There’s more to off-road ability than a short wheelbase, we look at why the size of your 4×4 matters and should guide your purchase.
The term “size matters” gets thrown around a lot. Too small and you won’t be able to get the task at hand done. Too big and you just won’t fit, making for an uncomfortable time for all. Spend enough time on the internet and you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a magical size that does the job perfect every time, but unfortunately, the wheelbase in your 4WD just isn’t that simple.
When you’re sizing up your next 4WD the physical dimensions play a far larger role than something as trivial as what badge is on the front, or whether or not your required fuel pump has a black or red handle.
Are you buying it to tow? To drive challenging tracks? Mud bogging? Beach driving? Or winding your way through tight pine forests?
Each one of those scenarios will benefit and suffer depending on your vehicle’s dimensions.
Let’s take things to the extreme. Suzuki’s Jimny is one of the most compact 4WDs you can buy. With a wheel track of just 1400mm it’s nearly 15% narrower than the 200 Series LandCruiser. The effect is tracks feel 15% bigger when you’re in the Jimny. You can make tight turns in one swing that’d have the LC200 inching its way forwards trying not to put precious sheet metal face-to-face with unforgiving trees.
The Jimny is also over 20% shorter in the wheelbase too. So where the LC200 might find itself with both wheels hitting rock ledges at the same time, the Jimny can tackle one step, reposition to a better line, and bounce up the next. Sounds like if you want to go off-road the Jimny is the way to go right? Eh not exactly.
Forgetting the obvious storage differences, the Jimny will also be far more twitchy on and off-road, it’ll require far more steering input to keep it pointing straight, leading to more fatigue on long journeys, and will experience far more white knuckle moments on side angles as well as steep climbs.
Let’s look at things in the opposite direction real quick.
Ford’s Ranger has one of the longest wheelbases of the garden variety 4WD utes. At a little over 3200mm it’s more than 10% longer than the LC200. What effect does that have? Well where the LC200 is bound up on those rock steps, the Ranger would have the front tyres up and on top of the ledge before the rear starts to climb. It’ll also experience less vertical angle for the same climb too, making it far more stable off-road. It’ll also track straighter towing, being affected far less by trailer sway and having you arrive at your destination less fatigued as you fight the steering wheel less with micro-corrections.
Of course, the downside is it’ll have less manoeuvrability in tight situations. No such thing as a free lunch right?
But what if the vehicle you want, doesn’t have the wheelbase to suit your needs? There’s been a growing trend lately in the off-road scene of changing your wheelbase to what your needs require.
Ultimate Stretches in Sydney’s west recently did a wheelbase stretch on our T6 Ranger, increasing the wheelbase by a massive 300mm, or 12in if you spend most of your time on unscrupulous websites. The effect has been like jumping from a Jimny into a LandCruiser. It’s a little less manoeuvrable off-road, can’t quiet reposition as easily, but tracks better, tows better, and is affected far less by steep vertical climbs.
If you’re looking for your next 4WD and can’t decide between two different vehicles have a look at what your needs are, buy the vehicle to suit, or buy the vehicle you want and make it suit your needs.
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