BUYERS GUIDE - 4X4 CAMPERVANS
Trakka expanded its Jabiru range with the introduction of two upgraded 2019 variants that are based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4. Both medium- and long-wheelbase versions were available in mid-2020.
We previewed the 2019 Trakka Jabiru AWD in May, ahead of its July delivery date. The new models build on the success of their predecessors, but add improved use of space and clever design enhancements.
Mercedes-Benz has enhanced the standard equipment package in the Sprinter 419, turbo-diesel V6 model, with standard seven-speed automatic transmission. It comes with electronic active brake assist; crosswind assist; lane keeping assist; driver fatigue monitoring and blind spot assist programs.
Trakka picks up factory options, including: MBUX 260mm touch screen with CarPlay and Android Auto; keyless start; comfort swivelling front seats with armrests; 360-degree camera and parking pack; electronic parking brake (no handbrake handle to interfere with seat-swivelling); fog lights; curtain airbags; auto wipers and headlights; smartphone tray with charging and tyre pressure monitoring.
The principal mechanical difference between the previous Jabiru models and the post-2019 ones is that the latest machines can have optional 245/70R17 single tyres front and rear, to replace the undersized standard 16s.
Also, there is now a choice of two wheelbases and body lengths.
To improve weight distribution, Trakka has changed water tank design from longitudinal to transverse.
GVM is slightly reduced, from 4.5 tonnes to 4.1 tonnes in the case of the long-wheelbase version, but the Sprinter tare weight is less and Trakka has employed some weight-saving technology in its fit-out of the 2020 Jabirus.
Examples are the use of ultra-thin laminate table and bench tops and fibreglass floor substrate, with marine-grade vinyl covering.
The long-wheelbase Jabiru can be supplied with Trakka’s original two seat (2S) and four seat layout (4S).
The four-seat version has an east-west bed, with additional bed length courtesy of external window-extension ‘pods’.
The two-seat version has a longitudinal bed and the medium-wheelbase model has an east-west bed with one extension ‘pod’.
Both the two-seat and four-seat versions share a removable dinette table that’s cleverly shaped to make access easier and also has four mug cut-outs, to make spills less likely.
The interior layouts are broadly as before, but the 2019 interior has subtle, dimmable LED lighting arranged in geometric shapes and the laminated surfaces are much thinner, yet stronger. This thin laminate allows the dinette table top to stow in a narrow slot, taking up far less space.
New windows with concealed internal screens and blinds look much classier and protect the blinds and screens from accidental damage.
The new 90-litre fridge/freezer is a knockout, with a door that can open with LH or RH swing action. It’s also much slimmer than the previous fridge and that makes it possible to have a larger toilet/shower module that allows standing room, even when the swivelling toilet is powered out from under the vanity.
All bed bases have adjustable lifting end sections that allow comfortable sitting up in bed, for easy reading or watching your tablet-TV screen.
Each model comes standard with the proved Remote Pack, plus a new Alfresco Pack, space pods, closed-foam thermal insulation and advanced electrical system, with 200 Ah lithium battery power standard.
The new Remote Pack includes a diesel-fuelled cooktop, diesel-fuelled water and space heating, 200W roof- mounted solar panels and a sliding side door insect screen.
An option is a 2000W inverter and portable plug-in induction electric cooktop that can be used inside or outside the vehicle for a quicker boil-up than the diesel stove provides.
The Remote Pack includes new ‘fluted’ flyscreens that slide easily, for the side and rear doors. Also easier than before is a new Thule powered awning that can be opened and closed without interfering with the sliding door.
In addition to the Remote Pack, the Alfresco Pack further assimilates indoors and outdoor camping. It features a small drawer fridge that can be accessed whether you’re inside or outside the Jabiru, so here’s always easy access to the drinks fridge, whether you’re sitting in the dinette, or outside.
There’s a removable work bench for the side sliding door, with a collapsible wash up basin and hot/cold tap. This feature allows you to do the majority of the after meal clean up before heading back into the campervan.
The tap is in the form of a shower head on a telescopic hose, so it doubles as an outside shower and attaches magnetically to the van body wherever required.
Roof mounted solar panel capacity is increased to 300W with the Alfresco Pack.
We had a brief on and off-road drive and an overnight stay in the 2020 Jabiru Remote. We’ll complete that testing with a ‘play’ in the medium-wheelbase version in April 2020 (Covid-19 permitting!)
The evaluation vehicle was Show machine, so was fitted with the Remote and Alfresco Packs and additional options: aluminium wheels and M/T tyres; inverter and induction cooktop; LED driving light bar; metallic paint and colour-matched bumpers; colour-matched seat upholstery and a powered sliding door.
From the ‘basic’ Jabiru Remote pricing of $200k, it was priced at $218,180 NSW-driveaway.
The single-tyred Jabiru performed and handled very well, for a vehicle of this size, but the M/T tyres were noisier than A/Ts and had some low-speed harshness, caused by the individual-block tread pattern. A/Ts would suit most buyers, we reckon, but the M/Ts certainly looked the part.
The engine/transmission combo was almost silent, letting tyre noise intrude into the stylish interior. All campervans and motorhomes have some cupboard and drawer content rattles when driven on rough roads, but the Trakka was better than most.
The Jabiru hunted along freeways and highways at legal speeds without effort, returning an impressive 13.5L/100km economy in the process. In mixed on- and off-roading driving the economy slipped to a still impressive 15.5L/100km.
‘Benz ergonomics and switch operation need to be learned, because nothing – nothing – is intuitive. For example, the driver needs to be schooled in the importance of knowing that that the seven-speed auto is stirred by what would be a right-hand blinker stalk in 90-percent of the vehicles on the market.
Also, the steering wheel, dashboard and touch-screen controls are completely different from anything outside Germany, so owners need to study the manual!
After a couple of hours of poring over the handbook, we felt confident in the big ‘Benz.
We restricted our off-roading to fire trails and the Jabiru handled them quite easily. We’ve criticised the Australian-market Sprinter’s very basic 4WD system – open centre diff, no diff locks – when there’s much more available from Oberaigner in Austria, but in the case of the long-wheelbase Jabiru Remote the 4WD package felt about right.
It’s highly unlikely that buyers will need any more than this basic kit, because the very size of this machine restricts where it can go. The medium-wheelbase version could be a different matter, however.
Getting comfortable inside the Jabiru remote was simplicity itself: we shut the doors; popped the privacy windscreen and front window curtains into place; slid shut the window blinds; turned on the cabin heater and we were snug.
Trakka has moved from a pop-up TV aerial in favour of a GSM cellular antenna, linked to a tablet bracket that can move from dinette to bedroom. A sign of the times, when more and more people are using wi-fi streaming services.
We were initially reserved about cooking on diesel stoves, but we’re used to them now and love the safety of having no gas on board and no cooking flames inside the van. The portable induction cooktop made a kettle boil-up quicker than waiting for the diesel cooktop to pre-heat.
The new dinette table is lighter, less bulky and shaped for movement around it. The mug cutouts worked perfectly.
There are very few campervans we’d be happy to live in for extended periods, but the Trakka Jabiru is certainly one.
We’re looking forward to a comparison with the more nimble medium-wheelbase model in the near future, particularly as this version comes with additional off-road protection equipment: engine and transmission shields; rear shock absorber shields; rear diff ‘rock slider’; handbrake protector; sill plates; recovery points front and rear; spare wheel carrier and a long-range fuel tank.
Pre-2019 Jabirus were based on the Sprinter 4.5-tonnes-GVM van that came with 205-section tyres: singles front and duals rear. That combination gave good load carrying capacity, but anyone who’s operated dual tyres in the bush knows their limitations. They easily trap rocks between the tyres and the skinny fronts have insufficient flotation in soft ground. (There’s more on this topic below.)
When Trakka first launched its ‘Remote’ models we thought the company was drawing a long bow, because we felt it took more than diesel-fuelled cooktop, space heater and hot water system to qualify for the laurels of remote region capability.
This doubt faded with the introduction of the Sprinter 4×4 base for the original Jabiru Remote.
The Sprinter 4×4 came in different wheelbases and load capacities, but Trakka opted for the biggest and most powerful for its introductory model.
The Sprinter 519-based Jabiru we tested was powered by the aluminium block-and-head V6 turbo-diesel that powered the M-Class 4×4 wagon and several other car and wagon models.
From three litres displacement it put out a healthy 140kW and 440Nm, which was enough urge to see the loaded Jabiru embarrass some cars at the traffic lights.
Our main mechanical interest centred on the 4WD system, which was done in Austria by Mercedes-Benz’ partner and systems manufacturer, Oberaigner.
This company makes a whole range of off-road kit for the Sprinter, including a 6×6 version, but Mercedes-Benz markets only the basic spec’, which involves a ground clearance boost, semi-low-range gearing reduction of 1.4:1 (similar to Subaru’s) and part-time 4WD operation via a transfer case with centre differential, but no centre-diff lock.
For additional traction in loose, steep and slippery conditions the Sprinter 4×4 relied on Mercedes-Benz’ excellent electronic traction and stability control.
Mercedes-Benz’ Sprinter 4×4 models enjoyed safety initiatives: Crosswind Assist, Collision Prevention Assist and Blind Spot Assist. The systems were designed to prevent accidents from happening, rather than mitigating the consequences afterwards.
Crosswind Assist keeps a van safely on course when the wind is gusting strongly. Collision Prevention Assist alerts the driver if the vehicle gets too close to other moving vehicles on the road ahead or to the end of a queue of traffic, while Blind Spot Assist warns a driver that vehicles in the next lane are dangerously close. Also new were Lane Keeping Assist and High beam Assist.
The seven-speed automatic transmission that’s optional in 4×2 Sprinters was not available in 4×4 models, because there’s engineering work needed to integrate the transfer case with a different transmission. That change happened in 2019.
The designers at Trakka are well versed in 4WD characteristics and decided that it was safe to equip the Jabiru Remote 4×4 with a civilised interior package that’s almost identical to that fitted to the 2WD Jabiru.
The limited off-road ability of the Sprinter 519 with its skinny 205-section tyres, rear duals and relatively stiff springing were unlikely to let it go into situations where more rugged interior fixtures and fittings would be required.
In short, the Trakka Jabiru Remote 4×4 was no OKA or EarthCruiser and was never intended to be. However, the 316 and 319 Sprinter 4×4 versions were shorter in wheelbase, had better ground clearance, wheel travel and approach and departure angles, and were therefore capable of getting much further off-road.
In a separate test we took a 319 van over our rough-track course and it easily matched the off-road ability of Japanese utes.
Trakka has no immediate plans to camper-equip these smaller Sprinters.
What you got
Mercedes-Benz’ Sprinter has been the largest selling van in Europe for many years and is also the large-van market leader in Australia. It came with car-like features, including cruise control, climate control air conditioning and heating, all-wheel-drive traction and stability control, and ABS brakes.
Transmission choices were six-speed manual or five-speed tiptronic-style automatic. The transfer case splits torque 33 percent front and 67 percent rear.
The Trakka Jabiru Remote 4×4 was designed for a travelling couple: the two front seats swivelled to become lounge or dining chairs in front of a removable central table; the driver’s seat could also front a folding office ‘desk’; and the rear of the vehicle was taken up by a king-size bed base with lift-up forward storage section underneath and a memory-foam mattress on top. The aft section of the bed sat over a roomy boot that was accessed via clamshell rear doors .
Between bed and seats was a bathroom with electrically- retractable cassette toilet that hid under the hand basin vanity when not in use, leaving plenty of unrestricted shower space. Hot water and room heating came from a diesel-fuelled heater.
Opposite the bathroom was a galley with Webasto diesel-heated ceramic cooktop, sink and folding tap. Drinking water passed through a filter and exited through a separate tap.
The other energy source was electricity, powering a 136-litre upright fridge, 800W microwave, TV/DVD player and several 12V outlets. An optional 1000W inverter caould power 240V appliances when away from mains and there were ample power points for when the vehicle was plugged into 240V supply.
House batteries were two 100AH AGM types, charged by mains power, the vehicle alternator and optional 160W roof-mounted solar panels. We saw 3-9 amps going into the batteries from the test vehicle’s solar panels, so self-sufficiency in reasonable weather was easy. Battery charging was controlled by an electronic monitoring system that also tracked water level and interior and exterior temperatures.
All windows and roof hatches were fitted with blackout blinds and flyscreens and the four opening windows were double glazed. Trakka’s trademark roller shutters hid the contents of bedroom and galley cupboards and the drawers were self-closing and fitted with locking drawer pulls.
Diesel fuel for driving and heating did away with the need for gas bottle bins, so the external hatches were confined to toilet cassette access and mains power cord stowage. The exterior shower hose unrolled from the cassette access panel.
Options included an air compressor kit, for inflating tyres; a snorkel, to improve bush-ability; 80-litre additional fuel tank; rear wheel carrier; reverse camera; aluminium ‘roo bar; and leather upholstery.
On Road Performance and Handling
Car-like ergonomics and equipment, combined with excellent forward and mirror vision made driving the Jabiru Remote 4×4 on bitumen surfaces a breeze and it was the same story on gravel. Supple ride, flat handling, a powerful engine and one of the best shifting automatic transmissions we’ve ever operated helped negate the size of the vehicle.
In rear wheel drive mode, on highway, the Sprinter was undetectable from a two wheel drive model: it rode, handled and steered well. Braking was powerful and engine braking reasonable, using transmission downshifts on steep grades.
On loose or slippery surfaces selectable full-time 4WD provided additional traction with the push of a button, provided the vehicle was rolling in neutral and the speed was below 10km/h.
In this mode the steering loaded up slightly, but because the Sprinter is fitted with a centre differential it could be driven on firm surfaces and at all speeds in 4×4 mode.
Disconnecting 4WD mode was done in the reverse manner, by slowing to under 10km/h and slipping the auto lever into ‘N’ before hitting the button once again.
On rough, corrugated and potholed surfaces the combination of independent, transverse-leaf suspension up front and long mono-leaves at the rear gave a firm, pitch-free ride. We could maintain high cruising speeds without effort.
Vision from the high-set driving perch over the sloping bonnet was excellent and checking the rear was made easy by powered, folding truck-sized mirrors, supplemented by wide-view spotters.
Economy depended on how we drove it: using all the engine power and torque saw consumption soar to 22L/100km, but with more sensible use of the loud pedal we achieved a best of 11L/100km and the average was around 15L/100km.
Low range selection was done at rest, with the transmission in ‘N’ or ‘P’ and in this mode the big Jabiru found grip wherever its restricted belly clearance and long rear overhang would let it go. We know from previous experience with a single-tyred, 3-series Sprinter that this shorter, lighter model had much more ‘real off road’ ability.
After our four-day test we wouldn’t recommend anyone take their new Jabiru Remote 4×4 across the Gunbarrell, the Tanami or the Canning.
If you considered the vehicle was a ‘traction camper’ not an ‘off-road camper’ that’s the correct view of it, we feel. This didn’t mean you couldn’t stray off the blacktop. We wouldn’t hesitate driving the vehicle over long stretches of reasonably maintained gravel road, such as the Oodnadatta Track or the Plenty-Donoghue Highway.
Because it had a centre differential it was possible to drive the Jabiru Remote 4×4 in four-wheel-drive mode for extended periods, for additional stability on loose or slippery surfaces. Where the Jabiru Remote 4×4 shone was in its ability to drive to tricky campsites, away from the madding crowd. Also, when you were camped on a grassy bank there was no need to panic if it rained overnight.
Living With the Jabiru Remote 4×4
Other than creating a higher floor level the 4×4 mechanicals caused no compromises in our day to day use, but shorties might appreciate the optional powered side entry step.
Two of us lived in the camper van without bumping into each other too often and the layout proved very user-friendly.
The memory-foam mattress was supremely comfortable and the black-out blinds were almost too effective.
The swivelling front seats worked easily and we found the chairs comfortable for TV viewing and for computer use at the drop-down work table. Inverter outlets provide 240V power under the table.
We found the diesel-fuelled cooktop took some getting used to, because it took several minutes to achieve full heat, but we complemented it with an el cheapo gas-canister stove for quick boil ups during the day. We loved the powered dunny that rolled out of sight when the shower was being used, effectively doubling the size of the bathroom.
With its enhanced rough terrain capability this Trakka Jabiru Remote 4×4 offers travellers more destination and free-camping flexibility than the 2WD model. The relatively small price increase over a two-wheel drive camper van should repay itself in terms of owner satisfaction and resale.