The greener grass syndrome

2 Twiga Lodge, Shaw Safaris, Mt Meru, Arusha NP

Spend any time on overlanding forums or blogs (including, I confess, this one), and you’ll read countless references to, pleas for, and bitching about currently manufactured overlanding vehicles not available in the U.S. These include, in essentially descending frequency of appearance and magnitude of whining, the Toyota Land Cruiser FZJ78 Troopie, the Land Rover Defender 110 and 130, and the Toyota Hilux, followed by a half dozen models dear to aficionados of ‘lesser’ brands: the Nissan Navara and Patrol, Volkswagen Amarok, the excellent rest-of-world Ford Ranger, even the almost-made-it-here Mahindra.

Occasional articles crowning this one or that one as the “ultimate” expedition vehicle simply exacerbate the sense of deprivation, while the author comes across as archly more worldly than those merely dreaming about driving such machines. 

Kenya Hilux jpeg.jpg

Are we really that deprived in the U.S., or is this angst simply human nature at work?

I’ve been lucky enough to put many thousands of miles under the wheels of some of those unobtanium models, as well as a whole bunch more under a generous selection of U.S.-spec alternatives, and—while this might sound like waffling—I think it’s a bit of both. The good news is I also think things are changing for the better.

The major legitimate deprivation we suffer, in my opinion, centers more around engines than platforms. Specifically, we have traditionally been denied the plethora of sturdy small diesels and turbodiesels available elsewhere. There can be little doubt that a diesel engine is the best choice for most expedition use, for reasons varying from longetivity to fuel economy to safety (higher flash point, thus lower fire risk). Yet in the majority of otherwise suitable four-wheel-drive vehicles available in the U.S., various gasoline engines are the only choices. Our Tacoma’s option list gave us the choice of a four-cylinder gas engine or a six-cylinder gas engine; no box to check for the Hilux’s 1KD-FTV three-liter turbodiesel. Likewise the Nissan Frontier cannot be had with the brilliant turbodiesel of its otherwise twin the Navara. On and on.

Those of the anti-government-controlled-anything bent blame this on emission regulations. Sorry, but nonsense. If Ford can certify its 6.7-liter V8 turbodiesel, and Volkswagen can certify the Golf’s 1.8-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel, you can’t convince me Toyota and Nissan couldn’t do the same with something in between if they wanted to. Like it or not, I’m quite sure simple economics is behind it: If Toyota thought they could sell enough turbodiesel Tacomas here to ensure a profit, they’d come up with an engine.

For further proof that regulation is not to blame, look at Ram, with its new state of the art 3.0-liter EcoDiesel, which renders a full-size pickup capable of genuine 25mpg-plus economy, and the upcoming Cummins-ized Nissan Titan. And if you read my rant about the Toyota Hilux linked above, specifically the whinging about that truck’s fully boxed chassis and turbodiesel engine, well, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 2016 Chevrolet Colorado. Fully boxed chassis, check. Hyper-efficient 2.8-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel, check. Four-wheel disc brakes, traction control, hill-descent control, check. In fact the only thing the Hilux has that the Colorado doesn’t is endorsement from various insurgent groups as a platform for a 12.7mm machine gun. If we can do without that stylish association, perhaps it’s time we looked to our own shores for an expedition-capable mid-sized truck.

Ah, the astute among you will ask, what about the dreaded ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel mandated in the U.S., and the associated engines that will self-destruct if fed full-fat-sulfur fuel? It’s true that as of right now, ULSD fuel is commonly available only in the U.S., Canada, Europe (where it was first introduced), and a few additional countries. However, that availability is increasing steadily, even in Africa, and I predict ULSD will be a worldwide commodity in a few years. Remember that a few decades ago we went through the same situation with unleaded gasoline, now standard virtually everywhere.

Don’t want to wait for universal ULSD to buy a world-class expedition vehicle? Go get yourself a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited. Sure, you’ll be limited (for the moment at least) to a gasoline engine, but in almost every other respect the Rubicon Unlimited can hold it’s own with the world’s Troopies and Defenders. In fact, in the latest edition of Tom Sheppard’s Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide, you’ll find a two page spread comparing four top-level expedition vehicles—one of which is the Wranger Rubicon Unlimited. Rumors keep circulating that the U.S. Wrangler might get a turbodiesel option soon; it’s already available in the ROW (rest-of-world version). Other gas-engined-but-capable models to consider are the 4Runner Trail Edition, the Nissan Xterra and Pathfinder, the Ford Explorer, and Chevy Tahoe. And there’s nothing that says overlanding can’t be luxurious: The Land Rover LR4 is a superbly capable backcountry vehicle.

So far I’ve only mentioned new vehicles. Look into the used market and your choices expand exponentially. First, the 25-year importation requirement has reached a point on the calendar that allows us to import early Defenders and 70-Series Land Cruisers—in fact entire businesses are springing up to take advantage of this situation. You can order a 110 or Troopie and have it delivered. Along with several friends, we recently imported four mid-1980s ex-MOD (Ministry of Defense) Defender 110s, three of which we are updating and refurbishing, one of which is being sold (if you're interested, email me).

If you imported a 25-year-old Land Cruiser 70-Series up to now, you could get it with the reliable but, um, modestly powered 2H diesel; now the superb 1HZ, introduced in 1990, should be coming in legally. My experience has been that it’s easy to find Defenders in good to excellent shape in the UK; however, the available 70-Series Land Cruisers tend to be well-used (i.e. BTS) examples from Australia. This might change as more become available from the Middle East (which would also make them left-hand-drive).

But let’s move back to more mainstream U.S.-available models. The U.S.-spec 80- and 60-Series Land Cruiser station wagons make superb platforms for building up a reliable and durable overlanding vehicle. Sahara veteran Chris Scott rates the 60 as the best all-around such machine on the planet—albeit with the ROW turbodiesel. Several years ago Roseann and I refurbished a rust-free $2500 FJ60 with a new turbodiesel engine, a Toyota five-speed gearbox, suspension, lockers, paint, and interior. Some shockingly poor workmanship from the company that did the conversion turned the project epic for a time, but in the end we wound up with an essentially new 25mpg 60-Series for about the same price we would have paid for a base 4Runner. We still miss that vehicle.

While they don’t have the Out-of-Africa cachet of the classic expedition vehicles, American pickups are fine choices for long-distance travel, as proved conclusively over several decades by Gary and Monika Wescott of the Turtle Expedition. A pre-2006 Ford, Chevy, or Dodge turbodiesel 3/4 or 1-ton pickup, mounted with a Four Wheel Camper, will run on the diesel fuel available in world markets and will be a comfortable home away from home for as long as you care to stay on the road.

Funny: The more I thought about it, the more options I thought of for those of us ‘stuck’ with U.S.-legal models to own extremely capable long-distance overlanding vehicles. 

Does this mean I’m going to stop bitching about the Hilux?

Probably not.

One last thing: Rest assured that the inevitability of human nature means those sitting in the lovely green grass on the other side of the fence frequently suffer the same syndrome we do. We recently stopped in North Berwick, Scotland, to visit Duncan Barbour, ex Camel Trophy team manager, coordinator of new-vehicle-introduction gigs around the world for Mercedes, Toyota, and other marques, and mainstay of the Overland Expo training team. North Berwick (say “berrick”) is a picturesque village on the shores of the Firth of Forth just east of Edinburgh, with Victorian streets narrow enough that drivers of Fiat 500s in opposing lanes need to mind their mirrors. We drove up a tiny country lane to a tiny residential street, turned the corner to Duncan’s place, and found . . .

 Note, even, the 18-wheeler running lights on the roof. Duncan, Duncan . . .

Note, even, the 18-wheeler running lights on the roof. Duncan, Duncan . . .