What’s getting smaller and what’s getting bigger in the 4X4 scene? We dust off the microscope and take a closer look at some cool (and some worrying) trends.
Size does matter in most cases; however it isn’t always the case when it comes to off-roading. I mean, you don’t want the most overhang, or the biggest credit card bill at the end of a trip, do you? While we would love to see more high-capacity turbo-diesel engines, and larger less-restricted areas to camp, there are some incredibly smart people and companies out there who are getting more from their products without making them bigger and heavier. In the words of a popular overseas police-based television program: These are our findings.
They are simply huge these days, as more and more punters (and manufacturers) are electing for forward-folding or rear-folding campers over the traditional soft floor variety. We want and expect more. A camper isn’t just shelter, it is now a kitchen/bedroom/guest room/bathroom/poker lounge on wheels. I’m not a fan of the term ‘roughing it’, as it’s pretty hard to complain while you are sipping a cool beverage while playing cards on your lounge suite whilst overlooking the ocean… that’s the good life, folks! So this is a definite tick in the ‘bigger’ box, which is why new vehicle manufacturers are at constant war with each other over who has the biggest tow capacity rating.
Think back to your childhood camping trips, and the amount of gear required to cook a decent feed. Someone might bring a Weber, or even a full BBQ. Then there was a bulky gas bottle to lug around, or if you were particularly enthusiastic you could use the steel grill off your early series Land Rover as a BBQ plate. Fast forward to 2017 and things are far more manageable. We have lunchbox-style cookers that run off small disposable gas cylinders, for example. We are even seeing bio-cookers that are fuelled by dry sticks and leaves found on the floor, with some being clever enough to charge a USB outlet through absorbed heat energy. Let that sink in… a small cooker powered by scraps of wood that can charge your phone! MIND BLOWN.
When you compare the vehicles we drive in Australia to the monsters you find in the US of A, you might not agree with me on this point. But when you take a look at, say, the old D22 Navara and the current NP300, it is pretty easy to see these new vehicles are getting bigger. Having said that, after driving a Ram Truck recently I personally feel there is a genuine market in this country for full-sized vehicles. Bucketloads of power, massive GVM ratings and the ability to tow anything short of a tank… sign me up! Interestingly, the engine capacity of most modern 4X4s is smaller – but we’ll touch on that in a little bit.
Traction control is making vehicles so capable, it’s a wonder supermarket shopping trolleys aren’t fitted with similar systems. On-road dynamics have also become more important, as consumers expect their 4WDs to handle all tasks well rather than being crap on-road and great off-road (as has been traditionally correct). So this means smaller tyres, and bigger wheels to give the look of ruggedness, with brilliant handling thanks to less sidewall flex. Think about it – in your off-roading youth, 35in tyres were considered the ultimate accessory; these days you would be lucky to know one or two people with such large rubber. Then there’s the fact that guards used on most 4X4s are getting increasingly smaller… it’s almost like new vehicle manufacturers don’t want you to fit massive rubber to your vehicle (funny, that).
Much like tyres, suspension lifts are getting smaller – which in my eyes is a good thing. Sure, I’ve owned my fair share of stupidly lifted vehicles and convinced myself that they handled just fine. In the words of Donald Trump… WRONG! Physically, it is harder to squeeze big lifts from vehicles with independent suspension. Sure there are people out there who can do it; but other than looking cooler, they aren’t really going to make your vehicle more capable. And that girl working at the local bottle shop will not think you are more desirable despite what your internal instincts have convinced you. Work with a reputable suspension provider, study vehicle-specific forums, and there will be a sweet spot. Some vehicles can only be lifted 35 or 40 millimetres economically, and then there is the elephant in the room: Legalities. Engineering is expensive; fuel is comparatively cheap… you picking up what I’m putting down here?
Swags are getting bigger; I’ll concede that. However I have no problems with that as they are now a very solid base for a couple or young family to escape in. I like it! What I am talking about is clever sleeping mats that take only four or five breaths to inflate (and are actually comfortable). They then pack down to something the size of a sandwich, and weigh next to nothing. Another cool product innovation is collapsible cooking gear like buckets and kettles – these are easy to store in a set of storage drawers or a space case, and are just as usable as the solid units of yesteryear. One of the coolest presents I have received is a pocket knife that folds out into a complete cutlery set – it lives in my glovebox and now I don’t have to bring an entire tub of spoons and forks if doing a solo trip. Anything that saves weight and is easy to store is fine by me. It is an exciting time to be a four-wheel driver!
In my opinion (so (take it with a grain of salt) LED lighting is the best thing to happen to to campers and four-wheel drivers since the inception of locking differentials and canned beans. There really aren’t too many negatives that spring to mind with LED lighting. More efficient with a lower power draw, LED lights produce less heat compared to halogen (or gas) lighting and have phenomenal life expectancy. One of my personal favourite bits of kit, is a simple roll-up LED strip light that lives in my glovebox and clips onto my awning (another personal favourite). Sets up anywhere in seconds, draws nearly no power and doesn’t get hot. Considering the first camp lighting I had was a Dolphin torch and a gas lantern, this is 5-star camping by comparison.
I hear this excuse all the time: “Sorry I can’t head out this weekend; I don’t have enough money for that LED light bar yet.” You don’t need it! Sure it would be a good addition, but if you drive during daylight hours, and set up camp early, you’re golden. Camping and off-roading can be expensive… but there is no reason why it needs to be if you are smart about determining your needs vs wants. Share gear amongst your group, hitch a ride with your mates and eat simple foods if you must. Where there is a will there is a way, and making memories on a cool 4WD track is a better way to spend a weekend than watching reruns of M*A*S*H on the couch.
The point I want to make here is that people think they need everything fitted to their vehicles to get out there. Some of the most memorable trips I’ve been on have been the trips where I’ve gaff-taped a tarp to my 4X4 and lived out of an Esky. Ahh, to be young again.
This one is pretty obvious; engines are getting smaller in capacity whilst gaining power – which just doesn’t really make sense. The biggest diesel engine you will find in a mainstream mid-sized dual-cab is in the Ford Ranger and Mazda BT-50: A 3.2L five-cylinder powerplant. In larger vehicles, it would be the 4.5L twin-turbo 200 Series, for example. When you think back to the huge capacity engines used in heavy vehicles in the past, it is just madness when you see a 2.4L engine that can pump out over 400Nm of torque. Time will tell however if we are making a mountain out of a molehill. We would love to hear from anyone with a small capacity turbo-diesel engine that has done huge kilometres. It isn’t uncommon to hear of older Patrols and LandCruisers with over 500,000km on the clock.