Buying a 4WD

This article focuses on the major considerations when choosing a 4WD vehicle for the purpose of travelling and camping. We give some brief definations of the various terms used to categorise 4WDs, and discuss various features and their practicality in the outback.

Types of 4WD

The face of the 4WD new car market in Australia changed in the 1990s when 4WD's suddenly became popular for urban use. Before this time, 4WDs were typically only used by people living and working in rural Australia or by what was then a very small group of very adventurous outback legends who ventured into remote Australia by heavy-duty 4WDs that really were light trucks.

The recent popularity of 4WDs as the family vehicle has seen a much wider range of vehicle makes/models enter the market with 4WDs now available from over 10 vehicle manufacturers and a whole new group of vehicles known as Soft Roaders - these are the Cross-overs, and AWDs, that are not in the class of vehicle as a true 4WD.

In Australia, vehicles without significant offroad capabilities are often referred to as All-Wheel Drives (AWDs) while those with offroad capabilities are referred to as "four-wheel drives" (4WDs, 4x4s). The term 4x4 is probably the most accurate term to describe the offroad 4WD vehicle, with the first 4 referring to the number of wheels on the vehicle, and the second 4 refer to the number of driven wheels. The term can then be applied to vehicles equipped with either full-time or part-time four wheel drive.

Cross Over

The crossover is a new category of AWD vehicle on the market that uses car components for lighter weight and better fuel economy making it more suitable to urban users than rigorous off-road use. Neither the Soft Roader or Crossover is designed to be especially capable off-road so don't buy one for it's off-road capabilities. These are passenger vehicles with 4WD styling.

Confused? Don't be, basically there's a lot of middle ground for anything that's not a Toyota Landcruiser or Nissan Patrol.


The term "4WD" simply means a four-wheeled vehicle with a drivetrain that allows all four wheels to receive power from the engine simultaneously.

"Four-wheel drive" was originally used to describe truck-like vehicles that require the driver to manually switch between a two wheel drive mode for street driving and a four-wheel drive mode for low traction conditions such as dirt, gravel, mud. However, other performance sedans (such as rally cars) also have a four-wheel drive system so the term could be confusing.


The term All Wheel Drive (AWD) was introduced to distinguish between vehicles that are capable of driving all four wheels on normal roads without causing poor control and excessive tyre and drive-train wear.

The "AWD" term is now being used to market vehicles which do not continuously drive all four wheels, but instead switch from two wheel drive to four-wheel drive automatically as needed.

Soft Roader

"Soft Roader" is the term given to vehicles which offer all-wheel drive traction enhancement over two-wheel drive machinery, but lack the low-range gearing, driveline and suspension strength, and underbody protection of true 4WD off-roaders.

A soft roader generally does have higher ground clearance, more robust tyre design and longer suspension travel than conventional sedans. So in comparison, they are less vulnerable to damage and have superior grip and stability in the dirt which, in many instances is sufficient for those travellers that want a little more protection when venturing off the bitumen, but will remain on formed roads. In actual fact, there are many places accessible by soft-roaders, and many of our Trek Notes with a Rating of 1, 2 or 3 may be suitable.

Size of 4WD

Whilst the Soft Road/AWD market has many styles and models for consumers to choose from, there still remains only a small group of manufacturers, and a handful of models in the Large 4WD category. Most of the Trek Notes with a Rating of 7 or above on ExplorOz will require a Large and serious offroad 4WD because of the focus on terrain where 4WD transmission is required, where self-sufficiency is required/desired, where the larger the vehicle the more advantages you gain in ensuring a safe, comfortable and practical trip. The advantages of the bigger vehicles for travellers going on long distance trips are: higher load capacity, greater engine power to pull large trailers/tackle soft sand dunes/tow boats or caravans, more available storage space, greater passenger comfort. These are the main features that continue to keep the Nissan Patrol and Toyota Landcruiser the most widely used vehicles in the Australian outback.

Availability of 4WD Parts

Breaking down or being in need of specific parts for your vehicle in a remote part of Australia can mean a long wait for expensive replacements to be shipped in from the closest major centre. Surrounding some of Australia's most popular 4WD areas there is no permanent population other than a few outlying aboriginal communities. Supplies to these areas are often by mail plane or roadtrain once a fortnight depending on weather conditions and access. If your vehicle requires a part that cannot be supplied then not only will you have to wait it out but you'll also have to pay the additional costs of freight to get it there. Communities, stations and small towns will stock a range of parts and supplies that suit the main vehicles used in the area.
It is for these reasons that you'll see only a handful of different makes and models of vehicles in the real outback. There is no doubt that Landcruiser and Patrol reign supreme in these parts.

4WD Load Capacity

With so many new 4WDs on the market it is interesting to note how few are purpose-built for outback touring. You will find that most are designed for a good ride with little weight. Add your camping gear, water tanks, extra fuel, cooking gear, food, recovery gear and spare parts and you might find you need to upgrade your springs. A few vehicles such as the 78 series Landcruiser are purpose-built heavy-load carriers. However, there are many modifications, customs and options available in just about every 4WD model so if you're buying new ask for the heavy-duty version, modify it yourself or buy one that is already fully rigged up for real outback travel.

4WD Power

More power requires more fuel and therefore less distance between refuelling - an important factor for outback travelling. Beware of non-factory turbos etc as parts can be a problem in remote areas.

4WD Fuel Consumption

The main choices applicable for outback travel are diesel and petrol.

Petrol engines are very responsive and have more power than gas or diesel but it is also an explosive fuel. Petrol engines are more prone to stalling in river crossings unless extensively prepared. However, they tend to survive if water gets into the motor whereas a diesel can blow its head with just a drop.

Diesel is the most common fuel used in outback Australia. Diesel fuel is generally safer because it does not ignite as quickly. Diesel engines generally require less maintenance than petrol engines. In the past, one of diesels main attractions to vehicle owners was that it was cheaper than petrol. In the last couple of years this has changed and diesel is now generally more expensive.

It is interesting to note the overall reluctance of outback Australian's to use modern petrol computer-managed electronic fuel-injected vehicles. This is due to the inability for roadside repairs to get them going again if they fail. If things go wrong in the outback you can be a long way from anywhere with little chance of someone passing by. Australian's tend to prefer total self-reliance and this attitude is a good one to adopt if you are planning to travel extensively anywhere on this land.

Be aware that if you have a Petrol driven vehicle and travel to some very remote areas, then you may also be forced to use AvGas or the new BP alternative Opal ULP. This is now common place if refuelling in Aboriginal communities.

The supply of LPG gas is limited in outback Australia so although some 4WD vehicles can have a dual fuel system fitted that enables them to carry both petrol and gas, these systems often limit your petrol range and are therefore not the ideal combination for outback reliability. If you do choose a gas system avoid copper lines as these fracture with body flexing.

Before you buy, it may be worthwhile to check the fuel prices around Australia as to the general overall costs of diesel versus unleaded versus gas.

4WD Transmission

Manual vs Automatic - is the choice personal or practical?


  • Use less fuel than auto

  • Provide excellent engine braking on steep descents or when towing a heavy load

  • Synchromesh on 1st gear and reverse enables rocking out of bogs


  • Smoother operation

  • Heavier use of brakes on downward slopes

  • Better for uphill work

  • Must use transmission oil cooler if towing

  • If left in Park on steep slopes may result in locked transmission


A Tiptronic transmission can operate just as the common type of automatic transmission, but it also allows the driver to override the automatic mode by moving the shift lever into a second (Tiptronic) shift gate equipped with two spring-loaded positions: "upshift" and "downshift".

4WD Ground Clearance

This single factor can greatly limit where you go and outback road reports always refer to "accessible only by high clearance 4WD". This term refers to the distance between the surface and the lowest point of the vehicle and is a very important factor in off-road terrain. Factors altering ground clearance are wheel diameter, tyre profile and suspension.

Check For

  • Vehicle's lowest point - usually the diff of the front or rear axle

  • Ramp-over angle - important for going over ridges

  • Approach angle - the steepness of approach surfaces that the vehicle can manage. Watch for poorly fitted bull bars and nose overhang

  • Departure angle - tail overhang, sagging suspension, low towbars. Important factor when reversing out of a bog, sand or up a hill
When comparing 4WDs, especially the new AWDs, look for these figures in the vehicle specifications and compare to the Nissan Patrol or Toyota Landcruiser specs which are considered "high clearance".

4WD Aesthetics and Ergonomics


Style is another consideration. Choice of sedan, wagon, tray-back, dual cab all seem to have their advantages and disadvantages and will mostly come down to personal choice/requirements. The various trim options affect the price tag, but the top of the line may also not be that practical for offroad use so use some common sense if purpose buying for an offroad trip.

Seating Capacity

If you intend to carry passengers in the back seats, check for protrusions like wheel arches and check for sufficient head room (consider bumpy surfaces). If you intend to occupy all seats in the vehicle with passengers, hows does this limit your cargo storage space and will you therefore need to tow a trailer? Check our tips for Choosing a Tow Vehicle.


Generally coil suspensions provide a more comfortable ride than leaf suspensions however this varies greatly with differing loads. Comfort is not all about suspension though so don't get too caught up in it all. Other very important factors for long-trips are seats, fabric, head room, doors, access to fresh air from windows, air conditioning (don't expect it to always be functioning) and gizmos such as in-car navigation, DVD players etc.

4WD Financials


The old adage, "you get what you pay for", is certainly true for the 4WD market. As a rule of thumb you will pay more for the couple of models of large serious offroad 4WD. And a diesel model of the same vehicle will cost more than the petrol option. Long distance drivers have traditionally favoured diesels for economy, longevity and reliability.

Running Costs

Tyres, components, suspension, shocks, fuel, insurance - all cost more the bigger the 4WD you choose. There is no doubt that a big 4WD will cost you more to run than a smaller one and that the majority of your travel costs will be the vehicle. Keep in mind however, that for a long trip your vehicle is your home and your security. Without a vehicle your trip is over.

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Created: June 2008
Revised: September 2009
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