Buying a 4WD for dummies

Top 10 4wd tipsA lot of us love hiking but there’s a stack of really great trails deep in the wilderness that you need a 4WD to reach. When you start looking at 4WDs you’ll see there are a lot of options out there. Unfortunately, if you haven’t spent every weekend bush bashing in a Land Rover, you probably won’t even know where to start. You might even end up with a 2WD, because (shudder) the dealer says it can do everything a 4WD can. (It really can’t.)

Let us take you through the basics before you get out to the car lot. You can also test drive the 4WD brands we surveyed in Australia in 2014 by clicking on the links in our survey results.

1.         Pick a type

  • 4WD (four-wheel drive): A 4WD is a vehicle where all four tyres receive power from the engine simultaneously. This allows them to go off-road or do rally driving. Some of them have low-range gear options for going up steel inclines or low traction terrain like gravel. And of course, plenty of ground clearance.
  • AWD (all-wheel drive): An AWD is a 4WD that can drive on normal roads without excessive wear and tear and fuel guzzling. This term is used for vehicles that can switch from 2WD to 4WD and back again as needed.
  • AWD Crossover: These AWDs are lighter and have better fuel economy than off-road AWDs. They’re not built for hard work.
  • Soft Roader: The “pretty” AWD intended for city driving only. This machine will not handle off-road work because it just doesn’t have the suspension, low range gearing or under-body armour to protect against the elements.
  • 2WD: These models can do some off-road work, but you have to drive faster to make it over the lumps and bumps, and the engine has to work a lot harder to do it. (It’s a trap!)

2.         Pick the right ground clearance and tyres

The number one thing that determines where you can go in your new 4WD is its ground clearance. How steeply can it go up and down before getting ‘stuck’? The ground clearance will be listed in its vehicle specs. The Toyota Landcruiser and Nissan Patrol apparently have the highest clearance.

As for tyres, if you’re picking up the kids from soccer, any Soft Roader will do. But for bush bashing, you need big, fat tyres. Never choose a 4WD that does not have a full-sized spare tyre. You need tyres that a log or rock cannot tear through, tyres that a snake’s fangs can’t penetrate.

3.         Pick a popular brand

You want to know that if you break down on your first trip into the Alice, it’s not going to take three weeks to ship a replacement part to the mechanic. Not that the Alice isn’t a great place to spend three weeks. But you might boil to death in the heat while you’re waiting. The Landcruiser and the Patrol pretty much rule the roost in outback parts of Australia for this reason.

Australians surveyed by Canstar Blue in 2014 gave the award for the most satisfied customers to Subaru 4WDs. You can read the survey results here.

4.         How far will you be driving?

This question is about load capacity. If you’re going for an outback camping trip for a week, your 4WD needs to be able to carry your camping gear, extra water tanks, extra fuel, a mini cooking stove and pots, food, recovery gear, and spare parts. A word of caution – if you overload your 4WD with too much heavy gear, there’s no benefit in having a bigger, better 4WD because it will still break down.

5.         Pick a fuel

A 4WD uses more power, but that means you go through more fuel, so you need to fill up wherever you can and carry extra fuel at all times. So, petrol or diesel?

  • Pros of Diesel:

o   Diesel is the most popular in outback Australia.

o   It doesn’t ignite as quickly as petrol, so the engine will need less maintenance.

o   Diesels are less likely to stall in a river crossing.

o   You can always find diesel at a service station, but petrol choices are limited at many outback servos to AvGas or BP’s Opal unleaded.

  • Pros of Petrol:

o   Petrol engines are more responsive and have more power.

o   Petrol engines will survive if they get wet, whereas diesel engines explode.

o   Petrol models are cheaper than diesel models.

6.         Pick a transmission: manual or auto

  • Pros of Manual:

o   Uses less fuel.

o   Better engine braking for steep descents or carrying or towing heavy loads.

o   You can rock out of bogs using 1st and reverse.

o   Transmission can’t get locked if left in Park on a steep slope.

  • Pros of Auto:

o   A smoother ride.

o   Better for going uphill.

7.         Pick a seating arrangement

If you’re tall, you need to be sure that you won’t be hitting your head on the roof at every little boulder in the track. Coil suspension will also help, as it gives a smoother ride than leaf suspension.

8.         Pick a recovery point

‘Recovery points’ are the places where you can attach a tow strap and get pulled out of a bog. Your recovery point should not be a screw-in towbar or towpin. A snatch strap is also a vital tool – an elastic tow rope for recovering vehicles.

9.         Pick a price point

The bigger the 4WD, the more it costs. Tyres, insurance, fuel … it all costs more the bigger your truck is.

On the other hand, the saying that you get what you pay for is definitely true for 4WDs. Smaller models just do not have the same capacity that larger ones do.

10.      Be prepared

If you go bush, do it right. 28% of Australians Canstar Blue surveyed told us they never check the oil level in their car, and 8% said they ignore the engine warning lights in their car. That is simply not an option when you’re hundreds of kilometres from the closest mechanic.

Your mobile phone will not have 100% coverage everywhere you go, so you will need a satellite phone or HF radio set. You will need extra food and water. You will need a snatch strap. You will need a GPS. You will need to take a 4WD driving safety course or drive with an experienced 4WD driver before trying it on your own. Don’t become a statistic.

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