Friday, January 1, 2010

What to drive?

We considered a lot of options for what type of vehicle would be best for this trip. As a wanna-be adventure motorcyclist, the bike was an option... but pretty quickly ruled out when we started to think about long-term comfort, the ability to have friends join us along the way, the desire to have a guide at times, security, safety, heat, cold, wet, etc. There's a pride that comes from exposure to the elements on a motorcycle trip, but that's not what we're after here. I think we've got a big enough challenge as it is and will be exposed to plenty...

So with the bike out of the picture, ideas ranged from something bad ass like an old Toyota Landcruiser FJ40...

I’ve always loved these things. Basically all the reptilian appeal and machismo of the Hummer without the whole “being-a-douche” part. But they’re also pretty basic. Not sure how comfortable one would be for 50,000 miles or how warm, cool or safe they’d keep you. Or how quickly a top speed of 50 (downhill loaded with rocks) would get old. Finally, it’s a little small for the possibility of having friends or a guide along.

There are a number of Toyotas and Land Rovers that have been used for this kind of thing that are not really available in the US.

And then some people just go a little overboard
But we do have similar options with a little more comfort and space…

This Landcruiser FJ60 would be great too. But, also no airbags, ABS, etc. And a car that’s already 25+ years old and likely has 200,000 miles. Then again, it’s a Toyota and would likely be a vintage that’s more common in the areas we’ll be traveling through than a 2010 whatever would be.

Then thoughts turn to something novel. How about a Prius?

If we continued the trip and made it all the way around the world, would it be the first hybrid circumnavigation? We could grin smugly as we glided silently through shanty villages with flowers coming out of our tail pipes, watching as the locals seemed to implicitly absorb our message relating the value of conservation and with prosperity from eco-tourism… or as they looked at us with puzzled expressions as we asked them for “uh, un, uh… servicio para coches electricos?”

Okay, well what about something a little less advanced but still modern and interesting?  
We’d seen one of these Honda Elements with an “ecamper” conversion driving around the bay area. When we googled them, we eventually came across a blog called “The Darien Plan” in which a couple chose one of these for their drive to Tierra del Fuego. It’s a great trip story (just coming to an end around the end of 2009). Check it out.

Though the Element is AWD, if we do end up making it to Africa, we’re worried that the low clearance and lack of low range 4WD is not going to cut it. Sure we could avoid areas that required that, but being able to take (almost) any road is part of the adventure.

Okay, so 4WD with airbags (it’s a lot of miles – likelihood of someone bangin’ into us increases quite a bit). Newer Landcruisers get airbags in ‘96 but are decidedly “mom-y” by ‘98 or so (proof below).

Plus they’re HUGE. 4Runner’s follow the same evolution but are a little smaller. There could be a perfect model year in there somewhere for us.

While we were looking at Honda Elements, we kept seeing Nissan Xterra’s and briefly mistaking them for each other. We realized the tall cargo area made for a lot of useable space, they weren’t too big, and they had a real 4WD system with low gear. Looking at model years, they were launched in 1999 with the bugs worked out of the first generation by 2004, the last year before they changed the body shape (bigger) and added a buncha heavy, electronic crap we didn’t need or want.

A 2004 would have airbags, anti-lock brakes, and about 60K miles on it for just over $10k. This compared to a 4Runner or the like with 150K miles for about the same price.  A nice mix of comfort, capability, safety, space, and reliability with just a splash of attitude. Plus, the name adds a fitting romanticism for the trip.

So it was settled. A month of watching CraigsList and we found a base model 2004 with 4WD and 55K miles (not pictured). It had been a certified preowned Nissan used as a second car for the past couple years and had barely been used.

We had a “mobile mechanic” come out to take a look at it so we could look over his shoulder and start to understand what made it go (or not). He seemed interested in the plan and we decided to do the 60K service together just before the trip and have him come up with a comprehensive list of spares and repairs we might need along the way. Oh and to give us his pager number…

The Xterra also has a few active online owners groups which are always helpful when diagnosing a problem or looking for solutions. We’re getting more familiar with Club Xterra, Xterra Firma, NewX, and the Nissan forum on the Expedition Portal.
Check out the Vehicle section for more info on modifications we’ll be making to the truck.