It’s a simple enough question but one that gets the emotions going…everyone thinks ‘their favourite off-roader’ is the best out of the box…but is it?

There’s many divisive topics around a 4×4 campfire – tyres, front locker or rear, hi-lift jacks…but I thought I’d really get the emotions rolling by using my own Facebook page to post the below. It got so much interest, we thought we’d turn it into a series on MotoFomo. Here’s what I wrote.

“Okay readers, there’s a shortlist of 12 of the most capable 4x4s ever made. You have to pick the most capable. And here’s the scenario: The patron saint of 4WDs, Tracsheon Maximus, picks you up and drops you in a random spot on earth. Could be a desert, salt pan, bog hole, on a mountain, or at the base of a rock face. Literally anywhere. He tells you you can have one of the two cars on the list he hands you and you need to vote for the one that is the best off the showroom floor. It would then be handed to you stock-standard, full tank of fuel, and all you have to do is drive it to freedom across entirely random terrain for 100km.

“The rules are simple…

  1. No mods. Off the showroom floor;
  2. Factory options allowed, so for example if it has factory lockers, you may assume that these will be fitted;
  3. Free choice of transmission and engine, provided it was stock;
  4. You have no recovery gear; and
  5. State your reason if you want your vote to count.”

You can see which vehicles I picked in the title photo, and if you want to play along, follow me here.

Now that post generated a bit of warmth, with people asking why certain vehicles were omitted. Such as the Pajero. Really? Truly? Now we all love the Pajero, but not even its mother would suggest its off-road capability is anything like that of an 80 Series, Defender, Wrangler or anything else listed. So, sorry but no. Nobody asked about Prado, MU-X or any of the utes though.

But, several people wanted to know why the Discovery 4 was omitted. The answer is because I decided to include only one entrant for the position of ‘Car-With-Terrain-Response-Low-Range-Air-Suspension’, and that is the Defender L663, which will beat the Discovery 4; taller tyres, better ground clearance, more modern electronics, better angles – the Discovery cannot offer any real advantage over the new Defender.

I think the 12 vehicles chosen represent some of the best off-roaders ever, although that is biased to my own experience – I’ve driven 10 out of the 12, and been close enough to the rest to be able to comment. There are some 4x4s I’ve never seen operate off-road or driven such as the Lada Niva, so I’m interested to hear if anyone feels the list is wrong. Oh, and no forward-control trucks either, for those wondering about the Unimog.

So with the early complaints out the way, we moved onto the first contest. But before I explain my reasoning, a bit of background.

In order for a 4×4 to be effective it needs three things – clearance, traction and power. If your diff is hung up on a rock, then nothing will help you other than a different line or removing the rock; not even twin lockers. Similarly for running out of approach, ramp or departure angles. Clearance is the most important aspect of 4×4 capability.

Traction is also pretty simply defined – can the tyres pull you forwards. In some cases, traction can overcome clearance, for example dragging a diff on a muddy, rutted track, but it’s still not ideal. Lack of traction can often be solved with momentum, whereas clearance cannot be solved with momentum if you want to continue driving much further.

Power is simply sufficient grunt to turn the wheels at an appropriate speed. This isn’t really a problem for any modern 4×4, but it is possible to get into situations where you have traction and clearance, but insufficient power (or torque) to move. An example is crawling up a very steep hill.

Everything about a 4×4’s off-road capability goes towards clearance, traction and power. Manoeuvrability is important, but the only reason you need it is to find better traction and/or clearance. A good low-range reduction means good traction when descending a hill. Light weight reduces the need for traction, and improves the power-to-weight ratio.

Another factor is usability. A vehicle with a long bonnet and low seating position vs one with a high seat and short, square bonnet makes a big difference – think Patrol GU vs Defender. However, that just means more skill required not necessarily more ultimate capability (not that I’m saying the Patrol beats the Defender).

One capability that doesn’t neatly fit into traction or clearance or power is wading depth…which given the scenario, is important too. This is where a Jimny wouldn’t be able to beat, say, a Defender L663. And there is also robustness to consider.

I could write more about what really makes a 4×4 capable, but that’s enough for the moment…on with the contest analysis.

Defender 90 vs Suzuki Jimny

And, the readers made the wrong call…overwhelmingly voting for the Jimny. But, when I say ‘readers’, I can see that the Suzuki Army mobilised and skewed the voting, which wasn’t really surprising as they’re mostly young digital natives whereas Land Rover owners are still staring at the phone, pecking away with single-digit stabs muttering about how much better life was before electronics, and that maybe even coil springs were a bad idea.

Regardless, the readers are wrong. The Defender 90 is, by the criteria above, better than the Jimny and this is why.

The Jimny’s tyre diameter is 26.5 inches, the Defender about 32 inches. Right there, that’s a big advantage as simply, taller tyres can roll over things smaller ones cannot. Then, we’ve got ground clearance. The Jimny has 190mm (as measured by me), the Defender is closer to 240mm – kind of what you’d expect given that the tyres are 5-inches taller, so halve that to 2.5-inches, convert to mm and you have 125mm extra ground clearance, but the Defender has bigger diffs so it isn’t that much in practice. The Jimny’s approach/ramp/departure is 37, 28, 49 and the 90 is 47, 30, 47… so, better and it’s not just the angle, it’s the size of the car too. My RC 1/10 scale crawler has great angles, but it’s too small to drive up and over a kerb.

Now that’s all specifications, but car performance isn’t just about numbers which don’t necessarily translate into performance. So what’s my experience that leads me to be able to write this? I’ve owned a Defender TD5, and tested others off-road. I’ve also tested Jimnys off-road. I’ve led trips that have both, and run training courses with both, so I’ve got direct experience as a driver, trip leader and instructor. For traction aids the two are pretty much equal. Neither can offer locking differentials, and Suzuki’s traction control is okay, not class-leading, not much different to that of the last Defender Pumas. And they’re both live axles front and rear.

The Defender wins the engine war too. There’s incredible low range gearing for really controlled descents, and you can literally just take your feet off the pedals and let the car walk over obstacles on anti-stall…you can’t do that with a Jimny, I have tried. I once had five people in a Defender 130, and key-started it on a 30-degree hill. No way any Suzuki could do that. 

Now the Jimny is smaller in every dimension, and much lighter, which gives it big advantages; it can take lines which bigger cars can’t, even the relatively small D90 but you need to re-orient your off-road brain when you drive a Jimny. But, when there’s a track which demands 220mm of ground clearance and not even a Zook can find an alternate line…you’re grounded, simple as that. And what if you have to cross flowing water…I’d want a 1900kg Defender, not a 1100kg Suzuki.

I’d take the Jimny on sand, where its ultra-light weight and zippy power woud be an advantage, and in really tight forested situations. But the brief was; any and all terrains, so overall, I’d take the Land Rover keys this time around.

Y62 vs LC200

The LC200 is a fantastic off-road vehicle; incredible suspension flex thanks to KDSS (diagonal-linked suspension), Toyota’s incredible traction control with Crawl Control and beautiful power delivery.  And then there’s the Y62. It too has very, very good traction control but also a rear locker…which allows the front traction control to continue working effectively. And it has fully independent suspension with a similar system to KDSS, called HMBC.

So the LC200 wins on flex, narrowly ahead on traction control thanks to Crawl Control…but the Y62 wins on ground clearance, rear locker and has greater diameter tyres. Some might say the diesel offers better engine braking and off-idle torque…but I doubt they’ve driven a Y62 which doesn’t want for either. And, you could argue the Y62 has better top-end power delivery, but that won’t stop the 200 either. The Y62 is a bit heavier, but when both are 2500-2700kg a hundred kilos here and there doesn’t make much difference. So I’m going with the Y62 on this one, as did the readers despite a strong vote for the LC200 from misguided Toyota enthusiasts.

LC80 vs Range Rover Classic

Rangie Classics were amazing off-road. I say, “were” because vehicles like that are no longer amazing by modern day standards, because they have no traction aids; not even a limited-slip diff in the Rangie, let alone lockers and it pre-dated traction control by decades. There’s not much that could beat the Rangie’s combination of incredible suspension flex, good angles, powerful V8 and light weight…but the LC80 has one ace up its sleeve and that sees it absolutely thrash the Range Rover – the option of twin cross-axle different locks. Add those, and the Rangie has no hope, sorry Landie fans.

What’s next?

G-Wagen ute vs Ranger Raptor, L663 Defender vs Jeep Wrangler Rubicon (now that will be interesting) and GU Patrol vs LC76. I know exactly which ones I’ll pick and why, and I also know which one is best off-road, stock-standard….but I somehow think brand bias will rule the day. Not only is there a lot of people not reading the rules, but there’s also a lot of voting for what you own (ahem ahem Toyota owners), and just as much voting against certain brands (ahem….everyone except Land Rover owners).

Well, I did say don’t take it too seriously, and I’m genuinely interested to see which the readers pick as the winner.

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