CHOOSING the right four-wheel-drive vehicle is not about the brand, but more of what you need. When selecting a 4WD, you should match the vehicle’s features with your intended purpose. In this issue of Off-roading 101, we will try to help you determine which 4WD vehicle will best suit your needs, and hopefully help you make a decision based on your taste and passion.
The vehicle type that may suit your needs will be dependent on your needs and lifestyle. There are many to choose from. A closed five-door sport utility vehicle (SUV) comes in varying sizes; from the lightest of off-road duty Crossover SUV. Then there are the leaf sprung, rear-suspension equipped pickup trucks for large and heavy loads.
Crossover SUV’s are great in the city, but have limited payload weight capacity and off-road capabilities. They are not very capable in deep flood waters. The usual body configuration for crossovers is a five-door cabin, without a ladder frame chassis. However, it uses a car-based unibody shell with a stiffer build to manage the added stress when used in poor road conditions. Crossovers can carry slightly large loads inside the cabin once the seats are folded. Your best bet if you have this level of off-road driving needs is a vehicle with a center differential lock. Driving on sand and and wet grass surface is the Achilles heel for these class of 4WD vehicles and center differential locks help give more grip to the vehicle’s wheels. If the dealer or agent can’t tell you if the crossover you want to buy has one, walk away and don’t look back.
On the other side of the spectrum are the two-door, ladder-framed purpose-built SUV’s. These are weapons of choice for the really hard-core, off-road driving enthusiasts. Reason for this is their exterior dimensions; being small, makes them very agile in tight, forest driving conditions. They are also much lighter than their five-door counterparts, making them easier to recover when stranded. With ladder-framed SUVs having a shorter wheel base, it gives them a better break-over angle in difficult terrain. All this agility and off-road prowess comes with a price; with its shorter wheelbase combined with a high center of gravity, it make them prone to tipping over. It is for this reason that there are not many variants available locally. Add to this the fact that being purpose built, it limits the number of people who may have these requirements.
Full-size SUVs are more of the realm of the upscale, who most, if not all the time, use them for limousine duty around town. I wont dwell on this too long because these 4WDs almost never get to hit the road-less-travelled, and are too large and heavy for intermediate to hard off road use. The American-built full size SUVs are normally the top of the heap in this category.
Pickup trucks, in whatever size they come in, have the same intended purpose; to transport both people and equipment. A long time ago, these pickups were available only with a two-door configuration. This is no longer the case among current pickup trucks in the market. The need for more passenger and equipment made it more practical to have a four-door, extended cab configuration with the pickup bed for cargo. These trucks are usually equipped with a leaf-spring suspension in the rear for heavy payload. But expect things to change soon in this area of the rear suspension. Pickup trucks are slowly evolving in their use. Nowadays, driving a pickup truck in the city has become fashionable and it comes as no surprise anymore to see them in more elegant and fashionable environs in the city.
At the top of the sales ladder is the entry level SUV. These SUVs share the same platform as pickup trucks. They share the same robust construction of a pickup but are more comfortable. It is the preferred transport of a wide segment of the market due to their seating capacity and their high ride-height that gives both driver and passengers a sense of control and command when driving in their environs.
At present, most 4WDs are equipped with off-road driving electronic aids that greatly improve its capability in tackling difficult terrain. These driver aids considerably help drivers with minimal off-road driving knowledge; making them drive like competent off-roaders. But even with the myriad driver aids now available, drivers who would like to get into off-roading, be it moderate or extreme, should still get some driver training to help them handle different off-road situations competently.
Off-road driving aids considerably benefit drivers in terms of safety; by helping them not getting stranded in less traveled, or where there are no roads, at all. Some of these aids include the electronic traction control, control, dynamic stability control, hill-hang assist, terrain response, and so on, and so forth. Meanwhile, a mechanical driving aid that helps a lot in off-roading is called the ‘limited-slip differential’ (LSD). However, if you’re off-road driving skills are limited, then a limited-slip differential will be next to useless for you in getting traction in slippery conditions.
So when chosing a vehicle for use in difficult terrain, take advantage of the new technologies that come with these vehicles. that will make your trip safer and more efficient. It will save you a lot of grief in the end. But make sure your dealer explains to you how they work, in what conditions and how they are used.
So there it is. Pick your poison and use your head in choosing. But I won’t disuade you from picking your prefered brand. After all, it is your money you’re spending.