There’s a lot of different things that people look for in a 4WD. Clearance, off road capability, aesthetics, payload, towing capacity, accessory availability, fuel economy and the list goes on, and on, and on.
However, in my opinion, the most important aspect of a 4WD is its reliability. It doesn’t matter how good your vehicle is off road, how much it can tow, how good looking it is or anything else if it cannot do it reliably.
You can spend an absolute fortune on any 4WD in decking it out in a hundred different ways and be extremely happy with it, only to find a serious of reliability issues plague it and you lose interest fast.
I know this from personal experience; we spent many years building a brilliant 80 Series Land Cruiser, and had a good run for the first few years.
However, we had a bad run for the last few years, to the point where I was completely over it. I actually made the decision mid way through our trip to Steep Point and Shark Bay that when I got back to Perth, it would be finding a new home.
There is nothing worse than having a vehicle that breaks down on a regular basis, and that is made worse when you have a family with you, or you are travelling in convoy and holding everyone else up, or you are in the middle of no where with limited parts and help at your finger tips.
These days, I’d take a reliable, less capable 4WD any day of the week over a more capable vehicle that was going to cause me grief.
I’ve been apart of enough issues over the years on different 4WD’s to know how stressful and annoying it can be, and that’s why I firmly believe reliability is king when it comes to looking for something in a 4WD.
There’s a saying; fast, cheap, reliable. Pick two. It’s honestly not wrong, and I’m sure a few of you will be able to relate.
What makes a 4WD reliable?
A solid vehicle to begin with
There’s only so much you can do with a lemon 4WD. If you want a vehicle that is reliable, and that is going to take you anywhere you need to go without breaking down and causing issues, you need to pick a vehicle that has a good reputation from the get go.
Every single 4WD out there has its list of issues, including the 200 series Land Cruiser, right down to the new SsangYong Dual cab Utes.
You should know what these shortfalls are before you purchase a 4WD, and if there are enough of them, avoid the vehicle all together. You’ll find fixes and improvements for most of the issues, or maintenance programs that avoid the problems all together, but its imperative that you find a good base to start with.
From there, make sure you get a good example unit, especially if you are getting one that is second hand. 4WD’s can be used for all sorts of dodgy things, and buying one from a young bloke who’s flogged it every weekend through the mud is going to be a sure way to buy a money pit.
Solid maintenance schedule
As a mechanical fitter and maintenance planner, I could talk all day about how the right maintenance strategies can save you a huge amount of money, and ensure that your vehicle stays reliable. As a bare minimum, you need to be doing the log book services, and well.
However, beyond this, take a look at the fine print in your owners manual and you might find some interesting pieces of information.
For example, many 4WD’s have a ‘sealed’ automatic transmission, and people take this to mean it never needs attention. However, a lot of manuals will say if you are using your vehicle for heavy use, like towing, or lots of stop start driving then your intervals should be reduced.
I also believe that often an astute owner will pay more attention to what is done (and needed to be done) than the mechanics. The number of times I’ve had vehicles over the year go in for services and the mechanic hasn’t picked up that something wasn’t done for some time, like a fuel filter, or automatic transmission flush.
They do hundreds of these a week, and its easy for things to be missed. Pay attention to the service intervals of your vehicle, and don’t be afraid to adjust them as required, to be a bit more conservative.
Things like differential oil changes can be done more often if you are working them hard, or driving through water where ingress is a possibility.
It’s important to consider what is likely to be wearing out too, and to react to it prior to things failing. In Maintenance planning we call it preventative maintenance, where you replace a component prior to it completely failing, and causing downtime or unplanned/corrective work.
You can take it a step further and send oil samples away, and receive a tribology report which will tell you when the oil needs to be changed, and if there are any contaminants in it that you should be concerned about.
The owner often has a lot to answer for when reliability of a 4WD goes out the window. I find it fascinating that a 4WD from the factory floor in stock condition is often very reliable, but the moment a host of modifications and accessories are fitted, the reliability starts to go down, and down and down.
Every single change you make to the 4WD will have a list of consequences, and people don’t stop to consider them enough.
When you fit bigger tyres you end up with a vehicle that looks better, and is more capable, but it also puts a lot more stress on your driveline and brakes, and the chances of you breaking something off road go up considerably.
Bigger tyres load your motor up more, and your automatic transmission gets hotter. Add a heap of extra weight, a few more mods and a bull bar (which blocks air flow to some parts of the engine bay) and you can be in trouble real fast, with hot automatic transmission temperatures.
When you fit a huge lift kit, and don’t drop the front differential down to keep the CV angles happy expect them to break easily off road.
Its hugely common for arguments to occur between the vehicle manufacturer, the owner and aftermarket accessory companies, because they often fight against each other. Failures of an OEM product often occur because of an aftermarket accessory making it more possible.
Being aware of common problems
I mentioned above that every single vehicle has common problems. The TD42 motor can frequently overheat.
The 200 series frequently have alternators fail from driving through mud. The 2017 – 2020 Dmax’s have a bad habit of turbo’s failing. All you have to do is google the vehicle and model you are looking at, and jump on a few Facebook groups and you’ll get a wealth of information.
This can be useful both for when you are looking to buy a vehicle, but also once you own the vehicle to keep an eye on what might be most likely to go wrong.
I often check the quarter panels (and cross my fingers each time) on our Dmax to see if they’ve cracked, and I look at the body mounts, which have a habit of failing and allowing more body movement. If you aren’t aware, this is one of the Isuzu Dmax problems that is quite well known.
Mechanical sympathy when driving
Nothing will make a vehicle more reliable than the nut behind the wheel. Dump the clutch, hop it up rocky hill climbs and plough through every piece of mud you can find and your vehicle’s reliability is going to go out of the window.
Stay out of salty water, wash it often, drive smoothly and carefully and do your best to avoid excessive forces and your reliability will stay as good as it can possibly be. That’s not to say you won’t still have random failures, but it can hugely be reduced.
Reliability is king
We’ve been considering getting an ECU remap, and whilst I know there are plenty of reliable options out there I’m still hesitant, purely because it will have an affect on the vehicle’s reliability.
I learnt my lesson from the 80 series, and can comfortably say reliability is up there with the most important attributes about a 4WD. If it means I have to suffer with a bit less capability, comfort, and time delay to get somewhere, I’d take that any day of the week over a vehicle that may, or may not get me there and back.
What about you? Where does reliability fit in terms of importance with your 4WD?