There have been many campfire debates that rage on well into the night about which 4WD is the best. Many believe the best four-wheel drive is the one that is paid up and parked in your driveway. Yes, the internet is rife with 4WD banter and memes about Jeeps, Land Rover, and Ford always being the center of the jokes. However, is there a way of scientifically selecting the best 4 wheel drive overall, or do they all have their strengths and weaknesses? This article will divide the 4 Wheel drive segment into a few categories that will determine which type of 4WD is the best in its class and how to identify a good option.
The best 4-wheel-drive is the one that offers you a balanced package consisting of acceptable on-road manners combined with excellent off-road performance, comfort, and reliability. Resale value, maintenance, and running costs play a huge role when choosing a 4WD for short and long-term ownership. The best four-wheel drive can be determined by calculating the average running costs, repair bills, and what the overall package offers you over a specific period of 5- 10 years.
In order to get a clearer and more accurate picture, we will need to split the 4-wheel-drive segment into various categories as we proceed to unveil the best option. These categories will in turn not be too focused on identifying which make and model is the best in each, but rather what characteristics to look for when choosing the best 4WD for your application and budget.
We will separate vehicles as best we can into Ute vs SUV, Diesel vs Petrol, Overlanding vs Rock-crawling and Manual vs Auto and lastly new vs used. Each of these subcategories should reveal the best value for money option.
Ok, let’s see how we do. First, let’s understand WHY we need to determine which 4WD will be the best for your intended application.
Best 4-Wheel Drive Horse for the Course
So in order to gain an accurate idea of the best 4WD, we need to first and foremost decide what the vehicle’s core function will be. What will be the main application of the vehicle? Will the 4WD still be expected to function as a daily driver, will it be a dedicated weekend trail warrior, or will it need to lend itself to eventually becoming a fully customized overland rig.
Perhaps your needs are simple and not that specialized and you are simply looking for a reliable, comfortable daily driveable 4WD that still allows you to explore the odd trail over weekends and have the functionality to take your family on the odd camping trips during the summer. Heck, it might even be required to function as a “tradey” vehicle during the week too so in this instance, your needs are quite broad.
All these factors are extremely important when deciding which platform will be the appropriate choice since each manufacturer had a precise target market when they embarked on designing and producing a specific 4WD model.
So when we look at each segment we cannot, for example, compare a Jeep Rubicon to say a Toyota Tacoma. Why not you ask? Well, firstly, the Jeep is an SUV and more importantly a petrol v6. It’s a thorough-bred, purpose-built 4WD with a very specific function.
The Tacoma, on the other hand, is a diesel Ute or light truck so they compete in completely different vehicle segments in the eyes of the manufacturers, yet buyers will buy either 4WD, depending on taste, budget, and personal preference yet still expect it to deliver on all fronts.
Unfortunately, many Ill-informed buyers will be in the market for an off-road vehicle that was originally designed for a specific application, yet expects both options to perform equally well in most environments.
You get the idea. Don’t run off and buy a diesel if all you are going to be doing is dune driving and likewise, it won’t be very wise to buy a Short wheelbase v6 petrol for long-distance touring.
What makes a good Four-Wheel Drive truck
A sign of a good four-wheel drive is one that offers robust construction and go-anywhere capability. If your requirements are a capable vehicle for transporting you over a variety of challenging terrains for an extended period of time, this is definitely the automotive category to consider. The good news is these capabilities can be obtained across a broad price spectrum and with a wide array of comfort and convenience features.
A good 4-Wheel-Drive also allows you to maintain decent traction in slippery low-traction driving conditions, such as snow, ice, rocks, sand, and mud. Most capable 4WD’s allow you to drive in off-road scenarios that are difficult or even impossible for 2WD and AWD vehicles. By engaging all four wheels, off-road stability, traction and control are significantly improved. The additional weight of the ladder frame chassis which is commonly found in robust 4WD’s contributes towards superior grip and rigidity in off-road driving conditions.
4WD’s are perfect for those who enjoy exploring a variety of exciting destinations combined with challenging driving conditions in remote areas where normal vehicles cannot drive.
A good four-wheel drive is one that has a good reputation for reliability, usually combined with a robust ladder-frame chassis and rear differential lockers. This affords you the ability to carry off-road equipment, camping equipment, tools, supplies, and recovery gear with ease while traveling in rough off-road tracks. The 4WD should also offer you the possibility to customize its cabin or rear tub to include accessories that make traveling more comfortable and functional.
4WD Customization Options
A 4-wheel-drive Ute with a wide and long rear tray allows you to build either a completely new, fully customized, functional tray-back or to fabricate a small kitchen into the rear tub section. Appliances such as portable camping fridges, cooking stoves, and water tanks can all be incorporated into the rear tub of an overland UTE. This makes camp life and traveling a much more pleasant experience. SUV shapes, on the other hand, limit you to the extent you can go with rear storage space being very limited.
There are many custom professional fabricators all over the world who are constantly inventing lighter, smarter, more organized storage systems for both platforms.
Four-Wheel Drive Load Carrying Capacity
Another factor that identifies a good 4-wheel-drive is the load-carrying abilities of the suspension. Does the suspension lend itself to be upgraded to something beefier to allow it to handle the additional weight better? The suspension should also be able to be upgraded to handle taller, bigger, or wider tires. Certain 4WD vehicle independent suspension designs restrict you to a specific ride height which hampers or limits your truck’s off-road capabilities.
Leaf sprung suspensions, on the other hand, are preferred for over-landing, over independent suspensions, since it offers a good mixture of robust design, decent ride height, and superior load-carrying capacity. The ladder frame design is also easily upgradable without too much risk on most popular 4WD’s.
4WD Dealer network
Choosing a 4WD can become a very daunting task and when doing so you always need to ensure you have sufficient local and remote dealership support in the event of a mechanical breakdown. You will also need to determine how far-reaching their countrywide dealer network is and if parts are readily available in the event of a predicament in a remote location.
Choosing between an SUV vs UTE 4WD
When deciding on a 4WD we need to determine which body shape will be more appropriate for our application. There are a few pros and cons to both shapes. For example, a Ute is excellent for carrying heavier loads and lends itself to more customization options at the tub, however, the trade-off is it offers a bumpier ride and is a lot longer in dimension than an SUV, making it slightly more challenging to maneuver in tight spaces.
An SUV, on the other hand, offers a more comfortable ride on-road as well as off-road but has smaller packing space for longer multi-day trips. An SUV like the Mitsubishi Pajero/Shogun offers a nice on-road experience along with excellent off-road capabilities.
Most SUV rears are not as customizable as a rear tray of a Ute or truck which limits you somewhat with space and customization options. They also tend to be slightly taller in dimension than a UTE since many are designed to seat seven people comfortably, which means the SUV headroom is great for passengers but the trade-off is the center of gravity is always going to be higher than a Ute in most instances.
SUV offers a more pliable ride since most of them are equipped with rear springs instead of clunky, rigid leaf packs. Leaf packs can often squeak when grains of sand get between the blades which can get quite annoying at times. The IFS (Independent Front Suspension) of SUVs makes for a great on-road and off-road touring vehicle.
Most UTES are equipped with leaf packs in the rear which allows them to carry more weight but does offer a bumpy ride when unloaded. This makes the UTE a more practical option if you are a tradesman, requiring you to carry tools and supplies during the week, or perhaps you are an animal lover, the tub of a Ute is ideal for transporting muddy dogs after a run on the beach. Perhaps you will be required to regularly transport large items or whenever you embark on any DIY projects at home the Ute is your reliable partner.
…The Ute simply does LIFE well
I’ve owned both 4WD Utes as well as SUV’s and i can confidently tell you, the Ute simply does LIFE well. If you are a family man with young kids, dogs, a business and love the outdoors, you almost always lean towards the Ute shape over the SUV.
Know Your Application
When deciding between an SUV vs a UTE you need to know beforehand what the application is going to be and almost envision the end result after all your 4-wheel-drive customizations and modifications are done. Perhaps it would be a good idea to speak to an owner of both variants and discuss what it’s like to live with either option and what modifications they will recommend. Real-life feedback is always more valuable in the end.
Best 4 Wheel Drive for Overlanding
Now we are getting to the real nuts and bolts of the subject. Overlanding is a hobby that entails long-distance traveling through sandy deserts, exploring vast country out-backs while passing through neighboring country border posts. The off-road routes taken are usually on bad unmaintained gravel roads which often cross over rough mountains tracks in order to reach remote, unspoiled natural beauty. In most cases, the occupants are required to be completely self-sufficient in every department for multiple days at a time. You are also required to be prepared for any mechanical or health emergency at any time.
A good over-landing vehicle should be a reliable and robust one, but also one that offers you the ability to carry out the above in relative comfort. Below are a few examples of popular over-landing vehicles with reputable reliability status.
- Toyota Land Cruiser 76, 79, 80, 100, 105 & 200 Series
- Toyota 4Runner & Tacoma
- Nissan Patrols
- Mitsubishi Pajero
- Mercedes Benz G-Wagon
- Land Rover Defender
The above-mentioned vehicles offer the perfect platform for over-landing modifications. Most over-landing vehicles chosen are ones designed with solid front and rear axles. The robust suspension design is a key vehicle requirement since it allows the 4WD to withstand the harshest road conditions and load carrying requirements with relative ease.
Many over-landers prefer diesel over petrol 4WD’s since they offer better MPG. Overlanding does not require a super-fast vehicle, but rather a reliable one with enough low-down torque to carry the extra load without placing too much strain on the engine.
Purpose Built Vehicles
These are purpose-built vehicles with their main focus being robust design and unquestionable reliability. Overlanding vehicles are usually designed to carry heavy loads such as water, fuel, and supplies for multi-day trips. Suspension, Tires, front and rear bumper protection, snorkels, upgraded lights, and load-carrying roof racks are usually the first upgrades to be done to equip them for the task ahead.
Best 4 Wheel Drive vehicle for Rock Crawling
These vehicles are built specifically to excel in tricky, challenging, and sometimes dangerous driving conditions since their main function is not so much to travel long distances or to carry heavy loads but rather to overcome various challenging off-road obstacles. These obstacles can be in the form of deep mud, huge rocks, boulders, deep ruts, and gravel roads.
Rock crawlers usually have solid front and rear axles for superior flex and stability. The suspension is one of the most important components and usually incorporates long-travel dampers with extended springs, to enhance the ground clearance.
35-37inch tires are preferred for this hobby since it has taller sidewalls as well as wider footprints to allow the tire to “wrap” around obstacles for additional grip. For extreme rock crawling, the tire pressures are usually deflated to below 1bar which allows the side walls to flex and mold over rocks and boulders easier. Trail Grappler tires with a soft rubber compound are preferred to maintain traction while ascending steep rock walls.
A good rock crawler should have good stability and the vehicle should be as balanced as possible. It is recommended to keep the center of gravity as low as possible by avoiding top-heavy accessories like full-length roof racks. When engaging in rock crawling as a hobby, 4WD owners often refer to “flex” as a measurement of a capable rock crawler. Flex is the amount of wheel travel the vehicle has before the opposite front end loses contact with the surface. This modification is key since it allows the driver to traverse over huge obstacles by maintaining vehicle stability.
Below are a few examples of popular vehicles often modified for Rock-crawling.
- Jeep Rubicon
- Toyota Land Cruiser 76 and 79 series
- Ford Explorer
- Land Rover Defender
- Land Rover Discovery I & II
- Nissan Patrol GU
Bear in mind we are referring here to production-built vehicles that are upgraded for extreme rock crawling sports. We are not considering buggy’s or competition pipe cars custom-built for rock crawling events.
Best 4 Wheel Drive for Beach Driving
Depending on which part of the world you are from, there are various vehicles used for beach driving. It is a fun hobby to do when done properly. Jeeps are very popular for beach driving and are one of the last production-built thorough-bred off-road vehicles around with a strong off-road pedigree.
(If you would like to read more about beach driving techniques – I wrote an article you can read here)
Obey The Laws of Nature
As capable as the jeep may have still managed to get stuck in deep soft sand while driving on the beach. This is mainly due to driver error and lack of good judgment. Your Jeep is not immune to the effects of sand and just like any other vehicle, if you do not abide by Mother Nature’s laws she does not allow you to play for very long without giving you some trouble. So like most vehicles, if you do not air down and spin your Jeeps tires too long in soft sand you will eventually end up on your axles. Always familiarize yourself with the laws of sand driving before you venture out on the sand with your Jeep.
Beach driving can be a real joy and an exciting thing to do, however, it could also pose a few challenges to your Jeep. For the most part, you and your Jeep will be fine if you stick to the following three tips.
- Air down your tires
- Use common sense
- Maintain momentum
Beach driving requires more power than torque since the 4WD will almost always be in a higher rev range. In most cases, you won’t be carrying heavy loads so a strong petrol engine with a high cubic capacity is recommended. 4.0 V6 is usually an excellent middle ground.
Prime examples of capable sand driving vehicles are:
- Jeep Wrangler v6
- Toyota FJ Cruiser 4.0 V6
- Nissan Patrol (Y61) 5th Generation 4.5 & 4.8 Petrol
- Land Rover Discovery 1 & 2 (Rover V8)
- Almost any V6 and V8 powered 4WD vehicle
Best 4 Wheel Drive for Snow Driving
The key to snow wheeling is to build up and maintain enough momentum. Driving techniques are somewhat similar to slippery mud, except you don’t always feel the bottom surface. Approaching the snow is determined by the type of snow it is. There are times when a slow approach is needed and other times when you will need to hammer down and use lots of momentum to dig in, similar to when you are driving in mud. In order to know when to use the correct technique, you’ll need to develop the ability to “read” snow.
(If you would like to read more about snow driving techniques – I wrote an article you can read here)
A decent vehicle for snow will be somewhere between a rock-crawling setup and a beach sand vehicle. What that means is any vehicle with enough torque and good ground clearance will do well in snow. What is more important than the vehicle is the tires.
Follow the bellow guide to prepare yourself and your vehicle for slippery snowy trails
- Air your tires down to 6-8 psi
- Make sure you have an accurate gauge (the difference between 2psi can make a significant difference in traction)
- Fit tires with aggressive tread patterns even on the sidewall once tires are deflated (Sidewall protection and deep lugs will prevent punctures at low psi levels)
- The wider the tire the better, since a wide footprint at low tire pressures will help you stay above the snow.
- Invest in good quality rims with bead retention rings inside (even “el-cheapos” will do fine)
- If you run bead-lock wheels you can decrease to even lower air pressure levels
- Invest in snow chains and mount them on your rear tires for extra traction
- You want to stay afloat as much as possible without digging in
- If you are of the “cutter” opinion, you will then opt for skinnier tires with lockers
- Narrower tires with plenty siping and studs work just as well and are preferred by many on icy terrain
- Whatever tire choice you opt for, you should have good reaction time since any tire that slips off the beaten track will quickly pull the rest of the vehicle in.
Snow tires definitely improve your 4WD’s capabilities in the snow by allowing more traction on slippery snow and icy road conditions. Most modern 4WD and AWD vehicles have sophisticated electronic traction aids that assist the vehicle to stay on track when driving on low traction surfaces such as snow, mud, and ice.
Real world testing has proven that snow tires greatly improves the vehicles stopping abilities, obstacle avoidance, snowy hill-start, traction as well as acceleration and braking.
Ladder Frame vs Monocoque 4WD
With the advancement in technology and software, the Unibody or monocoque chassis has become much easier to design, and modify. It offers better ride comfort and lower wind noise is lower and closer to the ground.
Unibody gives you a more luxurious ride with tire and road noise being drowned out by advancement in build quality, sound deadening and the suspension setup afforded to the monocoque chassis.
Less squeaky components make for fewer rattles and metal fatigue noises commonly associated with ladder frame chassis. The lighter body increases the lifespan of the tires, suspension, and other wear and tear suspension components. They also offer better balance in emergency braking and maneuvering situations.
(If you would like to read more about monocoque vs ladder frame chassis – I wrote an article you can read here)
More expensive to repair in the event of an accident due to advanced chassis technology, expensive components and the complete structure makes repairs more complex. The Body on Frame construction has a very distinct advantage since it does not require the expensive process of laser welding.
Unibody chassis SUVs are more susceptible to undercarriage damage being lower to the ground, like oil sumps and suspension components. More prone to rust and moisture damage when exposed to water often with critical components being lower down and more susceptible to damage.
Once heavily loaded they lose precious ground clearance making them vulnerable to undercarriage damage.
Monocoque chassis have taken over the automotive industry by storm and have been the default option for all modern luxury vehicles. Monocoque chassis initially started its life in sedans and light hatchbacks but has transformed so much over the years with technological advancements and advanced software systems like Auto CAD that it is slowly beginning to infiltrate the large SUV market. Time will tell if the ladder frame chassis will ever become redundant but for now, manufacturers still opt for traditional Body on Frame or Ladder Frame construction for some of their vehicles.
Examples of Monocoque SUV’s
- Mitsubishi Pajero Gen III
- Toyota Rav 4
- Land Rover Discovery 5
- VW Tiguan
Advantages of Ladder on Frame 4WD’s
When conquering any off-road obstacle you will almost always opt for the ladder frame since he has such off-road prowess with its tough framework. They can literally take any terrain you can possibly throw at them. May that be rocks, gravel, sand, snow you name it, and while carrying a load. Here the ladder frame comes into its own.
Ladder frames have a higher floor plan and raise the center of gravity due to its design. This allows the vehicle to boast higher ground clearance which is excellent for conquering off-road obstacles or handling any off-road challenges you throw at it.
A ladder frame can withstand high levels of stress under load and it takes a lot to bend or deform a body on frame chassis under load. It is a robust structure that has the ability to resist torsion and bending resistance. That is the amount of pressure or force required to bend or twist the chassis out of place. Due to the rigid structure and design of the ladder frame, it makes distorting or bending it virtually impossible during normal everyday applications. This is the main reason why body on frame chassis is chosen over monocoque to town heavy loads and by owners with SUV’s who want to tow boats, trailers, horseboxes, and caravans.
Examples of Reliable Ladder Frame SUV’s
- Land Cruisers (All models)
- Jeep Wranglers (All models)
- Nissan Patrols (All Models)
- Land Rover Defenders (All Models)
- Mercedes G-Wagons
Solid Axles vs Independent Suspension
The biggest advantage of Independent front suspension is that offers superior handling on-road with less body roll in corners. They are lighter in weight since they use fewer heavy metal components. The IFS setup allows for more crisp and precise steering feel with improved handling under most driving conditions. The IFS offers a more stable feel driving at higher speeds on the freeway. Your vehicle is also less affected by cross-winds since the IFS suspension is more sure-footed on-road.
Disadvantages of Independent Front Suspensions (IFS)
The main disadvantage of IFS suspensions is they use more complex components with more ball joints needing lubrication. Failure to properly maintain these increases the risk of suspension-related failures. IFS repairs are more costly when things do go wrong. Modifications need to be approached with caution since the IFS uses separate drive shafts and 2 CV joints on either side. Body lifts in excess of 40mm are treading on dangerous grounds with some IFS Utes since the angle of the CV axle assembly will be severely affected and CV joint failure chances increase dramatically.
The older IFS suspensions made use of torsion bars which added complexity to the steering setup and can become vulnerable when off-roading. The differential casing of the IFS is also of a lighter more inferior strength to that of an IFS which uses a more durable cast iron cast.
Advantages of Solid Axles
Solid axles tend not to absorb uneven surfaces as well as IPF but are much more robust in design and durable in extreme off-road conditions. Modifications can be made to solid axles to improve ride comfort on and off-road. The transfer of power and torque is superior on the sold axles since there are fewer components that can absorb power as it’s transferred to the wheels.
Solid axles offer superior articulation and flex to IFS and is preferred for challenging off-road conditions.
Disadvantages of Solid Axles
Unfortunately, Solid front axles are terrible to drive on-road since the body roll is quite noticeable in corners and the vehicle is more susceptible to movement of crosswinds. The steering is not as precise as IFS and becomes even vaguer once over-sized tires are fitted. They are heavier and offer less ground clearance due to the huge differential casing.
If you are using the vehicle more off-road than on-road, the better option would be the solid front axle setup. This is due to its robust design and simple repair procedures and costs. Some axle configurations are better than others and can offer a decent ride.
For rock-crawling and hill-climbing, the SFA suspensions are more robust offering superior traction. Ground clearance is better with the IFS since there is no differential casing in the way.
Choosing between Manual vs Auto 4WD
So before learning how to drive a stick shift vehicle off-road, it is of vital importance to know how the manual gearbox and clutch functions. This will allow you to better understand which gear to select to drive it correctly and also know exactly what the vehicle is telling you to do.
With a manual gearbox, the driver decides exactly how the vehicle behaves and responds in off-road conditions. The driver can decide to hold the vehicle in a specific gear to climb out a steep hill or hold it in a gear for a longer period if he wants the maximum power and torque from that particular gear to overcome a large sand dune. You can change up sooner if you wish to drive for improved fuel economy when cruising along flat gravel roads. So, apart from the engagement factor of a manual (stick shift), there are other advantages such as control over MPG usage, control of the RPM range as well as the fun factor.
If you do not own a Manual transmission vehicle, it is always good to know how to operate one as you never know when you might be required to drive one. Perhaps you visit a foreign country and the only vehicle options are stick-shift. Or you might have an emergency while off-road at a remote location when you will need drive stick shift of a mate to seek medical assistance.
Best Transmission For Off-Roading
When you drive through mud the automatic is fantastic. Gear shifting between the smaller gears in the automatic transmission makes for a fun and easy sand driving experience.
With a manual transmission in mud, it is a more complex scenario as you need to know your vehicle very well and be familiar with its behavior between the rev ranges. In mud, once you need to shift up or down there are a few seconds of delay while you depress the clutch and engage the gear and that is crucial for mud and sand driving because you can lose momentum very easily.
You will almost always need to keep your manual at very high revs before you shift up or down in mud and sand to buy some time between gear shifts and try not to lose momentum in the process.
Constantly keeping a manual transmission vehicle at its maximum revs for extended periods is not ideal and you need to be in the correct gear to get the most torque and power without overstressing the engine.
Automatic on the other hand will just allow you to easily cruise along in mud and sand as long as you have the correct tires for the application.
Automatic will not overstress the engine because the gearbox will automatically keep the vehicle in the correct gear maintaining maximum power and torque.
Manual transmission requires you to select the correct gear before you enter the mud pit and stay in that gear and hope you make it to the other side with enough momentum.
In an automatic, you can select the final gear the auto box must stay in. However there is a disadvantage as the gearbox can up-shift or downshift at any given time, and you might not want it to do so.
As you might have gathered by now, there are so many options to consider when deciding what the best 4WD vehicle is. The variables differ vastly and many 4WD manufactures offer them in numerous different configurations to suit the needs of customers.
Each to his own, there is no such thing as the best 4WD vehicle but rather, the best 4WD for your needs.