Do you actually need a 4x4?

Do you actually need a 4x4?

Posted by Henno Havenga on 10 Sep 2016

Suzuki Jimny 4x4 taken offroadIt’s a tough decision - do you actually need that beautiful 4x4 you’ve been eyeing?

It’s a conundrum many potential buyers of leisure vehicles face: do I really need a 4x4 or will a 4x2 suffice? The truth is there is no simple answer; it all depends on what your individual needs are and what you intend using your new set of wheels for.

First things first

Before you can make an informed decision on which of the two will suit you best, there are a few things to consider. For starters, 4x4s are generally more expensive than their 4x2 counterparts. They are also heavier, tend to consume more fuel and could cost more to maintain in accordance with manufacturer specifications. Generally speaking 4x2 vehicles are lighter, nippier and more comfortable to live with as everyday modes of transport BUT they limit you in terms of where you can go.

What’s the difference?

Suzuki Vitara taken offroad

So what are the main differences between a 4x4 and a 4x2?

Simply put, a 4x2 transmission means that of the four wheels on the ground, two are driven. In the case of a 4x4, all four wheels are driven. So, in theory, a 4x4 has twice the traction ability of a 4x2 when driving on an even surface.

When venturing off road, it's when this extra traction allows the 4x4 to to better grip the road surface and continue pulling the car forward.

Horses for courses

Suzuki Vitara in a cityscape

In short, if your idea of driving off the beaten track is parking on the pavement and you spend most of your time behind the wheel in the urban jungle, a 4x2 is probably your best option. If, however, you spend a significant amount of your free time exploring the great unknown and bundu bashing to the most secluded corners of our beautiful country and continent, you should probably go for a 4x4. Although a 4x2 (with a little more ground clearance) can handle dirt roads quite well, the 4x4 with its added traction makes for better roadholding on twisty or corrugated gravel.

There are many who argue that a 4x2 with diff-lock - this ‘locks’ two wheels on the same axle together, so they’re forced to turn in unison -  will get you most places a 4x4 can go. While this is true in some instances, there will be times when only a true 4x4 will do. It all comes down to traction and four is better than two.

Since a 4x2 does not have a low-range gearbox (a reduction gear), it doesn’t offer the same amount of engine braking as a 4x4 with low range has, so you probably shouldn’t take it down steep inclines. This is because the front wheels could lock if you brake and the vehicle could skid. The slow speed that a low range gearbox adds, allows the driver to maintain better control when tackling obstacles.  In addition, two-wheel drive vehicles don’t perform as well as 4x4's do on very loose surfaces like  sand or mud. Of course more speed could work here but more speed means less control and most probably an expensive repair bill.

These days many off-road trail operators don’t even allow 4x2 vehicles on their routes as the rear wheels tend to dig holes and damage the tracks. The lack of low range also means that some obstacles have to be tackled at speed in order to get through them  and this could seriously damage the vehicle. Sure, you can do some overlanding with a 4x2, and you’ll probably get through some obstacles along the way, but you won’t have the advantage of the added traction of a 4x4 to get you out of tight spots.

Don’t be a 10 percenter

Suzuki Jimny on display

If you’re considering buying a 4x4 for the occasional off-road outing or because you dream of one day taking your family on a cross-country adventure, don’t. Your 4x4 is going to spend 90 percent of its lifespan in traffic and on tarred roads and that’s just wasting money. You’ll look cool driving it, but you’ll be paying for off-road capabilities that will hardly – if ever – be used and you’ll be hurting your wallet at the fuel pump too.

If, however, you spend most weekends conquering some off-road trail and once a year you hitch the off-road trailer and head off into the untamed wilderness, go for it.

The key is to do your homework, think logically about your wants versus your needs and make an informed choice.

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Topics: 4x4s

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