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We’ve got a Defender L663, Patrol Y62, Grenadier and a LC300 GR Sport. Time to see which is best off-road!
In Part 1 we introduced the four big touring wagons, and now we’ll see how they go over a short rutted hill which will test traction and to a lesser extent, clearance.
Each of the four cars takes a different approach to offroad ability. The Patrol and Defender are fully independent suspension. The Grenadier live-axle. And the LC300 splits the difference with independent front, live rear. Why the different approaches?
Independent suspension is found in all roadcars now because compared to live (beam) axles it’s lighter, rides better and handles better. Live axles typically offer more suspension travel (flex). And are more robust – but there’s also a weight penalty. So why is only the Grenadier live-axle front and rear?
The answer lies in the intended purpose. The Grenadier is very much focused as a working vehicle. The designers decided that it needed live axles front and rear for robustness – that’s prima facie not a bad choice but personally, I’m not entirely convinced the tradeoffs made are worth it. Maybe marketing/personal preference played a role. Certainly, there’s an unfortunate weight penalty to which is to the vehicle’s detriment as its payload is not as good as it should for for a working vehicle.
In contrast, the LC300 has a live rear. Toyota tell me, for robustness. Toyota did however add an independent front for handling and weight saving.
The Patrol and Defender are fully independent because their designers focused on weight and handling. Even if the Patrol is pretty heavy anyway. Does that choice affect their off-road performance?
Yes – positively and negatively, especially if you listen to OldMate58 with his views originally formed in 1980 and only evolved since to 1982.
Back in the day 4X4s had open differentials. So as soon as a wheel left the ground, or even had less load on it than its pair on the other end of the axle. Then the wheel with less load would spin. The solution was long-travel suspension to keep all four wheels on the ground – look at classic Range Rovers which just ooze over rough terrain. Locking differentials were rare, and LSDs were basic. So the key to good off-road performance was suspension travel. The GU, for example, relied on long-travel suspension and an LSD to keep moving over rough terrain.
Fast forward to 2023 and we have brake traction control. The electronic system which stops a wheel from spinning and sends torque to its partner. Suddenly diagonal wheels in the air didn’t mean the car stopped, and a major advantage of live axles was eroded. This Pajero doesn’t have any significant flex, but electronics keep it moving.
Pros and cons
Independent also offered other advantages. Long-travel suspension lowers the chassis and underbody to the ground in a way independent short-travel does not, and once you’ve got anything other than the rubber touching the road, you are likely to be not making much further progress. And ground clearance is much better with independent that live – the Defender and Patrol have ground clearance figures in the order of 280mm, compared to the 230-245mm for the other two (yes, INEOS claim 264mm but that’s demonstrably wrong). Still, it is best for traction to have all four wheels on the ground, but given a choice between three wheels on the ground and two on the ground plus a diff dragging… you’ll find the three-wheel option generally gets you further.
The Defender below is three-wheeling where the LC300 and Grenadier pretty much had rubber to the ground… but it’s not stopped by any means.
Technology can also change the equation with suspension too by giving independent some of the characteristics of live axles. The LC300, Patrol and Defender all have trick suspension systems. The Defender has air springs so variable height, and it has a cross-link system which shifts air from the compressed spring to the uncompressed spring, mimicking a live axle. The Nissan has HBMC (Hydraulic Body Motion Control). A similar system with hydraulics, but it works front-to-back, a rising rear wheel forces the front wheel on that side down. The LC300 has eKDSS, simply computer-controlled disconnecting swaybars. The Grenadier has nothing of note, relying on good old fashioned live-axle engineering which is effective as you can see in the video below.
Time to test them
Now, finally, for the results and analysis. None of the vehicles could keep all four wheels on the ground over this test. But the LC300 did the best for suspension flex, followed closely by the Grenadier. The two fully independent vehicles both waved wheels in the air. Especially Defender. However, a wheel in the air isn’t the end of the matter.
The Defender’s class-leading brake-traction control and auto-locking rear differential saw it climb the section without too much difficulty. As did the Patrol. The one that struggled was the Grenadier with lockers disengaged, as its brake-traction control is sub-par compared to the others. The LC300 in particular had a winning combination of great suspension flex and traction control to match the Defender so it made the hill look easy.
With the lockers in for the vehicles – rear for the Patrol, and front and rear for the LC300 and Grenadier – the picture changed. The Patrol actually struggled more, as its brake traction control on the front axle appears to be de-sensitised with the rear locker in, a normal thing with carmakers. Both the LC300 and Grenadier eased up the slope without any problem at all, proving that in that case at least, front and rear lockers outperformed the electronics.
But that wasn’t all we found. Both Patrol and LC300 very nearly ran out of departure angle, whereas the short-backed British pair of Defender and Grenadier never came close.
All the vehicles negotiated the hill, but I’d pick the LC300 as the winner here due to its incredible suspension and superb traction control. End even better with locked diffs. The least effective was the Grenadier until the locking diffs were engaged. We tested both LC300 and Grenadier with the lockers in and out as both vehicles are available without them, and in some cases such as turning you won’t want either axle locker engaged. And as ever with offroading different driving styles are needed, and you need to know how to set the vehicles up – the Patrol being less effective with the locker for that climb was a good example of the “locker always helps” old-school mentality being outdated.
Next up, or rather downup, is descents!
Watch the full Part 1 video: