What is the Best 4x4 in the World?

A Rental. Okay, well that's how the joke goes anyway. And it's not the BMW in the picture (that was to get your attention). In my time spent driving Land Rovers in inaccessible locations, I've had to tow or dislodge a number of tourists driving rental 4x4's which are nowhere near up to the off road job that the conditions present.

They were driving more sporty Off Road vehicles such as the Nissan Terrano, which have stylish adverts of these machines traversing continents of uneven and harsh terrain. You can forgive someone not used to these vehicles for getting behind the wheel and feeling a surge of adrenaline to turn off the tarmac and keep going. Naturally, advertising is always taken with a pinch of salt. They sell the idea, not the product. The vehicles drive in a carefully crafted environment to extol their triumphant abilities, but customarily offer little practical ability in the wider Off Road picture.

One time in Belize, I came across a group of scientists flailing about in a mildly uphill rutted slope. Their suspension had bottomed out and they were stranded. It only required a short tow with my Land Rover and they were off. To be fair, they hardly had the tyres for the job, not even approaching a mediocre all terrain variety. And I don't begrudge them for wanting to get out and about into the wild, who wouldn't?

Driving offroad wellWhat I do despise is the term "4x4" to be an all encompassing virtue bestowed on a 'type of vehicle' that means you can drive in any off road condition. The phrase "crossover" has become more common too, meaning looks like a 4x4 but isn't one. Well, it sells cars.

The idea I don't like is that you're ready to go once you have the equipment. Many industries survive upon it; that you can only do something if you have the right equipment:

  • Travelling: why do I need to buy a quick drying polyester shirt when I can get some cheap cotton t-shirts from a charity shop?
  • Hiking: Why do I need telescopic poles in each hand when I can use a wooden stick?
  • Cycling: Why do I need a lightweight bike when it's meant to be exercise?

The vehicle is only half the story. It's only as good as the person driving it. And with the rush of adrenaline comes the cloudiness of reality.

Driving off road is just like driving on road, but has more bumps!

No no no no no. It really takes practise to be able to drive well off road, as it takes a distinct change of mindset. The idea is that you avoid obstacles if at all possible. Sounds too obvious, right?

The way I see it, normal roads don't have obstacles, which is why when a pot hole forms after a rough winter everyone drives in it making it worse and damaging their cars because they don't expect to have to avoid things on the road. Driving off road is a constant and energy sapping puzzle to avoid pot holes and gullies.

Another key skill is resisting the urge to go faster. On tarmac before a hill, you'd get momentum to get up the hill, but off road when you hit the bottom of the hill, you're more likely to be hitting the place where all the water collects and flows the fastest: i.e. more erosion and more instability at speed.

Read more on my lessons for off road driving.

For me, there's a big distinction between those that 'gun it' through an obstacle on momentum, and those that pick the right lines and sail through at a less damaging speed. There's arguments for both, but I would rather not have to replace suspension components very regularly. For that reason, I have a bit of prejudice against large engines, such as the Land Rover V8, which encourage high speed in off roading. It feels like an uneducated 'brawn over brain' solution to an obstacle.

To have an ability in driving off road means that when traversing an obstacle you:

  1. Don't get stuck
  2. Don't damage the vehicle
  3. Don't make your passengers uncomfortable

These are the three things that I strive for when driving off road. It's not always possible, but if I come away with the first two i'm generally happy!


So in the end, I think the article should probably be called What is the Best Off Roader in the World? Or maybe that should be Who, as the common denominator for succesfuflly driving off road seems to be the driver. I expect a good off road driver will have more success in a Rav4 than someone who's recently passed their test driving a Defender.

So that's why tourists get stuck - because the Best Off Road vehicle in the world is nothing without a skilled driver, so there actually is no 'best 4x4 vehicle' for the job, more of a 'best driver' for the job. This is why I like non-electronic vehicles, as it allows me to improve my skills instead of calculating everything for me.

When they are sold the vehicle that says it can do 'Off Road' and their skills don't match, they're high and dry (or low and mired) with little chance of getting out. Unless of course, a Land Rover comes along...

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