Driven's top five tough and capable 4x4s
WHEN THEY SWAPPED THE OFF-ROAD FOR THE SCHOOL RUN, 4WD’S GOT SOFT. PHIL HANSON PICKS FIVE THAT HAVE STILL GOT WHAT IT TAKES
Need an expert on today’s 4WDs? Find a student who gets dropped off at the gates of a top school each morning.
Their grandparents and maybe their parents might remember 4WDs from an earlier era — angular, bush-bashin’ vehicles like Land Cruisers, Nissans and Land Rovers that made our backblocks more accessible. Since then, most 4WDs have gone soft.
The terrain-conquering attributes that once made them great is of little importance to today’s breed of urban and suburban owners. It’s evolution, automotive-style.
Today’s school-gate experts can tell you in a flash which 4WD has the important stuff like the best backseat DVD system, the best-placed tweeters, the coolest alloys, and why you need at least 20-inch low-profile tyres.
Well, that’s the way of the world, except … There remains a core demand for “proper” 4WDs – tough vehicles that can face off against the roughest tracks, trails and riverbeds.
These are vehicles for people who, for work or recreation, need to get to remote locations, and then get home again. This pragmatic requirement was, more than 50 years ago, the job of Land Rovers and even war surplus Jeeps, joined later by the capable Japanese 4x4s.
Twenty-five years ago the choice of hard-yakka 4WDs was wide, with a toughie for every purpose. However, their ranks gradually shrank as manufactures found richer pickings in “softer” segments that better met the comfort and status requirements of urban off-roaders, keen to move on from their sedan or wagon. Today, there’s a core of less than half a dozen showroom-fresh tough 4WDs on the New Zealand market.
A tough 4WD is defined by three things. One is that it has a beam axle suspension front and rear, also known as a solid axle or live axle. The configuration dates back to the earliest days of motoring (and before that in the horse-drawn age) but lingered on in trucks and 4WDs because of its strength, simplicity and ability to provide excellent constant ground clearance and articulation on really ratty tracks.
The second criterion is a low-range gearbox with reduction gearing of at least two-to-one. This allows the vehicle to crawl along and increases torque at the wheels. It’s essential on badly rutted ground and steep downhills.
A separate chassis, onto which the body is bolted, is the third criterion. In a world where a unibody or hybrid chassis-unibody is common among 4WD wagons, the separate chassis stands out for being simple, strong and easily fixable. It’s the preferred configuration for utes.
Some 4WDs, among them Toyota’s Prado and Land Cruiser 200, have independent front suspension but would otherwise qualify as toughies.
They’re worthy vehicles but, hey, it’s our list and we have to draw the line somewhere. In alphabetical order, the toughies are:
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
All models are capable enough off road, but the Rubicon’s the one you want for climbing every mountain. It has plenty of sensible off-roading extras including front and rear cross-axle differential locks, a disconnecting front swaybar and exceptional 4:1 reduction gearing in the transfer case. Although massively outsold by the four-door Unlimited, the two-door shortie’s the way to go for hard off-roading.
Land Rover Defender 90 SW
Like the two-door Jeep, the short wheelbase 90 is the best Defender off-road; the turning circle of the longer 130 Pickup and 110 four-door is ponderous. But all versions are exceptionally good in the rough. Having full-time four-wheel-drive is an advantage on the road. Sadly, the Defender has been developed beyond its potential and it will disappear soon as Land Rover rolls out an all-new model.
Although progressively upgraded, the G-Class (aka G-wagen) is still very much a 1970s vehicle with a modern engine, but that’s okay because it’s a brilliant off-roader. The Austrian all-wheeler offers tank-like build quality swathed in Mercedes luxury – and that’s its failing. Who’d want to go off-roading in a thing with such expensive finish? It has full-time 4WD, which is good on any road. They start at $175,000 and, sadly, talk of a cheaper, more work-a-day version for Downunder has come to nothing.
Cheap and cheerful, the little Jimny is good in the bush if you keep its pedal to the metal. Although there’s not much room for either occupants or gear, a Jimny is the one to have if the trail is really narrow. Despite the wee size, it’s tough as nails. The recent addition of electronic stability and traction controls make it much better. The 1.3-litre engine doesn’t have a lot of power or torque, but no other toughie can touch it for low fuel consumption. Or for price.
Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series LX
This is the wagon version of an off-roader that’s seemingly been around forever. It’s fitted with a wonderful V8 turbodiesel but there’s no automatic version. Optional factory differential locks make it hugely capable, but a leaf-sprung rear axle lacks the agility and ride of coil-sprung contemporaries, like all the above. In addition to cab-chassis utes, there’s a longer-wheelbase three-door workhorse wagon loved by mining companies and Aussie cops.
Where the solid beam axles went
The age-old configuration that works so well off-road now seems like it’s on the brink of being a has-beam.
Jeep used to have two other models with beam axles, the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. Land Rover used to have the Discovery and Range Rover; Nissan the Patrol.
All have moved to independent suspension, either at the front or at all corners. The next Land Rover Defender will probably have independent suspension.
If you don’t need to carry lots of passengers or stuff, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon two-door; if you don’t, the Land Cruiser 70 LX with the factory diff-lock package. If money is not a factor, go for the G-Class and don’t worry about scrapes and dents. Money short? Jimny.