Tech

The latest Defender teaser video . . .

While it’s tempting to try to infer more technical or performance details than we already know for certain, I’m not going to. Why? Because this is a teaser—a promotional video produced by Land Rover. It should be obvious that it’s not going to show us the vehicle in anything but the very best light. So of course the performance in this carefully edited sequence is going to look excellent.

Sure, there are certain things anyone who’s paying attention can see. The new Defender—particularly the two-door 90 version—appears to have class-leading approach and departure angles. Suspension compliance looks to be excellent, as we would expect. The wheel diameter seems to be larger than I would have preferred—certainly larger than the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon’s 17-inch versions—but the glimpses of brake discs indicate there might be room for smaller-diameter wheels to allow more tire sidewall. Impossible to say.

The point that struck me most forcefully was the marketing approach taken by Land Rover. Ads for the original Series vehicles stressed their utility, their strength, their versatility. Not any more. This time it’s all about a pseudo-Paris-Dakar, high-performance, high-environmental-impact attitude. More than half the tracking shots of the vehicle show it at various degrees of side slip, and there’s a whole lot of sand being spewed and snow being flung. That indicates clearly where the company believes its sales lie, even if it actually tells us very little about the vehicle’s everyday utility, strength, or versatility.

The new Defender will be a unibody vehicle with all-independent suspension and a high degree of reliance on electronic traction aids to gain what the company promises will be a new high in all-terrain capability for a Land Rover.

It will be an entirely different vehicle than its predecessors.

I suspect most of its customers will also be entirely different.

Nitecore charger

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One of the few downsides of modern digital cameras is the need for frequent battery charging. My first pro-level camera, a (film, of course) Canon F1 built with the ruggedness of a 747’s Black Box, had a battery to operate the light meter, but would function quite happily without it; you just had to remember the classic “Sunny 16” rule for exposure. 

Not so these days: No battery, no camera. Even the ascetic’s choice, manual-focus rangefinder Leica M10 is digitized and thus dead without power. 

One upside is, modern lithium/ion batteries boast tremendous charge density for their weight. Another—important for travelers—is that virtually all chargers for those batteries are muti-voltage and will operate happily on either 120 or 240 VAC current. Unfortunately, while the countries of the world managed to confine their mains single-phase voltage supply to those two choices, the variety of plugs necessary to access that voltage is bewildering. And if, like me, you are absent-minded enough to leave not one, but two adapters firmly inserted in sockets on a single trip across Africa, you could find yourself critically short on charging capabilities. Trust me that finding a U.S. to Botswana or Namibia adapter in Botswana or Namibia is a near-futile quest.

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Fortunately there is a backup power source right there in the notebook computer you take to download and store those photos: the USB port. Which brings me to the Nitecore charger.

The Nitecore, which is available in numerous configurations to accept most camera batteries, plugs into the USB port of your notebook computer, which means it is way less likely to be left behind. That would be enough for me to click “buy now” right there, but the Nitecore also incorporates a digital readout that tells you the overall health of the battery, its current state of charge, rate of charge, and voltage. Brilliant. 

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I used the Nitecore on a recent trip to Mexico in our Tacoma and Four Wheel Camper, which highlighted another advantage: Since we currently have only a single-outlet 12VDC to 120VAC inverter in the truck, I was able to charge both computer and camera batteries at once. And I found the state-of-charge feature useful: At one point I was unsure of the capacity left in one of my BP-DC12 1200mAh batteries before a long hike. So I plugged it into the Nitecore, which informed me it was at 980 mAh—plenty to go on with just a single spare.

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The Nitecore has a very short cord, which enables it to fold away in the back of the unit. And as you can see from the lead photo, the unit itself is significantly smaller than either my factory Lumix or Leica chargers. Given the extra functions included, that’s remarkable. Bravo Nitecore. 

Highly recommended, even if you’re not absent-minded.

High-mileage champions

My first car, at about 110,000 miles.

My first car, at about 110,000 miles.

“As with old Toyotas, nice old Hondas are perpetually rare. People buy the cars and squeeze them of use, then wake one day to find the things spent, not worth enough to rebuild. The curse of ordinary nobility.” Sam Smith, Road and Track

I remember when my first car, a 1971 Toyota Corolla 1600, accumulated 100,000 miles on its odometer. My friends were impressed.

Nearly two decades later, when my FJ40 passed the mark, I started a tradition by pouring a shot of single-malt whiskey into the radiator.

In between those events, much had happened in the automotive world. We’d passed through the dark days of early emissions controls, when Corvettes came with 160 horsepower and everyone thought performance was dead. Then came the magic of electronic fuel injection and ignition, through which a central processing unit (CPU) could precisely control fuel delivery and many other engine parameters—and thus hugely reduce emissions while increasing power. Slowly at first, then rapidly, power began to rise again, and before long we could buy cars that produced more horsepower than we had ever experienced during the so-called glory days of muscle cars. And yet those cars also used far less fuel—it was a win-win-win triumph of technology.

But that wasn’t all. In part due to the cleaner-running internals, and in part due to better machining methods and higher quality control, championed at its best by Japanese makers, engines and transmissions began to last longer and longer as well. Soon, racking up 100,000 miles on a Corolla or Civic was not even worth mentioning, and these days pizza-delivery kids still run clapped-out examples with 200,000 miles and more on engines that have never had the head off. Without doubt, 200,000 is the new 100,000—and yet even now statistics show that only eight tenths of one percent of vehicles reach that mileage.

My FJ40 now has 322,000 miles on it, and a comprehensively rebuilt engine courtesy of my master Toyota mechanic friend Bill Lee. So I wondered how many vehicles reach the 300,000-mile mark—and the answer came through the site iSeeCars.com. Herewith the stars, and the percentage of them that survive to that lofty distance:

Ford Excursion: .2%

Toyota 4Runner: .2%

Toyota Sequoia: .2%

Chevrolet Suburban: .2%

Toyota Tacoma: .2%

Toyota Tundra: .2%

Notice a trend? :-)

Incidentally, the all-model average for reaching that distance is just .1%. Also incidentally, the five longest-lasting sedans/vans (and the percentage of them that attain the 200,000-mile mark) include, in order, the Toyota Avalon (2.5), the Honda Odyssey (2.5), the Honda Accord (1.9), the Toyota Sienna (1.8), and the Toyota Prius (1.7). Note, especially, that last one, all you doubters who claimed the Prius would bankrupt owners with expensive battery replacements at 50,000 miles.

The 10 longest-lasting vehicles by brand look like this:

  1. Toyota

  2. Honda

  3. GMC

  4. Chevrolet

  5. RAM

  6. Ford

  7. Accura

  8. Subaru

  9. Dodge

  10. Cadillac

I was surprised to see Nissan in 14th place, below Volvo, Jeep, and Chrysler. I was also surprised to see that Volvo was the only European manufacturer to appear anywhere in these lists.

Of course, as they say, your mileage may vary . . . 

African safari guides and tire pressure . . .

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I’m not exactly sure why, but a lot of African and Australian 4x4s still run on split-rim (or, more properly, retaining-rim) wheels and massively belted bias-ply tires with tubes. It might be cost, the supposed (but illusory) ease of servicing in the field, or the brute resistance of those ten-ply tires to the abuse dished out by guides and other drivers who aren’t responsible for actually buying the equipment.

A related archaic practice is the resistance of drivers on those wheels and tires to do anything remotely resembling airing down in difficult conditions. Admittedly you cannot air down a tubed tire to the same degree you can a tubeless tire, for fear of tire squirm ripping the tube’s valve off, but you can certainly vary pressure to more or less suit conditions.

Uh uh, not these drivers. 

Graham Jackson and I recently got a hilarious example of this in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. We were parked at a pan watching hippos, crocodiles, and a very nonchalant leopard, when an open Land Cruiser equipped with the standard lodge safari seating module arrived, with two guides and a single guest. The driver came over and asked if I had an air source, as he had a right rear tire that was worryingly low. I pulled our Troopy next to his vehicle and hooked up the ARB Twin compressor, while Graham used our gauge to check the pressure in the suspect tire. He suppressed a smile and showed me the dial, which read a full 45 psi. Dutifully we hooked up the compressor and added ten more pounds. “Okay?” asked Graham, but the guide shook his head and pointed to the barely visible bulge in the tire above the tread. So Graham hooked up the hose again and said, “Say when.” The compressor buzzed, the tire tautened, the guide watched, Graham and I traded glances. Finally the guide nodded and said, “Okay,” apparently satisfied with the appearance of the tire.

Graham quickly checked the pressure again, and handed me the gauge. I snapped a photo before putting it away, with the needle pegged above 75 psi. (At the time we were riding on 24 psi in the rear and 20 in front (in a heavily loaded Troopy), to comfortably negotiate the sandy tracks in Moremi.)

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The amazing thing is that the guides get anywhere at all, although Graham has rescued some and Roseann and I have done likewise in East Africa.

Life . . . and a trouble-free journey . . . is all about the details

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Okay, no snickering about the technicolor assemblage above. The two jerry cans are colored appropriately for their purpose—blue and water, yellow for diesel. The tangerine gas bottle is courtesy Graham Jackson, who bought it and had it filled for us in Durban while we were still en route to Africa. Not sure if that was the only color available or if he was having some fun. And the straps? Green was all they had, okay?

But that’s not the story here. The story is about the level of detail one should aim for when inspecting a vehicle before a major trip, and especially the level of detail one should aim for when inspecting a new piece of equipment or a new accessory.

Consider this double jerry can and gas bottle carrier, custom-made to fit on the Kaymar rear bumper on our Land Cruiser Troopy. It seemed more than adequate when we picked up the vehicle after its installation. The pivot rides on a heavy-duty bearing and was rock-solid. I liked the locking bars to prevent fuel or water theft. I wasn’t pleased with the sharp edges of the tie-down strap keepers, but they seemed adequate until we got the Troopy back to the states where I could modify them. Our supplier had already installed a NATO fuel can and a plastic water can in it, so we simply filled them and left on the trip, which this time was a long, long route with no fuel resupply for at least 700 miles. And we had no trouble with the carrier.

The next trip, our last in Australia, involved another long no-resupply section (have you gathered these are common in Australia?). Although we had more than enough fuel under even the most pessimistic calculations, I nevertheless filled the yellow can on the rack.

A good ways along the Anne Beadell Highway, at the Ilkurlka Roadhouse, I walked around the back of the vehicle and smelled, then saw, diesel fuel pouring in a tiny but steady stream from the bottom of the can. When I pulled out the can and looked at the bottom of its receptacle, I immediately saw why. The base of the receptacle had been assembled in such a way that it left four welds protruding above the rest of the base. One of those welds had simply ground its way through the jerry can.

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It was not an issue for that trip, but it could well have been on another with more critical fuel needs. People have, indeed, died from identical issues. While we were in convoy with friends, and had satellite telephones, it still could have presented a major hassle.

When we picked up the Troopy in Durban this week, I addressed the problem temporarily but effectively with a double layer of the yoga mat material we always carry for lining cabinets and stopping random rattles. With new jerry cans in place we were on our way.

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It was a good lesson.


Repairing hubs in the field

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Recently I was going through archived travel images to illustrate an article for Wheels Afield magazine. While doing so, I noticed a consistent thread running through our photos of Africa and Australia: A significant number of them were of me working on the hubs of various vehicles. There were two sequences of me rigging bodge wire fixes to keep grease caps on the rear hubs of Land Rovers, and one of me (repeatedly) tightening the nuts on the full-floating axle of a 45-Series Land Cruiser. All these, incidentally, involved the use of a multi-tool because the vehicle in question hadn’t been equipped by its supplier with adequate tools. 

Then there was our last trip through Australia, during which we found that a mechanic in Adelaide had comprehensively screwed up a simple front hub and bearing service on our Troopy, leaving one loose and one reassembled incorrectly so that it would not engage. (There was also a different color of grease in each hub, leading to guesses that he had actually only “serviced”—i.e. buggered—one.)

It brought home what torture the hubs of an expedition vehicle go through on the rough tracks of the world. The number one cause of backcountry breakdowns is still (according to several sources) tire punctures, the second is battery problems. I’d bet the third is hub and wheel-bearing issues, especially if you include the assembly all the way in to the CV or Birfield. 

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Therefore I’ve decided that from now on, I’ll make sure our spares kit includes a complete hub servicing kit including bearings and seals. It will take up less space than a hard-cover book but could save a lot of time and grief.

I’ll also make sure I have along the correct special tools needed. In Australia when I disassembled the hubs I was faced with the external snap ring Toyota uses on these hubs.

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Graham and I had a decent selection of tools with us, but nothing suited to this fiendish part. Graham finally filed the outside ends of a pair of needle-nose pliers flat, which worked pretty well. How much easier it would have been if I’d had these Knipex pliers made for the job.

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Deciding which and how many spare parts is always a conundrum, and will vary with the length, remoteness, and difficulty of the journey. But a complete hub kit is compact and cheap enough to be a permanent fixture along with fuses and belts.

Better brake lamps for older vehicles

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It’s ironic that, as the car screeched to a halt scant feet behind my FJ40 while I sat helpless at a stoplight, my first panicked thought centered on the vehicle and not my cervical spine. 

But after all, the value of the Land Cruiser has arced somewhere northwards of $50,000 (my last offer from a walk-up stranger at the west Overland Expo). A rear-end collision would do no favors for that arc. So—for about the tenth time in several months—I determined to install better brake lamps. This time I acted on it.

The revolution of the LED has affected all areas of automotive lighting. But while most amazement centers around the astounding brilliance, power conservation, and durability of LED headlamps and driving lamps, we might better appreciate their advantage in brake lamps. Why? No, not just because they are brighter, but because an LED lamp reaches full brightness two tenths of a second faster than an incandescent bulb. That might not sound like much, but consider that a vehicle moving at 40 mph travels 12 feet in two-tenths of a second. So that slight advantage could very well mean the difference between a near miss and a car-and-cervical-spine-crunching collision.

My FJ40 wears a rear bumper/rack from Stout Equipment (now sadly defunct), and in place of the stock round lamps has oval Truck-Lite lamps, but fitted with the same dual-filament bulbs (Sylvania 2057LL) with staggered locating posts, common on millions of older vehicles. A short search led me to a kit from Aaron LED comprising a pair of LED bulbs and the requisite 50-watt resistors.

That requirement for a resistor confuses many people, as it confused me. The simple explanation is that an LED bulb retrofitted in an application such as this uses less current than the original bulb. Supplied with full current, on the turn-signal function it will flash far too quickly. The over-current condition can also reduce the lifespan of the bulb. The resistor simply converts the excess current to heat—which, the astute among you will guess, negates the energy-saving characteristic of the LED. Obviously in a brake and turn-signal lamp only on intermittently this is of scant concern. More so is the fact that the resistor can get quite hot and should be mounted to a metal surface to help dissipate this heat. (Other LED lamps are designed to use full current and do not suffer this loss of efficiency.)

The kit came with cheap Siamese clips to tap into the existing wiring. I hate those things, which expose the wiring to the elements and fail at a remarkably consistent rate. So I cut the wires and used crimped connections covered with heat-shrink tubing. (Those more purist than I might scoff that I did not solder the conections. However, I have crimped connections protected with heat-shrink tubing on this vehicle that are at least 25 year old and still working perfectly. For high-amperage installations I’ll solder, but I don’t think it’s necessary for low-wattage bulbs. And I do use a proper crimping tool, not pliers.)

Old and new.

Old and new.

The result was a satisfyingly obvious increase in the brightness of my brake lamps, not to mention the faster activation. I’m now considering adding even more security with a high-mounted LED third brake lamp from Truck-Lite. I really hate those screeching noises behind me.

A rant about ripoff products

An ARB bumper . . . and ARB driving lamps?

An ARB bumper . . . and ARB driving lamps?

“I do not prize the word ‘cheap.’ It is not a badge of honor...it is a symbol of despair. Cheap prices make for cheap goods; cheap goods make for cheap men; and cheap men make for a cheap country.” ~ William McKinley

There are few business strategies I loathe more than the one that involves ripping off a high-quality product with cheap copies made to look exactly like the original.

It’s not that I mind products made to a lower standard and price to compete with expensive products. If you can’t afford, say, a $1,000 set of driving lamps, do I think you should have to live without driving lamps? Of course not. But the company that produces the $200 set of driving lamps for you should be honest about it (and I suppose this means forcing you to be honest as well), and make its lamps to its own design.

Look closely up top at the distinctively red-rimmed ARB Intensity driving lamps I photographed on a 4Runner parked at a Tucson Toyota dealer. Note that the logo at the bottom of each does not say “ARB,” it merely, rather banally, says “LED.” These aren’t ARB lamps at all, but Chinese copies available on Amazon for a fraction of the price of the U.S.-made ARB Intensity lamps. Visually they are impressively similar, and if you were after the “look” of the prestigious ARBs without having to shell out the substantial chunk of cash they go for, you’d probably think you’d done well. I could guess that after springing for the genuine ARB front bumper, this 4Runner’s owner either didn’t have the cash left over for ARB lamps as well—or, as I hear more and more often, he turned the situation on its head and thought, ARB is ripping me off! Look what I can get on Amazon for a tenth the price! Same exact thing except without the brand name!

Perhaps.

Or perhaps not.

I did some quick research, and found the cut-price lamp on Amazon. (Incidentally, technically speaking the correct term for the device is lamp. What it produces is light.)  It was listed as the “Lumitek 2X 185-watt Nine-inch Round Headlamp Lamp Round LED Off Road Light CREE LEDs Spot Beam Led Work Light Fog Light Driving Light Roof Bar Bumper for SUV Boat 4x4 Jeep.” Whew.  At $108.12 for a pair (Prime), an astonishing deal on the surface. And, to be completely fair, they carried a four-star rating, which is pretty good. So I began reading the reviews.

The good ones uniformly praised the value for money, as one would expect. Several buyers had had them installed for some time with no issues.

But then there were these reviews (and this is just a sample).

“I wish I could like these lights, but they may just be too cheap. I ordered a set based on the good reviews, but to my disappointment only one of the two lights in the set would turn on. I double and triple checked my wiring but still they wouldn't work. I eventually just hooked them up to a direct power source and confirmed that one was dead.”

“These do not seal out moisture at all. First wash and water sits inside. Lights still work, but idk how long they’ll last like that. Have to disassemble and place a sealant glue On perimeter. Other than that they work well!”

“I knew these were going to be cheap, so while I was disappointed with one not working, I knew I was getting what I paid for. However based on so many popular reviews I ended up returning mine and purchasing another pair thinking that a defective light wouldn't come twice in a row. Lo and behold, after receiving my second set today and hooking them up to a power source, yet another one of the lights was dead and not working. C'mon! I would've given these a good review If they had worked the second time purely because they are so bright (the one that did work) and the price tag.”

“After about a year, the two units I ordered started having issues. When one failed, I asked for a replacement under warranty and was sent one. I took the other dead one apart and discovered that all the LED chips are in parallel, so if one starts to fail, the others are sent too much current and also fail. I bought some replacement leds from an electronics distributor (CREE JK2835AWT 6V) and soldered them in.”

And then there’s that “185 watts” rating. The equivalent ARB 32SV2 Intensity lamp is listed at 165 watts. Several Lumitek users actually measured the draw of their copies—which is to say the output. And:

“Not as advertised! These only draw about 50 watts a light! Immediately sent back!”

“One tests at 57w, one tests at 63w. Far below 185w. Granted most lights nowadays come rated higher then actual output. This is very disappointing.”

Another—satisfied!—user reported:

“Unbelievably Bright for their cost. Very Satisfied. The 9" Light Draws Just Over 3 Amps Per Single Light.”

This user might have thought they were bright, but 3 amps means his lamps were actually producing about 40 watts—less than one quarter the advertised rating.

And such is the unpredictable way with cut-rate products such as this, as I’ve found with many others, from winches to cordless drills to Yugos. (Yes. I knew a woman who put 120,000 trouble-free miles on one). A few people will have great luck, others will have miserable luck, and, one suspects, yet others will have miserable luck but will be loath to admit it and insist they got a breat buy. (Come to think of it, did my acquaintance really have such good service from the Yugo?)

On one hand you can argue that, for the price, you can put up with going through three or four lamps to get a pair of working units, if you don’t mind the hassle and shipping. Lumitek offers a 12-month guarantee, so with luck you’ll have enough time to get sorted. Of course, the output of the lamps you wind up with might not even come close to the advertised rating, and it appears you don’t want to get them wet, but . . .

Okay, I’m being a bit sarcastic. But there’s another issue here: Waste. Do you think all those lights returned under warranty are shipped back to the factory in China and rebuilt? I’ll bet not. My bet is they’re simply trashed. Even if they are shipped back, it’s a waste of the crap components and fuel and pollution to do so.

I’m sure there are budget-priced driving lamps that are built better and would serve decently (do your research). The Lumitek approach rankled especially because of the blatant copycat styling.

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So, what about the real thing, the ARB Intensity LED lamps? We have a set on our Land Cruiser Troopy, and they have performed superbly. I was impressed by the huge margin of safety they offered when we were “forced” (by overly optimistic planning) to drive for several hours after dark on Highway 87 on the way to Alice Springs, with large hopping marsupials creating an interesting obstacle course. Recently ARB announced an updated version, the V2, and I’ve just installed a set of the AR21 V2 on my FJ40. I will report, but the specs (which I’m confident are accurate!) are even more impressive than the originals. Full review soon; however, I can already confirm that both of them actually came on when I flipped the switch.

P.S. For an in-depth technical look at the difference between high-quality brand-name driving lamps and cheap copies, take a look at the excellent piece from Baja Designs here.