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What 4X4 to buy if you don’t want to own a 4X4

The non-4WD Enthusiast’s Guide to Buying a 4WD, or what 4WD to buy when you’re only into the great outdoors and not off-roading.

ON OCCASION I LIKE TO GO HIKING IN THE BUSH. But because unmade walking trails are different to suburbia or the city I wear different clothes, and that includes shoes. The shoes I use are hiking boots; robust of sole, strong of lace, thick around the ankles for protection and, allegedly, waterproof. But I’m not a shoe or boot enthusiast. I don’t subscribe to Boots Monthly, my computer wallpaper does not feature footwear and I’m not a regular on the Shoe Life online forum. I will spend what it takes to do the job, and will take an interest up until the point I know I’ve made the right call, but no more. I wouldn’t say my boots are a grudge purchase, but they’re what I have to buy to enjoy what I really want to do. Perhaps that’s how you feel about 4WDs. You might be a hiker, paraglider, photographer, rogainer, mountain-biker or any number of other people who have a need for a vehicle that will take them beyond the bitumen, but you’re as interested in the vehicle itself as I am in my hiking boots. So this article is for you, the 4WD buyer who doesn’t care much about 4WDs.

So what is a 4WD?

Technically, any vehicle that drives all four wheels, but often it really means a car with significant off-road capability. For the purposes of this discussion we’ll include soft-roaders, which are essentially normal station-wagon cars that ride a bit higher and lack off-road features such as low-range gearing. Examples include, Subaru Forester and Outback, Hyundai Santa Fe, Land Rover Freelander and Evoque. The vehicles pictured here are a standard Toyota Kluger belonging to a friend and my own Discovery 3 which has been extensively modified for off-roading. But we both managed the same forest drive.

soft roader or off roader? Depends where you're going to drive

Why do you need a 4WD?

Maybe you don’t. But let’s go back to the hiking analogy. If you were to set off on a 10km bushwalk you could do it in the same shoes you’d wear to an evening dinner. Or a set of thongs. But neither would be as good a set of purpose-designed boots. Same deal for 4WDs. Time was that much of Australia’s roads were unsealed, and road cars were designed and tested to deal with rougher terrain than blacktop. But that was then, and today’s road cars with low-profile tyres, appetite for premium unleaded, road-tuned suspension, low spoilers and non-existent spares don’t deal with the rough any better than a fixie bicycle is able to handle a forest trail ride. So if you’re intending to do much in the way of even dirt-road driving or beyond my advice is to consider some form of 4WD. Even if a road car can handle the terrain it’ll be extra wear and tear, not to mention a slower pace which can add up over many kilometres. And, when in the bush you never know if that smooth dirt road will throw up a little water crossing, mud or ruts.

4WD means you can handle mud easily

The 4WD is also today’s station wagon, full of spacious room hatchbacks and sedans can’t match. People that love the space outdoors also typically appreciate space in their vehicles.

But 4WDs are… …Big, ugly, unsafe, fuel guzzlers and handle like barges. No. Well, mostly no. There’s no denying the new Nissan Patrol and Toyota Land Cruiser 200 Series are big, but we’re talking here more about soft-roaders and these cars use barely more fuel than their 2WD equivalents, certainly less than powerful road cars. Handling isn’t sportscar sharp, but it’s up there with road cars from just a few years ago so you’ll never hold up traffic and if you’re into driving, you’d enjoy some of the sharper handling vehicles. There’s a dizzying array of safety aids too, and the extra visibility you get from the higher seating position is a useful bonus. Anyway, enough words. Go drive something like a new Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Touraeg or Land Rover Discovery 4 and see for yourself that these are no lumbering giants.

Choosing your 4WD

So we’ve established that you’re not going looking for difficult drives, which opens up a wide array of potential 4WDs. What you do not need to do is go for a tough low-range 4WD then drop $30,000 at the nearest accessory shop kitting it out. If you were planning on tackling say the Canning Stock route or spending lots of time climbing tough tracks in the Victorian High Country that’d be a different matter, but we’re talking here of dirt roads, the occasional basic 4WD trail, maybe a bit of sand. So for a basic off-roader there’s just three criteria you need to narrow your search for a vehicle, and these are all pretty much essential for safety and capability.

Subaru Outback driving around a tight corner

Make it a 4WD – many soft-roaders these days come in 2WD guise, thanks to the dropping of the 4WD-only import tariff advantage some time ago. While a 2WD soft-roader is better in the dirt than a road car, paying the extra for 4WD is worth it for stability, control, safety and a lot of extra capability. Please don’t believe those that say there’s little difference in the rough between 2WD and 4WD. It’s not always whether the 2WD can make it, but how easily it does it. 4WDs can saunter slowly over obstacles the 2WD equivalent car has to bounce over at speed, and the difference is noticeable even when ascending a steep dirt road with a tight, corrugated corner.

Only select 4WDs with full-size spare tyres – these days tyre technology is much improved over the last decade, but it’s nowhere near perfect and in the ongoing war of tyres versus mallee roots nature is still well ahead. If your tyre is gashed open by a rock or log there’s no messing around with air compressors and goo, and run-flats would be funny if a puncture in remote areas wasn’t so serious.

Space Saver wheel

You also definitely don’t want a space-saver spare because those aren’t designed for speeds over around 80km/h or distances any greater more than 80km, not far in our fair land. And they’re thin, so prone to a second puncture. Also, don’t be thinking the local town will have spare tyres on hand for anything other than the local cars. It’ll be a shipment from the next big city.

space saver spare

So you need a full-sized spare, no two ways about it. But you also need to make sure that full-size spare will fit in the vehicle. It’s not unknown to replace a punctured tyre with space-saver and then discover the full-size spare won’t fit in the space-saver’s bay. And of course, your vehicle is chokka with gear so what do you do then? Like most outdoor activities, good planning saves grief later.

room for a spare in the back of your car Tip – if you’re buying a new car, almost close the deal and then seal it by having the dealer throw in a full-size alloy spare. And go for the highest profile tyres you can, which means 17-inch rims over 18 or 19-inch. The overall tyre diameter doesn’t change, just that there’s more tyre between the rim and the ground which is good for any form of rough work. Also consider light-duty all-terrain tyres when you switch over which are tougher than the standard road-pattern. You’ll barely notice the difference on-road, but you will on dirt and beyond. recovery point on a 4wd

Recovery point – sooner or later, you’re going to get stuck. Yes, even if you never intend to really go offroad. And when you’re stuck, you’ll need to be recovered from your predicament which often involves some form of high-stress towing. This is why you need recovery points, which are strong towing points. How do you know whether you have them? Well, there’s no standard, so you’ll need specialist advice. But if your vehicle has a screw-in towpoint then that’s definitely not a recovery point (pictured above). Best you can do there is to buy a second screw-in point and use a bridle to spread (but not halve) the load of recovery. On the rear you can fit a towbar, and be recovering using the towbar pin – but never, ever, hook a strap over the towball itself as it’s nowhere near strong enough, as proven by several coroner’s reports.

ARB snatch strap

You should also invest in a ‘snatch strap’, which is an elastic tow rope for recovering vehicles. Hopefully you’ll never need it, but always best to be prepared. A tyre pressure gauge and small shovel are handy just-in-case items too which will be covered in a future post on getting out of sticky situations.

Beyond the basics – Okay, I did say that you don’t need to drop a lot of money at an accessory shop, and that’s true. But there’s some extras you may find useful. One is aftermarket suspension, which is designed to carry loads better than the standard which can be quite soft, particularly over dirt roads. If you regularly drive your car heavily loaded you’ll love the difference, especially if the car is a few years old and its suspension has begun to sag. There’s also roof racks, interior cargo barriers and drawers, and the darkest possible window tint which means a much cooler car when you come back from your activity. And at night a set of high-quality driving lights makes a huge difference away from the streetlights. You can also fit an awning to the side of a roof rack to make a sun or rain shelter. But at this point we’re off the essentials and into customisation, so it’s hard to give general advice as the activity ranges people use the cars for are so vast. What I’d suggest is a wander around a 4WD or caravan show to see if there’s anything that would make your life easier as you carry out your primary activity. You’d be surprised what’s out there, and most of it isn’t about turning your car into a monster truck, more an activity base. A final tip is fuel. The further you travel from a city, the harder it is to find premium 95 or 98 RON fuel. So preference cars that run on standard petrol, or better yet, diesel which means many more kilometres from the same amount of fuel, especially when the car starts to work hard.

So with the basic criteria defined the next question is the big one – which 4WD to choose?  They’re not all equal on or offroad by any means – the Kluger for example has nowhere near the capability of the Prado – but that’s another story for another time you can read when you’ve got back from your latest outdoor expedition.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper