So you think you need a 4×4

Posted on December 17th, 2014 by GEM Motoring Assist

You’ve decided that a 4×4 could be right for you, but is that strictly true?  Whilst they’re great for towing horseboxes across muddy fields or improving your chances of making it through the snow and ice of a British winter, how often do you actually need the extra capabilities they offer? Assuming it’s often enough, then GEM Motoring Assist has some sound advice to help ensure you get the vehicle you need – at the right price…

If you do a lot of towing then it makes sense to have a big heavy vehicle with good torque and traction to pull the load with the minimum of fuss, and if you need to detour from the tarmac on a regular basis then four-wheel drive is almost a given. But let’s be honest… we do fall for the image and driving position, so we justify the ‘need’ with self-deception and tenuous self-justifications.

Of course, if you want a 4×4 (and within the term 4×4 we also include AWD vehicles) for no other reason than personal choice, then fine, but what are they like to live with?  Four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles cover a broad church, from the small but perfectly formed Fiat Panda, through the various sporty Audi Quattros, and on to the world-beating ‘Green Oval’. Although they vary in shape, size and ability, the one thing that they all have in common is a transmission system that connects drive to all of the wheels.

Stating the obvious, all types will tend to use more fuel than equivalent ‘normal’ cars, due to their weight, aerodynamics, and inefficiency of applying power to a much larger drive train.  Some modern 4x4s counter this by employing intelligent power management that drives only the front wheels most of the time, and then transfers drive to the rear if they detect a lack of traction. Many of these systems have become so good that it’s often difficult to spot the join.

One thing you will certainly notice, though, are the road manners of the traditional ‘big’ 4x4s. Despite (in some cases) some very advanced traction aids, they still let you know you are not cornering or braking in a Porsche 911. So some consideration of this will be required in your driving style if you intend to keep it shiny side up and un-bent.

You’ll also get through more tyres, as both axles are driven, and lateral forces and tyre scrubbing are greater in a heavier vehicle with a higher centre of gravity.

In the interest of balance, though, with the larger 4x4s you do get plenty of interior room (and sometimes fantastic levels of luxury), a commanding driving position, and a feeling of security, that, should the worst happen, ensures you have plenty of metal around you.

Avoiding the worst could also be more likely in a 4×4, as they are less prone to aquaplane in wet weather, and more likely to get you home in the snow or flood waters (up to a limit).  On the sportier 4x4s, the benefit of the extra traction can often also be felt in the cornering (think Quattro, Impreza or Evo). This can increase the grin factor of a spirited drive along your favourite ribbon of twisty stuff.

Still, as capable as modern off-roaders are, most people will never (or infrequently) venture far into the wilderness. If you do, remember that off-road driving is not the same as on-road driving, and requires a different skill-set and experience from the driver if you are to be safe and successful in your expedition. Some manufacturers offer an off-road driving experience for their customers, and we would strongly recommend that your first foray into the muddy stuff is under the instruction of an experienced off-road driver to keep you and your vehicle safe while you learn your new craft.

One final word of warning to anyone who thinks that four-wheel drive is a panacea to cure all foul weather ills; even a well driven 4×4 is no guarantee that you will not eventually get stuck. You may just be a lot further from help when it does happen. And don’t forget, you only have four-wheel drive whilst your foot is on the throttle. The moment you lift off or touch the brakes, you are just like every other car on the road, except you may have 2.5 tonnes to stop on a snowy motorway; somewhat akin to Dumbo on ice.

Running and servicing costs will also be higher, how much depends on your vehicle choice, what kind of use it gets, and the amount of technology on board that improve its on road manners, and help you along with its off road capabilities.  So 4x4s are only a practical proposition if you have a job of work for them to do on a regular basis, otherwise they are an expensive toy.  However, in our opinion, life’s too short to be practical all of the time.

YOUR BUYING QUESTIONS ANSWERED:

Q We’ve just moved to a rural location, with threat of flood, snow, ice, leaves and mud. I think a 4×4 would be indispensable to ensure the kids get to school and I can make it into town. My budget is £7k to £9k. What should I buy?
Remember that travelling in treacherous conditions should only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. If the conditions worsen, you still need to be able to get home. However, for your best chance of beating the elements for your budget, we would consider a Hyundai Santa Fe, seven seats and well equipped, 2007 car with 60k miles for £8,500, or maybe a Volvo XC90 with similar miles but a year older.

Q We do a lot of towing, and 4×4 capability would help with our new horsebox. Budget up to £12k.
Towing horses safely, particularly in rough conditions or at speed on the motorway, is a job for heavy metal. We’ve always trusted this job to Land Rovers, and for your budget we would suggest a Discovery 3. It will be a little older for the money, maybe 2007, with 80k on the clock, but with a full service history should be no problem.  If you don’t fancy that, then an alternative could be a VW Touareg of similar age and mileage.

Q We live at the top of a steep hill. Kids have left home, no animals. Looking for a 4×4 car more than a great big truck. Budget up to £15k.
This moves us nicely into a different market sector.  Depending on whether your lifestyle demands an estate car for carrying loads, a saloon car for carrying passengers, or a sports car for the two of you to have fun with, we  would suggest; a four-year-old Subaru Forester with 30k under its wheels, a three-year-old Audi A4 Quattro that’s covered 50k, or make that an Audi TT of similar vintage if you fancy something sportier.

Q Compared with the rest of the UK, we get a lot of snow. We currently drive a Freelander which we love, but it’s old and tired. Should we replace it or how about getting a ‘normal’ car with cold weather tyres that might do the job we need because we don’t need a 4×4 for 360 days of the year, generally. Budget up to £20k.
As you love your Freelander, and it meets your needs, why not consider updating to a newer one?  For your budget, you could buy a four year old, top of the range HSE spec car, with 30k miles on the clock.

If you fancy a change though, then the options are many.  You raise an interesting point about the tyres. Any vehicle, even a 4×4, is limited in its potential by the choice of rubber.  You wouldn’t expect Usain Bolt to set a world record 100m time in stilettos. For best results in snow, think front-wheel drive with narrow, winter tyres.  If it’s particularly snowy where you live then why not carry a set of snow chains in the boot? For £20k you can choose from a range of attractive options, like maybe a one-year-old Honda Accord saloon with 10k on the clock, a similar age Citroën DS5 if you fancy a hatchback, or how about a two-year-old Seat Alhambra with 20k under its nearly new belt if you fancy an MPV? On a budget of £20k, you can take your pick of new and nearly new cars to suit your taste.