What offroad vehicle manufacturers need to understand about offroad touring
Offroad touring is a popular recreation, but not often understood by the carmakers.
WHY DRIVE A 4X4? It’s a good question, as 4X4s are more expensive to buy and run than roadcars.
Some may snipe about image, and while there’s a certain minority who buy any given car for style, most people that own 4X4s do so because the car has capabilities roadcars do not. Sometimes that’s towing – there will be another article on why the 4X4 is the towcar of choice – but for a lot of owners it’s offroad touring.
The allure of offroad touring may be summarised as that oft-misused word, adventure. For example; navigating unmarked tracks to find that perfect campsite, relaxing at night around the campfire after a day’s travel, sharing the splendour of a truly dark night sky untroubled by light pollution, watching rare animals in the wild, sharing cooking duties, or finally making it to the top of a snowy mountain by car then playing with toboggans. It could be the fun of plotting a route for a bushwalk for the group, or just admiring a sunset from a mountain top with nobody else around, or a secluded game of beach cricket. And it’s the knowledge you and your friends got yourselves there through diligent preparation and application of skills, often overcoming problems together from shifting a tree across a track to figuring out your route or winching up a muddy hill.
There’s something about the shared adventure and endeavour of traversing difficult or remote terrain that brings people together in ways that a highway trip with motels could never achieve. Street car groups attempt to create camaraderie, but they’ll never do that by just turning up en-masse to a big carpark and then standing around ignoring each other while scrolling through car memes on Facebook. True bonds of friendship are formed when you rely on each other to achieve things in difficult circumstances and share new experiences together.
That is what offroad tourers live for. It’s the travel, the sights, the highs and lows, the thrills, the satisfaction of accomplishment, the living of life through adventure. The 4X4 vehicle is a means to that lifestyle, not the lifestyle itself.After climbing a mountain by 4WD we went for a bushwalk and found a waterfall a few kilometres in. For many, that’s what offroad touring is all about.
Now despite the advertisements, a stock standard 4X4 is just the beginning of an offroad tourer. Ask any expert if it’s a good idea to go offroad touring in Australia in a vehicle straight of the showroom floor and they will suggest that for any serious rough-terrain traveling you modify your vehicle. And the top two modifications they are very likely to recommend are tyres and suspension. That’s because offroad touring vehicles run heavy loads over long, rough distances; a task the stock tyres and suspension are not designed to handle because they’re a compromise between unladen bitumen performance, offroad performance and of course cost.
Specifically, the tyres need to be light-truck construction, in as high a profile as possible (so 17″ rims not 20″) and maybe 15-30mm taller is a bonus. The suspension will be swapped to a heavier-duty setup, usually with a small lift in the order of 40-50mm at the back, maybe 30-40mm at the front, and will be designed for the vehicle to run with 200-400kg extra load all the time, and with even heavier loads over rough terrain. This doesn’t turn the vehicle into a “mini monster truck”, as some would label it, and it’s not about “bush bashing” either, just touring Australia off the beaten path on defined 4X4 tracks. Like this one:Yes, that’s a 4X4 track in the distance. Only accessible by offroader about 2 hours drive down an unmarked track from a remote highway, deserted when we got there. An amazing sight unsullied by signs and bollards.
The bulk of the modifications and accessories touring owners spend their money on tends to be recovery gear like winches, protection like bullbars and storage systems like roofracks, dual batteries, snorkels, additional electrical wiring, UHF radios and much more. None of which improves offroad capability but does improve the car’s ability as a tourer.
I can’t really explain in words the attraction of offroad touring. It’s like trying to describe snow to someone that lives on the equator. Pictures help, but you have to live it to really understand it. The problem is that in my experience the people who make decisions at car companies don’t get it. So here’s my attempt to explain what’s important, based on the last 15 years or so worth of experience as a journo in this game:
What car companies need to know about offroad tourers
Each of these points could be another article, but in summary:
- Not all offroad tourers are vehicle enthusiasts – if the only place to drive a 4X4 was in circles around a quarry the recreation of offroading in Australia would be very, very small. The appeal is mostly the journey, nature, exploration and camaraderie. Of course there are many car nuts in offroading, but it’s not as big a factor as may first be thought. Many fishos, campers and others wouldn’t care if it was a self-driving hovercraft. In a while we will run an article which covers why a variety of owners own 4X4s…and the common theme is camping, touring and exploring. No-one said the primary reason was to build a tough car that looks good.
- The modifications are done with a purpose not for looks – the purpose is offroad touring, which means recovery, camping, navigation and more. Pretty much every modification is directly linked back to a purpose – very few are cosmetic or because people want to build monster trucks. Let me repeat – the mods are necessary. This is why factory specials with cosmetic touches like flares, colour-coded interiors and racing stripes don’t impress, there’s no use to them.
- Owners care about modifications – this also explains why owners arc up when they’re told they can’t modify. It’s not like they are doing without a cosmetic wing, they are being prevented from doing things that directly impact their ability to enjoy their touring, or impact their safety.
- New cars go offroad – many people who drop $50 to $100k on new vehicles actually do take them offroad. Ask any 4X4 shop; plenty of new cars are driven straight from the showroom to the accessory shop. It’s how they stay in business, and the 4X4 aftermarket industry is big in Australia and renowned around the world for quality and design.
- Owners care about doing it right – the owners most likely to care about the cars being legally modified are those who buy the cars new. The ‘she’ll-be-right’ brigade tend to be low-budget owners of older cars.
- Back up advertising with actions – if you market a car as an offroader, people buy it as such and expect you to back up your big statements with actions and words, or at least don’t actively make it harder for your buyers to do what you said they could do with the vehicle, especially when it’s just a bit of paperwork.
- Offroaders care about the environment – but they tend not to be armchair activists, or even self-identify as greenies. But they love the environment, because it’s what makes their touring special. 4X4 clubs are always ready to help drag abandoned cars out of forests, clean up litter or act as transport, and have formed special response groups for disasters, notably in the aftermarth of floods and fires.
- Owners are massively invested in their vehicles – most offroaders will spend $20 to $50k on accessories, not to mention many, many hours of research plus all the time required to organise fitting or do it themselves. Each offroad touring 4X4 therefore represents a very large investment of time, money and emotion which cannot be switched easily to another vehicle. But remember, they care about the vehicle for what it can do for them, not so much for the vehicle in itself.
- The car is the key to the holiday – without the car, the adventure does not happen. You cannot switch into any old car either, because that new one won’t have all the gear of the original. As a journo, people say it must be nice for me to take press cars on offroad trips. It can be, but to be honest most of the time I’d rather drive my own car which has my cargo system, dual battery, UHF radio, decent tyres, winch and all the setup I need for offroad touring rather than a stock-standard car with nothing.
- They care about the technical details – does traction control on the front work with a rear locker? What is the towball mass? Can the DPF be manually regenerated? Is the ground clearance 230mm or 235mm? All sorts of questions that seem trivial but are important to modifications or vehicle operation and therefore are important to adventure. Yes, there’s an element of interest for interest’s sake, but mostly there’s a real reason to know. And a lot of the time it’s rooted in safety or fear of failure in remote areas – what if this happens, what about that?
- As hard as necessary, but let’s not wreck the car – no offroader wants an easy bitumen road which are never as scenic or interesting as bush tracks, or as much fun to drive. On the other hand, only a minority specifically go looking for tough tracks, and then only some of the time. Mostly, a touring offroader will drive wherever they need to in order to get where they want to be, but that doesn’t involve specifically diverting for challenges like deep mud bogs. In fact, the more experienced the offroader, the less likely they are to risk their vehicle on unnecessary challenges.
What manufacturers need to do:
There’s a bunch of things manufacturers could and should be doing to help touring offroaders. Let’s start with:
1. Make life easy for compliance and modifications.
- Categorise all offroad vehicles as MC, for easier legal modification. Or whatever else the authorities decide is appropriate for offroading. Just pay attention to the regulations.
- Honour warranties when used offroad. Obviously, aftermarket parts are up to the owner, but if you say the vehicle can drive offroad don’t whinge when owners actually drive offroad.
- Placard the vehicle for all tyres and wheels that can be fitted, not just the 20″ bling wheels the top-end models come with.
- Stop making stupid advertisements that show incorrect or unsafe offroad practice. Surely creative agencies can come up with ideas that sell the car without showing how not to do things?
- Stop misleading people about towing ratings. The poor owners don’t know or much care about the difference between ATM or GTM, they just want a car that’ll tow their trailer and artificially inflating tow ratings causes big problems down the track.
- Provide all the specifications – say what the roof load is, the maximum towball mass, the rim offset and load rating, the front axle load and whatever else is asked for. Or if air suspension, the maximum speed in each height setting. There will be a reason for wanting to know. I’d be happy if the entire tech specs were dumped in a folder, it’s not as if the competitors don’t buy the car anyway and tear it down. Also, proper explanations of how things work would be good.
- Help explain how things work – case in point is AdBlue, which is viewed with suspicion as it’s not a necessary part of the vehicle and could immobilise it. So, explain it or help us journos to do so. Same with tow ratings and the like.
- Help the aftermarket where possible – in Australia, carmakers are not that involved with the aftermarket as they’re concerned about warranties and see no real benefit through increased sales. That’s understandable, but a bit of help here and there about compliance would be nice, for example “can we fit 17-inch wheels to this car that came with 20-inch wheels” instead of just washing their hands of it all.
2. Design vehicles for offroad operation, not just offroad capability.
That doesn’t mean ability to conquer an obstacle, it means day-to-day bush robustness, the car doing what the driver wants, and not having one failure take the whole car out. Examples:
- Fit a DPF manual re-gen system – like Toyota did for the LC200 and LC70. And a DPF gauge would be nice too. The LC70 has one.
- Use a gauge for AdBlue tanks – because we want the peace of mind to know how full it is. The RAM Laramie has one, the Everest does not.
- Fit a heavy-duty jack – because often the vehicle is at GVM, and we have more punctures than usual.
- Fit recovery points – because they’re needed, or at least expose enough chassis rail so the aftermarket can do it. Land Rover used to do a good job there.
- Provide a useful towbar – one that doesn’t kill the departure angle. Ford did a poor job on this with the Ranger, but a great job with Everest. The LC200 and Fortuner are both good.
- Make electric parkbrakes manually releasable – Pajero Sport and Discovery both have such releases.
- Put the spare wheel release in the door jamb – so many get this wrong, requiring the rear to be unloaded to get to the underslung spare. Worst current offender is Pajero Sport with the release in the centre of the boot.
- Put proper tie-down points in the back – at least four, right at the corners, strong and flush-fold.
- Give us an option to turn off smart alternators – like Ford does with the Ranger.
- Don’t fit tiny fuel tanks – a mere 68L in the Pajero Sport is far too small.
- Give us some under-bonnet space – if a second battery can’t fit, then we’ll need to use up space elsewhere and that’s not good.
- Design for graceful degradation – if something fails, don’t design it so it brings down the whole car. For example, a suspension fault shouldn’t reduce engine power.
- Protect vulnerable components – mount alternators up high, add in proper underbody protection, don’t expose wires or cables where they can get damaged.
Here’s an important point – for this market it is much more important to have a robustly designed 4X4 with average offroad capability than a 4X4 that is brilliant offroad but can’t be trusted and is hard to modify. That’s why this next point is last:
3. Improve offroad capability, or at least don’t stuff it up.
The average 4X4 just needs 265/65/17 size tyres, 230mm of ground clearance, a 40:1 crawl ratio or so and decent suspension flex and with a suspension lift and tyres it’ll go anywhere in Australia. Most 4X4s offer that, but then manufacturers go and stuff up what would otherwise be a competent vehicle. Here are some unnecessary mistakes and things to do:
- Give us control over the gearbox – allow a second gear start and have the gearbox respond to driver input. Unlike say the Navara NP300.
- Use lockable centre diffs/clutches – unless you are absolutely sure your clever centre clutch is better…and then offer a lockable centre diff anyway. Ford and HAVAL are offenders here. Both have problems on steep hills which would be fixed with lockable centre clutches.
- Don’t disconnect brake traction control with a rear locker – very few vehicles allow this. Kudos to Ford for the Everest and Toyota with the Prado Kakadu for getting this right. Pajero Sport needs to be fixed.
- Allow hill start assist to be disabled…please, Toyota and others. It gets in the way on slippery hills.
- Give the driver control over the rear locker – Mitsubishi and others only permit the rear locker to be engaged in low range when stopped. Ford allow it in high range on the fly. The thing about offroading is that you never know what situation you’ll be in, so you need options, even really odd ones.
- Give the driver throttle control – some vehicles like to restrict the throttle the driver can apply for fear of transmission damage. That’s fine onroad, but offroad the driver needs to make the call not the software engineer. I have had situations where I couldn’t get a Discovery up soft hills because of this restriction.
- Properly disable engine traction control and stability control but leave brake traction control enabled – so many get this wrong, even Suzuki with the Grand Vitara, and some others who should know better like Toyota with the Kluger. An odd example is the G-350 which has an open centre diff which can be locked…but then brake traction control is disabled! Weird engineering, and not helpful.
- Don’t lower the car too soon – the Discovery 3 and 4 famously lowered from offroad height at around 50km/h. That didn’t work for rough-road touring, so owners used a variety of tricks to get around. Current Land Rovers are better with a medium-setting offroad height mode that works to 80km/h.
An interesting point is that 4×4 buyers will obsess about the price of a car, and manufacturers work hard to lower costs in response. Yet that same buyer will drive out of the showroom and straight into an aftermarket place where they happily pay far more to fix a problem than would have been added to the cost of the car to fix it in the first place, or to add a capability. The lesson here is that car companies could make a lot of money from accessories..but they miss this opportunity because their accessories tend to be impractical, cosmetic, way overpriced and not really what people want. Examples are towbars, underbody protection, roofracks and cargo barriers. You can charge a premium for manufacturer-supplied under warranty, but not a huge one.
The real-world constraints
What’s described above is an offroading ideal. Unfortunately, offroaders are something of a minority group and there are many other factors that influence a car’s design. There’s all the other things the car has to do such as be comfortable, ride nicely, drive well on road, and be easy to operate. And a huge factor are the regulations such as emissions and safety, and of course cost is the dark cloud of doom over everything engineers would like to do. But that said, many of the points above can and should be considered during offroad vehicle design.
The bottom line
People are into offroad touring for the adventure lifestyle with family and friends. Most are vehicle enthusiasts to some degree or other, but not to the extent generally considered. The vehicle is the key to the lifestyle, not the lifestyle, and most tourers do not actively seek out the hardest tracks on every trip. The vehicle needs modifications, which are purpose-driven, and require a large investment of time, money and effort.
The key to success in this market is to provide robust, modifiable, offroad-ready vehicles that are fit to explore Australia and then back it up with information, answers, warranty and support.
As a touring offroader, what would you like to see, or not see in 4X4s? Got any specific examples? You never know, someone important may be being paying attention…