This is our second A.R.E. Z-Series pick-up bed topper / shell and we purchased both from Custom Campers in Lake City, Georgia. I thought I’d do a follow-up to the “installation” blog entry I wrote back in early January you can find HERE to comment on what I think of it after nearly two months of ownership.
I will say, the high quality of the basic design & construction has remained consistent from when we bought our 1st A.R.E. Z-Series shell 12 years ago in November 2006 for our 2006 Toyota Tundra. And, quite frankly, it was the solid construction and design features that sold me on A.R.E. the first time and brought me back again for the Tacoma’s shell. There are some new features related to lighting and how the wiring is integrated to the shell that are very nice but the keyless entry remains my favorite feature.
Is the shell perfect? Not really, but as best as I can tell that’s not unusual for most of the camper top manufacturers. But, overall I’m very happy with the shell and will fix the things that need fixing (i.e., water leaks at the tailgate / rear door of the shell) as it will be far easier and more effective than trying to work through them with my dealer and A.R.E. As for the issues I’ve observed with this new shell, here’s my run down:
- While detailing the truck under fluorescent lights in the garage at night my smart phone’s camera makes it easy to see the color variation between the shell in back and the cab up front. Paint: They definitely got the right color, but it would appear they opted to use the formulation Toyota uses on plastic parts like the Tacoma’s grill surround. On red-colored vehicles, this particular formulation just looks a bit darker in low light conditions or under certain types of artificial lighting but is fine in bright sunlight. Our Formula Red 2004 Honda S2000 had the same color differences on the front & rear bumper covers. So, at times I’ll look at the truck and think to myself, “that’s the wrong color” even though I know it’s not as it’s a perfect color match on our Barcelona Red Tacoma to the front grille surround.
- Handling: For some reason, both of these shells have been delivered with several light scratches and nicks in the paint. I’m not sure if it’s because they’re hauled unprotected on a flatbed or what. On our black Tundra’s shell touching up was a no brainer. But, with the Barcelona Red color — noting they give you a small bottle with the actual paint used on the shell — the touch-up never quite matches even with the clear coat. But, that said most of the scratches buff out and I know I’ll add nicks and scratches to the shell so it is what it is and I’m the guy who bought a red truck knowing this about color matching.
- Water Intrusion: I’m not sure why, but A.R.E. shells seem to have more reports of water intrusion than most others. Mind you, the Tacoma’s bed design around the header & front rail are awful, so I chose to deal with this myself just to be sure it wouldn’t be a source for water intrusion and I’m confident that’s water-tight. So far, the seal between the shell and the bed rails also seems to be water tight.
- Back Door Seals: Reading through A.R.E.’s customer reviews there is a constant complaint regarding large gaps left at the rear corners of the shell where it meets the tailgate top rails and the shell’s door moulding and flap. These gaps are a ready entry point for water, snow and dust on just about every model of truck with an A.R.E. shell, not just the Z-Series… if only based on customer reviews and our shell also exhibit’s this condition. On the 2006 Tundra, it was easily addressed with foam weather stripping; however, it will require a bit more farm boy engineering to address on the Tacoma. This explains why a lot of Tacoma owners with these Z-Series shells are experiencing water intrusion in the back corners of their bed.
- The Beaver Tail: It appears that A.R.E. saw this problem with the funky tailgate design on the Tacoma (and perhaps other trucks with similar wide tailgate top rails) and developed a partial solution using a pair of rubber ‘beaver tail” flaps pressed in under the lower back corners of the shell’s door frame. At first I though they were intended to extend out and over the tailgate’s top rail cover to direct water flowing off the shell and down the frameless door’s window channel over and past the rear corner of the shell and gaps in the tailgate.
- However, after shooting some video from inside the shell and flowing water off the shell and down the rear door with a hose to simulate rain, it appears the beaver tail is intended to be folded-in as that’s how it works best. However, even when folded into the gate I was still seeing water coming down the square aluminum tubing that makes up the internal frame of the rear door opening. I sent a note to my selling dealer describing the issue and with a link to the video and got a great response: No worries I know what I have to do.. call me Monday and we will schedule a time for me to fix it at no charge. So, more to follow.
- Toyota’s Gaps & Cracks: Below the shell is another problem when it comes to water intrusion: all of the gaps around the bed and tailgate that make it anything but a weather-tight seal. I addressed those when I had the tonneau cover on the truck by using M-D Expand N’ Seal Foam Window Weatherstrip which is a closed-cell, expandable foam product (Lowes and other home stores have it) that conforms to and fills irregular gaps to seal-out moisture and air when it’s tightly compressed. Between the two of those elements — the flap correctly placed outside of the tailgate and the weather-sealed tailgate — it keeps the water out of the back of the bed.
- Side Window – A Self Inflicted Wound? Despite all of the rain we’d been having, the truck had still not been driven through a heavy rain since the shell was installed back in early January. However, I may have created a problem for myself when I installed some 20% window tint on both side windows back on 19 February. The purpose of the tint was to essentially black-out the shell’s interior so lookie-loos couldn’t easily see what was in the bed, often times high-end bicycles and bicycle tool boxes, etc. In order to apply the tint to the small wing vent windows the screens had to be removed. In order to remove the screens, the inside frame that pulls the flush fit side windows against the shell to create a water-tight seal had to be removed. These lightweight aluminum two-piece frames are installed and held together with sheet metal screws which are, quite frankly, a pretty crude fastener. Anyway, despite going back and re-torquing both windows after completing the tint installation and re-installing the interior frame, I discovered the right-side carpeted shelf under the window was wet after a night-long rain storm on 23 February. So, I’m reluctant to say the window was not properly sealed at the factory since I meddled with it. On the bright side, I re-torqued those sheet metal screws a second time and saw enough tightening to suggest I did not have a good seal and this past Sunday after having the truck out in a driving rain the right-side carpeted shelf under the window was dry, so I believe I’m good and won’t have to remove and reseal the window, which was my back-up plan.
- That’s about it for any negatives regarding the construction and condition as delivered of the A.R.E. Z-Series shell. However, I did end up redoing the wiring installation by Custom Campers. I discussed it at length in yet another blog entry back on 17 January where — to make a long story short — when I went to install a Pop-N-Lock I found the wiring installation to be not tied-in or as tidy as I’d like so I pulled it all out and re-did it myself. And, for anyone who might be having an integrated rear door lock installed on an A.R.E. shell, here’s a tip: make sure they tie the rear door lock to the electric lock wiring for the passenger doors — located in the passenger side kick-panel — so the rear door locks don’t cycle every time you unlock the truck. Yes, all of the locks will still cycle when you lock your door, but at least you’ve reduced the total number of times the locks will cycle by 1/2 if they’re tied to the passenger doors.
WHAT I REALLY LIKE ABOUT THE A.R.E. Z-SERIES
Yes, it’s always good to leave the best for last unless you had a really horrible experience or ended up with a really horrible product and want to warn-off others. That is clearly not the case with the A.R.E. products and, in particular, the Z-Series shell. I still believe it is a top-shelf product in terms of the fabrication and finish, never mind the attention to details and features. Some of the features that brought me back to A.R.E. and the Z-Series shell for the Tacoma were:
- Overall Exterior Style & Fit: I’ve looked at them all and this one has just hit the sweet spot for me. It’s the combination of how it fits on the bed, the frameless flush-fit side windows, the rear wing vent windows and the frameless rear glass door makes it look less like your typical “aftermarket topper” and more like an OEM-designed accessory that truly compliments the vehicle design… making it look more like an SUV than a pick-up truck with a shell.
- Interior Finish: The grey polypropylene headliner just happens to be a perfect match to the grey polypropylene BedRug in our truck. These faux fabric’s are nearly indestructible and never show signs of aging. Even though we don’t camp in our shell, it just gives it a very polished look when you open up the back of the truck to put things in the bed.
- Frameless Glass Door & Side Windows: Again, the flush-fit, frameless rear glass door and side windows set the Z-Series apart from most other shells by giving it an OEM quality. The only thing I’ve ever needed to do to these windows is to add window tint film to further reduce the ability to easily see what’s in the bed of the truck. The crank-out rear wing vent is a great feature in that it breaks-up the long piece of side glass with a stylish slash cut while giving you a very secure way of allowing air to flow through the shell without giving potential thieves an easy way into your shell which is often the case with many of the other sliding window designs.
- Single Latch & Integrated Remote Keyless Lock: One of the biggest selling features for me back when I was shopping for a shell to put on the 2006 Toyota Tundra was the single, center-mounted latch design that secured the rear door at the corners of the shell via cable actuated cam locks. And, when I discovered a solenoid switch could be added such that the rear door lock could be integrated with the rest of the truck’s electric door locks it was a done-deal. That is truly the best feature and, at the time, I believe it was one of if not the only shell with that feature. Others have adopted it since then. As a bonus, on the 2006 Tundra the overlapping rear door lip was robust enough to keep the tailgate from being opened when the rear door was locked which was especially welcome since it didn’t have a lock of its own. Sadly, the extremely wide top rail on the Tacoma’s tailgate precluded the same bonus locking function but by adding a Pop-N-Lock the rear door and tailgate now lock automatically whenever the truck’s doors are locked, and unlock when the passenger doors are unlocked.
- Fold Down Front Window: This is another must-have unless someone is using a boot to allow access via the rear window of the truck to the shell. Without this fold-down window keeping the cab’s rear window and the shells’ front window clean would be a near impossible thing to do. As it is now, it takes just the flip of two latches to drop the front window of the shell and you have full access to both pieces of glass.
- Interior LED Lighting with Prop-Arm Switch: One of the really weak features of the 2006 model-year Z-Series was the rear lighting. Suffices to say, I eventually replaced the battery-operated, switch-activated light with a proper 12v light wired into the truck’s rear bed light so it would go on when a cab door was opened and/or be turned-on with the bed light switch on the dash. They had a 12v light option back in 2006, but it was a hot lead wire powered, switch-activated light you needed to remember to shut off, lest you end up with a dead battery. My 1985 and 1989 Brahma shells had the same set-up. Our new shell has an incredibly bright, 3 LED dome light at the top of the rear door that fully illuminates the bed and can be set to an auto-on mode via a switch mounted to the rear door’s right-hand prop rod.
- Quick Disconnect for Wiring: This was actually an unexpected surprise when my selling dealer gave me a walk-around of the shell’s features after they finished the installation. Unlike the 2006 model-year Z-Series where the keyless entry wiring, rear brake light wire and dome light wires had individual in-line bullet and plug disconnects, the new one has an electrical interface connector that uses a single quick disconnect plug to separate the all of the wiring at a hub. Now, I never removed the shell from our 2006 Tundra during the entire time we owned the truck, but if someone needed or wanted to remove the Z-Series shell it’s a heck of a lot easier to do now with this very slick power hub.
There you have it, my first impressions. I still have yet to take it through a driving rain storm to be certain the shell’s bottom seal is water-tight but believe it will be just based on what I did to prepare the truck for the shell installation by putting silicone sealant under the bed top rails and weather-sealing the front header. Rest assured, if any problems develop they’ll get added here.