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We take an EarthCruiser Expedition 4x4 For A Test Drive!

Posted in Features on July 14, 2017
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Overlanding rigs come in all shapes and sizes of 4x4s, from Jeeps towing single-axle trailers to Land Cruisers with roof-mounted tents to pickups custom-built with camper-style bodies. All have a common denominator synonymous to overlanding: being self-sufficient and self-contained allowing one to spend days, weeks, or even months exploring trails and roads less travelled.

More adventuresome four-wheelers with the overlanding lust and a globe-trotting mentality are willing to go a step further in their pursuit of the ultimate 4x4 rig that provides security, dependability, and comfort under extreme conditions, be it the burning heat of the Sahara or the sub-zero climes of the Arctic—and everything in between.

Those are the very attributes of the EarthCruiser we had the opportunity to drive during a recent visit to, of all places, Bend, a booming hub of four-wheeling located on the eastern flanks of Oregon’s Cascade Range.

To the Outback and Beyond

Lance Gillies, the designer and founding father of EarthCruiser, is a world-class overlander who lives in Bend where he’s established the company’s U.S. manufacturing facility for these unique rigs. (His other manufacturing facility is in his hometown of Brisbane, Australia.)

Lance and his wife have traveled the globe in “Alpha Omega,” EarthCruiser’s first production model that serves as their continent-hopping four-wheel-drive home on wheels. When they decide to head to another continent, he simply drives his expedition rig into a cargo container and has it shipped to the nearest port of entry of their next adventure.

When we met up, the duo had just returned from spending a month exploring Malaysia. Alpha Omega never skipped a beat, taking them wherever it was pointed, providing comfort, security, and self-sufficiency in a compact, rugged, dependable 4x4 package.

Rock-Solid Chassis

This $265,000 ’05 EXP model we drove is based on the 134.4-inch Fuso FG 4x4 cab-forward chassis, a truck equivalent to Ford’s F-450 in the commercial market. The FG 4x4 fits corporately between a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4x4 and the famous Unimog. It’s powered by a 147hp 4.9L I-4 and backed by a manual five-speed with a two-speed transfer case.

While not as peppy as the ’17 U.S. model Fuso 4x4s with the 161hp 3.0L and six-speed automatic, we found this World model was surprisingly responsive, moving the 11,000-pound (fully loaded) expedition rig on and off pavement nicely as we explored the high-country near EarthCruiser’s Oregon facility.

It’s a bit of a hoist to climb into the cab, which is spartan, yet very functional. Visibility out front is akin to sitting on the hood of a traditional truck with your feet resting on the bumper—which is essentially what you are doing driving a cab-forward. The front tires are literally under your butt, which makes picking your line pretty darned easy. Off-pavement the EarthCruiser motors along like an older 5.9L Ram 3500 4x4 diesel with a slide-in camper in the bed.

Lance’s decade-old Fuso chassis is for the most part stock. It runs the optional 5.714:1 gearing, giving the truck a snail-paced 62:1 crawl ratio. Even with the low gearing, it still cruises quietly along the interstates at 65 mph with ease. We were told the little diesel’s fuel economy on his world travels ranges from 14 to 17 mpg, giving the EXP a range of more than 1,100 miles on its 80-gallon fuel tank.

The EarthCruiser doesn’t feel overly top heavy, the steering is light and quick, and the turning radius is tighter than any crew cab 4x4 pickups we’ve driven. We quickly learned during our drive that the turbo’d I-4 is most happy between 1,200-2,000 rpm and that First gear isn’t synchro’d, so you have to double-clutch dropping back into low. We also learned early on in our drive that the suspension is very unforgiving when it comes to sudden changes in driving surface irregularities. The Fuso’s massive, full-floating solid axles and leaf springs, even with high-tech Radflow remote-reservoir shocks (an EarthCruiser upfit), let you know right away your kidneys are more important than speed.

In The House

The most important aspects of the EarthCruiser for those into overlanding is what’s behind the cab. This world-class expedition vehicle might be considered a heavy-duty four-wheel-drive Class C motorhome in basic RV vernacular, but it’s no RV. There’s no wood in an EarthCruiser. It’s house designed, which focuses on maximizing the use of space and saving weight (the fiberglass body weighs about 2,000 pounds, fully equipped), utilizes fiberglass, composite foam and stainless steel much like a sailboat or yacht. Everything from the fullsize bed in the rear and drawers under the street-side galley to the stainless fridge and 12V wiring system are sourced from the marine industry.

One of the few items in its design and construction that isn’t sourced locally, or from the marine industry, is the Italian-made vinyl pop-up roof, which provides 6 feet 8 inches of headroom when its four electric jacks are extended. The windows are triple-layer with zip-up screens to allow air in while keeping bugs out.

The cooktop runs on diesel, while the 12V electrical system is powered by either the truck’s charging system or via a bank of solar-charged lithium batteries under the floor charged by solar panels embedded in the fiberglass roof. A Victron inverter supplies the juice for the microwave, coffee maker and any other 110V accessories needed to make dry camp comfortable for weeks at a time.

Need water? No worries, the EarthCruiser has its own onboard water purification system and an 80-gallon heated water tank to handle the needs of two people for an extended dry camp. The side-entry turns into a walk-in shower, and the hidden cassette-style toilet slides-out, just like that in some smaller boats.

Up front, the dinette table rotates and folds down to become another bed. It also slides quickly out of the way to allow instant crawl-through access to the cab. That means if one needs to vacate the area on a moment’s notice, the side entry door can be locked and the driver be behind the wheel in less than 30 seconds without ever stepping foot outside.

Headroom inside the EarthCruiser EXP we tested is about 6 feet 8 inches with the vinyl top fully extended. Solar panels reside on top of the fiberglass composite roof, and a power awning extends out from the passenger side for added cover. The heating/air-conditioning system can keep occupants comfortable from -40 degrees to 120 degrees.

Made For One

There are dozens of other features on Alpha Omega we didn’t have time to use during our brief test drive. What we did see and use made us a bit envious. It’s an expedition vehicle we could easily get used to living while exploring places we’ve only read about in North America and on other continents.

What makes EarthCruisers cool is they are hand-built one at a time, with that customer’s name on a shelf the day the order is placed. As the parts arrive and the truck is assembled, the handful of craftsman only refer to it by the owner’s name—even after it leaves their facility. As Lance told us after our short test drive, “What we build is a tool for the job of exploring the world with no restrictions.” EarthCruisers are designed and built to be simple, efficient, and autonomous, yet comfortable. Maintenance is quick and easy. They can be shipped and driven anywhere in the world, and at the same time, the Fuso FG 4x4 can be repaired anywhere in the world without having to wait for special parts. Those are all pluses in our book when you’re overlanding on a global-scale.

At A Glance

General
Vehicle: ’05 EarthCruiser EXP
Owner: Lance Gillies
Stomping grounds: Planet Earth
Build time: 3 months
Price: $265,000

Chassis
Frame/Cab: ’05 Fuso Canter FG140 4x4
Wheelbase (in): 134.4 (shorter than F-150 SuperCrew SB)
Turning circle (ft): 44.2 (tighter than F-150 SuperCrew SB)

Drivetrain
Engine: Mitsubishi 4M50 4.9L I-4 turbodiesel
Transmission: 5-spd manual
Transfer case(s): Two-speed
Low range ratio(s): 1.987:1
Crawl ratio(s): 62.38:1
Front axle/differential: Fuso D1H full-floating/5.714:1 gears, Torsen locker
Rear axle/differential: Fuso DO35H full-floating/5.714:1 gears, Thornton (Powr-Lok) limited slip

Suspension
Front: Leaf springs, Radflo gas bypass shocks
Rear: Leaf springs, Radflo gas bypass shocks
Steering: Recirculating ball

Tires/Wheels
Tires: LT315/75R16 Toyo Open Country M/T
Wheels: 16 x 8 EarthCruiser forged alloy

Miscellaneous
Lighting: All LED
Armor: Front skidplate, steering protection, CV boot covers
Cool stuff: Warn 16.5ti winches front/rear, 12V DC marine wiring/electronics, 80-gallon water/fuel tanks, solar panels, marine-style stainless fridge, foam composite/fiberglass construction (no wood), diesel cooktop, full-sized bed in rear, water purification system, Outback onboard air system, fits inside land/sea shipping container.

Built like a sailboat or small yacht, the EarthCruiser EXP has a stand-up shower and cassette-style slide-out toilet in the entryway. A curtain extends for complete privacy
The stainless steel 12V fridge is used in yachts, so it has low amp draw while being well insulated against the effects of external heat and cold. The countertop is fiberglass, and the controls above it run all the electrical systems inside the living quarters and out.
EarthCruiser uses a marine-style diesel cooktop, and all the fiberglass cabinets and locking drawers are also sourced from the boating industry. The double stainless-steel sink and purified water system are top quality, as is the on-demand hot water system.
The Australian-style ’roo bar and heavy-duty winch bumper with a Warn 16.5ti winch behind it are designed to handle whatever the Fuso FG4x4 might encounter along the way. All lighting on the EarthCruiser is LED, including the lightbar up front.
Toyo Open Country 315/75 R16 M/Ts on 8-inch-wide EarthCruiser forged alloy wheels replace the factory 235/85R16 OEM street tires to provide maximum traction and floatation should they need to be aired down for sand or snow driving. An onboard air system handles re-inflation.
Coming or going, the 11,000-pound, Fuso FG-based EarthCruiser EXP is well-equipped when it comes to Warn winch power and heavy-duty anchor points.
Lance Gillies, shown here, is the founder and designer of the EarthCruiser. He and his wife just returned from a tour of Malaysia in “Alpha Omega,” his personal EXP that we took for a demo drive. The interior is typical of a Fuso commercial cabover: Spartan, yet very functional.
A built-in control panel handles all of the EXP’s 12V electrical systems from the lights to the solar charging of the bank of lithium batteries under the floor. An inverter powers any accessories that are 110V, including the microwave and coffee maker.
Every EarthCruiser is plumbed with a high-end water purification and filter system, based on marine applications. You could literally get fresh, clean drinking water from a mud puddle. There’s also an 80-gallon water tank behind the control panel.
The Fuso FG 4x4 rides on stock leaf springs with custom-tuned Radflo bypass shocks at each corner. The ride is firm, so it pays to go slow and use the turbodiesel’s low gearing over the rougher sections.
EarthCruisers run on a stock full-floating Fuso D1H axle in front, DO35H full-floater in the rear. The exceptions are the addition of Radflow bypass shocks, which have been tuned to the needs of the EarthCruisers, and the front diff getting a Torsen locker.
The suspension articulation of an EarthCruiser is quite impressive, as shown here at the company’s Brisbane, Australia, testing grounds. These four-wheel-drive, diesel-powered expedition rigs are also built in Bend, Oregon.

Sources

EarthCruiser
541-726-1006
earthcruiser.com

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