What you see here is an esoteric collection of 4x4s brought together by being either new or significantly mechanically revised in the last year, to determine which is the best. That’s why it’s called 4X4 Of The Year.
It doesn’t matter that the least expensive is $25K and the most expensive nearly five times that amount, as this is not a comparison test of the type usually conducted by 4X4 Australia. Rather the seven shortlisted vehicles are scored against five long-established criteria by our experienced judging panel and by secret ballot.
The seven shortlisted ‘new’ vehicles are the Mercedes-Benz X350d, which just missed the release date cut-off last year so may seem ‘old’ by now, the Ssangyong Musso XLV, the Suzuki Jimny and the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
The Mitsubishi Triton (new automatic gearbox), the Land Rover Discovery (new V6 diesel) and the Nissan Navara N-Trek Warrior (re-engineered chassis) fall more into the mechanically revised camp, although you could argue that the Warrior is a new model, not that it matters.
In many ways it’s the year for the traditionalist with the Jimny and the Rubicon both having live axles at both ends. Given only three such 4x4s are currently available as new (the Toyota LandCruiser 70 being the other), to have two new such models in the same year is indeed a fluke.
Of the remaining five shortlisted vehicles, four also have live axles at the back and, in another victory for the traditionalists, all but one of the seven are separate chassis designs.
Engines of course are a different matter; nothing too traditional here. All but one are modern and sophisticated diesels, all with turbos, high-pressure common-rail injection and diesel particulate filters to meet the latest diesel-emission laws. Some already also have selective catalytic reduction via a urea additive (AdBlue) to meet future emission laws.
All but one also have an automatic gearbox. All the seven shortlisted vehicles also have sophisticated chassis control electronics mandated by law in much the same way as the emission control systems.
The seven shortlisted vehicles originate from six different countries: Japan, Germany, South Korea, the UK, USA and, one could argue, even Australia. And, in a sign of the times, the majority are dual-cab utes.
We did intend to include a new Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, another dual-cab, but the test vehicle offer was withdrawn at the last minute due to a factory recall for a coolant leak issue.
2020 4X4 Of The Year Judging Criteria
01 - Value for Money
What does the vehicle offer against what it costs? Expensive vehicles can be good value just as less expensive vehicles can be poor value.
02 - Breaking New Ground
To what extent does the vehicle introduce new and effective technology?
03 - Built Tough
How solid and well-built is the vehicle and how will it handle tough off-road conditions?
04 - Bushability
How practical is the vehicle off sealed roads and far away from service centres and what aftermarket gear is available for it?
05 - Doing the Job
How well does the vehicle do the job it’s designed to do? A family 4x4 wagon, for example, isn’t designed to do the same job as a 4x4 dual-cab ute.
2020 4X4 Of The Year Route
As has been the case for many previous 4X4 Of The Year events, Day 1 of testing takes place at the Melbourne 4x4 Training and Proving Ground (melbourne4x4.com.au) at Werribee, Victoria, where a range of set tracks and obstacles prove to be a great leveller.
The more dedicated 4x4s have the edge here with less scrambling on the hills and exuding more aplomb through the articulation exercises.
The Werribee River was only flowing at a low level so, like most of the river crossings around at present, it was just a splash and well within the capability of all the vehicles on test.
Next we braved peak-hour traffic as we skirted outer Melbourne and headed to Healesville and Marysville, finally finding some gravel roads as we headed through rich forest to Cumberland Junction and over the top of the Great Dividing Range at Matlock. It was bitterly cold with wind-blasted rain as we huddled in a shelter on the crest of the range for lunch.
We headed to Woods Point and then took Johnson Hill Track to cross Gooley Creek (some good camping there) and climbed up to meet the Aberfeldy Road on the top of Johnson Hill.
Dropping off the ridge we wandered down a steep track, bounced through a creek and clambered up some scrabbly rocky steps where the Musso needed just a little extra care to get through without any body damage.
Perched on a knoll, just above the confluence of the Aberfeldy River and Donnelly Creek, we came to Junction Hut where we threw down swags inside the confines of the hut or outside on the partially sheltered verandas.
The following day dawned with a blue sky and the promise of better weather. We waded across the shallow Aberfeldy River and climbed the hill to the Donnelly Creek track junction. The track almost immediately drops to the first crossing of the creek itself, then runs parallel to the creek, crossing it on a few occasions before reaching Store Point. Here we swapped vehicles, as we do each and every hour or so on these extended multi-vehicle tests.
We then climbed the hills through a couple of tight switchbacks to the top of the range and Springs Road. While all the contenders handled the conditions pretty easily, the Jeep and Disco were leading the pack by this stage.
We turned onto Black Range Track and descended through ever-changing bands of vegetation that offered glimpses of views across to Gable End and Mt Wellington which, at 1634m, is one of the highest peaks in the area. We turned onto the Cheynes Bridge Track and that brought us out onto the black top of the Licola Road near the crossing of the beautiful Macalister River.
We pulled into the hamlet of Licola (licola.org.au) for fuel and lunch then headed up the main road, losing the bitumen as we crossed the last bridge over the Macalister River and began the long, winding and corner-corrugated climb to Arbuckle Junction. Taking the well-maintained Moroka Road eastwards, we pulled up at Horseyard Hut for the night.
As we clambered out of ice-covered swags to welcome the new day, the campfire was the favoured spot to begin the morning’s proceedings. Starting on Marathon Road we turned onto the Castle Hill Track before veering onto the lesser-used McDonald Gap Track for the long, steep and rough descent to the main Dargo Road.
Our lunch stop was in Dargo before we headed out on Jones Road and then took the Birregun Road where we stopped at the crest of Mt Birregun. From here we headed along Upper Livingstone Road into Omeo before our our overnight camp in the Victoria Falls Historic Area.
The next morning we cruised across the top of Mt Hotham and down the long winding road to Bright where we refuelled. Dusty and a little weather worn, we all turned our respective ways for home, some to Melbourne and others up to Sydney.