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Toyota HiLux monsters in the Arctic


So you're into hardcore four-wheel driving. You've got an old Landcruiser or Nissan Patrol and it's a jacked up, with double diff locks and the works.  You might think you've got what it takes to go up against the roughest, toughest challenges that this planet can dish up, but in the words of Bachman, Turner Overdrive "You ain't seen nothing yet". Next time you're passing Iceland take time out to check out the Arctic Trucks in Reykjavik.

THE TERRAIN

Iceland is a country about the size of Tasmania with a population of 330,000 people that sits just below the Arctic circle, about 3 1/2 hours flight northwest of England. Unlike its name suggests, it's actually a lush green country, not unlike the South Island of New Zealand where the temperature rarely drops below minus 10 degrees. 

And, just like NZ, it is a volatile volcanic land with hot springs, sulfurous gases and stunning mountain scenery. It's a harsh, foreboding environment too where the sun doesn't set for several months a year and can be extremely hard on vehicles - even the most capable four-wheel drives. It's hardly surprising that it has spawned some of the most capable off roaders in the world.

THE TRUCKS

You might recall the killer Hilux in Top Gear's 2007 Polar Special.  It was an Arctic Truck in which presenters Jeremy Clarkson and James May raced the luckless Richard Hammond in a dog sled to the Magnetic North Pole. Down south in Antarctica where temperatures commonly fall below minus 50 degrees, 18 of Arctic Trucks' vehicles currently serve the scientific community.

That's not a bad advertisement for a company that has earned a reputation for building vehicles that are faster, stronger, and more fuel efficient than anything else - vehicles that can travel up to 1500km on a single tank of fuel. But the fun isn't confined to the boffins.

For as little as $US30,000 they'll take your brand new Prado or Hilux, dismantle the vehicle then chop, stretch and weld it back together to create something a lot more formidable.

WHAT YOU GET

Arctic Trucks offer 35, 38 and 44 inch conversions, plus an extended 6x6 version of the Hilux with an active third axle and extra diff lock. The AT38 version of the Hilux was Top Gear's weapon of choice and the one we drove along with the Prado.

As part of the facelift the guards are removed and modified and the suspension repositioned to provide the space and correct geometry for the big 38 x 12.5 inch rims and rubber. The ute has 450mm of ground clearance, an integrated air compressor for changing tyre pressures, 100 percent diff locks front and rear, plus a 12 volt 960 watt generator and an extra battery. To explain, in the Antarctic, tyres normally operate at a pressure of 2 to 6 PSI which makes vehicles five times faster and up to eight times more fuel efficient.

GOING OFF THE TRACK

Hundreds of tracks and streams criss-cross the Iceland landscape, most accessible only by four-wheel drive. Your average off roader is not designed to cope with the demands of ice and snow nor the sharp, jagged volcanic rock that can tear a normal tyre to shreds. In contrast, the huge, pillow-like low pressure tyres fitted to the Hilux absorb the irregularities of the terrain like a huge sponge.

The ride was impressively smooth over the dirt and rock that we encountered, and with 450mm of ground clearance water crossings presented little obstacle, with a snorkel for the deeper stuff. Returning to the bitumen however the grip felt questionable, the steering vague and we worried about the impact the sweeping changes may have had on the vehicle's ABS system.

THE GFC

Iceland as you probably know was hit hard by the Global Financial Crisis in 2009. At the height of the crisis, cars sales plummeted 90 per cent and Arctic Trucks was also hit very hard, with the number of conversions dropping from 479 to just 9 vehicles the following year.

Boss Emil Grimsson said they were forced to shed staff and look to other ways of earning a buck, mainly exports to countries such as Norway and the Emirates (where they like the macho look). They even started performing used car checks to bring in income.

Five years later business has bounced back, but the emphasis is now on exports and the lucrative tourism market. Grimsson confirmed interest has been shown in bringing the company's unique vehicles to Australia, but it is still a long way down the track.

Dream on . . . the difference between the harsh Australian Outback and bitter Antarctic wilderness is more than just 100 degrees.