Monthly Archives: April 2015

To 4WD or to not 4WD? … That is the question

Much of what I do is in a 4WD. It’s my professional occupation; 4WD tour operator.

In fact I’ve owned quite a few over the years. My first car was a 4WD Suzuki Sierra which I bought brand new. Both our children were brought home from hospital in a 4WD and many of our happy family memories were while out 4WDing in the great Australian bush or crossing the Simpson Desert. Wonderful family times.

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My first 4WD.

A 4WD can be a great way to escape. Post WWII, Jeep set the benchmark in off road travel with it’s great performance in the war. Land Rover became the ‘modern’ 4WD through the 50-60’s followed by Toyota and Nissan who quickly saw the need for a vehicle that drives all wheels.

So, by 1970, if you wanted a new 4WD wagon, you basically had three or four to choose from. Land Rover, Toyota and Nissan and to a lesser degree, the family sized American Jeeps (think Cherokee).

Putting Jeep aside for the moment, if you wanted a new 4WD, you had three manufacturers that had good Australian based dealer networks, support and proven reliability. But in essence, all three were basically the same; capable off road, appallingly uncomfortable on road, noisy and were outright dangerous in the wet on tarred roads with their high centre of gravity and narrow off road tyres (often these were bar tread tyres – a left over design from WWII…. no I’m not kidding).

The suspension on these 4WD’s was stiff and ear plugs should have been issued along with the owners manual from new; boy were these cars noisy on the road. As a final parting comment on these three off road vehicles and especially in the case of Land Rover, you needed to drive with a rain coat on when it was raining outside.

But…………. something changed.

Land Rover invented the Range Rover. This was class above all else. It was quiet and with soft coil spring suspension, it was comfortable on road (to the point of inducing motion sickness as it rolled around so much) but thanks to that supple suspension it was hugely capable off road too. With its powerful and lovely sounding V8 engine, it was the envy of all 4WDers. But it was expensive. When a normal 2WD car cost around $3-4,000 a new range Rover would set you back a cool $10,000. So, yes it was great, but only those with deep pockets could afford one.

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My model Range Rover that I’ve owned since 1974

Not to be outdone, Toyota upgraded the Land Cruiser wagon to the much loved ’60 series’. Some models even had electric windows and air-conditioning. Nissan introduced the game changing MQ Patrol. Many of these vehicles came out in an electric blue sort of colour with a combination set of orange stripes running down its considerable length. There was no doubt, you would be noticed when driving a new MQ Patrol. The MQ Patrol was really the first 4WD to offer 7 proper forward facing seats with seat belts.  Growing up, my family had both the Toyota 60 and Nissan’s MQ Patrol. I loved them equally.

However, we were still in the era (late 1970’s) when you only bought a 4WD if you were serious about your 4WDing. Not these days.

Today, we all know the urban 4WD may never see a dirt road in it’s life and the only obstacles it endures now are shopping centre car parks and school pickup zones. Yet the urban driver is now treated to comfort, safety, reasonable fuel economy and with manners similar to a road car. Yet, you can venture off road on a weekend if you feel like it. Sort of what the original Range Rover was made famous for.

But just because the badge says 4WD (or some say AWD) and the TV commercials show how even the smallest AWD/4WD can perform off road, are YOU prepared to go off road.

The simple answer is Yes and No.

Yes; tackling dirt roads to your level of confidence and experience is fine. But imagining you are in a go anywhere vehicle is not what you’ve got.

No; going into difficult terrain, especially on your own in a standard 4WD/AWD is dangerous. Being over confident is dangerous and not knowing how your vehicle will behave off-road is dangerous.

The biggest thing that could let you down (apart from inexperience) are your road going tyres. Manufactures install tyres that will sell cars, not that will allow the 4WD to go anywhere. Like most things in the manufacturing process, factory fitted tyres on your new 4WD are a compromise between quiet road noise, reasonable grip on tarred road surfaces and some level of capability off road. But the last one comes last in the list of priorities.

Our family has three proper 4WD vehicles (not AWD vehicles). One has factory fitted tyres as shown below.

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Highway tyre as fitted factory standard to many new 4WD vehicles

These tyres are quiet, quite grippy on the tarred road but hopeless off road. Fortunately, this car is treated as a road car and it’s job is to pull a horse float. With almost 70,000km on these tyres, we’ve had a good run. But at replacement time which is looming up fast, I’ll put on a 70% road/30% off-road type tyre. There are heaps of brands to choose from. I have my preferences.

Our next vehicle is a capable off road, tray back ute. As you can see, the tread pattern is very aggressive, designed to clear mud and grip rocky surfaces. These are great off road, but are a little noisy and less grippy on road.

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Typical Mud Terrain tyre

On the Detour Adventures vehicle, a 200 Series Toyota Land Cruiser, we have the same aggressive off road tyre as the tray back ute. Strong, capable and as this vehicle spends just about all of it’s life in the bush on tours, these tyres are well suited to the job.

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Toyota Land Cruiser 200. Photo courtesy L.Tonitto (Detour Adventures Guest)

But tyres aren’t the only thing. You need knowledge and safety. You need to respect and look after the environment when out in your 4WD and enjoy the bush responsibly.

I could go on for hours on how to set up a 4WD but here are my top tips when choosing a 4WD for the first time.

1) Think about what you are likely to do and before buying a 4WD, go out on a professional 4WD tour. There are many 4WD tour operators to choose from. Detour Adventures* (#4WDetour) is a good one to consider. Doing some real 4WDing will help you see if it’s what you really want to do. And in doing so, you can eliminate a whole range of vehicles that aren’t suitable. Ask your driver lots of questions. Ask your family are they enjoying it.

2) Look at options you have near you to go 4WDing. Seriously, if you live a long way from proper bush or beach, work 50-60 hours a week and have very little spare time, is it wise to invest in an expensive 4WD for the occasional off road adventure? Instead, maybe buy a nice economical city dwelling car and call Detour Adventures every time you have the urge to go 4WDing.

3) Equip your 4WD correctly. I’ve touched on tyres. Here are some other aspects to consider: Suspension modifications; protective bar work, winch, UHF radio, basic recovery gear, water and extra fuel containers and proper equipment storage for gear, camping and safety items within and on the car. Don’t just throw everything in the back. These will become missiles in an accident.

4) Safety first please. Whichever 4WD you choose, the moment you go into the bush away from people, I insist you take the following items: EPIRB (emergency locator beacon); have a properly installed 5 watt UHF two way radio in your vehicle, carry a full first aid kit along with the knowledge on how to use it, recovery gear such as tow ropes or snatch straps, gloves, recovery tracks (I use the Maxtrax brand), emergency water, food and warm clothing for all occupants. Printed maps of where you intend going. A nice addition is electronic mapping (I use HEMA maps from the app store). I also carry a Satellite phone and an AED (automated Defibrillator) as well as additional recovery gear and chainsaw for any fallen trees across a track.

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Emergency Locator beacon. Easy to purchase and can save your life.

Finally, plan your trip well. Not down to the last minute but allow yourself plenty of time; Tell someone responsible where you are going and when to expect you back; Show this person the map with your intended route and allow them to take a photo on their phone of your route in case they need to show rescue people if you don’t show when expected.

And before you set off, call someone who knows the area where you are going (local visitors information centres are a good starting point) or local 4WD tour operators and ask about track conditions.

As always, if in doubt, go with a professional. Detour Adventures along with many other 4WD operators, offer tag-along tours as well as in-car tours. Tag-along tours can be designed to take you on a great trip safely, within your level of 4WDing ability and it is a great way to enjoy the bush safely.

So, there you have it. An intro into your first 4WD. Happy 4WDing……. and remember, if you go into the bush, please take your rubbish away with you.

Cheers, Ian

* You can enjoy a day of adventure with Detour Adventures. visit www.detouradventures.com.au. OR www.facebook.com/4WDetour OR www.instagram.com/4WDetour. OR you can call me on 1300 4 DETOUR (that’s 1300 433 868). email tours@detouradventures.com.au Follow me on twitter of you like @4WDetour