We find out exactly how this 17’ 6” van comfortably sleeps a family of six…

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It’s been almost two years since we purchased our Expanda. It’s also been almost two years that I’ve been thinking about all the wonderful DIY extras I need (or want) to add to it for our eventual long-term trip. All good plans take time, eh! 

Having done the rounds of all manner of vans at the time, we quickly came to realise not many really cater for six people. Sure, some can if you use the table as an extra double bed, but we didn’t want to be converting it every day. Ideally, we wanted a van that was as short and light as possible with a dual axle, maximum external and internal storage, pop top to keep the whole show as low as possible, and reliable enough to at least tackle outback tracks. 

This review is a little unique, given I actually own this van, have spent a lot more time in it than usual test vans, and get feedback from four kids and a happy wife.

The Jayco Expanda is the epitome of what it means to make the most of a given space. A small(er) compact, some say ‘nuggetty-looking’ van while in travel mode, but expansive and ‘longer-than-it-looks’ when set up. Indeed, we’ve had seasoned veterans say, “nah mate, this thing can’t be a seveneen anna ‘arf footer … it’d be more like a tweny oner … let’s pace her out eh”.

Of course, no amount of pacing and repacing by those seasoned ol’ fellas will see them concede they’re downright wrong … “me strides musta shrunk kiddo”. 

This van is indeed only 17’ 6” in travel mode, but does expand out another few feet either end with both front and rear beds set up. Perhaps adding to the optical illusion of size is the fact that it’s also a pop-top. With the top down, this Tardis-like contraption only reaches 2.45m high on the measuring stick – not much higher than the 4X4 roof racks.

Most would say I’ve flipped one too many pancakes if I said this van easily sleeps six. Yep, six full-sized bodies and that’s not even with the hassle of using the dining table. Let’s do the count … two in the front fold-down double bed, two in the rear fold-down double bed and two in the bunks. You have to set up the two double beds, but it only takes a few minutes to execute, and what a win for all those that want to go compact and have more than the national average of 2.4 kids.

Now, I’ll happily admit there are more robust, more off-road orientated vans available, but mentioning some of the prices to my dear wife was grounds for being left outside in the swag. The Expanda pricing, on the other hand, was at least given the nod and allowed me back inside to enjoy the reverse cycle air-conditioning … something no swag can compete with!

We opted for the Outback version – we wanted to be able to travel the lesser-graded remote roads, pull off to the sides of those back tracks for a free camp and venture to the slightly harder-to-reach places. So far, the Expanda has ticked every box.

I rejoiced the decision for Jayco to turn towards independent, trailing arm suspension with coils and shocks, while the fairer half couldn’t give a damn about it. She did, however, like the interior facilities and layout, to which I just nodded and said I loved her colour choices. That running gear – Jayco gave it the fancy name of ‘Jtech’ – was just one of the improvements over the older models. The Jtech suspension features Pedders off-road shock absorbers set at a decent upright slant combined with an internal Aeon rubber spring within the metal coil spring to help aid suspension during compression. This rubber also acts as a bump stop, plus a limiting strap is used to avoid over-extension. The suspension is adjustable for toe-in/out and camber to ensure wheel alignment is correct. 

The galvanised 150 x 50mm ‘Endurance chassis’ and 125 x 50mm drawbar bears the weight of the ‘Tough Frame’, consisting of five-layer vacuum-bonded fibreglass and plywood walls, packed with high-density polystyrene foam for insulation. It’s claimed the outer fibreglass walls are hail resistant … time will tell if they can stand the test of my four kids belting them with the cricket ball and dropping the pushbike handles against them. 

AL-KO off-road brakes are wrapped with fancy 15-inch alloy rims shod with 235/75R15 off-road LT-rated tyres to provide good overall ground clearance on par with most … so long as you don’t look at the ridiculously low-slung spare wheel set partially below the draw bar. At least one of the LPG bottles need to be removed to access the wheel in the event of a flat tyre. Thankfully, the latest models have had the spare wheel relocated for easier access.

The tyres are filled with Nitrogen (signified by the green dust covers on the valve stems), which supposedly reduces fuel usage, tyre wear and blowouts and improves ride and handling. Now, I’m no scientist, but I can’t see any of these supposed advantages being significant enough to notice, plus I for one won’t be refilling with Nitrogen come pump up time in the bush. 

Getting back to the brakes, this van is also fitted with an AL-KO electronic stability control system, which is a brilliantly simple safety device. Basically, if the van starts to sway, the stability control system partially applies the van brakes to pull it back into line. I figure that if it saves the van and my family just once, it was worth the extra outlay of cash.

While this van is an Outback model, it was only fitted with a standard 50mm ball coupling (the other option was a polyblock coupling). I’ve since swapped it for a Hitch Ezy off-road hitch which has made the hitching and unhitching job extremely simple.

Twin gas bottles, twin 82-litre water tanks and twin 100-amp-hour deep-cycle batteries were all opted for to help with those remote stopovers.
The 120-watt roof-mounted solar panel is a standard fitment and much appreciated to help keep the battery bank charged. Also perched up on the roof is a Denso reverse-cycle air conditioner … ah, the luxuries not found in any of my camper-trailers or old swags!

This particular size van came with two floor layout options; one with a shower and toilet and one without, which gains extra storage and benchtop space. We opted for the extra space, figuring we’d use the amenities while at parks and the optional outside hot and cold shower system with a pop up tent for a quick scrub. The extra space is a boon for us … ever seen how much room clothes, shoes and toys for six people takes up?

Being an Outback model, it has the fancy black checker plate which, combined with the extra-large wheel arches, evoke a ‘go-anywhere’ attitude … although I’ll not be pushing the limits too much.

Inside, the kitchen sports a four-burner (three gas and one electric) cooktop and griller, plus a microwave to nuke your dinner while on 240V. Hand and mains pressure taps draw from the dual water tanks and levels are monitored via a Drifter control panel which also keeps track of the two 12V batteries. This particular system also tells us how much power is going into the batteries (via the solar panels) as well as how much is going out and an estimated time ‘til flat.

All lights are LEDs, which draw little from the power reserves. The interior dome lights allow for white or blue outputs … I was hoping ‘blue’ would send the kids to sleep quick smart, but alas it did not.   

All windows feature push-out tinted double-glazing with inbuilt roller blinds. I reckon the system is beaut, but one has bitten the dust with my little boys’ non-angelic touch. Same goes for the plastic hooks that the bed-end curtains run on – a couple have snapped and been replaced by a piece of fencing wire.

Given the small(er) van size, the benchtop space is limited, so it’s a balancing act to cook, prepare and serve grub each meal time. 

While most bedding can be left as is when packing up the two end beds, some needs removing or it will slide around, but that’s one of the limitations we conceded to keep the overall length down. More of a limitation is the lack of headroom while climbing in and out of these two beds – I’ve bumped my noggin more than once, plus it is hard to climb over the good wife without waking her. I reckon this lack of height is my number one gripe with the whole van – more head space please Jayco! 

We’ve used the Expanda on countless weekenders within a couple of hundred kays from home as well as a longer jaunt to western Queensland. These last few months, the van has been parked up in a backyard in Sydney to use as accommodation for regular visits to the big smoke, while our long-term plans are to pull the kids out of school for a term (or two) to really hit the tracks.

All up, I maintain I’ve chosen the best van for our needs and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to larger families. 

 

Verdict 

The perfect combination of family van, shorter and lower dimensions, rough road ability, and price. 

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