The subject of which is the best 4×4 is the has of late been elevated to the level of a philosophical conundrum: new technologies, price wars between manufacturers, misleading advertising, exaggerated and/or ambiguous claims regarding the performance, fuel consumption and capabilities of off-road vehicles, and last but not least, the performance of off-road competition vehicles, all conspire to leave the average off-road enthusiast more in the dark than ever before.
Since there is no such thing as the perfect off-road vehicle, the only sensible way to address the issue of which is the best 4×4 is to compare apples with apples: the extreme off-road conditions of Southern Africa, or in fact, the whole of Africa are such that correct off-road vehicle choices are more important than any other single issue or consideration when planning a Cape to Cairo expedition.
Competition vs. Real World 4×4 Vehicles
It makes no sense to base the decision on which 4WD vehicle to use for an expedition through Africa on the results of the Dakar rally: these 4WD vehicles have only their brand names in common with the 4×4 vehicles available to the average enthusiast, but not only that; these vehicles are supported by highly professional support teams with virtually unlimited budgets, which gives a whole new meaning to the term “bush mechanics”. Thus, when comparing apples with apples, and not factory modified technical wonders that contain more space age technology than the Space Shuttle, other considerations that are more relatable to real-world conditions need to be used, such as purpose, fuel economy, ease of maintenance, spares availability, and proven reliability, among others.
However, from the competition perspective, none of the above considerations are important, since winning the event is everything. Technical support teams are equipped to replace entire transmissions in less than an hour, engines in around two hours or less, and tyres in less than a minute. To the average off-road driver, these calamities, especially when they have to be resolved in the middle of the Congolese rain forest, could potentially mean the loss of the 4WD vehicle since no one within a thousand kms or more, would be likely to have a replacement engine or transmission. For these and other reasons, professional competition results are thus not a viable, or logical, point of departure in making sensible 4WD vehicle choices.
Real-world Considerations- Rock Crawling
The “Best 4×4” debate cannot be settled to everyone’s satisfaction, so the next best available solution is to look into which 4×4 vehicle is best for a particular purpose. Various off-road disciplines require different types of 4WD vehicles: for instance, rock crawling requires a short wheel base to prevent getting hung up on a rock, and large diameter wheels with suitable tyres to both increase ground clearance and making the mounting of obstacles easier.
However, this is not all: another absolute requirement for rock crawlers is the insane amount of torque needed to get up the near vertical cliff faces that sometimes constitute obstacles. While many purpose-built 4WD vehicles are rather good at clambering up and over rocks, there is only one that does it better than all others and that is the Unimog.
Rock crawling does not require speed, which no Unimog has anyway, but what it does require is an extra low range which the Unimog has, insane amounts of torque which the Unimog gets through its low range and portal axles, a flexible chassis which the Unimog has to the point of disbelief, very long suspension travel, excellent ground clearance, and large departure and approach angles, which the Unimog has because it has virtually no chassis and body overhangs.
Thus, from the rock crawling perspective at least, the Unimog seems to be the best 4×4: however, it also has some drawbacks. Its weight coupled with its physical size sometimes makes it difficult to drive in conditions where nimbleness is an advantage, but the old adage that what is gained in one area is lost in another, applies to off-road driving as much as to anything else. Nonetheless, the advantages the Unimog offers a rock crawling driver far outweigh any possible drawback, which for this style of off-road driving, makes it the best 4×4 by a large margin.
Saturday Morning Trails
Almost anything with wheels and some measure 4WD capability, ranging from monstrosities based on Willy’s jeeps to SUV’s with million Rand price tags could conceivably be called the “best 4×4. All that is needed to win this “competition” is at least some off-road driving skills, some free time, and possibly a total disregard for the resale value of the mostly German luxury SUV’s that can sometimes be seen on these trails.
The 4WD vehicles most often encountered at these events are very seldom suited for anything more than splashing through shallow mud puddles on Saturday mornings, and as such are completely unsuited for serious, sustained, and gruelling off-road excursions outside of the suburbs.
Real-world Considerations- Overland Expeditions
This is where choosing the right 4WD vehicle becomes a challenge, since there are hundreds of possibilities: part-time or full-time 4WD, long vs. short wheel bases, varying load carrying capacities, solid vs. independent front suspensions, combinations of electronic driving aids, petrol vs. diesel, comfort levels, different wading depths, issues with departure/approach angles, spares availability in the hinterland of Africa, and last but again not least, known reliability issues.
No single 4WD vehicle leads the scoreboard in more than one or maybe two of these areas, but worse, there is no unambiguous or undisputed leader in any of these fields. Sales figures are misleading at worst, and confusing at best. Many 4WD vehicles (excluding SUV’s and cross-overs, which sometimes never see a dirt road) become “ten percent vehicles”, meaning they only spend around ten percent of their useful lives in off-road conditions.
Nor is the total number of reported faults a reliable guide: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an American Government agency tasked with collecting information and maintaining a database relating to vehicle safety, reliability, and recalls, does not always make a distinction between new and used off-road vehicles when it lists a fault; which means that while it is possible to see a list (and the number) of faults on any given vehicle, it is not possible to deduce the frequency at which these faults occurred. Fault reporting in the USA is also not compulsory, which means that none of the various databases this agency maintains can be seen as complete, definitive, or reliable.
Thus, while it is not possible to offer unbiased and reliable opinions on which 4×4 is best for overland excursions and expeditions, it is possible to exclude all luxury SUV and crossover type vehicles, since they almost invariably do not have the required toughness to survive a difficult off-road excursion into Africa, whether it be just South Africa, or the rather more difficult rest of Southern Africa.
The only even vaguely reliable source of information on the best 4×4 vehicle for this type of 4WD driving is the collective experience of off-road driving clubs. Even though many off-road clubs only cater for owners of a particular vehicle, it pays the prospective 4WD vehicle buyer to listen to what members of these clubs have to say: for example, it would be safe to assume that clubs that cater for say, Toyota Land Cruiser owners, and in particular the 105 series, has had a collective good experience with these die-hard 4×4’s, or there would not have been so many owners of these vehicles enrolled in the club.
However, regardless of the composition of the vehicle pool in any particular club, the opinions of members are bound to be biased towards the benefits and reliability of their own 4WD vehicles, which does not mean that those opinions are not valid, but by the same token, feelings and opinions against any particular brand or make of 4×4 are bound to be just as valid, since they are mostly based on first-hand experiences- good and bad.
Notwithstanding any of the above, there are just too many variables involved when it comes to recommending any particular 4WD vehicle above all others, since almost all 4WD vehicles have enough power and torque, a choice of electronic driving aids, and most have at least a 4 star NCAP rating. However, there are some basic guidelines that should not be ignored, and while this article does not suggest that any particular 4×4 vehicle is better (or worse) than any other in all, or even most respects, it will point out some things to avoid when choosing a vehicle suited for overland expeditions.
• Lack of a service network:
Almost all brands imported from China suffer from a lack of spares, technical support, and service/repair facilities. Although these brands are almost always cheaper than established European, Japanese, and American brands, it must be remembered that they are cheaper for a reason, and the Rand/Dollar exchange rate has nothing to do with it.
These vehicles are almost invariably a mixture of obsolete technologies: Chinese manufacturers buy the rights to the technologies that other manufacturers have largely discarded with the result that a “Made in China” product could consist of a mixture of the parts of three or even four 4WD vehicles that have been out of production for a number of years. In addition, many common parts that could have been replaced by high quality alternatives are slightly modified to prevent this, resulting in a situation that even in South Africa, which has a well developed car industry, parts for these Chinese specials are more often than not, unavailable.
Electronics on these vehicles are almost always substandard, unreliable, and frequently burn out even before the vehicle has had its first service, and while these electronic systems have a diagnostic function, the fact is that very few, if any, workshops have the software to analyse the altered engine and fuel management systems found on these disasters waiting to happen. The long and the short of it is that anything “Made in China” should be avoided.
• Engine/Transmission modifications:
Engine and transmission modifications and transplants should be regarded with a great deal of circumspection. While not all modifications are necessarily bad, or illegal, many modifications are untested, and may fail for any number of reasons. All engine and transmission transplants should have at least a traceable origin, meaning that back yard jobs do not count, and must be avoided. There are many reputable workshops and specialists that have vast experience in mating different engines to different transmissions and final drives, and every modification should be traceable to the facility in which it was performed.
Standard 4WD vehicles undergo very rigorous test programs, and should be capable of surviving most off-road driving conditions without suffering any serious or lasting damage because of it. On the face of it, there is no valid reason to replace the engine, transmission, and/or final drives on any standard 4×4 vehicle with anything else: modifications for the sake of modification are seldom successful, and the harsh off-road conditions in the hinterland of Africa is no place to discover that a particular modification is not successful.
• Ex-competition vehicles:
Unless an ex-competition vehicle has at least its original carrying capacity, and is certified to carry this load, there seems little point in buying something that could out run anything else, but cannot carry a load. A 4WD vehicle is a home away from home and must be able to carry everything required to support at least two people for as long as the expedition lasts, which in Africa, could be several weeks.
• Accident damaged vehicles:
While minor damage to body work can be repaired, any damage to the chassis could cause that chassis to be weakened to a dangerous degree if it is cut, welded (especially arc welded), and straightened after an accident.
No 4WD vehicle chassis can be repaired to the point where it has its original strength and flexibility, thus any off-road vehicle that has had repairs done on the chassis is best avoided. Such a vehicle will always have wheel alignment, straight line tracking, and handling issues. Not to mention the fact that a welded chassis could break at any moment.
Hoping for the best 4×4
Above are only some of the issues that should be on the top of the list of things to avoid when shopping for an off-road vehicle. However, successfully avoiding these pitfalls does not translate into buying the best 4×4, because there is no such thing as “the best 4×4”. The extreme off-road driving conditions of Africa will show up any defects in very short order, and any serious shortcomings in an off-road vehicle in these conditions could be potentially dangerous.
Of course, none of the above is to say that Southern Africa, or Africa in general should be avoided as an off-road driving destination; far from it: provided the best 4×4 for the purpose is used, and that basic precautions against breakdowns and mechanical failures have been taken, an off-road experience starting in South Africa and ending in Egypt should be within the capabilities of most reasonably skilled off-road drivers, and all 4×4 vehicles that manage to complete the ordeal without having suffered lasting damage can with good reason be referred to as “the best 4×4”, by a long shot.