The Australian-designed and built Tomcar is an off-roader with a difference
The Australian-designed and built Tomcar is an off-roader with a difference… it doesn’t have four-wheel drive but it’ll go just about anywhere.
ONCE THEY USED TO say leaves, never coils. Then they said manuals, never automatics. And then they said live axles, never independent. Then they said you must always have low range, but then came the Amarok and the new Rangie Sport. And now they say 4WD, but then there is Tomcar.
A Tomcar is an offroad vehicle designed to work every day for farmers, miners, tourism companies, defence forces, surveyors, or anyone else that needs to reliably and cost-effectively transport loads across rough terrain. But you wouldn’t think so from the specification sheet which begins with a CVT transmission, fully independent suspension and 2WD – more like a Yaris than a LandCruiser rival. There’s no stereo, heating, power steering or anything other than pure car, so it weighs between 700 and 800kg, depending on configuration. The two-seater is a mere 2820mm long, the four-seater 3420 which is not much more than the wheelbase of a modern ute.
Yet the Tomcar can carry between 400 and 650kg, and tow 1500kg. The suspension offers travel of 330mm at the front, 360mm at the rear which beats many 4WDs, and there’s 380mm of ground clearance when unloaded, or the same as a GQ Patrol when it’s on 40” tyres. There’s a rear differential lock, the chassis is one smooth plate underneath, and a full rollcage is standard. Approach and departure angles are around 80 degrees, and ramp angle bests most 4WDs with a 2” lift.
This vehicle is a serious working tool, but when we meet the crew with two Tomcar TM2s one fine Sunday morning there is no talk of commerce. We are here to see how a 2WD all-terrain vehicle performs, and we are going to drive tracks I know well in a local state forest. For comparison, I have invited a Defender 110 with a 2” lift and 33” mud tyres, and a comp car GQ Patrol with twin lockers and 37” tyres. We are going 4WDing. Sorry, let’s make that offroading.
I slip into the driver’s seat of the Tomcar, and the differences to a 4WD begin straight away. It’s lower to sit in, much lower than a standard 4WD, let alone a lifted one. The seat is a bucket type, and there’s a four-point harness. The driving position is comfortable, with a tilt steering wheel and seat with forward and backward movement. Visibility is good, but any harness restricts your ability to turn around in the seat.
There’s a lot of noise, because there is absolutely no soundproofing. Steering at very low speeds is very heavy, because there’s no power steering, but it lightens up quickly at speed – you need to remember it becomes much heavier as you slow, something that caught me out a few times as I didn’t put enough muscle in to turn.
Acceleration is initially brisk, but the car feels like it’s working hard at 70km/h, even though the top speed is 100km/h, reached in 14 seconds. Conversation becomes difficult beyond around 60km/h as speed builds, and then impossible.
The first turn on the road approaches, and apparently the Tomcar is no corner carver. Even at this speed and radius I can feel the understeer, courtesy of the weight distribution which is two-thirds to the rear. But that’s not wrong, it’s just different. The Tomcar has grip aplenty but it doesn’t necessarily handle and respond in ways driving normal cars will prepare you for. You aren’t going to hold the Tomcar in lairy powerslides, but that’s fine, it’s a working vehicle and you don’t want your staff needing to learn the art of opposite lock when they should be doing their jobs. Indeed the handling is very safe – barrel into a corner too fast and most drivers brake and turn, which in a normal car is a recipe for sideways. Do that in a Tomcar and you weightshift to the front, so the steering wheels grip but there’s still plenty of traction on the rear so you just grip and go. For normal drivers that’s a safety net, and for the experts there’s a depth of capability to explore as you can take corners at speeds you would not believe, if you don’t mind the body roll which makes a classic Rangie seem flat.
Onto the dirt road and the Tomcar doesn’t care, may as well be bitumen, then we enter the state forest, and the 4WDs air down. Eager to get going while they do that, I take Tomcar co-founder, Joe, and we go off for a bit of a drive. The entry track is deeply rutted, deep enough that I’d straddle or worry with a 4WD. Joe is unconcerned. “Drive anywhere” he drawls. So I do, and, amazingly, it just works. There’s no loss of momentum, no worries. I’m also driving much faster than would be advised in a 4WD because that long-travel independent suspension atop that light body just soaks up the bumps in ways I’ve never experienced before in a four-wheeled vehicle outside of desert race buggies.
We loop around, and I could turn right to rejoin the others, but no. Time for more. We head for a slippery climb, clayey, again with big ruts, and gun it. Up we go, and again the Tomcar has no lack of power, no lack of traction and no concerns about the big ruts we alternately straddle, dip wheels into, or cross. I smile in amazement as we just dance in, bounce out of the ditches, over rocks and roots. There is no doubt that a standard vehicle 4WD would struggle on this track in these conditions.
I have been behind the wheel for less than ten minutes, but I will now confidently assert that this 2WD can handle 4WD territory.
At the top we turn around and descend, and here the rear weight bias makes the descent comfortable and very controllable. Then it’s time for a really tough climb, a ninety degree turn followed by a very slippery and deeply rutted ascent. I make it about halfway up, the Tomcar running out of traction but not ground clearance. Another go, a bit more runup, and more success. I’m about to give up, but Joe has his favourite advice ready:
It’s very rare in my driving life that anyone ever tells me to go faster, but that’s about three times already in the space of fifteen minutes. I might marry Joe. So to get a runup I reverse back through a deep bog at speed and then before I know it, we’re off the side of the track.
What happened? Driver error. There’s no power steering on the Tomcar, so there’s no damping. Anything that turns the front wheels does so with no resistance, and I’m not used to that so wasn’t prepared for the rather sudden snap of the wheel. Nevertheless, we’re on our way again soon and Joe has a crack at the hill, but does no better.
I call the Defender up, keen to see how it goes. Can 4WD beat 2WD? Not this time, the Defender runs out of ground clearance, failing much earlier than the Tomcar.
It’s left to the comp car to salvage 4WD pride, and indeed he does, not quite idling up but certainly making it first time without significant drama, the 37” tyres providing enough clearance.
But Joe is not to be defeated, and gets into the other Tomcar which has different tyres and is even lighter. With lots of wheelspin he too makes it to the top, a remarkable victory for a 2WD and not a track that any 4WD could have driven without huge tyres.
Next up is a transit, easy stuff for any 4WD but the Tomcar can be driven very, very quickly thanks to its small size and supple suspension, far quicker and more comfortably than any 4WD short of a comp car could manage.
We arrive at our destination, a steepish, rocky section that I’ve had to winch in the past when wet. The Tomcar descends with its usual complete lack of drama, there’s an occasional rock scrape but the car is built to shrug those off as if they were overhanging fronds, and remember it weighs so little that the force on the rock is minimal, unlike a 2500kg 4WD banging on stone. Again, I am impressed, and smiling.
At the bottom of the track it’s time to turn around, and try the ascent. There’s a huge rut and rather than avoid it I straddle it, engage the rear locker and crawl along, with one wheel waving high in the air. The Tomcar’s throttle is nicely tractable, an important factor in any offroad vehicle. So I continue, up the loose rock climb which the Tomcar simply powers through.
Now we come to the harder part, some jinks around rocks, off camber, slippery sections. I have the rear locker still in, and we’re going well, round this rock, over that, turn here as the track steepens…and we’re inverted.
This is new to me. I’ve never backflipped a car before, and I don’t recommend the experience, but I can tell you what happened.
The Tomcar has the majority of its weight on the rear axle. That means it’s front-light, especially when ascending hills that have rocks that bounce the front wheels. I had the rear locker in, which like all lockers restricts turning capability, but particularly so in front-light cars. I turned the steering wheel, but not enough, and hit a rock. Up went both front wheels.
In a 4WD, if you lift both front wheels you lose half your traction, so there’s a kind of safety valve and you might stop moving. In a rear wheel drive, front wheels in the air actually increases traction – there’s more weight on the wheels, and now both rears are firmly in contact with the ground. The departure angle on the Tomcar is also eighty degrees, so there’s nothing to stop the car flipping. Except of course the driver, and this was my error, another Tomcar learning experience. What I should have done was disengage the locker, perhaps drive a bit slower, and wired my brain differently. See, as a 4WDer I think about rolling sideways. Backflips never concern me. In the Tomcar short wheel base, reverse that. You’re hardly ever going to roll, with the width and centre of gravity of the car being what they are, but backflips are a risk for the reasons described above, but that’s not much different to a lifted, big-tyred shortie TJ Wrangler or the like. The other solution is to drive the longer wheelbase versions of the Tomcar.
So there we were, my passenger and I, inverted, but unharmed. The Tomcar was, for the most part, undamaged. The two fibreglass mudguards were toast, but they’re designed to rip off. The rollcage did its work with a minor cosmetic part just bent. A light smashed. And that was it.
We secured the Tomcar with a winch rope and used manpower to right it. The airfilter was full of oil, but that was cleaned out and the car was then as good as new. That is impressive robustness. I have spent quite a bit of time on that particular hill righting vehicles and winching them out after breakages, and this was the first time I’d see a vehicle drive out after being rubber side up, so marks to Tomcar there. So with the Tomcar back in action, we continued.
There was one interesting little section that showed again how different the Tomcar is to a normal car. It was a deep rut you could drive into and up out of, something I’d done in my Ranger a few weeks previously. In the Tomcar I could do the same, but as the nose started to rise so did my concern. Grip was never a problem, nor clearance, but I worried that with the burst of momentum I’d need to give the car it’d backflip again.
The Defender and Patrol had no problems and made it up without fuss. And then, so did the Tomcar – but it took a radically different line that involved a sideslope teetering on the edge of the rut, one impossible in a 4WD, but not for the Tomcar.
There was also a very, very rocky section that the Defender didn’t try, and the Patrol made look simple. The Tomcar made it too, with a jink here and there. It wasn’t easy, but the wonder was it did it at all.
Could the Tomcar be improved? Certainly. While I have driven many types of vehicle, that has just given me an appreciation for how driving techniques need to be modified to suit each type of car, and an experienced driver can drive around almost any problem. Regardless, here’s my list. I would start with the steering. The wheel needs to be larger, so drivers have more leverage and feel at slower speeds. It also needs to be thick rubber, with more forgiving spokes lest your thumbs get caught. A rally wheel would be perfect. And then call me a new-age wuss, but some form of power steering is important, or at least damping because of the kickbacks the wheel can generate. At the end of the day my arms were a bit sore from having to hold the wheel so firmly to keep it straight.
Next I would shift the weight forwards, by extending the wheelbase by maybe another 100mm at the back. I don’t think the TM2 needs to be that short, and the extra length would be welcomed by anyone looking to carry a load. It would also help the handling by placing more weight on the front.
The suspension is a work of art – by Ironman – and I’d leave that alone. The engine needs a few more beans, considering we were running pretty well unloaded, but maybe that’s just me, I’ve never met a kilowatt I didn’t like.
So how did it stack up against the comp car? No comparison really. The big blue Patrol just cruised every track with little effort and is a superior offroader in every way, but the one advantage the Tomcar had was quick, nimble speed.
Against the Defender the story is different. On three occasions the Tomcar bested the Defender, two slippery climbs, one due to clearance and the other due to traction and momentum, and another time we didn’t dare try the Defender on the rocks. On just one occasion the Defender beat the Tomcar, managing to drive – after a second, valiant, attempt – the hill on which I backflipped. The other Tomcar gave it a shot, but was unable to get as far using less momentum so gave up. So yes, you read that right, the Defender, king of the stock offroaders, did not comprehensively outdrive the Tomcar.
Now the Tomcar people tell me that many potential customers realise the car is 2WD, and look no further. I suspect these people are also talented enough to determine the taste of food by looking at it, and the quality of book by the jacket cover. What they need to do is open their minds and look at capability, not specifications. So let me say this, to the closed-minded doubters – the Tomcar is a very serious offroad tool which has rough terrain capability that the average 4WD won’t match without modifications. I hope that’s clear enough.
But the real question is not whether or not the Tomcar is better than a 4WD, it is whether it has sufficient offroad capability for its intended purpose of rough-terrain transporting. On that score I can answer a definite, unqualified, yes. And while the Tomcar is a tool, if your purpose happens to be sheer fun in a state forest then I think I’ve found something even more fun than a Jeep Wrangler and that’s about as much praise as I can give anything, 4WD or 2WD.
Pricing and Specs
|Tomcar TM-2||Tomcar TM-5||Ranger PX XLT|
|Ground clearance (mm)||380||380||237|
|Turning circle (m)||2.5||3.5||12.5|
|Kg per kW||14||31||15|
|Kg per Nm||7.9||9.6||4.6|
Prices start from around $25,000.
Here’s some raw footage of the test. A few of the scenarios shown are described in this article.
Driving the Tomcar
To get the most out of any vehicle you need to change your style to the vehicle, whether it be a Suzuki Jimny vs a 200 Series, or even a petrol version of a diesel vehicle you know well. So when you have something as radically different as a Tomcar the driving technique changes are equally great – if you try what you’ve always known that may not work, and it’ll be your fault, not the car’s, and there will be capabilities you won’t unlock if you don’t think, and drive differently.
So for experienced offroaders here’s how to drive the Tomcar, based on a day’s experience. First off, speed. You’ll go faster, because you can. The small size and magic-carpet suspension see to that, and you need to go quicker because the Tomcar in part relies on momentum to get up and over obstacles. This extra speed means you need to look further ahead than you normally would, because things come up quickly.
You also need to recalibrate your perspective of clearance, because the Tomcar has much more than any 4WD outside of the competition scene, despite the tiny wheels, so it’s almost a case of no rut to deep, no boulder too big. You just go for it. Departure angle worries? Just forget about that. Approach angle too, except the little front wheels won’t be able to roll over everything. Your line is more about directional control than clearance or traction, because when the wheels lift or bounce you’d best be heading in the right direction.
Happily, you can stop worrying about the body or chassis hitting something, because it probably won’t, and if it does touch, well that’s like bullets hitting King Kong. Kind of itches a bit but that’s all.
Next you recalibrate your perspective on sideslopes. The Tomcar is only 70mm narrower than a normal 4WD – good because you can reuse normal car ruts – but 150mm lower and centre of gravity is even lower again at just 530mm. This, along with the light weight, means that sideangles you’d never dream of can be spider-climbed in a Tomcar.
If you’re wondering about needing to control powerslides, then don’t. The big rear tyres and rear weight distribution ensure that oversteer is the least of your worries. You will however need to deal with understeer – the technique there is to brake hard into and through the corner, transferring weight onto the front wheels. Yes, it’s different. Braking is stable, you’ll rarely get the thing squirrelly when stopping.
If you engage the rear locker be prepared to lose some steering control due to the light front, particularly on uphills. In general, I would avoid use of it unless you are going quite slowly, which is a technique you’d use in 4WDs anyway.
The harness will restrict your ability to turn around, so you’ll need to rely on mirrors. While the turning circle is small, ensure the rear locker is out before any manoeuvring.
The steering is light and easy at speed, but heavies up at slow speeds. There is no damping or power steering, so be prepared for some kickbacks – thumbs most definitely out of the wheel, and a firm grip is required. It is easy to lose track of where the wheels are pointing. The fact it is 2WD and rear-weight biased will mean you’ll need to be quick and direct with the steering as the front wheels won’t pull through.
If you do get stuck, then a small handwinch will do the job, or even a few blokes lifting the car.
In summary, average drivers can drive Tomcars offroad, but the beauty of the car for the enthusiast is that there are depths of capability to explore and enjoy, and in my day behind the wheel I felt I was still learning what the car can truly achieve – and that’s a recipe for a true driving enthusiast’s machine.
Want to drive a Tomcar for yourself? You can, and so can your kids! Read more about Wild Buggy.
Here’s some in-car footage of the Tomcar test. It’s fairly quick, but the Tomcar is completely stable and is designed for the pace, and it’s notable how little roll and bounce there is over the terrain. It was also the first take, so it wasn’t like the track was driven multiple times and that was the best.
4WD or 2WD?
OK, so would the Tomcar be a better offroader if it was 4WD? Yes and no. Firstly, 4WD adds weight, complexity and maintenance costs, it’s not something you add for free, and all of those factors erode the Tomcar’s simple-lightweight ethos. Secondly, I’ll also state confidently that 4WD in a Tomcar would make no or little difference at all in many, many terrains and situations. Furthermore, as a 2WD the Tomcar is as good an offroader as many stock or lightly modified 4WDs, and better in many circumstances.
But I’ll leave the answer as yes, because there were times where the extra traction of 4WD would have helped, either by allowing slower progress, or more progress. 4WD would also help with slow-speed manoeuvring as the front wheels could help turn the vehicle instead of just dragging – this is why 2WD tractors have independently braked wheels. There would also be more directional control with a more forward weight distribution, and more precise steering with less wheel lift. So yes, 4WD would improve the Tomcar’s offroad capability still further, but where do you stop – it’s like saying would twin lockers improve a standard vehicle, would a lift, would 35” tyres, would a V8 conversion and before you know it you end up with a tank. Then how about we put rotors on the tank and make it fly?