First up, your budget is important and a good starting point. Be aware when you’re looking at prices that there’s a big difference between the list price of a new vehicle and the drive-away price. The drive-away price includes all the extras like stamp duty, registration, third-party injury insurance and any dealer charges. By law, dealers are now obliged to quote a full drive-away, no-more-to-pay price.
Keep in mind that you may also need extra money for general accessories such as a towbar, or 4x4 accessories such as a frontal-protection bar, long-range fuel tank or more durable tyres.
Insurance is also a significant extra cost that must be factored into your expenses when buying a vehicle, so don’t blow all your budget on just buying the vehicle.
BUMS ON SEARS OR A LOAD OFF-ROAD?
The next obvious question is how many seats do you need? This may seem like a bit of a dumb question, but if five seats aren’t enough then straight away more than two-thirds of new 4x4 vehicle models on sale won’t meet your needs: in particular the popular dual-cab utes.
Also be aware that while most 4x4s with third-row seating can accommodate seven people, some Land Cruiser 200s and Y62 Nissan Patrols are approved to seat eight. At the other end of the scale, some small 4x4s – like the short-wheelbase Jeep Wrangler and the Suzuki Jimny – only seat four. All have limited luggage space and carrying capacity when all seats are occupied.
This seating issue is arguably the key difference between most 4x4 wagons and dual-cab utes, but that’s not where it ends. While dual-cabs are extremely popular they often don’t offer the general refinement and the ride quality of a good 4x4 wagon. Particularly when empty, a ute’s ride can be hard and uncomfortable, and its roadholding skittish on rough roads.
However, not many people go bush without carrying food, water, and equipment, so the upside is that a ute is better designed to carry a heavier load. Straight from the showroom floor, a ute will shoulder the load of a weekend’s worth of camping equipment, or semi-permanent accessories such as drawers and fridge slides that many people install for longer-term touring, with less fuss than most wagons.
On the other hand, utes will require the extra outlay of a canopy to help with weather proofing and security. Wagons should be fitted with a cargo barrier between any equipment load and the vehicle occupants; these are all factors that should be considered when choosing a model.
CHOOSE THE JUICE
Diesel or petrol power was once an important buying decision, but now that question is largely irrelevant as most new 4x4s are available with only a diesel engine. Some vehicles, such as Ford’s Ranger and Land Rover Discovery, have engine size or power options. In the dual-cab 4x4 market, only the Hilux offers a petrol option.
There are, however, a few things to consider if you’re thinking about a petrol 4x4. While petrol 4x4s tend to be a lot thirstier than diesels for stop-start urban driving or in demanding off-road conditions, they generally aren’t bad on fuel for constant-speed touring. Regular-grade unleaded is also often cheaper than diesel – though some petrol 4x4s require more expensive premium-grade petrol – and petrol servicing is usually cheaper and less frequent than for diesel. Plus, many petrol 4x4 vehicles can be converted to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for even more affordable running and longer touring with multiple tanks.
Official government-mandated fuel-use figures (listed on a yellow windscreen label on new vehicles) should give you an idea of relative consumption for your driving conditions. The fuel consumption figure commonly quoted in advertising is the combined-cycle figure, but you can expect real-world fuel use to be at least 25 per cent more; depending on your driving style.
MANUAL OR AUTO?
It’s another age-old question: manual or automatic? Some 4x4s are auto only and some are manual only, so sometimes your decision is made for you. If you do have the choice, there are a few things to think about.
Generally, a manual will be more economical than an automatic; although automatics are far more economical
compared to manuals than they were in the 1980s and ’90s. Turbodiesel engines generally mate well to automatics because they make good torque at lower engine speeds. As a rule automatics work much better with torquey engines than with engines that require lots of revs to give their best. They are generally better for towing.
Some people claim that you must have a manual for off-road driving, but this is simply not true. In fact automatics, especially those with driver-selectable gears, are often better off-road than manuals thanks to the grunt-enhancing effect of the torque convertor and smoother power delivery.
The degree of off-road prowess you require is also important as many vehicles that are excellent off-road can be cumbersome around town. Vehicles such as the commercial-grade Land Cruisers, Land Rover Defender and even the Jeep Wrangler, all of which have live axles front and rear, fall into this category.
Conversely, something like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, with its fully-independent suspension, is brilliant on-road but not as happy in more arduous off-road terrain. The unfortunate fact of life is that if you want something that excels in both arenas (like a Range Rover), you generally have to pay big bucks.
Dual-range gearing is one of the key characteristics of a serious 4x4 however, ground clearance, approach and departure angles, and wheel travel are vital, too.
OPTIONS AND AFTERMARKET
You need to do your homework on options and equipment. The popular Land Cruiser 200 GXL diesel, for example, doesn’t come with the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS). The GXL doesn’t need KDSS, but it’s a far better prospect with KDSS – both on and off the road – and you’d be silly not to tick this option box.
Given the great improvement in off-road ability they bring, it’s well-worth buying a locking differential where the option is available. Land Rover Discoveries work better with the optional rear locking differential, as do Mitsubishi Tritons and Pajeros.
A Jeep Grand Cherokee is pretty ordinary off-road without the height-adjustable air suspension and rear locker, which are optional on lower spec models and standard on the top-spec Overland. However, the Overland still needs the optional off-road pack, which swaps the 20-inch wheels for 18s and adds underbody protection.
You also need to think about the availability of aftermarket accessories. Frontal protection bars, brush bars and side steps – even roof racks and tow bars – are all assets to a vehicle that will be used extensively in remote areas. However, the popularity – or lack of it – of a particular model may limit the availability of essential aftermarket touring equipment.
And finally, make sure your intended purchase will fit in your garage or parking space with its bullbar and/or roof rack. Don’t laugh, but we’ve heard of people buying a new 4x4 only to get it home and find it’s too high or too long for their garage.