Bitten by the ABR Sidewinder Compressor
Sidewinder in a variety of roles.

We've been using the ABR Sidewinder Compressor for a couple of years now and it's earned our respect, as well as a permanent home in the Outback Crossing ute.

These chunky, 12 volt units are made by Australian company - A.B.R. (Affordable Batteries and Radiators), not to be confused with ARB, another off road/touring parts supplier. Derek Bester is the talented force behind A.B.R. and he imports, develops and manufactures a range of aftermarket parts for the recreational vehicle industry.

Construction

The Sidewinder compressor has been around for some time and in it's current configuration sells as the MK4 version.

It's a twin cylinder compressor that weighs in at around 6.5kg and packages up at a reasonable 310mm x 140mm x 212mm (although in practise, once packed in it's bag with the associated accessories it's bigger than this). It's of a similar size to other portable compressors in this class. A sturdy, metal, fold down handle bolts to the top of the unit where a plastic container resides. This container comes with an assortment of valves for inflating balls, toys and air mattresses. We lost ours in week one.

The Sidewinder arrives with a durable 8 metre, flexible hose which is a nice change from the coiled, plastic, uncooperative hoses attached to many 12 volt compressors. You can get around the car with ease and inflate each tyre without hooking the air line onto the corners of the 4WD.

The pneumatic hose connections are proper 'Nitto' type fittings, which is also a relief because we're tired of compressors that pump just fine, but are equipped with fittings that blow off or leak. Cheap fittings are used in the spirit of economy but it's a false saving because you'll usually end up spending money on fittings that actually work.

The air hose is capped off by a dial gauge and an unusual valve chuck that screws onto the tyre valve. In practise it's slightly fiddly and A.B.R. sells a clip on chuck attachment for around ten dollars. We would have been happy to pay the extra for the clip on chuck when we acquired our compressor but it may not have been available at the time. Interestingly the standard valve chuck has a neat feature where pushing on it releases air from the tyre. It's a handy implementation if you accidentally over inflate. The dial gauge reads in kilopascals and pounds per inch and measures tyre pressure accurately once the compressor has been switched off. During inflation the gauge reads 4-5 lbs over the actual pressure, which is fairly normal for this type of gauge.

The unit has a steel base plate underpinned by four solid rubber feet, which ensures the unit stays put with the vibration of the running compressor. The base plate is designed to float on sand, presumably for re-inflating after a bit of beach work.

Cables are reasonably heavy and the terminal clips are adequate. In use the cables don't get overly hot indicating that they've been properly matched to the current draw of the 12 volt motor.

The Sidewinder is operated by a small plastic box with an on/off switch and a reset breaker. The breaker is a welcome addition. In case of shorting or thermal overload it trips out and can be reset with the push of the button. Much friendlier than digging around for a new fuse. We're not huge fans of the switch box. It's begging to be stepped on and broken or crushed in storage. Derek Bester is an accomplished electrical engineer and he's obviously added his own touch to the sidewinder electronics but we'd still prefer the controls mounted on the unit, out of harms way.

There's plenty of heat shielding and lots of cooling fins on each cylinder which help keep things cool. Heat is the enemy of 12 volt compressors.

A cleanable air filter is accessed by a solitary phillips screw, a welcome inclusion as clip on filter covers have a habit of vibrating off.

The whole unit is painted silver which isn't as nice a finish as quality anodising. Our compressor doesn't always find it's way back into it's bag after use, especially if we intend using it multiple times during the day. After two years of bashing around our vehicle the paint is starting to rub off and the handle shows signs of a little corrosion. It's actually a bit of a novelty for us to own a 12 volt compressor that may wear out from overuse rather than find it's way to the rubbish tip because it broke down.

The compressor is housed in a canvas like bag which doesn't offer a lot of protection and the zippers on ours eventually gave up. We'd prefer a plastic case but we surmise that if we designed the compressor exactly as we desired, it would double the price. As it is, the Sidewinder represents very good value for money.

The Technical Bits

This is where it counts. This factor determines whether something actually works and this is where A.B.R. has got it right. It's obviously a quality pump that can churn out air for a respectable amount of time.

In 2009 a well respected 4WD journal conducted an output test of 21 compressors. The A.B.R. Sidewinder came third overall. It cost $200 at the time. The two compressors that outgunned the Sidewinder cost over $1400 and $1200 respectively. The tests included other big name 4WD compressors.

A.B.R. quotes the Sidewinder as producing a maximum pressure of 150psi and a maximum flow rate of 150 litres per minute. It draws a maximum of 45 amps of current and A.B.R. claims that it will inflate a 215/70/R16 4WD tyre from 16psi to 34psi in 65 seconds.

We've never measured it and we've never felt that the compressor performs sluggishly. To measure our unit now and report it here would be an injustice to a two year old machine with plenty of miles on the clock. We hook it up, inflate the tyres and it just works as it should, every time.

A.B.R. states that the MK4 version has upgraded thermal protection and an increased temperature shutdown, up from 95°C to 105°C, meaning it can run hotter for longer.

The Sidewinder has a 650 watt motor. Aluminium cylinders and teflon rings should, in theory, help keep operating temperatures down.

Under Pressure

We actually use our compressor - a lot. On the west coast, on the hungry white sand where beach access is readily available, we are constantly deflating and inflating tyres. Getting to the east coast can involve driving hundreds of kilometres of gutted corrugations, that are smoothed out with the lowering of tyre pressures. The rocky hills of the north-east coast also become a whole lot easier to climb, on slightly deflated tyres.

These days we find ourselves adjusting tyre pressure more than ever before which means our air compressor gets to see a fair bit of work. We spend most of our time in the north which means things are usually hot and cheap compressors with minute duty cycles simply give up when they get too hot.

We use the Sidewinder for more than just pumping up tyres. It serves to adjust pressure in the suspension airbags when we've got a big load on, and most importantly, it makes us a cup of real espresso in the mornings. We've got a portable coffee maker that operates on air, which in turn forces hot water through freshly ground beans. (see photo)

The Sidewinder has also been pressed into service to help a lame concrete truck get to a job. It's probably the single occasion where the Sidewinder has impressed the most. When concrete trucks break down full of high strength concrete, things get ugly. Someone usually loses their job and $2000 of concrete and $50,000 worth of agitator bowl get thrown away - if the concrete goes off (sets).

We encountered a broken down truck on a quiet bush road on it's way to deliver concrete to a bridge repair. Truck brakes operate on air pressure and the truck's compressor had given up. The only way to release the brakes is to get air to the system, otherwise the truck is immobilised.

With a bit of innovation, the Sidewinder was plumbed into the air reservoir of the truck and it could proceed to the job, about 2km away. The Sidewinder cut-out from overheating about halfway to the job. it was rested, cooled and restarted and the truck made it to within 50 metres of it's destination before the compressor overheated and cut out again, The concrete was promptly dumped on the ground where it was manhandled into place. The day was saved.

Nothing remarkable about that, you may think. Twelve volt 4WD compressors are made to pump a tyre up, not fill a complete brake system and eight pneumatic brakes. We found it remarkable and still do, especially since it occurred on a day that exceeded 40°C. It's the only time we've ever had the Sidewinder cut-out from thermal overload.

What We Don't Like
  • The Carry Bag, it doesn't offer much protection and the zips fail.
  • We feel the switch and reset should be mounted to the unit. It's ungainly. We haven't stood on it…yet.
  • The fiddly valve chuck. We'd like to see the optional clip-on chuck included in the package.
  • A spot of glue would stop the plastic valve and adaptor container from getting lost.
  • There's no Ferrari finish.
What We Like
  • Durability
  • Quality hose and fittings.
  • Good electrical leads.
  • Good air output.
  • Sensible air filter.
  • Good duty cycle means it doesn't cut out on overload when the pressure's on.
  • Push button reset on the overload instead of a fuse.
  • Accurate pressure gauge (once the motor is turned off).
  • The sand tray and rubber feet keep the unit from vibrating away.
  • Deflating capability by pushing on the valve chuck.
  • It's an Australian company.
  • It's a 12 volt compressor that actually does what it's supposed to do.
  • The price.
Conclusion

Out of the box the A.B.R. Sidewinder isn't the prettiest pony on the racetrack but there are plenty of 12 volt compressors on the market, with lots of eye-candy appeal - that don't perform half as well.

We'd like to see it in a sturdy plastic box with the couple of niggles we mentioned earlier sorted out, but these are personal preferences and we understand that, to turn this product into a visual thoroughbred, would probably increase it's price threefold.

The Sidewinder retails for around $220 and can be purchased direct from A.B.R. online. At this price it's an absolute bargain. We can't imagine what we could upgrade to that wouldn't cost us a thousand dollars more.



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