Check these specs: Seats six, 35-inch tyres, twin cross-axle lockers, a tray 2.5m long, payload of over 2000kg and tows 4500kg. Meet the OKA.
How’s that sound for a touring 4X4? Must be big, right? Well, actually it’s only 300mm longer than a Ranger and 30mm wider than an LC200, with a wheelbase a fraction shorter than a Ranger and turning circle the same as the LC79. It’s the Australian light off-road truck, so Aussie its even called OKA, and after a hiatus the company is back under new ownership, ready to take your order. But is an OKA for you?
Over the last few years there have been two unhealthy trends in the 4×4 touring market which combine to create a big problem. First, people are buying more, and heavier gear. No longer content with a 40L fridge, 50 to 60L is now common, and then you need a heavy drop-fridge slide to go with it, so there’s the best part of 90kg already and a huge amount of space used. Wider, aftermarket wheels are common, with flares. And there are ever more elaborate drawer systems, some weighing up to 80kg before you put anything in them. The list goes on and on.
At the same time, cars have become more capable too. You knew when a 1980 Hilux was overloaded because the car sat on the bump stops and you couldn’t go fast enough to get into third gear. Today, cars have got power to burn, there are heavy-duty springs and good suspension design. All these factors mean the vehicle can be overloaded, yet not feel like it’s overloaded…until it breaks.
This is why I’ve been advocating for years now that either you reduce your touring load in bulk or weight, or both, or look at bigger vehicles. The American utes are great tow trucks, but lack payload. Towing is an option, but so too are light trucks such as the OKA. The specs in the headline tell the story – more than double the payload of a ute like the Ranger, another metre of tray length, and another person can come along – the truck is built from the ground up to carry heavy, bulky loads across rough terrain.
Of course, there are downsides. At 2500mm it’s tall – although that’s pretty close to, say, an LC200 with taller tyres, a lift and a roof rack. And a vehicle with a GVM of 6500kg running live axles and leaf springs will never handle or ride like a smaller, lighter 4×4 with independent front suspension. You’ll need a light-rigid truck license to drive it, unless you de-rate the GVM to 4500kg and lose payload. You won’t get the latest mod-cons like heated seats or climate-control air-con. There will also be no active safety like pedestrian detection, active cruise control or even stability control. Not even airbags, although ABS is on the way. And it’s not cheap, at $170,000 before you add a body on the back, but if you want capability, you have to pay for it. Then again, consider the cost of an LC200 plus caravan…not cheap either. But there’s a less expensive option.
With only about 440 built, OKAs are few and far between, but you can pick them up second-hand – best place to look is the owner website where they appear from time to time, often identified by their build number and there’s a site for spares too. The OKA factory will also carry out a complete refurbishment of your vehicle, which can be as extensive as you like. Indeed, two changes OKA recommend are the replacement of the Rockwell transfer case, known to be a weak point, and changing the old Perkins engine with a mere 350Nm of torque for a modern Cummins with 700Nm, matched to a nice new six-speed Allison automatic. Fundamentally, the OKA is a fairly simple truck that uses common parts, so it’s not as if in years to come there will be failed electronics that can’t feasibly be repaired or replaced. Light trucks tend to be built for, and have longer service lives than 4×4 utes and wagons. Resale is a factor too – I’m willing to bet that in 30 years time a new OKA will have depreciated a lot less than a new LC200 or Ranger.
Now if you’ve been wondering what’s happened to OKA over the last few years you’d be right to be a little confused. The story is complicated and would one day make a great subject for an automotive historian, but in brief; OKA was formed in the early 1980s by Mike Walker who discussed the light truck concept with mining executives. The first vehicles were the OKA LTs, produced in the early 1990s and used in agriculture, fire fighting, as personal campers and in the tourist industry. OKA’s reputation grew and about 40 exports were made to fourteen countries including the USA, China, PNG and South Africa. In 1994, the company floated on the ASX and raised $5.15 million in capital. Things were looking good for OKA, with production ramping up, but the transfer case proved to be a major failure point, causing the company to cease production because of damage to its reputation.
OKA went through a dark phase with minimal investment and multiple owners. Things picked up again in the 2000s with new owner Reymer, run by businessman Paari Vell, and work began on the OKA NT Series, the current model. A new transfer case was found, custom-designed by BAE Land Systems, the engine was changed to the Cummins and various other improvements were made. OKA was back with a viable product!
Unfortunately, while the product was now good the management ran into problems, leading to suspension of trading. So, in 2012 Dean Robinson and his brother formed OKA Parts Australia, acquiring the intellectual property and materials from Reymer. The Robinsons ran their OKA parts business successfully, and in 2017 an offer was made for the remainder of the OKA business. Dean accepted, and formed a new company called Ozterrain, trading as OKA All Terrain Vehicles (ATV).
Today, OKA ATV is busy servicing vehicles, refurbishing older vehicles, carrying out custom modifications, and now they’re ready to build brand-new OKA NT Series vehicles with delivery times of around 4-5 months. The company is future-focused, has built a 6×6 OKA with three cross-axle lockers, is actively working on a fuel-cell OKA, and is designing the next version, the RT. So yes, there actually is a small but effective Australia vehicle manufacturer.
So, why an OKA? The obvious point of comparison is a light truck such as those from Fuso, Isuzu and Hino which offer similar payload, bulk capacity and towing. They are all 4WD, with low range (in current models), but their main focus is extra traction in slippery conditions as opposed to true off-road capability. This is obvious because the tyre are relatively small-diameter, and they all run dual wheels on the back axle which are no good off-road as they create two sets of ruts, and debris will get lodged between the two tyres. The chassis is also designed to flex under load, whereas the OKA has a chassis designed to be rigid and relies on its long-leaf suspension to flex.
It is entirely possible to modify the Japanese trucks for off-road capability and there are well-respected companies such as Australian Adventure Vehicles and All Terrain Warriors doing just that – replacing the double rear wheels with singles, changing the wheels to 35 or 37-inch diameter with consequent speedo changes, and even in some cases, cross-axle locking differentials. In contrast, OKA has the tyres and singles as standard, with the option of twin lockers, a powerful engine and automatic transmission, built ground-up for offroading. OKA says the ride is better than other leaf-sprung trucks as the leaves are longer than average, allowing a more supple flex.
The only vehicle with comparable off-road specs is the Iveco Daily, which is a fantastic concept but has so many design flaws and reliability issues one owner literally wrote a book on how to fix them.
Some may also consider an ex-Army Unimog U1700, which are truly fantastic vehicles but in a different class – they’re nearly 2500mm wide which is at least 400mm too wide for many Aussie bush tracks – and they’re around 6000-7000kg unladen, 12,000kg laden which will mean exceeding weight limits in situations such as some remote bridges. And all that weight is powered by a diesel engine good for only 124kW and 520Nm of torque with an 8-speed manual. If you want a more modern vehicle then check out Mog specialist Unidan Engineering, who may have a something like a U5023 model which is a bit narrower and much more powerful.
There’s so many options for touring vehicles from Jimnys to Unimogs, but its really good to see an Aussie alternative in OKA, particularly when the vehicles are squarely targeted at off-road use in Australia in a way no other truck in the class can match. We’ll keep an eye on developments, especially that awesome 6×6, and we’re keen to hear from OKA owners too. Stay tuned for more soon.
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