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.
Two of our recent manual 4WD reviews – Fortuner and Triton.
Manual Fortuner just idling up a slope in first low, feet off the pedal.

Jaguar F-Type British Design Edition revealed


Hyundai IONIQ interior and exterior revealed


  1. All good points Robert. I have always preferred manual transmissions, but in thinking about my first off-road capable purchase, my main concern is loss of traction driving through soft sand. Your thoughts on this would be appreciated, thanks.

    1. Gene – autos work well in soft sand. Tips:

      – if there is a sand mode, use it. Otherwise use a sport mode to keep the revs high
      – it can help to manually select gears in autos, particuarly when driving up dunes. Some autos can be slow to downshift and jerky
      – don’t be afraid to use low range if speeds are below about 40km/h

      Essentially autos can do anything in sand, especially modern ones, particuarly if you are an experienced sand driver and change gears at appropriate times (eg when going straight and on the level).

      1. Thanks Robert. I think you may have misunderstood. I would prefer to buy a manual, but am worried about getting stuck in soft sand due to loss of momentum when changing gears. I was after your tips on how to avoid this, if possible.
        BTW, I apologise for the late reply, as I am a newcomer to online forums, and have been struggling to work it out. It looks like I may have it sorted at last.
        While I’m at it, I would like to compliment you and the team for your highly detailed and informative reviews. The name of your web site says it all. Keep up the good work!

        1. Ah yes I did understand. Manuals work fine in sand too, especially with today’s six speeds and torquey engines. Similar to the auto advice you need to pick your gearchange points – on the flat, slight downhills. You need to let the revs build high and complete the change quickly and easily, especially when downshifting when you must rev match. There’s no doubt manuals require more skill than autos in soft sand, but there is nowhere an auto can go a manual can’t follow. You can even, if you have the skil, change gear on a dune. Memorably I had to do this on Big Red in my fully loaded TD5 Defender on a very hot day, grabbing first high having started at the bottom in second. And don’t forget use of low range, think of it as a close ratio gearbox for speeds of about 45km/h and less.

          Thank you also for the compliment, hope to see you back here!

  2. Are you mad auto 4wd?
    like ordering a steak and complaining it beef !
    autos are for softies !
    manuals are for skilled drivers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also