You might think all SUV’s and pickups should be up to the job of going off-road, right? Not on your life. Most SUV’s on the market these days are designed for city driving due to their popularity and riding height. The only problem is, they can’t hack a good old off-road adventure. So what should you look for when searching out a rugged off-road SUV? Let’s look at the essential points.
It makes sense to drive a vehicle that is higher above the ground than regular city cars as it has to cover rugged terrain with less chance of scraping rocks, embankments and other obstacles, as well as drive through low streams or rivers you may come across. It also helps lower the risk of losing a rear bumper. Most four-wheel drives have a decent 200mm (roughly 8 inches) to 300mm (roughly 12 inches) clearance height. Compare this to 130mm (just over 5 inches) up to 160mm (6.2 inches) for passenger cars. You want to minimize the undercarriage impact as much as possible, especially if you can’t see what’s below running water currents.
Common sense tells you that a front-wheel drive will just not cope past a few small pebbles. A shorter four-wheel drive wheelbase with large terrain designed tires will do the job just fine. Specially designed all-terrain tires have better puncture resistance and help with traction when driving through loose gravel, sand, mud and much, much more. The longer the wheelbase (or smaller the tires), the more chance of undercarriage damage. Also keep at least one (if not two) spare tires onboard as there is more chance of tire damage on rugged terrain. Consider locking differentials for your vehicles traction. The differential accounts for the variation traveled between right and left wheels. AWD’s (All-Wheel Drives) and a number of Four-Wheel Drives have an added center differential to account for the difference between front and rear wheels. Without this, taking a vehicle off-road would make it very hard to control or move with conviction.
The best four-wheel drives are the ones with the ability for all the tires to move freely up and down within the wheel arches. The suspension needs to work in unison with the tires to keep contact with whatever the obstacle is you’re trying to drive over. Keeping contact with the surface of the obstacle gives the vehicle more chance of finding traction instead of wheels that hang in the air looking for inspiration. This is why traditionally real off-roaders have stuck to live axles (a beam connecting the right and left wheels) instead of the independent suspension systems found in makes such as the Land Rover or Mitsubishi Pajero.
Dual Range Transfer Case
What is a dual-range transfer case I hear you say? Most off-road SUV’s and pick-up trucks have this separate set of gear ratios that are set to make all gears lower. It’s aimed to help engine braking down steep hills, allow the vehicle to crawl at low speed, and make it easier to climb really steep hills regular gears couldn’t do. Traditionally there was a second gear lever to work the gears in rough and rugged terrain, however newer vehicles have a button or dial to do the work. Not all capable pickups and SUV’s have dual-range transfer cases but it’s something to seriously consider.
While all vehicles have some sort of under-carriage protection, in most cases it is plastic which is not only cheaper, but is designed to improve aerodynamics and reduce fuel usage. However, plastic is known to crack and become brittle with age, so most people wanting to go off-road will want to invest in some serious metal coverings for the engine, transmission, and fuel tank. This allows the vehicle to easily deflect a scrape or hit underneath reducing damage to the vehicle overall. While on the subject of being under the vehicle, you will probably need some sort of exhaust snorkel which usually runs up the side of the front window allowing the air intake/output at a higher level if you know you will be traveling across rivers or other water trails. Learn what the vehicles air intake is and what it’s depth rating is, and always gain experience through extreme off-road companies or groups to understand the correct speeds to enter large moving water rapids or rivers.
So which vehicles would I recommend?
The vehicles that I consider worth checking out are the Toyota FJ Cruiser, Nissan Xterra 4×4, Jeep Wrangler, and the Hummer H3T. Just make sure you have a thorough inspection carried out before purchasing a used off-roader as they have usually been driven hard and have the scars to prove it. Once you have one however, you will not look back as you take on the outdoors for thrills and spills.