Words by Neil Harrison and Grant Spolander. Images by various.
What’s the best 4×4?” It’s a question we hear every week, and, of course, without exhaustive clarification it’s pretty much unanswerable. But then sometimes we’re asked, “What’s your favourite 4×4?” which is a much easier one to answer, so long as we can clarify how much money we would have to spend, and what we would be doing with said 4×4.
It’s this second question which inspired this feature, wherein we identify SA’s top 4x4s. Make no mistake; our views are unashamedly subjective, unpolluted by even the merest sliver of scientific analysis. But they are informed by our own experiences, observations, occasional heated debates – and by input from a wide variety of sources, including our advertisers and you, our readers. We’re sure that some of you, perhaps many of you, will disagree with our choices, and that’s fine. It wouldn’t be any fun if we all thought the same way about everything. So, feel free to share your views, and we’ll publish the best of these in a later issue.
The only criterion of any note for these awards was that entry was restricted to vehicles which were on sale in SA during the course of 2012. We must also admit to an overlanding bias; that is to say, we tend to favour vehicles that you can drive deep into the wilderness. The obvious exception to the last-mentioned is our Top Trail Machine category, which determines the vehicle we’d most like to drive over Baboons Pass.
Top Softroader below R300K
WINNER Daihatsu Terios SWB manual
There are slim pickings in this price category, so next year we’ll bump up the price point to include a greater number of contenders. This year’s winner has been around for some time, as the Terios first blipped on our radar back in ’97. Over the years, it’s broadened its offering by including a 7-seater configuration and auto transmissions.
Sure, its diminutive size rules it out for most families; but there’s no denying that this vehicle’s combination of size, power and dimension makes it a surprisingly competent off-road package. It has permanent 4WD, albeit with a slight FWD bias, but still allows you to lock the centre diff – a feature increasingly difficult to find in this category. And, with Toyota a major shareholder in Daihatsu, you’re also reasonably assured of good build-quality and longevity.
Top softroader above R300k
WINNER Land Rover Freelander 2.2 SD4 S AT
Choosing a vehicle in this sector is trickier than buying lingerie for your missus. The trouble is that there are loads of attractive options, each promising a bundle of specifications. However, for us it was an easy choice, because this sexy number always grabs our attention. This well-rounded Landy boasts terrific sight lines, great cabin ergonomics and a phenomenal traction control system that’s user-adjustable (depending on the terrain) and highly effective.
The problem with this sector is its lack of clarity, as most softroaders try to be too many things at once: a family carrier, which is an off-road vehicle, that wants to be a sports car. But not the Freelander 2; thanks to its class-leading clearances* this Landy knows exactly what it is: an extremely agile softroader that can nip at the heels of most pukka 4x4s.
And that sums it up; if a 4×4 can’t clear an obstacle, no traction aid or low-range gearing is gonna help it through. Although the Freelander 2 is mindful of its limitations (lack of low-range), it’s always eager to push the boundaries of what a softroader can do. And it almost never disappoints. Altogether, it’s a wonderfully rounded vehicle that’s remained our benchmark softroader for the last six years. A worthy winner by a long shot.
*210 mm below the undercarriage, and an approach, ramp and departure angle of 31, 23 and 34° respectively. There ain’t many 4x4s which can trump these numbers.
Top softroader above R300k cont.
Subaru Forester 2.5XS Without a doubt, one of the most pleasurable drives on gravel you’ll ever experience, regardless of class or sector. Thanks to the Forester’s superb weight distribution, responsive AWD system and comfy suspension system, we can think of no better gravel-travel vehicle. It’s in a league of its own. Foresters are also well known for their reliability, excellent build quality, practical boot capacity and unforgettable driving experience.
It’s not at all surprising that Forester owners are among the most passionate, devoted and brand-loyal around. Unfortunately, Foresters have one significant flaw that can’t be ignored: they’re thirsty buggers, given their 4-cylinder motors. You can expect to get about 11.5 l / 100 km from the 2.5-litre petrol engine. Of course, there is the option of a diesel donk that supposedly sips just 7.7 l / 100 km, but the problem with this engine is its inability to run on 500 ppm diesel. A crying shame.
A few months back we wouldn’t have included the Chev in this list; it just doesn’t look like a competent off-roader. But after driving one for a couple of weeks recently, my reservations have faded away. Although this Chevy could never keep up with the Freelander 2 on tough terrain, it is a great touring / long distance vehicle that chews through tar and good gravel like a road-gobbling Pac-man.
The punchy diesel engine and responsive suspension system also make us feel more than happy to cruise thousands of kilometres in the Captiva. And we were impressed by its sand performance, as it tackled a great deal of what Atlantis Dunes could offer – with the exception of some of the very steep dunes with sharp approach angles.
VW Touareg 3.0 TDI
One of the strangest vehicles we’ve driven to date. There’s not much we can say to fault the Touareg, as it has excellent build quality, countless features, terrific ergonomics and a ride that’s comfortable on most road surfaces. But, it’s boring; or rather… it’s forgettable.
Of course, you could opt for the V8 diesel model – which is ludicrously fast for an oil burner – but this motor can’t run on 500 ppm. Worse yet, VW has dropped the option of a tailgate-mounted spare wheel, replacing it with a skinnymalink tyre that’s utterly useless off-road. All in all, it’s a terrific buy, but not a key-clencher. When VW came to collect this vehicle from our offices, we handed back the keys with no sense of loss.
WINNER Ford Ranger 3.2 TDCi
Double-cab (DC) bakkies make our world go around, and these days they’re fulfilling multiple roles. Gone are the days when DCs were cramped workhorses with utilitarian cockpits and kidney-klapping suspension. These days, most DCs have embraced the concept of a wide-cabin, gargantuan body length and an interior filled with creature comforts.
The average DC also sports a safety spec-sheet which rivals many sedans and station wagons. Even the driving position, gearshift action and cabin layout in the new models have moved to a more car-like feel. However, we can’t say we’re mad about this ‘softening’ of the category, which is one of the reasons why the Ranger holds so much appeal. Even if you ignore its macho good looks, the Ranger offers an all-outbakkie- feel that says, “Lets stop pussyfooting around in the ‘burbs and head for the off-road”. One of the Ranger’s most endearing features lies under its hood. The new Ford 3.2 TDCi engine is phenomenal, boasting bucket-loads of torque and power while returning excellent fuel-economy figures.
The Ranger may not be the most capable bakkie off-road – because of its average clearances – but from an overlander’s perspective, this bakkie is near perfect. Last year, on a trip through Botswana, the Ranger performed brilliantly, consuming just 10 l / 100 km off-road, which gave it a practical off-road range of 800 km. The motor’s effortless performance, the superb cabin capacity, the huge load space, the class-leading wading depth (very handy in Moremi), and the powerful aircon all confirmed this vehicle’s winning credentials for us.
Worthy contenders: Nissan Navara 2.5 TDCi AT The Navara is possibly the most comfortable DC on a dirt road. This big-bodied bakkie also offers great cabin space in the form of shoulder- and leg room for all four passengers. We’re not too fond of the 2.5 dCi’s turbo lag, but the automatic version does appear to mask some of these issues.
VW Amarok 2.0 BiTDI
Despite the launch of an ‘upgraded’ Amarok model earlier this year, we’re still not sold on this bakkie – its clutch action remains tricky and there’s still noticeable turbo lag on the low down. However, we’ll give kudos to the Amarok for its beautifully designed cabin, unique exterior styling and the introduction of several category-changing safety features like ESP.
Dazzling double-cab cont.
WORTHY CONTENDER: Isuzu KB 300 D-TEQ
An all-time SA favourite. It may not be big and boastful like the Ranger, Hilux, Navara and Amarok, but that’s one of the Isuzu’s appeals. If we were tasked with traversing SA’s toughest roads in a DC, we’d want to be in an Isuzu. Thanks to its narrow body proportions, this old-timer is incredibly nimble off-road; it also sports good clearance angles and one of the best suspension systems of all the DCs – this applies to the Isuzu’s smooth ride on gravel (far nicer than the Hilux), high payload capacity and the best wheel travel measurement (381 RTI 20°) of all the DCs when tested on our RTI ramp. What’s more, because of its relatively low roofline (compared to its oversized peers) the Isuzu is remarkably stable and surefooted through tight turns and sweeps.
If you want one, you’d better be quick about it; the all-new Isuzu is due out in the first few months of next year.
Best SUV below R300k
WINNER Suzuki Jimny
After driving one for the first time recently, Neil was moved to devote his editor’s column to singing its praises. As evidenced by its performance in the Bridgestone Fundi Challenge, the Jimny is an expert’s weapon in the right hands, and, as borne out by a number of readers’ submissions, this, the littlest of all SUVs, is also able to handle overland travel, albeit with a bit of modification.
The Jimny has all the off-road credentials, with solid axles and coil springs all round, excellent approach and departure angles, and a ladder-frame chassis. And once you remove the rear seats, put a drawer system in their place, and a roofrack & rooftop tent up top, there are very few destinations that this little 4×4 won’t take you to. It’s basic, relatively affordable, light on fuel, and easy to maintain; just the ticket for this category.
Best SUV R300 – R600k
WINNER Jeep Grand Cherokee 3.0 CRD Limited
Although R6 990 over our specified price limit at the time of writing, the Grand Cherokee CRD did sell for under R600k earlier this year. A complete description of this vehicle’s many talents would require a great number of pages. But, without a doubt, what puts this SUV onto the podium is its value-for-money offering.
At this price, no other SUV offers similar bang for your buck. The Grand Cherokee boasts comfort and performance levels on par with SUVs in the millionplus bracket; it’s also capable of on- and off-road performance to rival, and top, most of its competition.
The Grand Cherokee stepped into the big leagues when Jeep added two off-road features similar to the Disco 4’s Terrain Response and adjustable air suspension system. However, unlike the Landy, the Grand Cherokee isn’t hindered by low-profile tyres and a hefty tare weight.
Chevrolet Trailblazer 2.8 LTZ 4X4 AT
The highly anticipated Chev Trailblazer was launched in direct competition to the Fortuner. In our off-road review, we praised this vehicle for its well-designed interior, and acknowledged its many abilities, both off-road and on. However, we also stated that in order for this vehicle to truly compete with the Fortuner, it would need to be sold at a competitive price – one that would significantly undercut the Fortuner’s pricing. Sadly, that’s not the case, as the entry-level Trailblazer is said to be less that R1 000 cheaper than the Fortuner.
Mitsubishi Pajero Sport 3.2 Di-D GLS
It may seem like a surprising candidate – given the Pajero Sport’s lame monthly sales figures – but we’re big fans of this model. The Pajero Sport offers a cleverly designed interior, great driving position, respectable fuel economy, highly capable off-road performance, great agility and a very sturdy, confidence-inducing drive on tar. However, we’d opt for the Pajero Sport’s new 5-speed manual model rather than the 4-speed automatic, which makes the 3.2 DID engine feel slow and asthmatic.
Best SUV above R600k
WINNER Land Rover Discovery 4 SDV6 S
Every time a vehicle is launched in this sector, it ends up being compared to the Disco 4. This is the benchmark vehicle, and for one simple reason: the Discovery was built by people who specialise in building off-road vehicles. This is a seriously large vehicle, but it’s big in a way that allows you to enjoy its size. So, while its cabin is huge, and its load bay cavernous, the Disco’s lines are squared off; which makes vehicle placement a lot easier than you’d think it would be. Partly because of this, the big Landy offers driver and passengers really good visibility – you’d be surprised how often SUV designers manage to design big vehicles that you battle to see out of.
But certainly the Discovery’s greatest strength lies in its versatility. This is a superb long-distance cruiser on gravel or tar, and it’s pretty good around town, too, judging from the number which have been pressed into service as moms’ taxis; but twist a dial, push a button or two, and this big SUV transforms into a mountain goat that’ll climb tracks which would have most of us looking for an easier route around. It doesn’t hurt that the Disco has terrific articulation for a vehicle with independent suspension: it measured out at 477 on our RTI ramp, roughly on par with the Patrol, an old-school 4×4 with solid axles front and rear. The Landy’s engine is also a gem … no, it’s a diamond, offering a mighty 600 Nm of torque yet still managing fuel consumption in the low tens.
Sure, this vehicle does have its weaknesses: that difficult tyre and rim combo (thanks to its oversized brake discs) makes finding off-road rubber rather tricky, and its hefty weight can work against it in sand. And these days it’s up against some tough competition from an unexpected quarter: the Jeep Grand Cherokee. This is similarly equipped, offers comparable on- and off-road performance, and is far more keenly priced. Lucky for the boys at Solihull, it doesn’t come with 7-seat capacity, nor can it come close to matching the Disco’s loadability. We did have a bit of a debate about which model Disco 4 to nominate. One camp maintains that if you’re spending this sort of money you might as well go the whole hog and buy the fully-loaded HSE model. The other camp reckons that because there’s no mechanical difference between the top and bottom models, you might as well save yourself nearly R130k and buy the less expensive option – your mates won’t know the difference anyway.
Top trail machine
WINNER Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 3.6
Another category void of competition. But even if there were more vehicles playing in this niche, the Wrangler Rubicon would probably still be the title holder.
It’s hard to imagine that any vehicle could exceed the Rubicon’s outrageous off-road abilities. The Jeep’s off-road arsenal includes excellent clearances, solid axles front and rear, a ladder-frame chassis, diff-locks front, centre and rear, and an anti-sway bar button that allows for a 30% increase in suspension travel. But the thing that really sets the Wrangler apart from any potential competition is its ability to go topless. Temporarily removing this Jeep’s roof and doors creates a trail-driving experience second to none. Until a similarly specced 4×4 is launched – one that can also let its hair down – the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon will remain the king of this category for years to come.
Best new 4×4 of 2012
WINNER Ford Ranger 3.2 TDCi XLT
Of all the 4x4s launched this year, which one is the most impressive? This category is open to any softroader, SUV or bakkie launched in 2012. As this is a travel-based magazine, we’ve chosen a vehicle that excites us from an overlander’s point of view. That said, DC bakkies will always make a very strong case: they offer unrivalled packing space and payload capacity, and they’re just as comfortable and spacious as entry-level SUVs these days.
As mentioned before, the Ranger has really impressed us with its overall design. This applies to the big improvements, like the new 3.2-litre TDCi engine, super-deep wading depth and massive towing capacity, as well as to the many small features that are scattered throughout the Ranger’s interior (functional storage compartments), and load bay (numerous tie-down points) and also its purpose-fitted AT tyres.
Forget about accessories, if you like; this bakkie was made to travel off-road, and it will happily do so straight off the dealer’s floor.