TESTED: TRACK TRAILER TOPAZ SERIES II

By: MICHAEL BROWNING, Photography by: MICHAEL BROWNING


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We test Track Trailer’s new Series II Topaz hybrid caravan in its natural habitat: Cape York.

TESTED: TRACK TRAILER TOPAZ SERIES II
The Track Trailer Topaz Series II caravan hybrid. Is it a camper? A caravan? The best of both.

The idea of owning a fully-equipped, compact hybrid caravan that will follow the wheel tracks of a 4WD nearly anywhere has captured the imagination of many RVers over the years.

Melbourne’s Track Trailer sparked the idea in 2000 with its distinctive Tvan, a hard-shell camper trailer in which the bedroom and main living area were at the core of the design, rather than folded out.

Kimberley Kampers in Ballina, NSW, raised the bar much higher in 2003 when it introduced its innovative and collapsible Karavan, based on the proven underpinnings of its flip-over Kimberley Kamper.

Then, in 2008, Track Trailer countered with its technically less complex and minimalistic Topaz pop-top.

Where the Karavan boasted technology, the Topaz shouted function with its satin-finish aluminium composite panel walls and industrial-look interior finish with powder-coated riveted steel fittings and furnishings.

And as it was built on a similar MC2 asymmetrical-link suspension and chassis as the Tvan, there was no doubting its bushability. It had the added advantages of being ready to live in with virtually no erection time, and was around two thirds of the Karavan’s price.

Then, in 2011, Australian Off Road Camper Trailers joined the fray with its fibreglass composite shell Matrix, a hard-roof compact offroad caravan with everything inside.

What immediately distinguished the Topaz from its rivals was its distinctive body style and rugged, proven military-spec suspension. Now, with the arrival of the Series II Topaz, you can also tick off ‘chassis’.



NEW FEATURES

In a major and costly innovation, Track Trailer created a new fabricated galvanised steel chassis in which the A-frame bows from the main members to allow room for the spare wheel to be winched up between them. Moving the combined 50kg of spare wheel and tyre closer to the axle line keeps the towball loading light, creates a lower centre of gravity for better handling, and also frees up valuable storage space in the front.

Track Trailer then extended the front panel of the Topaz II to create more head and storage room over the transverse queen-sized bed, while also building in an enormous multi-compartment storage area in the van’s nose.

As well as two huge lockers, each with slides and capable of swallowing a full-size ARB fridge/freezer on one side and four jerry cans or a portable generator on the other, there are two more dust-proof and watertight compartments ahead of them, which will hold a variety of objects from folding chairs to awning mats.

The storage area on top of the boot can be customised to suit your camping needs, with options including a firewood holder, a second spare wheel mounting, or a bicycle rack. The Topaz’s ATM has been upgraded to 2200kg to allow for this extra loading.

The other major change in the Topaz II is its opening side windows. It sounds like a simple thing to do, and it is, as long as your design incorporates standard-size rectangular windows. But if you opt for a stylish window shape like Track Trailer did with the Topaz, then getting an opening window made, which will also seal against dust and weather, is a time-consuming and expensive job. The new wind-out windows open to 45 degrees and certainly allow more air to flow through the Topaz’s sleeping area than the previous wall vents did. They also incorporate midge-proof mesh. But you need to be careful walking around the van, as the frameless glass can be hard to see when the windows are open.

The final difference between the old and the new Topaz is the level of standard equipment.

While the Series I was offered in two models – the base-level Canning and more comprehensively-equipped Murranji – the Topaz II comes in just one better-equipped model, priced from $79,900.

While this is a significant price jump, standard kit now includes upgraded battery capacity with two 105Ah batteries, a battery management system, a 300W pure sine wave inverter, a 25A battery charger, and a standard Fusion sound system with iPod dock.

The rest of the interior remains similar to the earlier Topaz models, but a myriad of small refinements were made following feedback from owners. For example, there’s more storage space under the main couch and a pair of hat-holders have been incorporated in the pop-top ceiling, over the kitchen area.

Further rearwards, the kitchen, with its four-burner Swift cooktop, optional LG microwave below, and 80L Waeco 12V/240V, fridge/freezer is unchanged, although there’s now a $2865 diesel cooktop option.

It looks great, but what’s it like to live with? A 10,000km round trip from Melbourne to the top of Cape York provided the answers.

For a start, it’s impressively spacious inside with room for an enormous amount of gear in the lockers below or the new nose boot.

Our top-of-the-range Nissan Navara ST-X 550 V6 dual-cab ute didn’t have a lockable canopy or hard lid over the load bed, so the chairs, recovery gear, and tools that we had planned to store there had to go somewhere else, both for security and to keep them out of dust and rain’s way. Fortunately, the Topaz was more than up to the task and its huge tunnel boot, plus another separate side locker (which is occupied by an optional air-conditioner if fitted) easily swallowed it all, leaving the front lockers free for our 47L fridge/freezer, folding table, awning mat, three jerry cans, a toolbox, large folding shovel, two large ARB folding chairs and all our spare towels and linen. And there was plenty of room for more.

Best of all, these lockers were all dust and watertight thanks to separate compression locks that we engaged via a T-shaped key when travelling offroad.

Inside, through the full-height door with its sturdy separate flyscreen, the main attraction of the Topaz for my wife Wendy was the kitchen with its large and full-height bench space, and deep, waist-high storage drawers with offroad locking catches below. You don’t have to stoop to prepare a meal, as you do in some other offroad pop-tops and caravans.

Some manufacturers place more emphasis on outdoor kitchens and this is fine if you are living and travelling in the tropics. But in much of Australia, including the inland, it can be bloody freezing at night (and often windy and raining), even when the winter days are warm, so we think Track Trailer has made the right choice, particularly as the full Tvan external kitchen is an option.

The pop-top is really easy to raise and lower from the kitchen end, thanks to its simple over-centre design, once you have unlatched it externally. In fact, there’s sufficient height without the pop-top to access the whole van for roadside stops, so you only have to raise the roof at night.

The Topaz II has an east-west queen-sized bed with the most comfortable foam mattress we have ever slept on but, despite the new wind-out windows and all the zip-down vents in the pop-top, you may still need the optional 12V fans for really hot nights.



GREAT OUTDOORS

The bathroom, however, is outside and that may put the Topaz at a theoretical disadvantage against the Karavan and Matrix with some buyers. The Topaz’s ‘ensuite’ is a quick and simple-to-erect triangular tent that attaches to the rear of the van, enclosing both the external hot/cold shower and providing privacy for the standard portable cassette toilet which is stored in a right-hand rear cupboard with external access.

Track Trailer maintains the space taken up by an internal shower is not warranted as the area is normally used just once a day. A camping ground survey that we undertook with owners of similar offroad caravans seemed to confirm this. On our Cape York trip, we did not use the chemical toilet once and used the shower only when we stopped for more than a night – and then only twice with the shower tent, as most of our camps were in relatively remote bush areas.

While the system works well, it’s too much bother to put up for overnight stops and, if it’s raining or cold, it doesn’t compare to an internal ensuite. But having one of those would mean losing the wardrobe and, more significantly, a reduction in the size of the kitchen.

From the start of our trip, the Topaz felt totally at home behind the Navara. Track Trailer’s signature MC2 asymmetric link independent suspension delivered a supple ride, combined with a full 250mm of wheel travel that kept its two fat 265 section 16in tyres on the ground.

With a Tare of 1700kg and a travelling weight of around 1950kg with both 70L water tanks full, a well-stocked fridge, three full jerrys and all our other gear, the Topaz still weighed in at well-under 2000kg, comfortably within the Navara’s rated braked towing limit of 3000kg. The ball weight was still less than 100kg, but the Topaz proved so balanced and sure-footed on all roads and tracks that it was easy to forget it was there.

The main Peninsula Development Road, which bypasses the most extreme sections of Cape York’s Old Telegraph Track (OTT), may look tame by comparison to its offroad alternative and is almost freeway-like in parts, but it can just as quickly deteriorate into a severely corrugated horror stretch, complete with suspension-breaking bulldust holes and crowned gravel corners that will roll you into the scrub if you arrive too fast. Cheaper camper trailers or less-capable hybrid caravans without a rugged chassis and robust offroad suspension will almost certainly suffer damage on these roads, unless you are exceptionally careful and watchful. But if you have a proper offroad camper, crossover or hybrid in tow, there are many Cape York adventures open to you off the OTT.

Thankfully, the Topaz II is built like a bank vault and, after 10,000km, including nearly 2000km offroad, only the removable (and re-paintable) metal deflectors on the nose of the Topaz had any stone chipping, making refurbishment after a major trip cheap and easy.

While the Topaz Series II costs $79,900 ex-factory in Victoria, most buyers will spend closer to $85,000-$90,000 after adding extras such as a wood or bike rack, twin 60W lightweight roof-mounted solar panels, a 22in TV/DVD player, two 12V bed fans, and a 240V microwave, as fitted to our test Topaz.

Finally, if the new ‘Mistletoe Green’ exterior highlight colour of the Series II doesn’t suit your style, Track Trailer offers a $250 choice of 10 highlight primary colour options so that you can match your Topaz to your tow vehicle or personality.



I LIKED...

  • Quality and engineering
  • Industrial no-frills finish and decor
  • Spacious kitchen
  • Abundant storage space



I WOULD HAVE LIKED...

  • Separate non-compression latches for front storage lockers
  • A wind-out front and/or rear window for better ventilation
  • Better support for the single pedestal inside dining table
  • Extra security catches for the overhead cupboards to stop them opening on severe corrugations



Originally published in Caravan World #511, February 2013

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