Top 5

Top 5 reasons to buy a 4×4 instead of a wagon (or not)…

Are you thinking of buying a 4X4 but aren’t sure whether you really need one? Our Friday Five explores the pros and cons of owning a 4×4.

AT ONE EXTREME we have a dedicated, old-school 4X4 like the Toyota 70 Series. And at the other, the high-performance Audi RS6 road car wagon. But what we’re talking about for purposes of this Top 5 is the medium-sized 4X4s with low-range like the MU-X, Fortuner, Pajero Sport or Prado vs a similar sized roadcar wagon like, well, there aren’t many left but think Skoda Octavia, BMW 5 Series wagon, VW Passat or Mercedes C-class wagon, all of which are about the same length and width. And if those sizes don’t suit, you can find larger and smaller versions of both 4X4s and wagons – VW Golf Wagon, Suzuki Grand Vitara as examples. So, five reasons why a 4X4 is better than a wagon:

  1. Offroad capability – maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but you at least have the option with a 4X4. And “offroad” might just be a rough track down to the river, or a sandy road, or even just a water ford that’s, say, 400mm deep, well within the capability of a 4X4 but likely to be death to a wagon.
  2. Dirt roads and remote roads – ok, you never will even think about offroading, but a 4X4 will do dirt roads much easier and safer than a wagon. Yes, the wagon can get there, just more slowly and with greater risk of hitting that errant rock or bottoming out on a country road pothole. The 4X4 is also more likely to have tougher tyres and a full-sized spare. You don’t want to be worrying about runflats or space savers when you’re 100km from the nearest town, even if that’s all bitumen.
  3. Towing – 4X4s are the best heavy duty towers on the market. Even medium ones like the Pajero Sport and Fortuner are good for 2800 to 3100kg. No chance with a roadcar wagon; you’re lucky to get a rating better than 2000kg and often that comes with caveats such as limited towball mass or speed restrictions. 
  4. Visibility – you are higher up in a 4X4 so you can see further. Try looking ahead on country roads; you can better see over crests and across corners. The biggest contrast I experienced was driving a Range Rover Sport and Lotus Elise back to back – the Elise would have been quicker, but I couldn’t see where I was going so had to drive far below the car’s capability. Reversing visibility is very variable across all both 4X4s and wagons, so the best answer is a quality reversing camera.
  5. Safety – did you know that ANCAP gives larger SUVs and 4X4s an automatic 16 out of 16 on the side impact test because they always do so well they don’t bother test? And all else being equal, a heavier car fares better in a crash. The average 4X4 wagon is, like a roadcar, now 5-star rated and the family-oriented ones do well on safety gear.
  6. Modifications – you may not want a winch or cross-axle differential locks, but you may want a range of roofracks, a long-range fuel tank, a cargo shelf system, uprated suspension,or a bullbar/nudge bar to mount driving lights. All available off the shelf for popular 4X4s, but harder to find for wagons.
  7. Seven seats – most of the 4X4s offer seven seats. Not so the roadcar wagons, unless you want a peoplemover, which you probably do need but almost certainly don’t want. Another discussion for another time.
Honda Odyssey people mover
Honda Odyssey people mover

Oops, that was seven. Consider it a Friday bonus. Now, reasons why you want a wagon not a 4X4:

  1. Purchase cost – all else being equal, the 4X4 will cost more to buy. There’s more engineering, more materials, more expense.
  2. Running cost – the 4X4 is heavier, taller and has less efficient tyres. That’ll add up to more fuel used, more brake wear, more everything wear. There’s also the all wheel drive system to consider, although some road wagons are also all-drive.
  3. Handling – modern 4X4s are perfectly acceptable handlers that do not slow up traffic, but the fact is the road wagons will always be better – they’re lighter, have a lower centre of gravity, and both tyres and suspension are optimised for bitumen roads. They are more fun to drive on bitumen roads, and improved handling has a safety benefit. 
  4. Height – the roadcar wagon will always be shorter (as in less height, not less length) as it has less ground clearance, and its body is designed for sleekness. The shorter vehicle is easier fit into the likes of underground carparks, especially with a roofrack on.
  5. What other people think – Australia doesn’t have much of an anti-4X4 movement, but there’s a fair number of people who view 4X4s with varying degrees of disgust. Nobody will hate you for owning a wagon. 
2016 VW Golf R Wolfsburg car review
Golf R Wagon. Fast and practical.

That’s a quick summary of two extremes, a wagon and a 4X4. But anyone looking at both should also consider two more options. The first is peoplemovers. Nobody wants to buy them, but they are more effective seven-seaters than 4X4s or SUVs, handle reasonably well, and have running costs closer to wagons than 4X4s. They are the practical choice for many, but their image precludes stronger sales.

There there’s the softroader, the higher-riding wagon, for example VW’s slightly higher riding Passat Alltrack and of course the Subaru Forester and Outback. These vehicles mixes pros and cons from both 4X4 and roadcar wagon, but contraty to the marketing, absoltuely do not offer the best of both worlds. We’ll explore the pros and cons of these wagon-SUVs in a future Friday Top 5.

Subaru Outback does it easy on sand.
Subaru Outback does it easy on sand.

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CitizenKane
CitizenKane
4 years ago

Thanks, good article for a newbie off-roader like me. ..Actually I stay on road most of the time, but, always good to know you could go off road if you wanted to.. ..Why don’t they make MPV’s with off road capability? .. if you aren’t lugging people. then they make fair sized cargo haulers…but all seem to be 2WD…any constant AWD MPV’s?…lastly…are ‘proper’ 4X4 vehicles really ‘bad’ to drive on bituman? …or is that just a myth? …thanks again, I enjoy your website.

Robert Pepper
4 years ago
Reply to  CitizenKane

There aren’t many MPVs (peoplemovers) with offroad capability because there is no demand. Road-going peoplemovers are rare enough let alone offroad. Yet there are a few people that love them, and some do exist. Check this link:

https://practicalmotoring.com.au/voices/how-about-a-van-like-the-mitsubishi-delica-for-off-road-touring/

No, ‘proper’ 4X4s aren’t bad to drive on bitumen and they do not hold up traffic. They’re just not as good as roadcar wagons.

Adrian McCallum
Adrian McCallum
4 years ago

Another nice article thank you Robert; it was exactly my conundrum. Although a 4WD might cost more to buy and run, it really does offer capability that is compromised in most other offerings; for one car to do it all, the 7-seat diesel 4WD is hard to beat. Thank you.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper