User-friendly compact campervan is perfect for first-time vanlifers
First-time RV buyers have flooded the market since the pandemic started, driven to road-going holiday escapes by repeated lockdowns and restrictions on local and overseas travel.
For those new to RV travel, nothing could be easier or safer to drive for long distances than a compact campervan, especially one based on the popular Toyota HiAce medium van, that doesn’t take up much more space on the road than a seven-seat SUV and is just as stress-free to drive and park.
Sydney-based campervan conversion specialist Frontline was one of the first to convert the latest HiAce van, and remains one of few specialists in Australia to offer ‘turn key’ production versions of the top-selling Japanese medium van.
In business for close to 35 years, Frontline currently builds around three vans a week at its Brookvale factory in north Sydney, based on either HiAce or the slightly more upmarket Volkswagen Transporter.
It keeps it simple for entry-level campervan buyers too, with just a handful of layouts and interior decor options available, and a limited number of optional accessories for those who want a bit more comfort or free camping capabilities when touring the countryside.
Ready to roll
Pricing kicks off at $85,500 for Frontline’s HiAce camper, with our ‘try before you buy’ demo vehicle from Frontline’s Melbourne outlet, fitted with the six-speed auto transmission mated to the standard 2.8-litre, four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine, priced at a still reasonable $87,500.
It’s a ‘bog standard’ vehicle, highlighting all the things you get (and don’t get) with a Frontline camper before feeling the need to tick any of the 30-plus option boxes.
“As a van aimed at people just trying out campervanning, we’ve kept this van very simple and haven’t added any options at all,” explained Frontline’s Melbourne manager Jason Magee.
“But it also serves as a great example of the minimum standard inclusions that go into every Frontline camper, even before people look at the options list.”
The review van is fitted out in four-berth ‘Adventurer’ spec — a popular choice among five layouts available — which includes a compact kitchen, external shower and a forward-facing rear bench seat with two seatbelts, to go with the driver and passenger front seats.
The rear seating is quickly converted into a double bed at night, and there’s the option of adding a rooftop double bed, to turn the van into a somewhat squeezy, four-berth camper.
Our black-bumpered review van is based on the cheapest HiAce LWB variant, but you can pay another $1000 for the sleeker GL version with its colour matched bumpers and doors handles, fog lights and second rear camera.
You can also add options like side stripes, a front nudge bar and roof racks to jazz up the ‘stealth’ look, although Frontline does a nice job of retaining the original ‘factory look’ during the camper conversion which includes new tinted side windows and a flush-mounted pop-top roof.
We weren’t fans of the previous HiAce, cab-over van due to its squishy behind-the-wheel feel, but the latest bonnetted version is a big step up in terms of cabin comfort and space, especially for drivers with longer legs.
There’s a clear view out front from the well-cushioned seats, and the rear-drive HiAce impresses with its relatively zippy, refined performance. The 2450kg (unladen) camper gets up to speed quickly in traffic and cruises comfortably on the freeway at 100km/h, thanks to plenty of low-down torque from the diesel engine and smooth, responsive gear changes.
It’s mostly quiet on the move with the suspension soaking up minor bumps and only the occasional creak or rattle from the living space in the back.
The sharp turning circle makes it easy to squeeze into tight camping spots, with help from the front and rear parking sensors and a reverse camera. Not much larger than the latest LandCruiser, the van’s 2065mm travel height also allows it to slot into the garage at home.
Comfort-wise, the HiAce also boasts a leather steering wheel, air-conditioning, cruise control, and a colour touchscreen with inbuilt sat nav and smartphone mirroring. You also get the reassurance of a five star safety rating, with disc brakes all round, seven airbags and vehicle stability control, along with advancing driving aids like autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning and a blind spot monitor.
Fuel economy on the trip computer was showing around 12L/100km during our test-drive, which translates to a theoretical range of around 600km from the 70 litre fuel tank.
The Frontline HiAce Adventurer also boasts flat-floor, walk-through access from the front seats to the living area, which means you don’t have to go outside to set it up if it’s cold or raining, with the pop-top roof raised from inside.
The main outside entry is through the onside sliding door, or if you’re feeling athletic, you can jump up onto the raised lounge/bed after lifting the top-hinged tailgate. The raised tailgate also doubles as another shade cover, to go with the Fiamma wind-out onside awning.
Raising the roof manually from inside couldn’t be easier, after undoing a strap in each corner, and there’s excellent standing room throughout thanks to the large pop-top roof.
There’s also plenty of natural light and ventilation available thanks to three flyscreen windows in the pop-top canvas, and another sliding door and small sliding window on the offside that open up for more cross-breeze ventilation.
However, you’ll pay more for optional, removable zippered flyscreen panels for the rear tailgate and sliding doors ($380 a pop), that will help keep the bugs out on balmy nights.
Externally, there’s a socket to plug into 240V power at a caravan park and an inlet to fill the 50 litre fresh water tank. A 22 litre grey water tank is optional.
There’s also a small external locker to carry spare bottles for the portable butane cooker, that comes standard with the 240V induction cooktop, so you can heat things up when free camping. Buyers can opt for a $1500 two-burner gas cooktop instead of the induction cooktop, with the larger gas bottles stored in the boot.
Accessible from both inside and out, the main storage space in the rear ‘boot’ is large enough to carry the camp chairs, cords, hoses, a few tools and a portable toilet. Another option is a dedicated under-bed compartment for the porta-potti, to make it easier to access and use at night.
The Frontline camper comes standard with a single 100Ah AGM battery and Victron 12V/15 smart charger which are located in the rear boot space, along with a solar regulator and Anderson plug so you can plug in an optional solar panel when off-grid camping.
The battery should run the fridge, lights, water pump and fan for a day or two before having to be recharged. You can pay more for another AGM battery, or an up to 200Ah lithium battery system and 2000W invertor that will run the induction cooktop outside caravan parks, but the bulkier components will eat into valuable storage space in the rear boot.
The compact kitchen with its two-hob induction cooktop and stainless steel sink module is located behind the driver’s seat, with a 75-litre compressor fridge/freezer below. There’s an aluminium protective shield and light above the cooker, but no rangehood so you’ll need to open the doors and windows to allow the cooking odours to escape.
For food prep there’s the option of a narrow strip of benchtop on the right of the sink, an above-cab shelf up front, and the removable dinette table.
The tabletop and leg are stored behind the driver’s seat and slot easily into place for meals, with further adjustment thanks to a swivel-top and an optional base available to use the table outside. The front passenger seat also swivels around 180 degrees to face the living area when camping.
Pulling a couple of levers quickly converts the ‘Rock and Roll’ lounge/bed into a flat mattress for night (or day!) use, although you’ll need to store the linen separately when in ‘seating’ mode. The foam cushion bases are comfy enough, but the 1860mm x 1400mm double bed could be a bit too cosy for two larger adults. If that’s an issue, Frontline offers other layouts with a slightly larger bed.
There’s also the option to slot in a 90kg-rated rooftop bed above the main bed, to accommodate a small child or two.
Other on-the-road comforts
Cold showers are outside, using the retractable shower hose with faucet accessible from under the rear tailgate. If you plan to travel in cooler months, there’s an optional ($2300) 240V heat exchange unit available for warmer showers.
The interior also comes with a good array of 240V, 12V and USB sockets for powering a few gadgets, including a 12V socket in the control switch panel located under the kitchen bench. There are also some LED roof lights and flexible stork reading lights, along with a single 12V swivel fan.
There are block-out curtains on all windows, as well as for the front driving cabin windows so the swivelled passenger seat remains within the camper space once you’ve closed up for the night.
There’s no option to fit an RV air-conditioner but buyers can choose to add a diesel space heater, microwave and TV, along with canvas outside ‘rooms’, although the more stuff you fit the less dedicated storage space you’ll have. However, there’s more than enough payload at 850kg, and you can tow a trailer up to 1500kg with the auto transmission.
There’s a surprising number of (compact) storage options inside, built into the lightweight ply cabinetry on the offside wall, including six small drawers and cupboards around the kitchen, and a good-sized cupboard/wardrobe alongside the bed for clothes and towels.
Frontline offers a limited palette of interior colour options to choose from, with the review van sporting a more traditional look of beech ply cabinets, Baltic blue cloth upholstery, sand curtains and pebble lino.
While it may lack the ‘bling’ of some of its rivals, the Frontline HiAce Adventurer is hard to fault as a well designed, practical and user-friendly campervan. It all looks built to last, with use of lightweight, durable materials including marine-style carpet and moisture-resistant furniture ply.
Depending on your needs and budget you might want to add a few options like hot water and removable fly screens for the entry doors, but otherwise it’s an appealing, affordable entry-level campervan that doubles as a family-friendly daily driver when you’re not on holidays.
How much does the 2002 Frontline HiAce Adventurer cost?
Base vehicle: Toyota HiAce LWB Auto
Tare: 2450kg (approx.)
Towing capacity: 1500kg
Occupants: Four seatbelts, two berth
Travel length: 5265mm
External body width: 1950mm
Travel height: 2065mm
Interior height: 1970mm
Engine: 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel tank: 70 litres
Wheels: 16in steel
Brakes: Discs (fr and rr), ABS and ESP
Cooktop: Thetford 240V two hob induction, plus portable butane cooker
Fridge/freezer: Vitrifigo 75 litre compressor
Lighting: 12V LED
Battery: 100Ah AGM and 240V charger
Solar: Portable or rooftop panel optional
Shower: Rear pull-out hose with 12V cold tap
Toilet: Portable optional
Fresh water: 50L
Hot water: Optional
Credit: Caravan Camping Sales