No one would ever question the Chinese work ethic – but when it comes to such matters as creativity, ingenuity and international copyright law, they’re perhaps not the best.
China is notorious for being the knock-off capital of the world. Sure, you might think it only applies to Beats headphones and North Face jackets, but knock-offs have hit the 4X4 world front-and-centre, and it’s easier than ever to get your hands on these questionable products. Ever heard of a website called alibaba.com? If not, maybe have a closer look and you will notice there are plenty of familiar looking four-wheel drive accessories being sold. In fact, you might swear that you’ve seen them for sale at your local 4X4 show.
Winches, snorkels, roof racks; even imitation air lockers can be snapped up if you know where to look. And this is the reason we have seen many new four-wheel drive companies pop up in the last few years, offering products that claim to be high quality while ‘passing the savings on to the consumer’. Sure, these accessories might be cheaper to buy, but what will they cost you in the long run? Have they had any real world testing conducted before going to market? And are they made with Australian conditions in mind? You’re dreaming!
These accessories are manufactured with two things in mind – how much will they cost to make, and how much profit can they be sold for. The expression ‘the poor man buys twice’ rings true, if something seems too good to be true it often is. That’s not to say there aren’t bargains out there, and sometimes you don’t need the best of everything. It’s all about making informed decisions as a consumer. Which is why we thought it was high time to take a closer look at the story behind badge-engineered four-wheel drive products.
CHINA AND MANUFACTURING
China contains quite literally thousands of industrial areas. There are approximately forty key manufacturing sectors in China; with thirty-four of them reported to be based in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong. The city is broken into four zones that dictate the roles of the manufacturing plants:
GUANGZHOU HIDZ (High Tech Industrial Development Zone)
GUANGZHOU EPZ (Express Processing Zone)
GUANGZHOU ETDZ (Economic and Technological Development Zone)
GUANGZHOU FTZ (Free Trade Zone)
So while not all manufacturing is conducted here, it would be a safe bet to assume a majority of these four-wheel drive accessories are being produced in in Guangzhou.
More specifically in Guangzhou ETDZ on the eastern side, where you will find Zengcheng Industrial Manufacturing Zone near the auto industrial base. Here, production of things such as machinery, plastics and electronics attracts business from the likes of OEMs like Toyota, Honda and Nissan.
Sure, a snorkel might just look like a piece of plastic bolted to the side of your truck, but it serves a valuable purpose. By purchasing an unknown and untested product, you could be putting your engine in a potentially lethal situation.
As an observation, the cheaper no-name snorkels I’ve seen are made from extremely thin material, which has little to no consideration for UV stability. Meaning they fade, and become brittle after sitting in the sun for even a short period of time. Fitting templates are often wrong or simply not included which makes installation an absolute nightmare. Mounting hardware is made from a grade of metal that resembles recycled soft drink cans, and if they don’t snap first they will rust – ask me how I found out.
The most concerning aspect of generic snorkels, is the actual moulding technique. If a plastic mould isn’t cleaned correctly before and after use, small holes will appear in the plastic surface thanks to those remaining impurities. I have personally seen one of these snorkels shine like a disco ball when held up to the light. Now if light can get out, water can get in. A snorkel that lets water in is about as useful as a left-handed screwdriver.
Roof racks are a great example of ‘you get what you pay for’. A cheap unit might be powder coated and constructed from steel or alloy, but it’s hard to know how thick the construction material is, let alone how long the powder-coated surface will actually last before becoming a faded, rusty mess. Funnily enough, there have even been reports of some resellers not warranting roof racks that have been used outdoors. Seriously!
I don’t know about you, but I kind of like driving my four-wheel drive outdoors. Those sort of ridiculous warranties are an absolute insult to hard working four-wheel drivers, so always read the fine print before handing over any cash.
It’s not uncommon to hear about these cheap racks bending, rusting from the inside out, or not even fitting square on the vehicle. What happens when the shady mounting brackets and hardware fails down the road? Are you going to be able to buy new units when they need to be replaced down the track? That cheap initial purchase doesn’t look so cheap anymore.
ROOF TOP TENTS
You often hear people say all roof top tents all come from the same factory, and that might be well and true. But that’s like comparing a Holden Barina to a top-of-the-line Holden Statesman. They might be made in the same building, but they are worlds apart in terms of quality and performance.
It’s often the things you can’t see or don’t have an option to upgrade that will determine the quality of a product. Things like ladders, zippers and clips, frame construction, canvas quality and thickness, waterproofing treatment, transit cover quality and even the floor material can all be selected on price point. These components will change the overall quality of a unit accordingly.
On the other side of the coin, there are also many clones of roof top tents on the market. A specific model can be remanufactured in multiple factories worldwide, as all you need are the design plans. Without trying too hard, I managed to track down ten different manufacturers and suppliers of roof top tents in China which all looked suspiciously similar:
Tianjin Aiwei Outdoors Products
Yongkang Jinle Outdoor Supplies
Telawei 4X4 Off-Road Accessory Factory
Guangzhou TST Car Accessories
CNtrail Camp & Outdoor Products
Dongguan Upal Outdoors Manufactory
Guangzhou Unity 4WD Accessories
Ningbo Wincar Auto Accessories
Beijing Sunday Campers
Just like roof top tents, you will hear four-wheel drive sales staff say time and time again all awnings are made in the same factory, and that theirs is the same as the big manufacturer – just in a different bag. Get them to prove this! For me, if that is the best selling point there is for a product (that it is similar to the best one), my wallet will remain safely stored in my pocket and my mind will already be wondering how to get to the next shop.
Look for thickness of the awning poly-canvas, as well as the ease of movement of the poles. If they feel clunky when new, they are going to feel ten times worse after a few months of off-road work. Make sure there aren’t any loose stitches anywhere, and that the Velcro loops used to secure the awning surface to the cross poles have been sewn on the bottom of the awning not the top. Seems like a silly mistake to make, but we have seen plenty of the cheap units with this flaw pass quality control and unfortunately get released onto the market.
Did you know there is a direct copy of the ARB Air Locker being produced in China? The imitations are visually identical, even down to the lettering on the activation switches. There are so many rumours getting around regarding these units, and if you decide to run them it’s completely your choice. But would you be comfortable doing a big trip with a locker made from the same metal as a Matchbox car?
ARB Air Lockers have always been regarded as a very well made and strong bit of kit. Again, it’s the things you can’t see that make them what they are. Take out the years of research and development, quality control and material choice, and it’s hard to imagine the quality will be comparable. They might look similar, but that doesn’t make them the same.
We have heard reports that the internal gears can be cast (weak) rather than machined (strong). We have also come across tales of shocking quality control, with metal shavings being left inside the diff centre, and a poor contact patch on internal side gears indicating an incorrect factory set-up. Rubber O-rings fail causing air-leaks, and the supplied air compressor that comes with the locker will last either five mins, five days or five years. Who knows?
Have you noticed that the majority of winches look spookily similar these days? The same housing, the same solenoid control, the same fairlead? Once again, it comes down to price. Why would you bother putting effort into aesthetics if that costs money? Instead throw some cheap paint at it, slap a new sticker on the control box, put it in fresh packaging and you now have the latest YXZ winch from ABC Winch Company, if you get my drift.
Winches are one of the most important recovery devices you can have, especially if you travel solo. Take the time to read the ever-important specifications provided, to determine what differences there are between any prospective winches (if any). Pay close attention to the quality of the hand controller, wiring, synthetic rope if specified and fitting hardware. While the winch itself might look great, if it’s not reliable and sturdy what is the point in having one?
How is it possible to get a bull bar for just a few hundred dollars? Seriously, think about it. There is 40kg of metal that needs to be purchased, cut, folded, welded and powder coated; you couldn’t make something at home for that sort of money!
The trick these manufacturers have found is to construct these bars from the thinnest and cheapest material available, put zero research and development into them, and even less real world testing. If you want a lump of metal hanging from the front of your four-wheel drive, strap a washing machine to it. If you want a sturdy, and reliable frontal protection system, talk to companies that manufacture and test their own products and have a proven track record of evolving these accessories from real world experience.
An LED light bar doesn’t make your four-wheel drive cool. Having the right lights for your needs does! Which is why I am always surprised when someone would prefer to run two massive 40-inch bars they picked up cheaply, rather than say a good quality 20-inch combo that works better and draws less power in the process.
One complaint I have with dodgy LED lights is waterproofing. Once water gets into an LED fixture, it’s pretty much game over. If the loom supplied with the lights doesn’t incorporate Deutsch connecters (or a similar waterproof connector), moisture will find a way in. Mounting brackets are another let down, even though they will look similar to the real deal. They won’t adjust as well, will be clunky to install and trust me when I say this – they will rust!
Tyre deflators, recovery gear, air-compressors, “farm jacks” (a hi-lift jack to you and me), synthetic winch rope, camp lighting. All of these products are available and again can be manufactured at a price to suit. Which again, is why the majority of air-compressors on the market look the same, as do tyre deflators. So how do you know which is the right product for your four-wheel drive? Stick with the innovators not the imitators and you will be safe.
Words By Evan Spence