CARAVAN TEST: BUSHTRACKER 14FT POP-TOP
Known for its tough offroad vans, Bushtracker has branched into the pop-top caravan market with this little 14ft beauty, says Malcolm Street.
· 4.27m (14ft) pop-top van
· Designed for serious offroad use
· Fully-equipped for remote camping
· Towable by mid-sized 4WD
Bushtracker caravans are built for serious outback travel - and everyone knows it. Generally speaking, though, Bushtracker vans are pretty large and, until now, have only come in full-size vans, with no pop-tops or expanding ends.
So it was interesting news when a 4.27m (14ft) pop-top caravan appeared out of the Bushtracker factory last year. This was something a bit different for the manufacturer and certainly worth investigating.
On first impression, the pop-top looks a lot like any other Bushtracker van, apart from the obvious difference in the roof line. The characteristic overhang above the front spare wheels and the water sealing flap for the entry door will be recognisable to anyone familiar with Bushtrackers.
Underneath the van, the pop-top has a standard 150x50mm (6x2in) hot-dipped galvanised chassis with integrated drawbar rails. I encountered a little surprise with the van's suspension, however. It has airbags, rather than the standard Bushtracker independent set-up. I didn't do too many kilometres with this rig but it was certainly a smooth tow. When it comes to serious bush caravanning, airbags are definitely an asset.
Another surprise was the fresh water tank capacity - three 90L tanks, all moulded polyethylene and bolted well up out of the way to prevent damage. It's also a split system, so potable and non-potable water can be kept separate.
Up front, the drawbar is a very busy place. In addition to the essentials such as the DO35 hitch, there's a stoneguard, two spare wheels, two jerry can holders, Eberspacher heater diesel tank and one 4.5kg gas cylinder.
Given this van is designed for remote outback remote, I'd have thought a second gas cylinder was essential.
The pop-top is built in the traditional Bushtracker style - all the wall and roof framework is 2mm and 3mm sections of aluminum which is both welded and riveted. As for insulation, 76mm cooler board has been used for the roof and 25mm cooler board for the walls. Covering all of that is aluminium cladding, with an extra layer of aluminium checkerplate protection over the lower half. It's very functional for damage protection and not just there for decoration.
Completing the body structure are Seitz hopper windows, a Camec security door and Dometic awning. There is no front boot but the tunnel storage is more than adequate for a van of this size. A lot of the neatly-labelled electrics are located in the tunnel boot. The only problem with this might be quick access if the storage space was full, but it's also possible to lift up the bed base from the inside to access the boot. For those who enjoy outdoor cooking, a slide-out barbecue is fitted beside the tunnel and opening a hatch above the wheel reveals power sockets - both 240V and 12V - suspension airbag controls and a Fusion stereo system.
RAISING THE ROOF
Setting up the pop-top is pretty simple - there are the usual things to be done, of course but, in addition, the roof has to be unclipped and raised. This is quite easy to do because the roof is lifted by air from the compressor and holding tank system, which is part of the airbag suspension. There is an electronic lifter or manual lifter if the van has standard suspension.
Most pop-tops have a clip in each corner but this van has four clips on each side. Lifting the roof isn't too difficult, even with the weight of the air-conditioner, solar panel and TV antenna, but remember to set the awning to 'open', otherwise it makes for very heavy lifting.
Designing a usable layout for a 4.3m van is always going to be a challenge, especially with a shower and toilet on board. I suspect a full-height van of this length could feel a bit cramped but this one has a nice, spacious feeling at head height - not to mention a view out of the screened gusset windows - because of the pop-top.
So how does everything fit in? Up front is the east-west bed, along the offside is the dinette, and the shower/toilet is in the rear corner. The rest of the space is taken up by the split kitchen across the rear wall and along the nearside, with the entry door in between.
All of the cabinetry is beautifully finished in Bushtracker's customary Tasmanian oak, offset by white walls and ceiling. The cupboard doors have good-quality piano hinges and the drawers have rollers and guides.
For those who don't particularly like confined spaces, this van has plenty of windows which create a huge amount of natural light and fresh air. The 2.03x1.49m (6ft 8in x 4ft 11in) bed is well-placed to take advantage of that. It sits just below window level and gets any prevailing breezes that may flow through the windows. Another benefit of the raised bed is three drawers underneath and the ply timber/alloy-framed bed base can be lifted to get to the storage area. LED reading lights are fitted to the offside end of the bed and there's a ceiling light as well.
Butted right up against the bed is the kitchen bench. In fact, if the 165L Waeco fridge door was hinged the other way, it would be possible to reach in and refill the wine glass without getting out of bed. Given the bench length, that leaves just enough space for the Swift four-burner cooktop, grill and oven and a bit of storage - a large drawer and two floor lockers. The remaining space below the bench is used for the hot water and space controls, along with a Fusion radio/iPod player. The side of the fridge cabinet is used as a substantial mounting point for the flatscreen TV, which can be swung out so it can be seen from either the dinette or the bed.
Across the rear of the van, the space not taken by the shower cubicle is filled by a stainless steel sink and drainer. A slight disadvantage of this arrangement is that there's nowhere to stack dirty dishes, but there are always going to be compromises in a van of this size and this is a minor one. Under the sink are a cupboard, two drawers and a floor locker.
The leather-upholstered dinette looks deceptively simple but it is quite comfortable and is kitted out with useful LED reading lights, 240V and 12V power sockets, and single pole-mounted table. Foot space isn't too bad but part of it is taken by the wheel arch.
Fitting a shower cubicle into a pop-top can be a design challenge but this one has been achieved without too much trouble. It has fixed walls, a hard door to external wall height and then a vinyl gusset with a zippered door. Inside the cubicle are a Thetford cassette toilet and a variable-height shower hose. The basin is built into a moulding with a locker below and one above to the side, as well as a wall mirror. It's all very compact but, at the same time, perfectly functional. A roof fan hatch and a screened window in the gusset create the necessary ventilation and there is also an outlet for the diesel-fired heater for cold nights.
The electrics for this pop-top are quite sophisticated, as you might expect. As I previously mentioned, energy-efficient LED lights are used throughout and the two deep-cycle batteries are charged by either a 20A mains charger or two 135W solar panels.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I've met more than a few people who love the idea of offroad travel in relative comfort but they baulk at the idea of towing a lengthy rig. So it's not hard see where the Bushtracker 14ft pop-top finds its place.
It comes with all the Bushtracker characteristics - build quality, design and layout - but it is an easily-towable caravan. Given there's been considerable growth in the hard shell camper trailer/small offroad caravan market recently, the Bushtracker pop-top is bound to create some interest.
· Workable layout
· General fit and finish
· Generous external storage
· Compact, functional bathroom
· Good windows
I WOULD HAVE LIKED...
· Two gas cylinders
· A bit more time around the campfire!
Originally published in Caravan World #511, February 2013.