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Budget 4x4s

Budget four-wheeling


Where is off-road adventure travel going? An editorial in the June issue of SA4x4 suggests that the trend is more and more towards SUVs and the obvious limitations in using them for serious off-road travel. It would appear that this is quite correct.

So what does someone who wants to explore the wild blue yonder do? Many would automatically point to vehicles like Land Cruisers, Land Rovers, Nissan Patrols and the like. These would do the job admirably, but what about the budget-impaired, which seems to be most of us?

A brief look at the prices of second-hand hardcore 4x4s leaves one gulping. So what are the options?

First, discover what exactly is required from a vehicle one could safely use to take the road less travelled. Second, find what is available on a limited budget; and third, identify what can be done to turn the chosen budget 4×4 into a reasonably equipped overlander.


1. A vehicle that has little, if any, electronic gadgetry. Why do we say this? While most people will agree that there are undoubted benefits to the electronics fitted to SUVs, we should remember that if we intend to go far off the beaten track with our 4×4, we need to be able to carry out a reasonable number of running repairs ourselves wherever we go.

2. Robust suspension. The vehicle must be able to take a reasonable amount of knocks and bangs without the wheels pointing Are high prices moving your 4WD dream off the radar? Go the left-field route and get ready for a little DIY… north and south at the same time. Most experts say that McPherson struts are out. Double wishbone suspension or solid front axles are a necessity.

3. A reasonable amount of cabin space. Remember that we want to do some travelling in relative comfort and also kit the vehicle out with drawers and so on for all the camping gear.

4. Good ground clearance and good approach and departure angles.

5. A simple and robust motor without too much to go wrong.

6. A gearbox with low-range is a must, and, if possible, a diff-lock.


Let’s examine some examples found at the lower end of the used-4×4 market to see what would fit our needs to a reasonable degree.

The vehicles discussed below are by no means the only ones available to the budgetminded. Suzuki SJ jeeps, older Land Rover Defenders, Range Rovers, Hilux 4×4 bakkies and Mazda 4x4s will all fit the bill to varying degrees, and are all worth looking at.

Kia Sportage up to 2004

These are great little vehicles with reasonably robust suspensions, decent interior space and an engine that has a good reputation.

Ground clearance of just 195mm is a serious shortcoming, but the big drawcard is the ladder-frame chassis and low-range gearbox.

What can be done to fix the ground clearance problem? A number of years ago it was possible to buy over-the-counter spacers for raising the front and rear springs by about 40mm. They don’t seem to be available anymore, but can easily be fabricated from drawings sourced on the internet. Care must be taken not to raise the vehicle too much, as this will interfere with the steering-box height and cause what is known as bump steer − the wheels do not stay aligned when the vehicle goes over a bump.

Note that when raising the rear suspension, the lower rear-shock mountings must be extended the same distance as the body is raised.

Tyres can also be used to aid in improving ground clearance. The standard size is 205/70 R15. It is possible to fit 215/80 R15 tyres (in other words, wider with a slightly higher aspect ratio), which will raise the vehicle more.

Mahindra Scorpio & Bolero 4x4s

Now here are vehicles one could also look at seriously for off-road adventuring. Mechanically, the Scorpio is much the same as the robust square-sided Bolero, but features a more stylish SUV-type body and correspondingly higher prices.

A while ago, I was asked to assess a Scorpio station wagon which had been regularly used to inspect power lines across the country. It had done 260 000km, much of it not on roads of any description. Only one ball joint and one bush on the front suspension needed to be replaced. This was impressive.

One drawback of the Bolero is the somewhat limited ground clearance of just 180mm. Mahindra enthusiasts say that it is not necessary to raise the body; all that’s needed is to remove the running boards.

Kits to raise the body on these Mahindras are readily available from most 4×4 shops, as are things like snorkels, roof racks, drawer systems, and more. Remember, however, that the object of this exercise is budget offroading, with the emphasis on budget.

Lada Niva

Some Lada Nivas have a sign on the back: “Made for Siberia not suburbia”. This just about sums the vehicle up. They are extremely robust with tremendous off-road capability. I seem to remember that a number of years ago, a pink Lada was crowned the Transvaal off-road champion.

The photos in this article are of a Lada that has been modified on a budget by Chris Steyn. It is a good example of what can be done to build an extremely capable 4×4 without breaking the bank. Not many extras are available for the Niva in South Africa, but many can be ordered from overseas at reasonable prices. This includes everything from trim parts to lift kits, snorkels, and rear spare-wheel carriers. The local Lada forum is a great help, as is the site Baxters Niva.

There are a few things for owners to watch for, including making sure that the gearbox is about 500ml overfull. One can do this by tilting the car at a slight angle with the gearbox filler orifice on the high side. This, I am told, will greatly extend the life of the 5th gear.

Another thing to watch for is the timing chain; it must be adjusted every 10 000km. This is very simple, as any Lada manual will show. It takes no more than 5 or 10 minutes and is well worth the effort.


Budget 4x4

Budget 4×4

You might have to apply some ingenuity to build up a well-equipped off-roader if not many off-the-shelf aftermarket parts are available, or your budget does not stretch that far.

For example, you can fabricate a snorkel from PVC piping. To do this, fill the pipe with damp sand and plug the ends. Submerge the pipe in boiling water until it is soft, then bend as required. Flexible pipe can be used to connect the snorkel to the air cleaner.

A bull bar will improve the approach angle, and here what some owners have done is to adapt a bull bar from another make of 4×4. Unless you have metal fabrication skills, it might be sensible to get this job done by a recognised 4×4 fitment centre.

Roof racks are a must for overlanding if space is tight. Make sure that what you choose is as light as possible, but, at the same time able to withstand fairly hard usage. If you are not going to carry a roof top tent, then the roof rack needn’t be as robust. At the same time, it must be able to carry at least one Jerry can, plus camping equipment. A gas bottle holder is necessary and can be found at any shop selling off-road equipment.

Any serious off-roader needs to have some kind of packing system, so why not build your own, using lightweight but strong marine ply? Make sure that you use a good sliding mechanism for the drawers.

When it comes to dual-battery systems, roof top tents and the other nice-to-have equipment, the best advice is to shop around and trawl sites like Gumtree for bargains. It is surprising what can be obtained with some careful searching.

Finally, if we are operating on a tight budget we must make a clear distinction between needs and wants. For instance, roof top tents are great but are they always necessary? Each owner must decide this for himself.

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