Review: Lightforce 215 Driving Lights (4.5 out of 5)

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I think just about anyone who owns a Jeep Wrangler will offer you pretty much the same opinion of its headlights – they are pretty poor!  As a very regular long-distance night driver, lighting is really important to me.  We have a regular 350km drive (700km round trip) once or twice a month, usually in the evening/night.  The Jeep’s headlights (low beam) are fine for me while driving at night around town but once out in the country really fall short of what is needed.  High beam is even worse – much worse – it is woeful.  This makes a good set of driving lights an absolute necessity, especially since much of our long-distance commute is through kangaroo territory.  The number of kangaroos on this drive is staggering, but other animals and animal strikes (wombats and even deer) are quite common too.

Having previously owned (and been very happy with) Lightforce halogen driving lights I was quite comfortable buying Lightforce again.  After much research and reading of reviews I settled on Lightforce 215 LED driving lights.  I purchased a driving/spot combination as that is what I have used on a number of different sets of lights now and find it to be a good combination.  I have to say these things are bright – really bright.  The colour is very white, a much cooler colour than the warmish halogen lights that I am used to but it really lights up the road and its surrounds.

While the area that the lights do light up is extremely well lit up the LEDs seem to lack a bit of the distance that I am used to (however I knew that would be the case so was expecting it) but the area lit up is still quite substantial and turning them off and reverting back to the headlights is like going back into darkness.  I am not able to do measurements of lumens at specific distances and can only offer an opinion but they are impressive.

I think a complete solution for the type of driving that I do would need to include HID driving lights but lacking those, I am more than happy with the 215s.  On the Jeep they look a bit big and only just fit into the bull bar but after having used them many times now I couldn’t have settled for lights with any less output and am very glad I selected them.

The only negative I have is that one of the clear filters has started to discolour a bit.  If this didn’t happen I would have given the lights 5 out of 5 rather than 4.5 out of 5.  Just on that though, I contacted Lightforce and they immediately offered to replace the filter so their service is 5 out of 5, brilliant.

Overall I am very happy with these lights and would have no hesitation in recommending them.

Review: ARB Deluxe Bar (4 out of 5)

Following the installation of the roof-rack the next accessory to be installed was an ARB Deluxe Bar.  As a very regular rural driver travelling often at night in remote areas frontal protection is a ‘must’.  The amount of kangaroos on the road can be quite dangerous at times so a good bullbar was high on my list of accessories.  With previous vehicles I have had an abundance of choice when it came to frontal protection and have had no problems finding good quality bars having high levels of protection and the ability to house a number of other accessories such as driving lights and winches.  The Wrangler on the other hand, does not seem to be so well catered for from the main 4wd aftermarket companies here in Australia.  The main problem for me was finding a bar that offered good protection in the event of animal strikes.  There seems to be an abundance of bars available from the US market but these are mostly designed for the hard-core off-roading that you find in the USA, not the type of touring associated with a lot of local 4wding.

It seems, given the abundance of them, that bars that have no hoops or just a small centre hoop are most popular with Wranglers.  While they may look good, and can support winches and a couple of driving lights, they don’t offer a lot of protection for quite large areas of the front of the vehicle (e.g. headlights, upper grille etc).  The best that I could find was the ARB Deluxe Bar (pictured).

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Overall, I am pretty happy with the bar.  The hoop could have been a bit bigger so that I could fit some decent sized driving lights in it.  The original fog-lights were retained, which is nice but I will be replacing them hopefully.  There are four mounting points for accessories (lights, antennas etc) and place for a winch.   There are also jack-points for using a high-lift jack.  The quality of the bar is very good, which you would expect from a brand like ARB.  Overall, this rates as a 4 out of 5 for me – a bit more extra protection from animal strikes would have seen a 5 out of 5.

First things first…

Review: Rhino Racks Backbone system (3.5 out of 5)

Much as I would like to start off by putting better tyres, a lift, bullbar etc on the Jeep the first thing that I really need to get sorted out is a roof rack.  With the Wrangler there’s a lot to consider.  With the hard top, soft top and no top you really need to think about how  you are going to use the vehicle.  I carry surf/sup boards on average 2-3 times/week so a roof rack is essential.  Trying to find a rack that works for both soft and hard tops is quite difficult.  There are a few options around but none of them was practical for me.  These are the exo-skeleton style racks which have support bars running up the outside of the vehicle to the roof.  Taking the hard top off typically requires uncoupling the front and then lifting the bars back on rear hinges leaving the rack bars pointing quite high up into the air.  I have a pulley setup in my garage which I intend to use to lift the hardtop off but the roof in the garage is too low to allow these exo-skeleton racks to be lifted back inside the garage.

The best option that I have found to-date and installed is the Rhino Rack backbone system.  It has a decent carrying load supported by reinforcement bars mounted inside the jeep to the hard top (see pictures).  The only problem is I don’t have a rack for the soft top and am still looking for one.  The Rhino Rack system seems to have heaps of accessories for carrying a range of different types of cargo.  So far I am pretty happy with it.  Rate it at 3.5 stars (out of 5).  Only loses points because it can’t work with the soft top.  It does tend to whistle a bit at times as well.

Hema HX-1: An unfortunate experience

Review: Hema HX-1 navigator (0 out of 5)

So this isn’t how I imagined I would start off this blog about my Jeep build and experience with it.  One of the first accessories that I needed after purchasing the Jeep was a decent navigation aid.  Since I plan on doing some remote 4wding and touring I turned to what I thought was a specialist supplier in this area.  Hema have been making maps for as long as I can remember and seem to specialise in outback and rural Australia.  After reading all the marketing hype about the HX-1, their premium offering, I decided to invest in one.  Long story short, I should have stuck with the old touring maps that I have and Google Maps.  Both would have been better options.  If you want the detail of my first real trip with this useless piece of rubbish, please read ahead.  This is my experience – yours maybe (and hopefully is) much better.

I recently purchased a HX-1 as part of a trip that I was planning travelling from Adelaide to Wagga Wagga, then through the high-country to Melbourne, Torquay and then on to Robe.  I had a couple of weeks to get used to the navigation before I left and this is where the first problem appeared.

While using the navigation (‘Drive’) functionality one day I noticed that the voice directions seemed to have stopped working.  At first I thought that this was some sort of ‘user error’ but on exploring, I could not find a way to reactivate it.  All the settings seemed to be correct.  After a while I gave up and decided to research the problem at a later time.  That research did not yield anything new but on a later trip, about halfway through the drive, the voice navigation came back on.  This time I was sure it was not me as I had not touched the unit at all.   Unfortunately this pattern has repeated itself a number of times now, with the voice not working more often than it does.  One time however, while carrying the unit to the vehicle I detected a very low volume audio a bit like you hear from a phone when ‘hands free’ audio is off.  I am guessing there could be either an intermittent hardware connection error to the speaker or a bug in the software.

Annoying as this is (and audio navigation is an important safety feature as drivers need to keep their eyes on the road, not the device), this problem is only one of several which in my opinion makes the HX-1 ‘not fit for purpose’.

When driving from Adelaide to Wagga Wagga (and putting up with the annoying audio problems), I had an overnight stop over in Swan Hill.   While there I used my laptop to explore the area and look at the route that I would be taking to Wagga Wagga.  I needed to know how long it would take since I had an important engagement to attend.  Using Google Maps I put in the start and end points and was given a route which would take 408km and 4h 32min (see image SH-to-WW-gmap).

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I then tried the same thing with the HX-1 and was provided with a recommended route that would take 493km and 5h 21min, much longer in both time and distance (see image SH-to-WW-hx1-1).

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I then looked at alternatives and the only option that approximated the Google Maps route (direction-wise) was estimated to take 8h 15min! (see image SH-to-WW-hx1-2).

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I decided to take the Google Maps option but had the HX-1 running alongside.  The HX-1 continually tried to divert me back to its preferred recommendation pretty much all the way to Wagga Wagga which, if I followed, would have added a ridiculous amount of time and distance on to the trip.  The roads I travelled as recommended by Google Maps were all good quality sealed roads which had obviously been there for many years so I have no idea why the HX-1 refused to adjust to this far better option.  The trip was through mostly farm land and mallee scrub and I was very lucky I did not have to rely on the HX-1 navigation as it was useless.  Google Maps was also just about spot on with its duration estimate.

I cannot understand how a supposedly premium GPS navigation tool such as the HX-1 performed so helplessly.  These roads were not new and were very good country roads but the unit was incapable of selecting them.  Hema promotes this device for touring and 4wd but it could not come close to matching a free, general service such as Google Maps.  It promotes itself as specialising in 4wd and remote travel across Australia yet for such a simple rural trip as from Swan Hill to Wagga Wagga (through touring country) the HX-1 failed miserably.

From Wagga Wagga I travelled to Wodonga which the HX-1 managed to find (well there is only one main road) but with the usual drop out of audio.  Leaving Wodonga to Mansfield the unit failed again as it could not follow the highway – it went off road by quite some distance for a while before rejoining the road.  This time I could see why as the road seemed to have been re-routed sometime in the last few years (when was the last time they updated this area as their maps are clearly out of date?).

On entering Mansfield I thought I would give the unit a chance at finding me a petrol station.  I selected a Coles Express station as that seemed like it would be quite new and still likely to be there.  Wrong! The HX-1 led me to a very old and well established area where there had clearly never been a petrol station, let alone a Coles Express!  Another fail for the HX-1.  While in the area I tried to see if I could use the search function to find some 4wd tracks.  Well that was a dumb idea. Obviously you can only search for gazetted points of interest, not something like a 4wd track.  The explore feature is really just a digitised piece of paper with no effective digital functionality built into it.  What a disappointment that was yet there were far more disappointments to follow.

I gave up on the HX-1 and drove to Torquay without bothering to plot my route with it.  I did leave it on though only to be continually annoyed by dozens of warnings about speed cameras that weren’t there (unfortunately the audio function decided to reappear but only to provide me with useless, innacurate information).

On entering Torquay I needed to search for Baines Crescent, seemingly a very simple navigation task but again the HX-1 could not find it.  It could only direct me to Torquay Town Centre, not streets within it.  Finding this street without a map would have been impossible.  This actually turned out to be a user error – the interface is not that intuitive and I guess I am used to well-designed and intuitive interfaces after using other products for so long.  It turns out that you need to scroll a bit and select another level of searching for actual addresses.  Google Maps again came to the rescue.

Leaving Torquay I needed to travel to Robe.  I keyed in the address in Robe but again the HX-1 could not find the street (my mistake – when I eventually got home and had time to play with the HX-1 I did find a way to get to addresses although its weird that not all addresses in any given street are available for selection).  For me this was yet another fail for the HX-1 as it has a clearly inferior and less intuitive interface than other navigation products and services that are available.

Having travelled from Melbourne to Robe a few times, and from talking to a local I knew that probably the best way to get from Torquay to Robe was via Hamilton, Casterton and Penola (ie inland).  Google Maps (by now far and away my first preference) also selected a route this way which would take 5h 21min (see phone screenshot T-to-R-gmap).

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Just purely out of interest I decided to see if the HX-1 could come close.  It’s best effort saw me heading inland and then unexplainably back down to the coast for a 6h 32min trip (T-to-R-hx1).

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Along the drive I thought I would give the HX-1 another opportunity to find a petrol station.  It found a few, the closest being a 22km diversion (11km) each way off the road I was travelling but in the opposite direction to the route that it was trying to get me back to.  I tried in Google Maps, it found a petrol station just a few km up on the road I was travelling on!

As usual, the audio on the HX-1 was at best, intermittent, but mostly absent, and the unit continually tried to divert me to its longer route until I got to Casterton.  At Casterton I stopped to buy a drink and on recommencing my drive I got an error on the HX-1 saying its program had stopped.  I pressed the ok button and got a ‘content error’ – the device had to restart itself. On restart I set what by now should have been a reasonably simple task to navigate to Robe yet it still wanted to take a route that would take almost an hour longer.

Google Maps saw me arrive at Robe an hour ahead of the HX-1 schedule.  As a final insult though (the HX-1 was only directing me to Robe Town Centre, not the street in Robe that I was after), the HX-1 failed even on that.  On approaching Robe, the navigation function asked me to turn right (away from Robe and off towards Kingston SE) and then it identified itself as arriving in Robe.  Robe was about 2km in the other direction.  If I was arriving at night and not familiar with Robe I could easily have missed the entire town!

In summary the HX-1 failed (miserably) on every task I put to it.  It is completely not fit for purpose and has to be the worst product that I have ever purchased (not just GPS/street navigators – anything).

I have been 4wding and using navigation devices since 1997 so think I have some experience with them and have never come across anything like this.  At best it is useless but at worst it could be outright dangerous!