Car Advice

Top 5 4×4 Vehicle Choice Questions You Should Ask Yourself

There are so many different types of 4×4 available, from wagons to utes. Here are the top 5 4×4 vehicle choice questions you should ask yourself before going to buy a new fourby.

There are plenty of different 4x4s on the market, ranging from cute-city runabouts to full-size American pick-ups, and they all have their pros and cons. So how do you decide what vehicle will best suit your needs when it comes time to purchase a new 4×4? Here are some of the questions you should ask…

Wagon or Ute?

The wagon or ute decision used to be a lot easier to make in the past than it is now. Previously, if you wanted any semblance of comfort and safety, you had to choose a wagon, because utes were, well, very utilitarian. Sure, most 4×4 utes still have a pretty basic structure, with a separate chassis and combination of independent front suspension (IFS) and live-axle rear with leaf springs, but they’re now packed with enough safety and convenience features to give any wagon a run for its money, along with comparable on- and off-road performance.

In the past buying 4×4 wagons for touring or towing was a no-brainer thanks to decent payload and towing capacities, tough roof gutters for mounting racks and usually a choice of petrol or diesel engines and manual or automatic transmissions. These days, the payload of a ute far exceeds that of a wagon, and in many cases utes also have a greater braked-trailer towing capacity.

So why would anyone still buy a 4×4 wagon instead of a 4×4 ute? Well, if you have kids you’ll find most wagons offer a lot more back-seat space than utes, and of course many also offer seven or even eight-seat capacity. Wagons still trump their ute counterparts for comfort too, thanks to either live-axle coil-spring rear-ends or fully independent suspension. Some even have a carlike monocoque body structure.

As most 4×4 wagons are significantly shorter than utes, and with a shorter wheelbase, they’re also easier to park around town or manoeuvre on tight bush tracks.

So, wagon or ute? That will depend on how much gear you have to carry, how many passengers you have and whether or not you can live with the day-to-day compromises that owning a bloody big ute can entail.

Petrol or Diesel?

Again, choosing between a petrol-powered 4×4 or a diesel-powered one used to be a lot easier in the past than it is now; if you wanted any kind of performance then you’d go for the petrol engine but if you wanted off-road touring range and the ability to drive through rivers without spluttering to a stop, you’d sacrifice petrol performance for diesel economy and simplicity.

These days diesel engines are just as (if not more) complicated than petrol engines, with electronically controlled high-pressure injection systems and variable geometry turbos and the like. They are, however, still more economical than their petrol counterparts, particularly under load such as when towing or driving off-road.

So, which one? In many cases, there’s no longer a decision to be made, with several manufacturers dropping the petrol-engine options form their 4×4 wagon and ute line ups altogether, as is the case with most of the popular 4×4 utes and many 4×4 wagons. Nissan, on the other hand, only offers a petrol V8 in the Nissan Patrol, so the choice has been made for you.

Manual or Auto?

Does anyone still drive a 4×4 with a manual gearbox? Well, okay, I do, but I’m definitely in the minority. And it’s not because drivers are becoming lazy; it’s because automatic transmissions have improved so much over the last decade or so.

The obvious advantage of an auto is you don’t have to change gears, and now with lock-up torque converters and electronic shift control matched to what the engine is doing, autos are better than ever, and they offer comparable fuel economy to manual gearbox-equipped vehicles.

Many modern autos offer eight, nine or even 10 forward ratios, providing a ratio for all occasions, from super-low first and second gears that aid standing-start acceleration through to super-tall top gears for relaxed and economical open-road touring. They also have various modes to suit different conditions, such as Eco, Sport and Normal, and some are even designed to shift in tailored ways depending on what driving mode the vehicle is in, such as Normal, Sand or Mud and Ruts. And if you don’t like that you can still shift gears manually.

Another benefit of automatic transmissions is their torque-multiplying effect, making them ideally suited to hauling heavy trailers or crawling over difficult off-road obstacles.

Manual gearboxes still have a few tricks up their sleeves: they usually offer superior engine braking characteristics thanks to low overall gearing and the direct mechanical connection between the wheels and the engine, and they can be jump-started if you have a flat battery. Oh, and it’s still fun to have full control over what the vehicle is doing.

So, manual or auto? Again, with many modern vehicles the choice will have been made for you by vehicle manufacturers, as manual gearboxes become the exception rather than the rule.

Live-axles or independent suspension?

If you’re going to do a lot of off-track desert driving or rock crawling, a vehicle with live axles front and rear will provide constant ground clearance under the axle and diff when the springs are compressed under load, whereas a vehicle with independent suspension can act like a plough as the suspension is compressed. The other inherent advantage of live axles is when one wheel is pushed up by an obstacle, the wheel on the other end of the axle is forced down, aiding traction on that wheel.

Live axles can also be advantageous under heavy loads; when the springs are compressed due to a heavy cargo or a heavy trailer ball-load, the vertical axis of the wheels is not affected, whereas the wheels on a vehicle with independent suspension will splay out (negative camber), which can cause uneven and premature wear on the inside edge of the tyres.

On the road, independent suspensions are much easier to tune for good handling and ride comfort than live-axle set-ups. With a live axle, if the wheel on one side of the axle hits a bump it affects the wheel on the other side of the axle, which can impact on ride quality; with independent suspension systems the wheels act independently of each other, so if one wheel hits a bump it will only affect that wheel.

Another advantage of the independent suspension design is there’s much less unsprung weight, so the dampers (shock absorbers) don’t have to do as much work to control the up and down movement of the springs. This results in better ride quality.

Some vehicles such as the LandCruiser 70 Series and Suzuki Jimny have live axles front and rear, others have fully independent suspension such as the Land Rover Discovery, Mitsubishi Pajero and Nissan Patrol, while most hedge their bets with IFS and a live-axle rear such as Toyota LandCrusier 200 Series and Prado, Ford Everest, Isuzu MU-X and just about all of the dual-cab 4×4 utes on the market.

The advantage of a n IFS/live-axle combination is suspension designers can tune the vehicle for reasonable steering feel and cornering capability while retaining high payload capacity at the rear.

If you’re a desert nomad or a rock crawler, live axles are the go. For general four-wheel drive touring, an IFS/live-axle combination or fully independent suspension will provide better road handling and comfort.

Base Model or Top-Spec?

Once you’ve decided between wagon or ute, petrol or diesel, manual or auto and live-axle or independent suspension, or a combination of both, you’ll then need to pick the trim level that best suits your needs and, obviously, your budget.

There’s often a staggering price discrepancy between base-spec 4x4s and the top-of-the-range models. A top-spec diesel LandCruiser 200 Sahara, for example, costs a whopping $42k more than a GX model, and a top-spec Ranger Raptor costs some $30k more than a Ranger XL.

On some vehicles, the differences will be centred around trim levels alone, such as vinyl or carpet floor covering, cloth or leather seats and six-speaker or 10-speaker sound systems, but on other vehicles there will be significant mechanical and technology differences, such as different engines and transmissions, different 4×4 systems, different suspension systems and different safety features.

If you’re going to mostly use your vehicle for off-road driving, sometimes the bare-bones model will be the best option, because vinyl is easier to clean than carpet and complicated electronically controlled suspension systems can be next to impossible to rectify in the bush if something goes wrong. But if your 4×4 will perform dual duties, as an off-road tourer and an on-road daily driver, then it pays to see exactly what the extra money includes when it comes to choosing between the poverty-pack and the higher grades.

Oh, and whatever 4×4 you end up with, make sure you get out there and use it.


Dean Mellor

Dean Mellor