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The 4WD Debate

You have may noticed 4WDs aren’t popular in some quarters. There’s a lot of sensationalism, liberally sprinkled with phrases like “vehicle of mass destruction”, references to apparent insecurities of the drivers and generally the coverage is more about whipping up a bit of good old tabloid outrage than the facts or reasoned argument. Flung with the muck are a lot of naked statistics, which prove yet again you can demonise anything using the right inflection combined with a suitable selection of facts and quotations.

But demons or not, beneath the ranting there are a few points that are worth discussing, if we can keep the superlatives and oh-so-witty asides out of it. The anti-4WD arguments are summarised as follows:

1. Bullbars. More likely to result in injuries than not.

2. Safety. 4WDs are light trucks, designed for off-road use. They are more likely to roll, need more braking room, don’t deform as well in a crash and are dangerous to pedestrians.

3. Size. Physically larger, 4WDs block the view of other road users and take up more space.

4. Fuel consumption. 4WDs use more fuel than roadcars.

5. 4WDs damage the environment when used off sealed roads, and even on it come to that.

This is a response to those points from someone who owns 4WDs, uses them offroad and is in the industry, but I will present here both sides of the argument, and my background does at least give me some expertise on the subject.

What is a 4WD anyway?

For example, before we go any further, we’d better clarify what we mean by “4WD”, and that’s not mere pedantry. Technically, a 4WD is a vehicle that has four wheels, all of which can be driven. That includes cars that are purely designed for bitumen, such as Audi and Subaru all-wheel-drives. However, in common usage the term “4WD” means a four-wheel-drive car or truck type vehicle that is designed for at least a modicum of off-road use. Even with that qualification, the term “4WD” covers a very large variety of vehicles, from the tiny Suzuki Jimny with its 1.3 litre engine, to the giant Ford F250 to softroaders without low range like the Forester, which are closer to plain roadcars with slightly raised suspension.  Then there’s the “serious” 4WDs like the Defender and Patrol.

A 4WD certainly doesn’t need to be big to be a capable offroad vehicle, and indeed there are many offroad tourers who tour the country in softroaders.  There are many who have 2WDs of course, but they don’t get to see the places the offroaders do.

All these vehicles are 4WDs, and are very, very different machines, and as such it is usually inappropriate to make generalisations such as “too big” or “too unsafe” because there will be many exceptions to such wide-ranging statements. That means “4WD” critics would do well to be more specific about their targets, but the problem there is that the stinging critiques wouldn’t fit so well into a pithy soundbite .

As it seems most of the anti-4WD sentiment is directed at 4WDs typically used by families in suburbs, this discussion will focus on the likes of the Discovery, Prado, Pajero, LC200. Softroaders like the Freelander, RAV4 and Santa Fe are popular, but most of the concerns seem to be centred around large vehicles, and that is not the same as vehicles with rough-terrain capability.

Now to each point in turn:


The bullbar debate is not the same as the 4WD debate. Many 4WDs have no bullbar. Many non-4WDs, such as some metropolitan taxis, many utes and light truck delivery vehicles do have bullbars. Therefore, although there is a debate about bullbars, it is not a 4WD-only issue and so won’t be covered here.


The concern is that all else being equal, a 4WD is less safe than a non-4WD because it is more likely to roll, it is so tough that it doesn’t deform well in a crash and in any case the extra size, weight and lack of agility make it a danger to not only the occupants but other road users.

The quick one first – crash deformation, usually followed by the term “separate chassis” and the implication that because 4WDs go offroad they must be tough and that toughness means they are unsafe in the event of a crash. That was true to some extent many years ago, as older 4WDs were indeed separate chassis and some of the utility models still are. New ones are not, and plenty of them are five-star ANCAP rated – such as the utes which are five-star rated and seperate-chassis. So can we please dispense with this myth? 

This “so tough it’s unsafe” argument is moot for any family 4WD less than a few years old, all of which have modern crash-absorbing structures, same as modern roadcars. However, a deformable structure doesn’t mean to say the vehicles aren’t tough – the stresses the vehicle is subjected to when driving over rough terrain are very different to those in a crash.

The agility and the roll concern are much the same thing. All else being equal, the vehicle with a higher centre of gravity is more prone to rolling over, and rolling over definitely increases the chances of injury in a crash. And it is true that 4WDs have a higher centre of gravity, although not by as much as the difference in height to a roadcar, more like the difference in ground clearance which is not as great as the height differential. It is also true that adding an all-wheel-drive transmission adds weight, as does a low-range gearbox. Heavier vehicles take longer to stop and are less agile than light ones. All of this is basic physics and not debateable, but a focus on those facts ignores the real picture.

What is debatable is just how well a vehicle should perform on these measures. Fortunately, there are well-established regulations that test a vehicle’s ability to manoeuvre and stop, and 4WDs have no difficulty passing these tests. If they pass the test, then what’s the problem? Maybe the argument is that the line should be redrawn so they don’t.

But then what about normal roadcars vs sportcars? The lighter and lower sportscar, with better brakes and tyres will beat the average roadcar in a braking, anti-roll and agility contest, so by that logic, it’s safer. Maybe we should all drive the Lotus Elise with race tyres? The idea has a certain appeal for me at least, but seriously, the modern family 4WD cannot possibly be described as unsafe in a crash, difficult to drive or in any way not easily measuring up the standards required by the road safety authorities here and abroad.  As an example, I’ve just driven a cheap roadcar for 250km across varied roads, immediately before and after my own Discovery 3.  I can state that this cheap roadcar simply didn’t handle as well, and its budget tyres lacked grip in the wet.

Are 4WDs a danger to other road users? Yes, along with every other vehicle on the road. Will the result of a pedestrian getting hit by say a 2200kg Pajero be practically any different to the same situation but with an 1800kg Commodore? Is a difference in bonnet height going to change the end result? So far I’ve not seen any research either way. The weight difference is also cited as a concern, and it is true the heavier the vehicle, the worse the smash. But again there are huge variations in size amongst passenger vehicles and indeed 4WDs. The Subaru Forester weighs less than a Commodore, and seats 5. The LC200 weighs far more than a Corolla, although the latter can’t seat 8 or tow 3500kg so it’s not a direct comparison.

Again, there are road safety regulations which manufacturers need to meet in order to sell cars in Australia, so what the anti-4WD people need to do is work on getting those changed to something even more stringent, as opposed to demonising a particular type of vehicle. That is the wrong way to look at any regulation. You decide what’s safe, and then set the bar. You don’t decide you don’t like a certain class of vehicle, and then set the bar based on that prejudice. If the bar is moved we may find that the likes of people movers are affected, along with the larger roadcars and who knows what else.

One of the criticism levied against 4WDs is the fact they are tall and block the visibility of other road users. One response is so do most commercial vehicles, but the better answer is so do peoplemovers and vans. If you find your view consistently blocked then perhaps it is time to consider a defensive driving course where you’ll be taught observation, keeping your distance and various other techniques to avoid crashes.

Safety advantages of 4WDs

The modern 4WD does an advantage over a roadcar for onroad safety and that is visibility. You sit higher up, so you can see more. That’s over fences, into dips on roads…everywhere. Any driver trainer will tell you the more visibility you have the better, and that includes rearward visibility which is not necessarily any worse in 4WDs. In fact, by far the worst offenders there are sports cars, especially those with rear spoilers.

4WDs tend to be very good tow vehicles and load carriers, so if you have a 1500kg caravan what’s likely to be able to best control it; a roadcar or a 4WD? Or if you have mum, dad, two kids and a load of camping gear how many roadcars can handle that weight without going over their maximum permitted weight (GVM), or even have the space? Do the maths and then see how many roadcars can take the weight.

If you want fewer road accidents then campaign for:

  • Compulsory defensive driver training, so road won’t need to be any safer than they are, the drivers become safer instead thus saving billions of dollars on making idiot-proof roads
  • Detailed statistics and to be recorded for all accidents, fatal or otherwise, and funding to analyse the results so we can see what statistical basis there is for other road safety measures.


“4WDs are too large”. Again, which 4WDs, and too large for what? Perhaps the critics mean the largest common ones on the market, specifically the Nissan Patrol and Landcruiser 200 Series. In that case, we’re back to a complaint against large vehicles, not necessarily 4WDs.

Those who rush to advise owners of Patrols and Landcruisers to switch to Falcon and Commodore wagons should check the dimensions of each. The four vehicles have virtually the same width, but the 2WDs are in fact longer. The 4WDs are taller. Therefore, the problem must be with the vehicle’s height, which has been discussed in the previous section on Safety.

The fact is that 4WDs are no longer or wider than a comparable roadcar.  The manufacturer websites are there for you to check for yourself.

Fuel Consumption

Gas guzzler” is an epithet often applied to 4WDs. The criticism is that 4WDs use “more fuel” than a roadcar. All else being equal, it is true that driving all four wheels requires additional driveshafts and other items, hence additional weight, plus the extra height means more drag, all of which increases fuel consumption relative to an otherwise-identical 2WD.

It’s worth examining the root of this concern. It must be use of petroleum, due to the fact it’s a finite resource, and also the effect on the environment. Therefore, what the argument is really saying is that we must not use “too much” fuel. But who will define “too much” fuel ? Families in Europe manage with Vectra, or even Astra-sized cars. They don’t have something the size of a Commodore. Perhaps pressurise all Falcon and Commodore owners to change, too? Once they’re into Focuses and Astras, then force them into i30s and Yarises.

Who is it, exactly, that decides what fuel use is appropriate? And by the way, better outlaw all luxury cars as those are heavier than base models and their extra electrics use fuel. Or are luxury cars ok because the percentage extra fuel used is just a little bit, whereas 4WDs are apparently more? Remind me who creates this line on which logic again?

A mere look at how many litres per 100km is too narrow a view. The bigger picture is how much you use in total against your needs. Whatever your “needs” are, as opposed to wants. So if we don’t give up cars immediately, we should seek not to waste fuel. Should we all drive small cars like the Huyndai Excel? Ah no, I hear a cry. I need a larger car, as I have a family, people to transport, a boat to pull, dogs to move…the list is endless. Fine.

Perhaps we should say “don’t buy a car any larger or more powerful than you need”. That allows those who “need” them to have large cars. It denies single people the right to their powerful, large sportscars unless they can prove they “need” them. And that is a slippery path to the sort of state few people want to live in, where we begin to legislate to differentiate between “need” and “want”.  Internet filter, anyone?

So let us suppose everyone buys no more car capability than they “need”. I’m happy with that. My requirements are for a car that can transport my family, camping gear and remote-area equipment over rough terrain. The solution is commonly called a 4WD. And while it uses more fuel than, say, the sedan car equivalent, the sedan can’t fulfil my requirements any more than a two-door compact car can fulfil the requirements of a large family. While my 4WD isn’t ideal for city trips, it does a much better job of driving around a city than a city car would do on a bush camping trip.

And what about “unnecessary” trips? If I own a 4WD but I take a bicycle and public transport to work (as in fact I do), so my annual mileage is a third of my neighbour who drives to work, then is it ok for me to own and operate a 4WD?

If you want to campaign for a reduction in petrol use then try some of these ideas:

  • Inflate everyone’s tyres to the correct pressures (safety benefit too, immediately cut Australia’s fuel bill by 1-2%, far more than converting all 4WDs to roadcars)
  • Teach everyone defensive and economy driving techniques
  • Invest in research for alternative energy sources
  • Promote bicycle use, carpooling etc

4WDs in the Environment

The argument is that 4WDs damage the environment in forests, deserts and other terrain that isn’t a bitumen road. I think there is a stark choice. Either have a forest used for recreation, or have no forest and have suburbia instead. If you would have no human activity in a forest, there will be few humans to fight for that forest.

There are some places in every part of the world where human activity should be banned, but it shouldn’t be everywhere outside of the suburbs. National Parks are valuable and have their place, but not every non-suburban square metre needs to be turned into a no-human-access park.

The number of forest users is long; 4WDers, dirtbikers, bushwalkers, fishermen, hunters, canoeists, cyclists, horseriders, hunters, rogainers, joggers, birdwatchers, miners, orienteers, campers…the list goes on.

Properly managed, the forest can easily survive use. Within every group of users there will be a rouge element of idiots, but don’t tar the responsible majority with the brush of the irresponsible minority.

If we look at the average forest it is many hundreds of square kilometres, if not many thousands. Is anyone seriously suggesting some 4WD tracks in a forest ruin the entire environment? Even bushwalking tracks require modifications to the natural environment, and more so if you consider the wide, gravel roads used for access.

If any given track becomes problematic, that’s where good management steps in and repairs, or closes the track. The same happens if an area is over-fished, over-camped, or people start to cut corners on bushwalks or any other part of the forest is threatened by incorrect use. If eventually we need to charge access fees for the forest, so be it, provided that fee goes towards management directed at sustaining the environment for the good of all.  Ultimately, if campers need some form of training and license before being permitted I’d support that, and given last week I saw toilet paper strewn about the bush I don’t think we can rely on the intelligence or decency of all bush users.

I also don’t believe that 4WDs in a forest have any significant effect on the wildlife compared to other human activity. I have never seen any dead animals on or by the side of a 4WD track, but plenty on higher-speed dirt roads where even normal roadcars can venture. A 4WD track is narrow, and the environment isn’t modified with bitumen or gravel. Vehicles necessarily move slowly along it. So animals are able to cross it easily, and safely, unlike a wide dirt or bitumen road. Obviously such roads need to be built but the point is a 4WD track has less impact on the environment.

4WD tracks also need to exist for management vehicles, and for emergencies. Recreational 4WD users help maintain, and keep these tracks clear. I’ve lost count of the amount of fallen trees we’ve cleared from tracks after storms. I think even the bushwalkers would thank us for that, and the CFA and SES certainly would if they need to get somewhere in a hurry. And most 4WDers of any experience have stories of assisting others, non-4WDers in the bush or remote areas.

The image of 4WDs wheelspinning their way, or even jumping their way over lush forests or scenic deserts is often used to advertise vehicles. This practice is quite simply wrong, and irresponsible. It is not the way 4WDers are trained to drive. It erodes the tracks unnecessarily, risks damage to the vehicle and leads people to the dangerous belief that the vehicle is all-powerful and will simply sail across the toughest obstacles. Recreational 4WD organisations have spoken to manufacturers about this form of advertising and wish to see the practice stopped.

On the wider environment front, is the solution to give up cars as we know them completely? The answer to that is certainly yes and eventually we’ll need to move to a different energy source as petroleum runs out. But in the meantime, that’s not feasible, so be realistic. If your problem is with automobiles in general, that’s fine, but it’s hardly a 4WD-specific issue. If you’re really concerned about petroleum use and pollution, then I suggest you investigate biodiesel or alternatives then devote your energies to supporting that fuel rather than denigrating 4WDs. It’ll do the environment much more good.

4WDs Not Used Offroad

The term “offroad” is a bit of misnomer as it implies that a 4WD can be driven anywhere. In reality, 4WD drivers stick to 4WD tracks which are legal roads. They may be rough and rutted, but they are roads. So they’re not really offroad at all in the strictest sense of the word, but the term is used for what could be more accurately but more clumsily described as “non-bitumen driving”.

I use my vehicles offroad for family holidays, which gives me a kind of legitmacy in the eyes of some. However, many owners of 4WDs do not take their vehicles offroad — are they still not permitted to own the vehicles?  Yet there are reasons for owning 4WDs and not using them offroad, and these include towing large trailers, and many people with limited joint flexibility prefer not to have to bend down to get into their vehicle. Others buy them because they simply need the space, or up to seven seats and a people mover may not have been an option. It is wrong to assume that everyone with a 4WD that doesn’t use it offroad does not have a good reason for their choice of vehicle. Of course, one person’s “good” reason may be another person’s pathetic excuse.  And who shall judge?

The safety aspect is also a significant factor. Many people consider 4WDs safer because they are usually heavier, and taller than conventional cars. In some circumstances that may well be true, in others it may well not.

There are also some people also drive large 4WDs simply because they are large, and they like the feeling of safety, and they like to feel they can bully other road users. The vehicle itself should not be blamed for the personality defects of a minority of its owners who have these character traits regardless of whether they drive or not. If we blamed the tool for the problem, we’d better take up arms against the printing press and email while we’re at it.

Using a roadcar instead of a 4WD

There also is an argument that a roadcar station wagon would do just as well as a 4WD for any dirt-road trips. And that is certainly an interesting point. The Birdsville, and Oodnadatta tracks for example don’t require a 4WD. But let’s think about this for a moment. Years ago, roadcar magazines included critiques of roadcar handling on dirt roads as part of their reviews. No longer, because dirt roads are becoming rarer. In line with that trend roadcars are becoming more road-oriented. Lower to the ground, low-profile tyres, space-saver spares, alloy wheels, high-strung engines running on premium unleaded petrol; I think it fair to say that the average car of yesteryear was probably a better bet for the outback than today’s roadcar.

And there is a big difference between “can do it” and “can do it comfortably and safely”. A roadcar can negotiate many outback roads. But a 4WD can do it better because it’s designed for it. Better suspension, traction, visibility, greater payload and so on. If you wanted to kit out a vehicle for outback travel, with say stronger tyres, long-range tanks, rear cargo storage and more the 4WD industry is ready and waiting to help you.

Some of those accessories are available for roadcars too, but far fewer, less choice and therefore more expense. So it can be done, but why not use a better base vehicle to begin with? If you were to do a 15km bushwalk, you could achieve it patent leather work shoes, but wouldn’t it be better to wear more appropriate? I’ve seen people walk around Kings Canyon with a small bottle of water between the group. Possible, but advisable? Why would you do it, then brag about not needing bushwalking boots?

Economics of Owning a 4WD

It has been pointed out that if one uses a 4WD just for a 4-week trip every year it would make more sense to rent, rather than own one, and use a small car for the rest of the year. The economics may make sense in some cases and this option should be considered when assessing the cost of a 4WD. However, this argument is somewhat narrow and overlooks many other factors. For example, most 4WD-owning families would go on one long trip a year, and many other shorter trips, over weekends and long weekends. It ignores the availability or otherwise of the vehicle in a given area, makes it harder to go on last-minute trips (or cancel, for that matter) and does not consider the convenience of having one’s own vehicle set up exactly as the owner prefers.

It also reduces vehicle ownership to a purely monetary decision, and if that were the sole, or even primary consideration of the public then there would be very few cars available on the market, and all of them basic models.

Exports and Jobs

4WD is a big industry. There is a huge modification and accessory market, in which Australia is a world leader with brands like ARB, Ironman and TJM. The 4WD touring market is a significant source of income to many outback localities. Many overseas visitors are lured by the thought of self-drive 4WD tours. Would the same amount of people still come if 4WDs were banned and we all had to arrive in tour buses? I suspect not.

And if you, as an Aussie resident, buy a 4WD, kit it up, with Australian-made accessories, bought in Australia, fitted in Australia, then learn how to drive it (via an Australian training course), what are you likely to do with your 20 days of leave a year? Probably spend them touring in Australia, which helps the Aussie tourism industry – which needs all the help it can get. That’s a fair bit of cash ploughed straight back into Australia. Recreational 4WD means jobs for the 4WD industry, and in rural Australia, and it means exports. It’s certainly an area where Australia can claim some measure of world leadership and renown.

Emotion and 4WDs

This could be an essay by itself. It does seem apparent that a lot of the anti-4WD ranting is not based on logic but emotion. Something about 4WDs stirs emotions that lead to anger, sometimes almost hatred. Why? The fact that the 4WD is used on roads, where it can be a target of road rage is also probably a factor. The fact that humans transform into entirely different beings when behind the wheel is well known, and everyone else becomes arrogant tossers in Porsches, stupid Sunday drivers, idiot taxi drivers…and of course, bloody idiots in 4WDs. Perhaps it’s because 4WDs are seen by some as status symbols because they are more expensive than a conventional vehicle, and any status symbol in Australia attracts derision, from Ferraris to mansions.

Perhaps it’s fear. Some 4WDs are taller than the average car with the driver sitting higher, and anything taller than what you’re in can be intimidating. And if you feel at all intimidated, or inferior, then you’re not going to like what you’re intimidated by. Perhaps some believe that by owning a 4WD people are directly financing terrorist activities by using “more fuel”, being ecologically irresponsible and generally being a danger on the roads. They would have read the anti-4WD propaganda, and perhaps not stopped to question it and see if there is another side to the story. The answer isn’t clear, but it is apparent that more letters are written to newspapers on the subject of 4WDs than any other vehicle type, so somewhere, somehow, the subject of 4WD is sufficiently emotive for many to air their views publicly. And yes, there is irony in that statement.

Fair comparisons

Very often the largest 4WDs are compared against compact or medium cars, for example the Toyota LC200 vs the Toyota Corolla. The LC200 can tow 3500kg without any special kit, seat 8 in most variants, carry 600-800kg and traverse very rough terrain. The Corolla is nowhere near on any point. A fairer comparison would be to compare a 2WD and 4WD of equal width and length, which would see the Corolla against the smaller 4WDs where the capabilities would be closer (rough-terrain ability excepted). Of course, the disparity in fuel consumption and weight would be nowhere near as great which is perhaps why these comparisons are not made more often. It would be like comparing the Corolla against large luxury cars such as BMW 7 Series.

What is the anti-4WD movement’s plan?

I’ve read a fair few anti-4WD articles. I have not yet seen any coherent, realistic plan to deal with their grievances, usually just a lot of inflammatory rhetoric and hyperbole. Personally, I don’t like to complain unless I have suggestions for a solution. Blithe comments like “get them off the streets”, while perhaps striking an emotional chord, simply aren’t realistic because they aren’t thought through. And as much as some people would dream it, no government is going to force all 4WD owners to drive their vehicles to a compactor and destroy them, or ban their sale forthwith.

So, my question to any anti-4WD campaigners is quite simple. You’ve said there is a problem. Firstly, can the problem be clearly stated, and secondly, do you have a realistic solution to your perceived problem? Preferably one that can be stated without hysterics.


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