There is an unequivocal sentiment among the general motoring public that 4x4s are a nuisance. Why? Are we really damaging the environment or are we just scapegoats? The perceptions are that 4x4s are: unsafe, gas-guzzlers, environmental hazards, destroyers of roads and altogether unnecessary. Many feel that a 4×4 on the road that is not being used for a 4×4 application should be discouraged or even banned. Maybe a bit of realism will even things out.
‘4x4s are gas-guzzlers and emit unnecessary noxious gasses.’
It is impossible to generalise because there are small ones and big ones, ones with emission control and older ones without, just like regular cars. But how is it possible for 4x4s to be especially bad? To effect the fuel consumption and therefore emissions, three things could add to it: the vehicle’s extra weight, loaded roof-racks, the 4×4 transmission and a larger and higher body that increases wind resistance.
Weight: The average 4×4 is between 100 and 180 kgs heavier than a similar 4×2. At most, that’s 2% of a two-tonne vehicle. Not many 4x4s are over two tonnes, but for this argument, let’s add 2% onto the weight. Roof racks: Especially if they are loaded, racks can increase fuel consumption at higher speeds by up to 25%, this from my own tests. This figure varies considerably between vehicles and rack designs. 4×4 transmissions can cause additional fuel consumption. However the increase is miniscule. Even full-time 4wd systems, have little or no effect on fuel consumption and in all my experiments with 4x4s to disprove this, I have concluded that the difference is bearly measurable.
So, what percentage increase is this really? Is it a 0.1% difference in fuel emissions caused because we drive a 4×4 instead of a 4×2? Is it even as much as this because we drive with loaded roof-racks only once or twice a year and many 4x4s drive in 4×2 on the tarmac?
I cannot help but view it like this: If you feel guilty about the extra 0.1% increase in emissions, make up for it by a few less trips to the store in the family saloon.
‘4x4s are destroyers of roads and tracks.’
No, actually both scientifically and practically, the opposite is true. Scientifically, a 4×4’s tractive force on the road surface (the force exerted on the road surface to set a vehicle in motion) is one-half that of a 4×2. In our world of lumpy roads the figure is even better than this. The result is reduced wear and tear on the country’s roads. While on a good tar surface this variation makes no difference, on gravel roads and on slippery mountain roads it does. So many roads and tracks in rural areas are destroyed each year by rains as the tracks, already worn by vehicles, are subjected to erosion. Serving small rural communities the vehicles that travel these roads are mostly light pick-ups and taxis. They are almost all 4x2s, not 4x4s. if these vehicles were 4x4s there would be a significant reduction in road surface wear and a reduction in erosion. Surely then, 4×4 is good for the environment? It is the users of 4x4s damaging the environment by thoughtlessness, not the vehicles. I guess you can say the same about guns: It’s not the guns that kill people, it’s the people with the guns.
‘4x4s are less safe than 4x2s.’
All-wheel drive provides improved traction, four times that of a similar 4×2 and as a result there is a reduced chance of wheel spin, more neutral steering and therefore a significant reduction in the chance of skidding and spinning, the main cause of vehicles rolling. In addition, the high driving position gives an improved view ahead. In opposition to this evidence is the fact that most 4x4s (even those just built to look as if they can drive on rough terrain) have a higher centre of gravity and therefore reduced stability, resulting in a higher chance of a roll as a result of a swerve or collision. More alarming though is the tendency of some people to overload their roof-racks making some models far more dangerous. Insurance and vehicle hire firms substantiate this statement in their roll-over accident statistics.
Another spat is that drivers of smaller vehicles complain that they cannot see past the larger 4x4s. This is true, but this is not 4×4 that’s the problem; it’s the vehicle’s size that is the factor here. When people have a go at 4x4s, it’s never because of the vehicle’s four-wheel drive but rather its size. And perhaps many 4×4 drivers drive aggressively and that’s a problem. Again, this has nothing to do with 4×4 or damage to the environment but has everything to do with a large vehicle being driven questionably.
And another debate is, as a pedestrian, if you are hit by a 4×4 you are more likely to die. This argument is because of the 4×4’s larger size. Again it isn’t the fact that it’s a 4×4; it’s the vehicle’s size. On the other side of this argument is the absurd idea that being driven over by a 4×4 is safer because of its increased clearance. Either way, being hit by a vehicle, 4×4 or otherwise, is going to be hazardous.
‘Drivers of 4x4s who do not actually use them in 4×4 terrain should be discouraged from driving them.’
This is an everyday debate from the pens of ill-advised people who want to be seen as tree huggers, irrespective of the stupidity of their arguments. I can’t see why we must take my wife’s Corolla on a weekend family trip, just because we probably won’t need four-wheel drive. My choice would be to leave the Corolla locked up and take the 4×4 because its a smooth, quiet, safe and roomy station-wagon. It has a frugal turbo-diesel engine, spewing out similar emissions as many medium-sized family saloons. But it has four-wheel drive! What’s wrong with that? Now, if I want to I can go a little higher into the mountains and if it begins to rain I can keep my family safe. And in the week I can use the same car because it seats all my kids with their own seatbelts as well as their friends, instead of taking a second car to the swimming pools. I just do not see this argument.
Four-wheel drive vehicles
4x4S HAVE CHANGED a great deal since first produced in any number; but at no time has this change been as swift as in the past 15 years. Between 1948 and 1968, vehicles like the Jeep CJ, Toyota Land Cruiser and Land Rover changed very little; they remained utilitarian, functional machines. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the market changed and Jeep built the Cherokee with power steering; Toyota produced a station wagon with wind-up windows, and Land Rover created a 4×4 with coil springs; the Range Rover. Even the Range Rover, the leader in the leisure 4×4 market for decades, was a year and a half in production before the introduction of carpets.
Comparing the sales brochures (left) of many of these originals with their modern equivalents reveals a completely different marketing strategy – vehicles that were once photographed climbing mountains are now seen in the polished environment of a shopping mall. This illustrates how the image for most 4x4s has changed from rugged work-horse to urban fashion statement. To compound the problem of choosing a suitable vehicle, manufacturers are creating 4x4s without true off-road ability and often advertise them as off-roaders.
It is true that in the modern world comfort is as important as off-road working ability, but many 4x4s are becoming so sophisticated that while being brilliant on road they make themselves less suitable for wilderness travel. Sophistication makes servicing and repairs easy in the city but often impossible elsewhere.
As a result, all civilian four-wheel drive vehicles are a compromise between a town vehicle and an off-roader. Therefore, in selecting a vehicle designed for this double life, the buyer should ask this question: ‘How much time will I be spending on tarred roads and how much off-road?’ and, ‘If I intend to go off-road, do I want to travel into the wilderness?’ What follows is a guide to variations in design and original equipment and features that will be encountered when selecting a four-wheel drive vehicle.