PakMule hitch-mounted cargo basket

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A few years ago I was chatting with a group of people about various aspects of long-distance travel—in particular the proper loading, positioning, and lashing of cargo—and I happened to mention a Chevy Tahoe I’d spotted recently that had a hitch-mounted cargo basket with several cases and duffels strapped to it. To be perfectly honest, I was a bit scornful that owners of a vehicle that size would need extra cargo capacity.

One of the guys in the group asked, “Do you travel with children?”

Um, no.

He just looked at me, raised one eyebrow, and smiled.

Point taken. I’ve never gratuitously criticized an auxiliary cargo carrier again. And when I was asked to review PakMule’s aluminum hitch basket, I was prepared to do so objectively. 

Clearly, if it is possible to fit all your gear inside the vehicle, you should do so for all the obvious reasons. But if there is stuff that absolutely, positively needs to go outside, where is best? The most common choice is on a roof rack, which has the advantage of middling resistance to theft and the fact that it doesn’t change the vehicle’s dimensions in terms of parking or maneuvering. But overhead clearance is an easy-to-forget factor, and whatever weight you put up there—added to the weight of the roof rack itself—compromises the center of gravity and plays havoc with aerodynamics. Plus the gear is just as much of a pain for you to unload as it is for a would-be thief.

Enter the hitch-mounted cargo basket. No effect on CG. Significantly reduced effect on aerodynamics. A breeze to load and unload. Hmm . . . 

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The PakMule cargo basket arrived in a huge box that, awkwardness aside, was surprisingly easy to lift. That’s because the basket itself, despite having interior dimensions of 67 by 26 inches—a full 12 square feet—is 100-percent tig-welded aluminum and weighs just 42 pounds. The workmanship of those welds, while not up to the concentric perfection of that found on high-end bicycles, is even and solid. And there is no paint or powder coating to inevitably chip and scratch.

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Installing the PakMule is simplicity itself: Slide the basket’s shaft into your receiver, insert the threaded pin and snug it with a 7/8th-inch socket or wrench—or, if you’re a heathen, an adjustable wrench or (wincing here) slip-joint pliers—then attach the keyed locking assembly, which snaps on without the use of the key. (The company offers as an accessory an American-made ratchet and 7/8ths socket—for me that’s practically enough to stop right there and give the whole product a five-star review.) The entire process takes about 60 seconds and presto, you’ve got a generous trunk’s worth of extra cargo space.

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It must be said that moving an external load from the roof to behind the bumper comes with its own caveats. Reversing in tight quarters becomes, first, a function of remembering the damn thing is back there, and then being extra, extra cautious with distance and swing clearances. (I suspect gear strapped to it will block the rear-view cameras of many vehicles.) Also, while the PakMule is rated for an impressive 500 pounds, you’d be smart to keep the total load well below that, as the stress on your rear suspension is magnified considerably with the additional leverage of weight hung out that far behind the springs and shocks. There’s certainly no issue regarding strength of the structure: I stood on a back corner of the basket and bounced up and down with scant effect.

What about off-pavement driving? Not that you couldn’t have figured this out on your own, but the PakMule will pretty much obliterate your departure angle in sharp dips and transitions to steep climbs. It’s simply the nature of the beast, and something you’ll have to consider when choosing routes and picking individual lines. A spotter will be a great help. And it’s easier to unload and remove the basket than it is to unload and reload a roof rack when you need clearance under a low limb. I was pleased to note the basket cleared a few dips I predicted it wouldn’t, but as soon as the trail entered real 4x4 territory that clearance ran out pretty quickly. 

No clearance issues on trails like this . . .

No clearance issues on trails like this . . .

I certainly didn’t worry about stability. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve followed vehicles fitted with receiver-mount bicycle or cargo racks that rocked back and forth quite alarmingly. The threaded tightening pin on the PakMule eliminates that almost completely, although it’s a good idea to load your heaviest item in the center of the basket to reduce the rocking moment as much as possible. Securing cargo is easy since the frame and floor of the basket are constructed of round tubing and one can attach a ratchet strap almost anywhere. I did notice that, after seven miles on a rough dirt road, the threaded locking pin had loosened somewhat. It’s a good idea to check it every once in a while. I cranked on the ratchet more purposefully the second time around, and it remained tight on the way back.

. . . but on sharper dips it goes away quickly.

. . . but on sharper dips it goes away quickly.

Accessing the stuff in the basket is a cinch, but what about getting to the rest of the gear in the back of the vehicle? That depends on the vehicle, and how high you have stuff stacked in the rack. If you have an SUV with a two-piece tailgate and an upper section that lifts, it’s possible to reach some items by standing on the basket and leaning in over the lower gate. When the unit was mounted on our Toyota Tacoma with its Four Wheel Camper and side-hinged door, there was 15 inches of clearance between the basket floor and the door—plenty to clear Wolf Packs but not quite enough to clear the Coleman ice chest I borrowed for the test. (I was amused to realize I don’t even own an ice chest any more. DC fridge/freezers are somewhat addictive.) Even with cargo removed, the 8.25-inch height of the standard basket might not clear some side-swing tailgates; for those vehicles the company offers a basket with the same floor space but a lower, four-inch height. 

These three things didn’t even come close to filling the basket.

These three things didn’t even come close to filling the basket.

The best strategy for employing the PakMule is to use it for the stuff you naturally load last and need—or can conveniently set aside—first.

As a safety issue, I was surprised to see not even red reflector strips on the back of the PakMule to alert inattentive drivers that the rear end of your vehicle is actually two and a half feet behind the brake lights. A clip-on LED running/brake-lamp kit that would plug into a standard trailer socket would be an inexpensive but worthwhile option. Between us, my wife and I have been rear-ended four times (once very severely for her), so I’m sensitive to the issue, but such an accessory might prevent even a minor crunch. I was certainly hyper-aware of vehicles coming up behind me at red lights in traffic.

On another suggestion-box note, I wonder if the company has any plans to introduce a bicycle-carrier attachment for the basket. It seems like it would be an easy thing to engineer. 

I’m not going to abandon my philosophy that all one’s gear should go inside the vehicle if possible. But for those times when it simply won’t, the PakMule is worth considering as a temporary solution. Its lightweight construction makes installation easy, and it would store on a garage wall or carport ceiling when not in use. Yet stability is excellent, and securing gear properly is effortless. So if you were the folks in the Tahoe with kids and the shaky cargo basket, take a look at the PakMule site, right here

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New Defender = new life for the Land Cruiser 70 Series?

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The old Land Rover Defender is dead. Long live the new Defender. 

Thoroughly, exhaustively, irretrievably modernized, the new Defender appears poised to take on the duties of an upscale recreational 4x4 vehicle—more comfortable, more efficient, even in many ways more capable than its predecessor.

But will the new, unibody, independently suspended, 40-some-microprocessor Defender live as a stalwart conveyance for biologists, explorers, or UN and NGO personnel in developing-world countries? Will it be modified by fundies in Tanzania and Zambia to carry a dozen or more tourists on safaris, day in and day out? Will it be hacked by militants in the Middle East and elsewhere to mount Dushka heavy machine guns? Will it be serially abused by mining and oil companies? Will it be adopted—even by loyal Commonwealth countries—as their basic military personnel transport?

My guess is no.

For how much longer?

For how much longer?

The core of the new Defender is a vastly complex aluminum structure that combines chassis and body into one assembly, ensuring a torsionally stiff vehicle—far more so, in fact, than any separate body-on-frame vehicle can match—while maintaining carefully calibrated crush zones for elevated crash protection. However, that structure will not lend itself to shade-tree cutting and welding. I’m willing to bet there will never be a pickup version offered from the factory.

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No: The new Defender is going to be an SUV, period. The so-called Commercial version might work for, well, commercial purposes, as well as for those wishing a no-frills platform to modify as an overlanding vehicle, but winch bumpers, roof racks, and the like will probably be the extent of practical alterations.

That leaves the existing pool of original Defenders to soldier on in traditional roles. Yes, they are straightforward to repair, and everything down to that elegant (but rust-prone) separate chassis can be replaced. But sooner or later, sheer attrition from wear and accidents is going to negatively affect the practicality of relying on that pool, particularly for government/military entities, NGOs, and businesses requiring reliable and well-maintained transportation. Where will they turn if their needs cannot be met by the new model?

There is really only one answer: The Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series. (Well, in some cases, particularly for the U.N., also the 100 Series. But let’s just stick with one line here.)

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One could mention Toyota’s under-rated underdog competitor, the Nissan Patrol, and the über Mercedes Gelandewagen, the former never quite matching the Land Cruiser’s reputation for reliability or durability, the latter simply priced out of most utilitarian markets. Neither has a chance of cutting into Toyota’s sales.

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Interestingly, Toyota has more than once mulled discontinuing 70-Series production. Sales of the three body styles in the line—Ute (pickup), station wagon, and troop carrier—pale in comparison to the Hilux and other vehicles, and production is archaically labor-intensive. The Australian mining industry—a huge and loyal market for the 70 Series—is largely responsible for the latest updates, especially enhanced safety features such as Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Electronic Brake-force Distribution, and front and side-curtain air bags for driver and passenger. Increased sophistication also arrived in the form of piezo injectors for the single-turbo, 4.5-liter V8 diesel, and increased luxury for the GXL version in the form of, gasp, electric windows and—into the realm of science fiction here—an electrically retractable antenna.

But the basics of the vehicle remain as if ticked off on a bespoke order form for explorers, guides, professional hunters, scientists, military operatives, and the odd jihadist: massive, separate, fully boxed chassis, mighty beam axles on mighty coil and leaf springs, huge fuel and load capacity, front and rear cross-axle diff locks, raised air intake, and a cargo area in the troop carrier voluminous enough to return echoes. (My wife and I and many other owners have built houses inside these things.)

Land Cruisers at Toyota Gibraltar Stockholdings awaiting far-flung postings.

Land Cruisers at Toyota Gibraltar Stockholdings awaiting far-flung postings.

It’s a completely outdated vehicle in numerous ways, yet utterly perfect for its intended use. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the 70 Series Land Cruiser in the next few years.

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So the new Defender isn't butch enough for you? How about a Grenadier?

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A what, you say?

A new, body-on-frame, beam-axled, full-time-four-wheel-drive, made-in-England utility 4x4, that’s what.

At least, if the plans of billionaire British businessman Jim Ratcliffe come to pass.

A couple of years ago, Ratcliffe, the CEO of Ineos, and several friends were chatting over pints in their favorite pub, the Grenadier, lamenting the demise of the Land Rover Defender and its likely metamorphosis into something entirely different. One idea led to another, and soon Ratcliffe—the owner of several Defenders— had a plan in place to carry on the spirit and function of the original. Those plans are near enough to completion that a test mule is reportedly being thrashed in the Austrian Alps, and an introduction is planned for mid-2020 with sales starting in early 2021.

The specs for the Grenadier are enough to make a die-hard “classic” Defender fan swoon. In addition to the characteristics listed above, the vehicle will employ a steel chassis and alumin(i)um body panels. The center differential will lock, and cross-axle diff locks are promised—something Land Rover stubbornly eschewed throughout the lifespan of the original.

In fact, so often and so specifically has Ratcliffe referred to the original Defender that, reportedly, the current Indian owners of Land Rover are watching the proceedings very closely indeed, waiting to pounce if it appears the Grenadier is nothing more than a thinly disguised continuation of their late product.

Ratcliffe, center, and the Grenadier team, with inspiration

Ratcliffe, center, and the Grenadier team, with inspiration

Ineos Motors has confirmed the sourcing of BMW power plants for the new vehicle, a 3.0-litre petrol and a 3.0-litre turbodiesel. It has also confirmed intention to build several body styles including a pickup—a configuration notably lacking on the new unibody Defender.

This might sound like just another pie in the sky fantasy if Sir Ratcliffe were not reportedly England’s wealthiest man, and were a factory not already being built in Bridgend, South Wales. Intriguingly, commercial director Mark Tennant has made several references to “the U.S. market.”

Stay tuned.

The website is here. Another news piece is here.

Exploratory coast-to-coast Africa trip June-July 2020

In collaboration with 7P Overland we are investigating an exploratory Africa recce in 2020—driving overland from one coast of Africa to the other. If you are interested in helping with the reconnaisance, please let us know and we'll put you on an interest list. Requirements: about 4–6 weeks' time available June-July; ability to rent or ship your own 4WD vehicle to Namibia; desire to explore the finest wild places on the continent of Africa, from Namibia to Tanzania; a profound sense of adventure and willingness to help design an ultimate safari.

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Instrument clusters, good and not so good

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You’d think that, 120-odd years into the history of the motorcar, manufacturers would have pretty much nailed legible instrumentation by now. In many cases they have; in others, I’ve found, not so much.

Consider the cluster on the Porsche 911 above. This one happens to be on a 1982 911SC, but it’s virtually identical to any 911  spanning four decades. Porsche gives you the most critical instrument in a sports car—the tachometer—front, center, and huge. White numbers on a black background, because nothing contrasts better than white on black. You don’t even need to take your eyes off the road to monitor progress through the gears. To the right is a slightly smaller but equally legible speedometer, and to the left the important engine-monitoring gauges (for an oil-cooled vehicle) of oil pressure and temperature. Those gauges that do not need to be read instantly, such as the clock and fuel gauge, are off to the side where you might need to move your head a bit, but not at a moment’s notice.

The 911’s cluster is angled directly at the driver, and inset a distance perfect for preventing overhead glare while not shading them too much. In fact I’ve never found myself in a position in which incoming sunlight or artificial light obscured the instruments beyond easy reading.

One might expect such perfection from the über engineers at Porsche, but in fact the prosaic chrome-ringed Smith’s instruments on my old Triumph TR6 are nearly as good: Tach and speedometer big and up front, auxiliary gauges on the side. (Plus the added charm of that walnut veneer, of course.) The Smith’s have shiny glass fronts that seem to reflect a bit more than those on the Porsche. But notice the same eminently legible white on black motif. And they’re shaded just deeply enough that no sun coming through the windshield can hit them.

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I found a similarly flawless instrument cluster in the Mercedes Benz 300D we owned for a few years. Again: white on black, important stuff up front—in this case the speedometer, so we could keep track of the needle’s slow crawl across its arc as we floored the accelerator pedal and waited patiently for results. I’m not even sure why Mercedes bothered with a tachometer on the automatic-equipped cars; a calendar would have been better at recording progress.

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Moving on to four-wheel-drive vehicles, the 45-year-old industrial gauge panel in my FJ40 is nevertheless peerless in function and legibility. Again, white on black. The only sign of age on this panel, after four decades and 320,000 miles, is the peeling orange paint on the speedometer needle. (Note, too, in all the examples so far, the comprehensive nature of the information offered, from oil pressure to amperage. Sadly gone on most vehicles now, although some electronic dashes allow you to call it up on a side menu.)

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In contrast to all these examples is the instrument cluster on our 2012 Toyota Tacoma, shown here in ideal light:

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At first glance, it doesn’t look bad. But notice that, instead of simple white lettering on a black background, as on all our previous examples, Toyota introduced a black background with a white band around the perimeter and black lettering, as well as a spurious “carbon-fiber” looking pattern on the black background. The gauges are also so deeply inset that, even in this photograph, you can see the shade partially obscuring the figures on the left of each gauge. Note as well the extremely poor contrast of the red kilometer markings, completely invisible on the left of the speedometer.

Now look at the same cluster in partial sun from the side, and through the lens of a pair of sunglasses.

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Not only do the numbers on both speedometer and tach become nearly illegible, the red needles also disappear against the black background, and even their tips show poorly in the white since you can only see about a half inch of each.

I noticed this characteristic shortly after we bought the truck, and it has annoyed me ever since. I constantly find myself turning my head a bit to look around my sunglasses to see what my speed is. Even turning on the headlamps (and thus instrument lights) doesn’t help. I have the feeling this arrangement was configured on a designer’s computer screen and never actually tested before it went into production.

Fashion is all well and good, but it should never interfere with function.

Designers: White on black. Please. And don’t put the gauges in a cave.

Withholding judgement, but . . . flying a drone in Iran?

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I hesitate to jump to conclusions until we have more information, but all accounts I’ve seen so far indicate that this Australian couple, Jolie King and Mark Firkin, were arrested in Iran after they were caught flying a drone near Tehran, possibly close to a military base. They’d been traveling in a Toyota Land Cruiser and blogging their journey until communication stopped in July. Details have just emerged, including in the Guardian, here.

Need I comment on the inadvisability of anyone from a Western power flying a drone in a country at odds with Western powers?

Some (positive!) thoughts on the new Defender

The Defender’s “Commercial” configuration shows promise for those wanting a basic overlanding vehicle.

The Defender’s “Commercial” configuration shows promise for those wanting a basic overlanding vehicle.

Now that the wait is over, and Land Rover Design Director Gerry McGovern’s stupefyingly uninspiring introduction at the Frankfurt Auto Show is behind us, and the bile from thousands of defenders of the original Defender is pouring down on the “Pretender” or “Offender,” as it’s been variously dubbed, I thought I would get beyond my own reservations regarding what I think of as the DC100 Version 1.1 styling, and look at the positive side of the new design.

We’ve known for a long time that the new Defender would be an about-face from the original: monocoque construction instead of body-on-frame, all-independent suspension rather than solid axles, efficient aerodynamic design rather than a box on top of a box. So it’s time to let go of those paradigms. The question is, is the new Defender capable of filling the role of a long-distance traveling vehicle, or even a true expedition machine?

Note the lead photos above, which show the 90 and 110 in what Land Rover calls the Commercial configuration. Steel wheels (albeit, at 18 inches, larger diameter than optimum), coil springs, simplified interior, and, in the 110, a cargo capacity of up to 900 kg (1,980 pounds). That is pretty close to the previous 110, and far above, for example, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon—in fact just about double. Also, from a pure looks standpoint, the Commercial’s solid white back quarter looks infinitely more handsome than the regular model’s bizarre body-color square covering the massive C-pillar, a design flub that completely ruins the linear continuity of the greenhouse. (I understand the body-color panel might be an option; if so it should be called the “Uglify package.”)

Look at the cargo area of the 110. The rear seats fold completely flat—three cheers to Land Rover for making that happen.

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There’s a lot of side intrusion into the space due to those C-pillars, which house AC ducts (note how they also bifurcate the alpine windows above them), but it looks long enough to lie down in, one of my personal criteria for a long-wheelbase overlanding vehicle—for those midnight camps after a long drive when you just need to sleep. However, the protruding hinges on the two-thirds split seat look like they’d dig into the back of anyone lying on that side. Still, overall a practical-looking cargo area, with less intrusion than the interior roll cage and speaker housings on the Wrangler Unlimited.

In terms of capability, the Defender should shine. The approach and departure angles on the 110 (38 and 40 degrees, respectively) compare favorably with those of the Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited (44 and 37). The breakover angle is markedly superior at 28º versus 22.6º.

The Defender boasts a world-class fording capability of 900mm (just half an inch under three feet). Not only that, the Wade function on the Terrain Response system will automatically soften throttle response, lock the driveline, switch the ventilations system to recirculate, raise the (air) suspension to its maximum height, display the water depth on the infotainment screen, and drag the brakes slightly for a few meters after exiting the water, to dry them. Astonishing.

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Speaking of Terrain Response—Land Rover’s pioneering and much-copied user-selectable system that alters vehicle dynamics to accommodate varying terrain—the Defender’s system will also be user-programable to suit individual driver preferences and experience.

Land Rover claims an astounding 45º side slope capability and a 45º ascent capability for the new Defender. I seriously doubt any owner will approach either of those limits. And never in any company’s literature have I seen so many quantified references to strength and durability testing as I found in the full-length technical brochure for the Defender. For example, in regards to the vehicle’s double wishbone front suspension and integral-link rear suspension, the brochure says the Defender “withstood repeated 200mm (eight-inch) kerb strikes at 25 mph.” Say what? Also, “the wheels can withstand up to seven tonnes of vertical load into the body.” And, “The monocoque body construction developed for new Defender is the stiffest aluminium body Land Rover has ever produced and able to withstand 6.5 tonnes snatch load through the recovery points. “

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Returning to the interior, I think the dash layout might be my favorite feature of the new Defender. It is simple, elegant, and functional. To me it looks exactly like the 21st-century descendant of the Series II dash. Even the ubiquitous center touch/infotainment screen looks like it belongs there—something I can’t say about several $120,000 luxury sedans. Yes, the steering wheel has too many buttons, but most of them can be ignored anyway. Several features reveal genuine consideration to actual real-world use. Got cargo piled so high in the back it blocks the center rear-view mirror? Flip a switch and the rear camera projects the view into the mirror. Nice.

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And yes, gone forever are the three transmission/transfer case levers and their red and yellow knobs. In fact, given the dash mount of the automatic gear selector, I doubt the Defender is configured to ever accept a manual transmission. Which . . . and I never thought I’d write this . . . is a good thing. Modern automatic transmissions are superior to their manual counterparts in virtually every way, including power delivery and fuel economy, not to mention the ease of driving on slow rough tracks or the magic of hill-descent control. The new Defender is never again going to be a vehicle an owner disassembles to repair or rebuild under a mango tree in Zambia, so the added complexity of an automatic transmission is really not an issue.

One factor in the suitability of a vehicle for long-distance journeys is often overlooked, and that is comfort. To say the new Defender will eclipse the old one in this regard is stating the obvious. At a guess I’d say the new one will double the comfortable daily mileage an owner can expect to cover when transits necessitate a dawn to dusk marathon.

The remaining factor, of course, is reliability, the one area in which Land Rover has long taken a fourth or fifth place to its Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes Benz, and Jeep competition. I can only hope Gerry McGovern and his team fully grasped the critical need to get that part right this time.

I know one thing: After thoroughly studying the detailed specifications and capabilities of the new Defender, I find myself for the first time genuinely excited for an opportunity to drive one.

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