into an off-road adventure Superman. Only the Standard 75 L fuel tank seems likely to stop it leaping tall adventures in a single bound, so it's a good thing an optional 130 L long-range tank is soon to be available.
All that extra engineering adds weight, as expected, and the HiAce’s gross vehicle mass (GVM) has been dramatically increased from 3200 kg to 3880 kg via the suspension upgrade to compensate. The test vehicle’s tare weight was 3155 kg, but with full tanks (75 L fuel, 120 L fresh water), 2 people and luggage (not sure how much) I’m told it comes in at 3661 kg. That leaves a 219 kg load buffer. It also has a towing capacity of 2200 kg (up from 1440 kg), so taking a tinny along should be pretty easy.
Considering a HiAce is a bit of an ugly duckling, Nick’s mods make something of a good looking swan from it. Beautiful might be pushing it; best to think of it as ruggedly handsome in a no nonsense, hi-visy sort of way. One things for sure, it certainly attracts attention.
The roof is fibreglass and has been raised 200 mm to provide walk-around headroom. A proper motorhome door with security screen replaces the whizz-bang slider, but the driver’s side whizz-bang has been retained. It opens to reveal the back of the moulded bathroom unit and provides access to the toilet cassette, plus extra storage for wet hoses, leads, a tool box, wheel chocks, a compressor or similar smaller items. Very handy!
Other external features include an electric entry step, optional fold-down picnic table and exterior Bluetooth speaker, a Fiamma wind-out awning and a 240 V outlet on the kerb side, while on the roof is a 120 W solar panel, TV aerial, fan hatch over the kitchen, solar bathroom vent and optional Truma air-conditioner. On the driver’s side are the mains power connector, water tank filler and mains water connector plus an external shower. Three Dometic Seitz single-hopper windows with integrated insect screens and privacy blinds are fitted; one on each side at the rear and one across the back. But the Autarky 4X4’s party piece is its unique, full-height bedroom slide-out at the rear, with built-in storage
Electrically operated but with a manual override, the slide-out is rigid and fully weather sealed. On the driver’s side is a thermally ventilated generator box that sits below the bed level, which along with a 2 KvA Honda generator (and rooftop air) are part of a Comfort Pack most buyers would likely order. On the kerb side of it is a hatch that accesses the surprisingly large under-bed storage. Speaking of things electric, the Autarky 4X4 has 2 x 105 AH AGM house batteries and a Redarc 12/240 V 15 amp charger; LED lights throughout and multiple 12 V USB and 12 V sockets for charging, in addition to normal 240 V wall outlets. As previously mentioned, fresh water capacity is 120 L (which can be increased), while grey water is 60 L and the toilet cassette is 19 L. Importantly, both fresh and grey water tanks have heavy-duty checker-plate bash guards.
How’s it Drive?
A HiAce is a HiAce, except when it’s this one. Despite the extra weight and raised body the Autarky 4X4 rides nicely, with a compliant ride that neither crashes over bumps nor rolls alarmingly in corners. That’s the good news. Steering feel has suffered a bit in the transition to a live front axle and lacks some self-centring as well as precision. The turning circle is considerable enlarged, too, but if you’ve driven a live-axle Patrol, Cruiser or Discovery it will feel quite familiar.
Engine noise is subdued at cruise but typically Japanese diesel-clattery under acceleration; a condition not helped with just four ratios for the auto transmission to choose from and all the extra kilos. Visibility is good and seat comfort decent for standard HiAce pews, while in typical Japanese fashion, “All controls fall easily to hand”. The dashboard is steeped in Toyota light commercial tradition (read: grey and dull but functional), while cab access is a little trickier thanks to that raised body kit; like the steering, something you quickly adapt to. A point to make is this vehicle’s whole purpose is to excel off the beaten track. Getting there and back is largely incidental.
We dashed across to North Stradbroke Island for a few hours to sample the Autarky 4X4 on pristine beaches, deep sand and through tight bush tracks. Good approach and departure angles (24º/34º) made light work of getting on and off the ferry, while the ramp-over angle of 17º isn’t anything special in 4WD terms, but provides no real problem in the sand. With tyre pressures reduced, hubs locked and 4WD high-range electronically selected we hit the beaches, and I’m glad to report it took them in its stride: Firm sand, soft sand and even deep soft sand were tackled without problems. Even driving uphill from the beach to the thick coastal scrub, where we followed some tracks to test out its close-quarters handling, didn’t present any problems. You do need to remember the extra height, though, when the going gets tight.
While we were driving it struck me there are truck-sized expedition wagons you can buy for not a lot more money and that provide more cab space, living space, water capacity and load ability. What they can’t match, however, is the Autarky 4X4’s nimbleness; it’s ability to venture down a narrow track, squeeze between bushes and trees or do a quick u-turn. They also can’t match its fuel economy, driving ease – especially for copilots only occasionally called upon to take command – and minimal parking requirements at home between adventures. Also, most have pop-top roofs and steep access steps/ladders.
So far I’ve focused on the Autarky 4X4’s mechanical features and off-road prowess, but that’s only half the story. Inside is also where it sets new standards and blurs the lines between a traditional campervan and a ‘proper’ motorhome.
By definitions, campervans are primarily for those who love the outdoor life and spend most time outside. The van is often used as a base for a recreational pursuit and just to sleep and sometimes cook in at the end of the day. Public shower and toilet facilities, barbecues and nights around a camp fire are all par for the course, as is the ability to use the camper as a daily driver or second car. Motorhomes on the other hand are usually bigger and self-contained, providing a bathroom with toilet, extensive cooking facilities and even the luxuries of heating and airconditioning. The Autarky 4X4 provides all these and more. It’s the most ‘complete’ small recreational vehicle available in Australia, but like all recreational vehicle designs has its compromises.
If there’s a major limitation in the HiAce’s design it’s the lack of a walk-through cab due to the engine being under the front seats. Some might see this as an insurmountable compromise, but Nick saw it as a design opportunity to maximise space efficiency. The floorplan is simple, comprising a kitchen split by the forward positioned entry door, a front corner bathroom, central dining space and rear slide-out bed. What isn't simple is the degree of thought and engineering Nick has incorporated to make the most of the HiAce’s boxy body. It’s fully insulated with foam Insulbreak and fire retardant Earthwool, has lightweight waterproof flooring and foam-backed marine vinyl on the walls and roof. The Autarky 4X4’s interior exhibits a standard of finish, innovation and space efficiency rivalled by few. This is luxury on a grandly small scale, in a vehicle that ‘largely’ rewrites the rules.
To be honest there’s not a huge amount of room for living inside this vehicle, but that's not what it's about. It's about providing the most comfort and convenience in the smallest possible package and allowing you to enjoy it pretty much anywhere you choose.
When you enter the Autarky 4X4 the sink and under-bench 110 L Waeco fridge are on your left, behind the front passenger seat and centre console. You can pass things between the cab and body, but you’d have to be quite the Houdini to get through yourself. There’s a small amount of bench space next to the sink, above the fridge, while nestled in the ceiling directly above this is the optional 900 W microwave, with a small wine rack to the left. The sink, under-sink rubbish bin and storage area and the fridge can all be reached without stepping inside, which is handy.
The cooker sits on a stack of three drawers to the right of the door as you enter. It’s a ceramic-top Webasto diesel-fired unit, which works in concert with a Webasto hot water system and room heater, making the vehicle LPG-free. At present this system has a separate 12 L fuel supply accessed through a small filler just aft of the main fuel filler, but if you specify the optional 130 L tank it will draw its supply from there.There’s no rangehood, just a cooker-to-ceiling stainless steel splashback, but the door is right along side and there’s a fan hatch in the roof. It’s worth noting you can have LPG for cooking and hot water if desired, which would save a few thousand on the purchase price but introduce the complexities of a gas system and remembering to check/refill cylinders.
The bathroom, surely a first in a vehicle this size, sits in the corner behind the driver’s seat, abutting the fridge and microwave. It’s deceptively sized although you couldn’t call it roomy, with a swivel china bowl Dometic toilet in the front (against the outside wall) and a rear wall-mounted shower and a small corner hand basin. Surprisingly, a shaving cabinet and mirror is optional and while I didn’t shower in it I did stand inside and go through the motions (don’t laugh – research is a serious business!). It’s quite doable! There’s no roof hatch, just a small, clever solar exhaust fan, but there is an LED light and an opaque door to brighten it up.
Store & More…
There's a remarkable amount of usable and useful storage in this vehicle. A tall storage unit at the rear end of the bathroom has a small panel at the very top that’s home to the electrical switches, slide-out bed switch, battery indicator, tank gauges and cooker and hot water controls. Below it are two doors; the top one revealing two deep shelves and a mirror inside the door, and the bottom one a slide-out three-shelf pantry.
The centre and rear of the Autarky 4X4 is occupied by the combined dining and sleeping area. When travelling, the slide-out bed butts up against the cooker and tall storage unit. Dining takes place in a very compact area, the likes of which I haven’t seen before. When the bed is extended it reveals a small inwards-facing chair on either side wall. The bases fold down but have no legs; your weight supported by substantial machined arms and hefty brackets. They are small, upright and not what you’d want to sit on for a long time, but for a meal or while using your iPad at the dining table they are fine. To aid in this there are 12 V sockets and double 240 V outlets in the wall by each seat, while bedside USB outlets are close at hand. Speaking of the dining table, it's stored under the bed and attaches to the end of the bed base via a multi-adjustable Lagun mount. This provides a wide range of positioning options that includes the ability to swivel the table right back over the bed, out of the way. In fact you could leave it there while travelling and just swivel it back into position when required.
Tailor made for this model HiAce, the bed slide-out is beautifully finished and provides enough extra room to make the Autarky 4X4 properly liveable.
The bed base is raised somewhat and the bed lifts easily from the front on gas struts to reveal excellent storage and the afore-mentioned dining table and leg. At 1.85 m x 1.4 m (tapering 100 mm at the foot) it’s adequately long, but a foot extension would be good for taller people – like me! The bed/slide unit has a full width window at the head with reading lights and speakers above, and is nicely trimmed. Slimline bedside units provide valuable nicknack storage as well as dual 12 V USB outlets to keep your phone, camera or whatever charging while you sleep. Overhead cupboards run full length down both sides of the body, between the kitchen/tall unit and the HiAce’s ‘normal’ rear wall. The only precaution you need to make when retracting the bed is to ensure the dining chairs are folded up. One detail point worth mentioning is the use of simple rubber bungee loops to hold the chairs up and keep the bathroom door closed. Easy-to-use , rattle free and virtually unbreakable, they speak volumes on the thought and attention to detail that’s gone into this vehicle.
What I Think
The Autarky 4X4 is absolutely built to purpose for a very specific market and in that regard it excels. The design thoughtfulness, innovation and attention to detail are as good as it gets, and for a couple or single person with deep pockets and a love of getting away from it all it is, perhaps, the ultimate escape motorhome.
My concern is people will first look at the near $200,000 price tag and simply scoff at it as an exotic overindulgence, ignoring the depth and quality of engineering, fit out, inclusions and ability – and I can understand that. For Nick’s sake I hope he finds that handful of insightful and well-heeled buyers he needs every year who see the value and potential in this unique vehicle. I'd like to see him offer a basic two-wheel drive HiAce version for those who love the concept and features but don't need the all-terrain ability – and to build a version on the Sprinter four-wheel-drive.
The Autarky 4X4 is a unique mini-motorhome that transcends boundaries, rewrites the rules and shows what can be done when someone thinks outside the box they’re building in. Here’s hoping enough buyers catch the vision too.
- Good 4WD ability
- Features for the size
- A bathroom!
- Toyota parts & service
- Japanese reliability
- Steering feel
- HiAce a bit dated
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Xcentrix Autarky 4X4 (1693 KB)