10 Golden Rules when buying a 4×4

Rule 1. Not all 4x4s are created equal.

Few 4x4s are really good at everything. Some are good for almost nothing relating to off-road. Every 4×4 is a compromise in some way: some that are good on road should never leave it, and others good off it, are a test of endurance on it. As a buyer, you will need to compromise just as the designers have done. Decide where your compromises are going to lie as you go about choosing a 4×4.

Rule 2. Know more than the showroom salesperson about 4x4s  or you may be taken for an unsatisfactory ride.

It has taken years, but salespersons are at last beginning to learn more about the 4x4s they are selling. But this doesn’t prevent them selling you what you do not want. They will always make an effort to tell you what you want to hear, and rarely what you need to hear. The only way to outwit them is to do some homework and to have made a few fundamental decisions before meeting the sale force. The danger lies in that most of us are easily baffled by bull delivered by an experienced salesperson.

Rule 3. Beware of the phrase, “I don’t want to do anything serious”.

If you hear this in your mind, it’s a danger sign because what does serious really mean? It is vital to be clear on what you expect from your vehicle choice and to know if your choice can do it.

Rule 4. Beware of the myth that a 4×2 with a diff-lock can do almost as much off-road as a 4×4. It’s not even close!

This is because only when an axle on a surface where weight or grip is removed from one of the driven wheels will traction be assisted with an axle diff lock. Everywhere else it makes little or no difference to a vehicle’s ability off-road. A diff-lock does help in some situations, but to compare it to two additional driven wheels, on a completely separate axle, is ludicrous.

Rule 5. Beware of the other myth that says a 4×4 without low range can do almost as much as a 4×4 with low range.

Again their performance off-road is not even close! Low range extends a vehicle’s versatility beyond what is imaginable, as long as the vehicle is also equipped with reasonable clearance, so that the low gearing can be taken full advantage of.

Rule 6. Decent under chassis clearance is essential if any off-road driving is contemplated.

This seems obvious, but to some it appears not to be. The measurement of minimum clearance given in the sales brochure tells only half the story, so beware of comparing figures. It might seem simplistic, but one of the best ways to judge clearance is to stand back and look at the vehicle. If it looks low, then it is!

Rule 7. Full-time four-wheel drive provides any vehicle a significant safety advantage.

The added grip, neutral steering and sheer pleasure of driving a full-time four-wheel drive transmission is often offset by the fact that most 4x4s have a high centre of gravity and therefore fall over easier. All in all, 4x4s are not necessarily safer than similar sized and equipped saloons. So if you are going 4×4 for safety reasons, the low-slung models are going to have a safety advantage.

Rule 8. Don’t be dazzled by the words, ‘diff-lock’ and ‘traction-control’.

Diff-locks and traction-control are not magical devices that prevent vehicles getting stuck, although they do, in many cases, go a long way toward it. It is so easy to be confused here and it is important to understand that one vehicle with one of these systems may behave utterly differently to another. Over simplified vehicle buyer’s guides that give a yes/no answer to the question of diff-locks and traction controls can be misleading because some traction-controls work brilliantly while others hardly work at all and diff locks can be located in varying locations in the transmissions, and as a result, have widely varying effects.

Rule 9. Bling and off-road should never be used in the same sentence.

Bling usually means big wheel rims, often shiny and always a hindrance off road. It isn’t the shine that is the problem, but a low profile tyre, when its pressure is reduced for flotation and traction off the road, it does not lengthen its footprint as much as a higher profile tyre does. Overly large rims are a sure way to take the shine off any attempt at going off road.
The second problem comes with outback travel because low profile tyres are far more prone to damage by rocks and stones, and when they are damaged, spare 17, 18 and 19-inch tyres can rarely, if ever be found in remote towns and villages. 16-inch rims seem to be the ideal size. And if a vehicle has a narrow, space-saving spare, it’s going to need to be changed for a real one before heading out.

Rule 10. Reliability means different things to different people.

Some vehicles have particularly good reputations for reliability and others less so. But reliability can mean two things: If you are capable of making repairs, serviceability is as important as reliability. If you are incapable of making more than basic repairs, reliability is probably the most important factor in choosing a 4×4 for outback travel. Establishing a vehicle’s reliability can only be done through clubs, friends and the Internet. For obvious reasons it’s pointless asking the salesperson.