In Defence of the Manual 4WD
Autos are better for driving off-road, everybody knows that, but that doesn’t mean to say the manual 4WD isn’t worth a look.
AFTER 10 DAYS and 5000km touring in a manual Fortuner, I’m rethinking the automatic choice of automatic transmissions…
Automatic 4WDs are easier to drive off-road as you have fine-grained control over speed, they’re just as quick if not quicker than manuals, are simpler everywhere because you don’t need to change gear, and with 8 and even 9 ratios they are up there for fuel economy too, often beating manuals. Even engine braking is now just as good, especially with the advent of superbly effective modern hill descent control systems.
So why bother with a manual? There’s two main reasons, and the big one is cost. Automatics are still $2000 – $4000 more expensive, which will pay for a set of tyres, maybe a suspension upgrade too, certainly a compressor and snorkel. The other reason is that even with modern cars that intelligently manage their electrics you can still get a flat battery, and manuals can be push-started.
The manuals are also a little bit lighter that the autos, so you get a fraction more payload, even if it’s only 20-50kg. Sometimes the manuals can tow a bit more, for example in the case of the Fortuner which does 2800 / 3000kg auto / manual.
Manuals also have their place offroad too. Modern manuals have anti-stall and low gearing, so you can lift both feet off the pedals and steer while the car pretty much idles itself across whatever terrain it finds, traction permitting. Essentially, there’s nowhere an automatic can go that a manual can’t follow (remember when we used to say that the other way around!)
The other consideration for a manual is how easy they are to drive these days. There’s six speeds, engines that are both powerful and torquey, hill start assist and easy shifter actions. As an example consider selecting third gear; you can drive suburban ninety degree corners, the car will pick up from 1000rpm and then accelerate to 110km/h where you can go direct to sixth, a technique called “skip shifting” not often used by older drivers who had to drive their gears 1-2-3-4. Simply, you need to do a lot less gearchanging with the modern manual 4WD.
Finally, not all modern automatics are wonderful. Some really need a good slap around the ECU – they won’t let you select second gear to pull away, ignore manual overrides, and hunt for gears. It is very much a case of looking at the specific vehicle as sometimes you definitely want the manual version or the automatic.
Just don’t automatically opt for the automatic as the manual has a bit of life left in it yet.