Thinking of going full-on 4x4 but don’t know where to start? Mark Stone has got you covered.

AS the fashion, or even passion, for SUVs has more or less taken over car design, so have the various 4x4 (or, as they now tend to be called, all-wheel-drive or AWD) choices. There’s also the alarming trend for numerous SUV models to only look like 4x4s, their owners preferring the look of an off-roader over the ability to actually go off road. So, there’s your first piece of advice, if there’s no actual AWD or 4x4 badging then it isn’t. It is nothing more than a front-wheel drive pretending to be what it isn’t. There are even 2WD Jeeps and Range Rover Evoques, so beware!

Right, that’s the pretend models taken care of. Where the potential pitfalls now occur is in knowing exactly what you’re getting. In the good old days, if you wanted a 4x4, the choice was an SWB or LWB Land Rover, or, if you were a bit posh, a Range Rover, complete with shiny smooth seats you slid off and an instrument binnacle that was quite obviously an afterthought. Similarly, the CJ Jeep was for those looking for something maybe a little different, while the Unimog was, and still is, for those who need to haul loads and kit across some of the most inhospitable terrain Mother Nature can throw at them. How times, trends and choices have changed.

AWD, and the more hardcore 4x4, now comes with a whole host of often confusing terminology, most of which has been introduced by the various manufacturers endeavouring to set their systems apart from the rest. The most famous is of course Audi’s Quattro; this viscous coupling system was once reserved for their world-beating rally cars but is a word that’s now applied to all their 4x4-capable cars and SUVs. Similarly, 4Matic, as used by Mercedes-Benz – although, if you want your ML to be an off-roader, you need to specify it when ordering new. If not, you get a mediocre-at-best AWD, not the bells-and-whistles 4x4. Then, of course, there’s VW’s Amarok and the 4Motion systems. Like the aforementioned ML, although not as build-specific, it’s the colour of the badge lettering that determines the grade of 4x4 you’ll be getting. That is until you climb inside; one version replete with the high and low selector switches, the other version doing it all for itself.

Forestry Journal: Land Rover Discovery Sport.Land Rover Discovery Sport.

Apart from certain models of 4x4 where drive to all four wheels is a permanent fixture, for many it is what’s referred to as single-range and on-demand, part-time or fully automatic. Single are, in the main, cars, or the next step up from 2WD SUVs. Everything is, for want of a better term, in-house, since the driver has no control over the AWD system, the vehicle sorting itself out. For most owners, this is more than sufficient for their needs; the occasional snowy road, a quick excursion across a field to visit a country show, or an uneven track. These vehicles do actually work and, if driven sensibly, can and often do surprise even the most dedicated off-roader. The downside is that the 4x4 badges often lull their owners into a false sense of security, the driver frequently convinced both they and their car are invincible.

Next in the pecking order are the automatic 4x4s. Here, the AWD system works off onboard computers and sensors, electronic multi-plate clutches, and one of a variety of potential differentials or variations thereof. Eliminating any form of guesswork on the driver’s part, many of these systems work extremely well; ask any Skoda Yeti, Dacia Duster, Discovery Sport or Fiat Panda Cross owner. If driven with common sense, the abilities of some of these auto 4x4s exceeds nearly all expectations, with the little Fiat being one of the most highly regarded off-roaders ever built. The driver input is noticeably simplified compared to more complicated transfer transmissions. In the main, the automatic 4x4 can largely be forgotten about until a field or snow-covered road comes into view. By the flick of a switch, and usually limited to no more than 25 to 30 mph, the driver can inform the car that it’s heading into more trying conditions by locking the distribution into a 55/45 front-rear drive distribution. Once again, the Skoda Yeti and Fiat Panda are prime examples.

Forestry Journal: Fiat Panda Cross.Fiat Panda Cross.

Keep a steady throttle and these, and similar cars, will potter on or even off-road, regardless. But woe betide exceeding the maximum locked 4x4 speed. These cars indicate their annoyance by lighting up the dashboard. Similarly, Hill-Decent is not the downhill cure-all some tend to think it is, but it is often extremely effective. Using a variety of systems depending on make and model, be it the anti-lock brakes or the transmission’s hydraulics, by engaging the Hill-Decent mode and selecting either first gear or, once again, in the case of the Fiat Panda, neutral, the car will amble down most gradients at a slowish speed, allowing the driver full control with no feet on the pedals. And for those who always wondered, the Hill-Decent control was the large yellow switch on the Series 1 Freelander’s gear-lever.

Forestry Journal: Dacia Duster.Dacia Duster.

Automatic 4x4 also adds the benefit of improved, safer handling, the car itself able to offer increased stability when the road surface could well have caught out an unwary driver or cornering speeds were a little too high. The basic rules of automated 4x4s are that approximately 94 per cent of the drive is sent to the front wheels, 6 per cent to the rear, the vehicle itself redistributing power and drive to whichever wheel might need it when the on-board electric gizmos detect wheel slippage. As a rule, this is detected by the traction-control system, although some use what’s called a Torsen or hydraulic central differential, or an open differential. One of the main benefits of the part-time or automatic 4x4 vehicles is that they significantly enhance on-road handling, cornering and general safety.

Moving on, it’s the part-time system, now the norm on most 4x4s, especially pickups, meaning that, for the most part, the drive from the engine and transmission is set to the rear wheels. The main benefit is that, until 4x4 is required, running as a 2WD adds significantly to the vehicle’s economy, feeding constant power to all four wheels having a detrimental effect on fuel consumption. By shifting the transfer lever, or switch in some cases, the transfer box locks out and sends drive to all four wheels since both rear- and forward-facing prop shafts are now engaged.

On certain older models you’ll have to come to a halt before shifting into 4WD, but generally you can carry out the process up to approximately 40 mph, give or take – but make sure you can before you shift the lever or throw the switch, or it could be rather costly. This also locks the freewheeling hubs should they be fitted. A thing of the past for many 4x4 drivers but way back when, if you owned a Land Rover, you had to stop, climb out and rotate each front hub centre by hand. You even had to reverse 20 or so yards to disengage them, once again by hand. Oh, for the good old days! But at least you weren’t reliant on electronics.

Forestry Journal: Isuzu D-Max.Isuzu D-Max.

The bulk of working 4x4s are now the familiar pickups, be they standard single-cab, the extended king-cab or the omnipresent double-cab, the latter offering family saloon car practicality in addition to its working credentials. Given their multi-function popularity and the fact the bulk of the time they’re driven on-road, their switchable 4x4 systems mean they provide high and low ratios along with differential locks, which, providing you’ve fitted a decent set of off-road tyres, means you can venture off the beaten track with the same ease as driving into the supermarket car park – all that’s required is that the driver shifts from 2WD into High 4WD or Low 4WD when conditions dictate. But be warned, once you’ve regained tarmac, reselect 2WD High ratio otherwise you’ll inflict untold damage onto the transmission.

Lastly, there’s permanent 4x4, which, as the term implies, means there’s no 2WD option, only High and Low ratios along with central diffs and, in certain cases, improved axle articulation. Permanent 4x4 is also the simplest of the lot, the main downsides being more moving parts constantly and, at times, horrendous fuel consumption. The vehicles that tend to exemplify permanent are the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Land Rover Defender, along with early Discovery models.

Forestry Journal: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

As you’ll have possibly worked out, this is a much-simplified overview of the various 4x4 types; more detailed and often confusing descriptions are, of course, available. But before you buy a 4x4 you need to work out exactly what you want it for, what you expect of it and how many roles the vehicle will have to fulfil. For a hard-working forest worker or farmer, it’s still the ubiquitous double-cab that offers the best all-round capabilities; the latest Isuzu D-Max Utility being the ideal vehicle. Conversely, if most of your travels are on road and you’ve deepish pockets, a Land Rover Discovery Sport provides the best of both worlds and, with decent tyres fitted, is more than capable over the rough stuff.

On the subject of rubber, an in-depth topic in itself, don’t fit aggressive off-road tyres if you spend the majority of your time on road. They increase consumption, tend to generate a lot of road noise, and have a less than desirable effect on handling. Equally, unless it’s dry and firm, road-orientated tyres will soon lose traction in muddy conditions. So, like your chosen 4x4 type, choose sensibly.

Apart from that, besides being a work essential for many, 4x4s are often enjoyable to drive. So, buying the right one can often add that little bit of pleasure to your working day.

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