15.05.14 - GoAuto: Australia's newest car-maker Tomcar out to preserve lives and the economy
"ALL-TERRAIN vehicle builder Tomcar says that choosing one of its rugged off-road vehicles over a cheaper quad-bike is not just the safest option, but it is also the best for the economy too. A joint venture with automotive parts-maker MtM has safeguarded jobs at the Melbourne factory site, but as the company expands to produce 5000 vehicles by 2018, many more jobs will be created in the process.
Australia's newest car-maker is also supporting other local manufacturing businesses, with around 60 per cent of Tomcar components sourced from local parts suppliers. In the coming years the company intends to increase that figure to more than 80 per cent.
The $24,950 starting price is at the high-end of the all-terrain vehicle market, but Tomcar claims the cost is due to its superior design - not the cost of local production - and that there is no safer ATV available in Australia.
With a one-piece welded passenger cell, car-like center of gravity and racing-style seats and harnesses, Tomcar claims their extreme off-road vehicle is much safer than the popular but statistically dangerous quad-bikes. Tragically, 21 people were killed riding quad-bikes in 2013 and another 78 were injured seriously enough to attract press-coverage, but Tomcar says these statistics can be dramatically reduced with safer vehicles.
The National Farmers Federation is backing a plan by the University of New South Wales to introduce an ATV safety-rating system, which highlights the instability of quad-bikes. If the star-rating system was adopted, the Tomcar's 45-degree maximum safe roll-angle and almost vertical maximum pitch-angle would likely score very well.
In the unlikely event a Tomcar ends up on its roof, its roll-cage can support two-tonnes before deforming and occupants are further protected by a safety-glass windscreen - features Tomcar says are unique to the market. The ATV-maker is so confident in the safety of its vehicles that it doesn't recommend the use of crash-helmets. When Tomcar began looking for a proving-ground, it soon became clear a conventional four-wheel drive course was simply too tame, and instead, the local car-maker decided on an extreme dirt-bike trials course.
The maze of impossibly steep climbs, tight off-camber obstacles and constantly changing surfaces would stump most four-wheel drives at the first turn, but the incredibly difficult course was exactly what the developers of Australia's only locally made ATV needed. At the launch of the new diesel-powered range we hopped in the original short-wheelbase petrol-powered TM2 for a few laps of the mud-plugging test course, to see if it has the agility and durability to cope with the tough Australian environment.
On first inspection, tackling the course with only two driven wheels seemed too much to ask. That's right - Tomcar's range is strictly rear-wheel drive only.
But if the concept of a rear-driven only all-terrain vehicle seems a little contradictory, then consider how many two-wheel drive motorbikes you see cutting up the trails every weekend. Trust us - the Tomcar does just fine with two.
The secret to its agility on even very loose surfaces lies in its relatively lightweight construction and clever drive-system. A rear engined layout puts a majority of the 750kg mass over the rear axle allowing effective weight-transfer through the rear wheels. This leaves the front wheels to deal with steering and braking duties only, and the lack of drive-shaft at each hub allows a greater suspension travel and steering angle.
One of the cleverest design features to be found in the Tomcar is the rear suspension and drive system, which sends torque to the wheels via chains sealed inside the suspension swing-arms. The unusual design is compact, protects the chain from dirt and damage improving reliability, but has the added benefit of extending the suspension under power.
This means that on uneven surfaces, acceleration actually forces the wheel in to contact with the ground, increasing traction and enabling the wheel to follow undulating contours. All other systems have to rely on spring-pressure alone.
The system certainly seems to do the trick and not once did the little buggy struggle for traction regardless of the speed or approach angle. But climbing is just one of the Tomcar's tricks, and its ability to descend is just as impressive. On a very steeply inclined concrete slope we managed an angle very close to vertical with only the four-point harnesses holding us in the deep bucket seats.
Steep steady climbs followed by short bursts of speed and severe drop-offs gave the little Tomcar a tank-like character, but we felt like we were being carried along securely inside rather than having to move around and respond to changing gradient as one does on a quad-bike.
On-road applications of continuously variable transmissions have never quite matched the operation of conventional automatic and manual gearboxes, but off-road the select-and-forget nature really comes in to its own. The ability to simply point the Tomcar at an obstacle and press the throttle makes progress over technical terrain a breeze, made simpler with controls familiar to anyone who has driven a normal automatic car.
With relatively dry conditions we spent the entire time with the diff unlocked and transmission in high-ratio, but if the terrain gets a little more challenging, the CVT can be shifted in to low-ratio and the two driven wheels locked together - all while still on the move.
Enormous 330mm of front suspension travel efficiently ironed-out sudden changes in the terrain which should have jarred and shaken the entire vehicle and occupants alike, while the 1780mm track gives the Tomcar a feeling of stability a quad-bike can't match.
The lack of anti-roll bars at either end does allow the Tomcar to list-over during fast cornering and the knobbly 10-ply tyres exacerbate the roll, but its 534mm center of gravity keeps everything firmly planted on the dirt with a lifted front wheel and understeer at the limit.
Tomcar says its ATV has to be easily reparable in the field with basic tools and without having to climb underneath at all, and this is why examples of simple design can be found throughout its construction. Many components are ambidextrous, which effectively halves the number of spares kept by owners, and both diesel and petrol engines have been kept as simple as possible. Tomcar is the only brand for sale in Australia with not one turbocharged model in its range. New to the range is the Kohler 1.4-litre 26kW/84Nm Kohler diesel-powered Tomcar and is attracting interest from agricultural industries, but the 1.0-litre fuel-injected petrol did a very good job of blasting through the mud and dust with its 41kW.
Tomcar say that there are no competitors to its range, only alternatives and we are inclined to agree.
For around $22,000 Kawasaki can provide you with a Mule 4x4 diesel, which like the forthcoming $27,950 TM4 will seat four occupants, but the Japanese machine is more golf-buggy than serious off-road proposition, and its sub one-litre engine can't match the Tomcar oil-burner. Can Am's Commander 1000 XT is a bit more of a serious machine at $24,000 but, while its 1.0-litre engine is comparable to the Tomcar's, its dimensions make it more quad-bike than car.
We loved the Tomcar's dune-buggy looks, physics-defying off-road ability and confidence inspiring safety features. It's price tag might steer some customers to the cheaper alternatives, but as co-founder and CEO David Brim points out, paying $25,000 for a car which has been hand-built in Australia represents good value, and furthermore, he believes one cant put a price on safety."
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