Could a light truck be the answer to your weight problem? We get behind the wheel of the 2020 Australian Adventure Vehicles Canter Trackmaster.
The last decade or so has seen a steady trend to add weight to vehicles with more and heavier accessories and the same is true of camping gear. As we’ve described previously, even a ute quickly runs out of payload by the time you’ve kitted it out and then climbed in yourself.
Nowadays, GVM upgrades are common but another 200 or 500kg may not be enough. Even if you do upgrade, the rest of the vehicle is made for lower weight – engine, chassis, cooling, transmission, brakes – you can upgrade each component, but the costs start to stack up, and there’s always another weakest link. Or you can tow, or you can think bigger, and consider a light truck. I mean, how does 2500kg sound…as a payload figure with 270mm of ground clearance?
So, what’s a light truck?
These are literally trucks, not cars, but by truck standards, tiny. They offer huge amounts of payload and space compared to a ute, but as ever, there are trade-offs to be made so they won’t suit everyone. We took a look at the Fuso Canter FGB71 as modified by light-truck 4X4 specialist Australian Adventure Vehicles (AAV4X4), becoming what they call a Trackmaster. Other popular truck options are the Isuzu NPS 300 and the Hino 300-817.
The first thing you notice about the Canter is its size. It looks big, much more so than any wagon or ute. However, looks are deceiving. In the same way a Prado looks a lot bigger than a Ford Falcon wagon (remember them?) but they actually take up much the same space in terms of length and width, the Canter is actually very close in dimensions to the larger 4X4s like the LC200, Patrol Y62 and Ranger Raptor. Let’s compare a Ranger XLT with off-road tyres, roof rack, canopy and a 50mm suspension lift to the Canter.
|Spec vehicle||Ford Ranger XLT dualcab – taller offroad tyres, suspension lift, roofrack, bullbar, winch||Mitsubishi Canter FGB17 AAV4X4 dualcab Trackmaster – bullbar, winch, tray||Difference|
|Body||Dualcab ute||Dualcab light truck|
|Transmission||6-spd auto||5-spd manual|
|Seats||5||6 or 7|
|Power/weight at tare||16.1||31.1||-75.7|
|Tray length (mm)||1800||3400||1600|
|Ground clearance (mm) (1)||225||270||45|
|Turning circle (m)||12.7||13.4||0.7|
|Tyre diameter (in)||32||37||5|
|Base weight (kg) (2)||2370||3425||1055|
|Max braked tow||3500||4500||1000|
|(1) Measured on both vehicles. 265/70/17 tyres on Range.|
|(2) Estimated based on modifications as described.|
Only 128mm wider and the major difference is the height, at around another 600mm taller before the Ranger’s roof rack is loaded – we’ll assume with all that space the Canter doesn’t need a roof rack. Manoeuvrability isn’t as bad you may think either with a slightly wider turning circle and it’s worth nothing an LC79 has an even bigger turning circle at 13.7m. Still, the Canter is bigger than the likes of a Ranger, so a little less manoeuvrable which becomes a factor in tight tracks or even shopping centres.
The major advantage to a light truck is that you have a vehicle designed from the start to carry heavy, bulky loads. The Canter modified to Trackmaster spec weighs around 3400kg and has a GVM of 6000kg. It seats 6 or 7 people and, as pictured, has a tray of length 3100mm (3400mm if the spare tyres weren’t there) and width of 2150mm. Those figures dwarf any ute or wagon – a dualcab ute tray is lucky to be 1800×1800, and even then, that’s a lot of rear overhang. Then there’s 2500kg plus vs 800kg or so for payload…just no comparison. Even the heaviest-travelling, most luxurious camper would be hard pressed to use all that. And with a GCM of 9500kg, plus that ample payload, the Canter can tow 3500kg or 4500kg safely, particularly as its own mass will be around 3500kg, unlike a much lighter ute which would be bossed around by a big trailer. The light truck also has a much better front/rear weight distribution, whereas utes tend to become very tail-heavy when loaded.
If you opt for a light truck, you’ll also need something on the back. This may be a simple tray as pictured, or a full motorhome, or a combination of the two, or a service body. There’s a lot of options, and many companies ready to build what you want to your specifications. To give you an idea of prices, a Canter tray may be around $5500, and the AAV Xplorer motorhome unit is $117,000, so your body spend will probably be between those two.
The likes of the Canter are also built to run reliably for half-a-million kilometres or more, whereas 4X4 utes and wagons are not designed for that sort of lifespan. That’s the difference between a relatively low-powered, noisy, load-lugging engine in a truck and a high-powered, quiet and responsive but more fragile engine in a wagon or ute. Safety isn’t a truck’s strong point. Most wagons and utes are 5-star ANCAP safety rated, but there’s no such rating for trucks. You do get dual airbags and ABS, but not much else. Nevertheless, safety cannot be viewed as a positive for the light trucks. And another con is that you will need a light-rigid license to get the most from your truck (see below).
What’s the Canter Trackmaster like to drive?
Quite liveable really, but nowhere near any of the wagons or utes on any measure. To begin with, the trucks have heavy-duty suspension, with shocks placed inboard, on live axles front and rear with leaf springs. Then the seating position is high up and over the front axle, so any bouncing is exaggerated compared to a car or ute position which is lower down and between the axles. That’s why suspension seats are an option for trucks, standard for the driver and an option for the passenger.
The ride itself isn’t bad, and I think would be quite liveable even for very long distances, but it’s a long way off smaller vehicles. There’s sat-nav and Bluetooth, but no automatic option unless you have a spare $32,000 for a conversion, and cruise control is an aftermarket option for $650 plus fitting. It’s a similar story on the handling too. You can definitely live with it but it’s not wagon or ute standard. The steering isn’t as direct and there’s much less road feel, but the biggest difference is the power.
The Canter’s engine is a 110kW / 370Nm diesel which would be pretty unimpressive these days even in a ute with a GVM of 3000kg. But that engine has to lug up to 6000kg, so if we take a ute weighing 3200kg with a 150kW engine, each kilowatt has to shift 21kg. If we take a Canter at 5000kg, that’s 45kg every kilowatt has to move. And even worse, the Canter has only got a slow-shifting five-speed manual gearbox, not a modern six- to 10-speed automatic. Light trucks are many things but fast they are not. There is an engine remap which offers 50 per cent more torque but you then lose the warranty.
We did some limited but informative off-roading with the Trackmaster, running it up and down some hills and over an uphill cross-axled section. The suspension flex is very good, aided by the chassis being designed to flex too. The 37-inch tyres offer plenty of clearance, and the standard limited-slip differential in the rear is effective. Approach, ramp and departure angles are good, and the slightly longer wheelbase than even a Ranger means the wheels aren’t going to be in the same holes. It feels strange sitting up so high and far forwards, and that takes some getting used to. Based on our short test, and what we’ve seen from owners out and about, the off-road capability of the Trackmaster Canter isn’t in question.
Is a light truck for you?
Light trucks offer huge payload, towing and space but lack the refinement and features of utes and cars, and they’re not as small either. But if you’re towing something heavy or looking at GVM upgrades and still worrying about weight, then take a closer look at a truck like this. It’s designed to do heavy-duty work, and that may be a better option than trying to convert a ute to a truck.
Why single wheels?
The average 4X4 ute or wagon usually has tyres around 31-inch diameter and is often modified with 32-inch tyres which give a ground clearance of around 220mm. The standard tyres on the Canter are 215/75/17.5, so 30-inch diameter but give only 206mm of ground clearance under the diffs, because the Canter diffs are larger and hang down lower. That’s a huge disadvantage for the Canter, so it needs to be fixed and the only way to do that is to increase tyre diameter, so on go 37-inch tyres. Those add another 127mm of diameter giving an extra 63mm ground clearance improvement to an impressive 270mm, about 40mm more than the average touring 4X4.
As the Canter’s track (distance between the centre of tyres on an axle) is pretty much the same as that of a Raptor or LC200, this clearance means the Canter can travel along most rutted tracks without scraping.
The other wheel modification is to remove the dual wheels at the back and replace them with a single wheel. Dual wheels are never used off-road for two reasons; first, rocks and debris are liable to get lodged between the two wheels, leading to tyre damage or worse. Second, there are three wheel-tracks even when the vehicle is driving straight, whereas with a normal 4X4 the rear wheels follow exactly the front wheels so there’s just one set of tracks, which greatly reduces rolling resistance in soft ground. Each original wheel weighs 42kg, so that’s 42 x 7 = 294kg versus the single’s 68kg x 5 = 340kg, so only an extra 46kg, assuming one spare.
Looking at the single wheel conversion, I thought that perhaps the load point might have changed which would stress the axle, same as what happens when you increase the track of a 4X4 by fitting wider-offset wheels. In fact, that’s not the case as the mount point of the single wheel is only about 30mm different to that of the duals.
The same wheels are run on both the front and rear axle but swapped around so the offset faces in or out. There are valve stems on both the inside and outside of the wheel, so it doesn’t matter which wheel goes on which corner. The speedo/odometer is adjusted so it reads correctly for the new tyre diameter.
What’s cheaper, the ute or the truck?
Let’s say you could spend $90,000 on a 4X4 ute or buy the AAV4X4 Canter for $130,000, both of which would be kitted out with tyres, winch, service body, water tanks and everything else. Let’s assume the life of the ute is 250,000km and the Canter is 450,000km. The per-kilometre buy costs are then $0.36 per km for the ute and $0.30 for the Canter. Now that doesn’t include servicing or lots of other factors such as changeover cost which would be about twice as frequent for the ute, or resale value which would be better for the Canter, but it is worth looking at the total lifecycle cost of a vehicle, not just the initial purchase price. Canter services are $600-$900 for a minor and $1900 or a major service with factory service intervals of 30,000km but AAV4X4 recommend 20,000km. Ute service costs would be lower, but more frequent, for example Ford recommend every 15,000km for the Ranger, but off-road users should service more frequently than that.
Beware no low range!
Back in 2011 Mitsubishi sold its Fuso truck business to Daimler, which then decided that low range was an unnecessary expense for the Canter so model years from 2011 to 2012 lack low range but are 4WD. After that point all Canters are back to high and low range, and for a truck of this mass you really, really need low range so don’t even think about one without it, so double-check second-hand vehicles. On the other hand, if you’re sure you don’t need low range and will only ever travel on dirt roads and maybe some light sand or snow, then those vehicles without low range will be cheaper. But my experience is that low range is extremely useful as you just never know, it’s like fitting a snorkel even though you never plan on driving through deep water.
Turning a Canter into a Trackmaster for off-road adventures
The Canter FGB71 arrives at AAV4X4 standard as a cab chassis with dual rear wheels. On goes the Super Single wheel conversion including small flares on the front body to cover the slightly increased width. The front leaves are swapped for softer ride leaf springs that also offer more articulation. By mid-2020 AAV4X4 will be offering parabolics for the front as a further option, which is a leaf setup where the leaves don’t rub together as much, offering a smoother ride, and more suspension flex. This also raises the front of the vehicle by 50mm, so there’s a corresponding lift made to the back end. Newly available for 2020 is a front cross-axle differential lock, complementing the rear limited-slip differential, and there are standard free-wheeling hubs on the front axle.
At the front, a differential and steering arm guard is fitted, along with a radiator guard. An ECB bulbar goes on the front with an optional 17,000lb (7700kg) Sherpa winch. A brush guard for the cabin is fitted because the extra size of the Canter means more undergrowth love, and you can climb on that too, as well as use it as a basic roofrack. Diff and transfer case breathers are fitted, raising their height to 1500mm. At the back, a 4500kg towbar is added, with the option for another 17,000lb winch. All the electrics on the Canter are 12V, so 4X4 accessories such as driving lights are easy to add, and the stock alternator is more than capable of powering the extra gear. Extra batteries can be added too.
The tray you see pictured is designed to accommodate two spare tyres and is 3100mm long (3400mm without the tyres) and weighs around 300kg. It requires the kinetic subframe (see below). Most customers will want water and fuel tanks, so the options there are three 100L tanks in a combination of water or diesel – people mostly choose 100L of diesel to make a total of 200L with the standard 100L fuel tank, and 200L of water. And all that will cost you around $105,000 plus on-road costs, with a five-year, 200,000km warranty.
Why you need chassis flex and a kinetic subframe
Nothing is truly perfectly rigid, except of course for deadlines set by Unsealed 4X4 editors. Nevertheless, carmakers strive for perfect chassis rigidity, because the ideal design has the suspension doing all the work of absorbing undulations and weight shift which means sharper handling. But the heavier and larger the chassis, the harder it becomes to maintain rigidity, which is why offroad trucks are designed to have their chassis flex. You see a similar same effect on 4X4s and utes – bullbars are attached to the chassis, and you’ll the bullbar move in relation to the body. And on utes, there’s always a gap between the tub/canopy and cabin so each can move in relation to each other, and any roof rack should not be bolted to both cabin and canopy.
The AAV4X4 solution is a “kinetic subframe” which allows the tray or equivalent to remain flat when loaded, while the chassis flexes underneath. This is achieved by using six or eight mount points that are spring-loaded, as shown in the photos below.
Off-road camping but not camping – motorhome vs caravan
You can put a motorhome on the back of a single-cab light truck, and that’ll cost you around $200,000 to drive away. It’s a lot, but comparable to what you may spend on a towcar and larger caravan.
Living with a truck and 4500 or 6000kg GVM?
Big vehicles such as Canters and Isuzu NPS 75s can be rated to just under 4500kg or up to their maximum GVM of 6000 to 7000kg. The advantage of rating under 4500kg is that anyone with a car license can drive the vehicle, but over 4500kg any driver will need at least a Light-Rigid (LR) truck license which allows you to drive vehicles up to 8000kg GVM. It will cost between $800 and $1200, depending on your level of comfort with large vehicles and therefore the training required, and usually takes a day. You may consider just going for a Heavy Rigid license which may be only $200 or some more.
You’ll also find other costs vary on GVM, such as insurance, registration, and tolls. It’s all very dependent on where you live and your vehicle use, for example in Victoria utes have different registration and toll fees compared to wagons, let alone trucks. You’re best advised to research your specific run costs for your situation, and not assume they’ll be the same as for your usual 4X4. You can change your light truck’s GVM rating up or down to 4500kg, but it’s not a cheap or easy process so best choose once when you purchase new and keep it that way.