Driving all four

in travel •  last month 

Unless you're new to my blog, or don't actually read it, you'll know I'm always heading into the remote and outback areas of Australia. I've written about it before including vehicle and trip preparation, safety, health, emergency, recovery, food, navigation, communication, driving and mechanical skills and outback survival. Yep, there's a lot to know and learn.

A four-wheel drive vehicle is also a requirement and, again, I've written about this before as well. But what is a four-wheel drive vehicle and how do they work?

BeFunkycollage.jpg

Ok, so firstly I'm not talking about an everyday car with all-wheel-drive vehicle, I'm talking about a genuine off-roader capable of tackling the terrain found in the remote areas of Australia: Sand, mud, rocks, corrugations, steep inclines and declines, water-crossings, snow, scrub and all the other car-busting terrain Australia offers up. (Image - My Ford Ranger pickup and my wife in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia)

How does a four-wheel drive work

To understand that let's first understand how two-wheel drive works:

  • Power transmits from the engine to the clutch.
  • Clutch to the gearbox and gearbox to the drive shaft (propeller shaft).
  • From the drive or propshaft through the differential to the axles.
  • The axles then rotate the wheels.

And now for the four-wheel drive vehicle:

  • Engine to clutch and gearbox as above.
  • Power from the gearbox goes to the transfer case in a part-time 4x4 and a central differential in a constant 4x4 vehicle. (Some 4x4 vehicles are constantly in four-wheel drive such as my Toyota 200 Series Landcruiser).
  • Part time - When four-wheel drive is selected the transfer case sends power to both the front and back differentials and then the axles and wheels. When in two-wheel drive typically only the rear axle/wheels receives the drive.
  • Constant - Power is always directed to the front and rear differentials although the power is rarely equally proportioned between front and rear. Engaging the centre differential (diff-lock) divides the power equally front to rear and no matter what, they get the same amount of power.
  • Typically the transfer case will have two sets of gears/ratios - Even in the constant 4x4 vehicles. They are called high and low range which alters the output ratio and speed. This decreases torque to the drive-wheels in high range and increases it when in low range.
  • This means the right amount of torque is available at the right time - Terrain dependent. The uses for each is quite complicated and I don't want to get into it here but essentially, if you were going up a very steep incline where the vehicle may be likely to stall low range would be selected to provide more torque and better control. Again, this part of it is very complicated - Driving skills I mean, and I don't want to get into it here.

Advantages of four-wheel drive vehicles

  • Traction is greatly improved so traversing a wider variety of terrain is achievable.
  • The larger wheels, tyres and greater ground clearance allows the vehicle to avoid obstructions extreme terrain can present. Improved approach, ramp-over and departure angles on a four-wheel drive vehicle makes overcoming obstacles much easier.
  • Most good four-wheel drive vehicles are built on a sturdy steel chassis so are much more rigid and have greater strength to take on the rugged and rough country one will find in outback Australia. They also have greater load-carrying ability, essential for the bolt-on accessories and equipment one needs in the outback.

So, there you have it...A very [very] basic explanation on how four-wheel drive works on an off-road vehicle. There are so many more concepts involved which I haven't touched on: Approach, ramp-over and departure angles, axle diff-locks (mechanical, electric and air-activated), tyres and pressures, suspension lifts, body lifts, under-vehicle protection, recovery winches, rock-sliders, performance chips and exhaust systems, secondary diesel filtering systems, long-range fuel tanks, lighting, load carrying, protection bar work and wheel/load carriers, snorkel systems etc. etc. etc. There's a lot involved with off-roading as you can tell and after 25 years or so of doing it I am still learning.

A properly prepared off-road vehicle piloted by a skilful and experienced driver can go virtually anywhere and whilst someone with a stock out of the showroom four-wheel drive vehicle can hit some dirt roads the best spots require a well-prepared four-wheel drive and driver.


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Great explanation. I found out the hard way how inadequate AWD SUVs are for the Aussie outback. I was taking a dirt road shortcut in NW NSW that I knew well and most of the road was fine. Then suddenly it was a complete bog, turned from a road into deeply corregated terrain by Road Trains. The SUV didn’t have the clearance for the corregations and got stuck. Without differential lock one set of wheels just spun. I had to reverse out and go another way.

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You make a good point about the SUV. I’ve seen many Subaru Foresters, Nissan X-Trails and the like in areas that, whilst dry, are completely fine but can be impassable if a shower of rain comes down. They have their place of course, their uses, however they can get a person into trouble as you found out...Not that you had trouble per se but you could have. I’ve pulled many vehicles out of areas they had no right being in (provided they had their own recovery gear.)

I think it comes down to common sense although the manufacturers don’t help as they pitch their vehicles as more capable than they actually are on their commercials.

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Yes after that I always hired serious 4WD vehicles for outback use. Only problem is that they are much more expensive to hire.

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Great explanation of how four wheel drive vehicle works. I know a four wheel drive vehicle is not always a requirement for off road driving. I have had my front wheel drive mini mokes into some great places off road. And sometimes driving around stuck four wheel drive vehicle's and also towed a couple out from being stuck🤣. Did you know the first vehicle to make it to Cape York in Queensland was an 1930s Austin Seven two wheel drive before the tracks/roads were even made to get there. And many years ago a group of moke owners drove the telegraph track to Cape York and never used the Jardine river ferry as they floated the mokes across lol. Yes a four wheel drive vehicle can be very very useful for off road driving I agree.

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I don't think I've seen a moke for 20 years. Used to go hunting in one with a mate. Went ok on the flat stuff, paddocks and stuff. They have their uses.

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I used to take mine to Moreton island and it was all sand driving lot's of fun. Sometimes I fitted taller wheels and tyres with aggressive tread and raised the suspension this would get me about 320mm of ground clearance. That's way more clearance then most four wheel drives had some 25 years ago and even still today. I also had built a real low rpm torque monster engine for it and with a suitable diff ratio I had no lack of very low speed power. Who needs a low range transfer box lol. Even drove it through water part way up the windscreen at times🤣 All good fun. People just could not believe it when I came along some crazy tracks in this Moke the looks on there faces was priceless 😱. If I ran ran out of traction going up a steep hill I would go back down turn around and reverse up as the weight transfer would then be on the driving wheels.

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I have a mate who had a Jimny and used to get the same incredulous looks when he'd turn up at the top of a mountain with the big boys. Was funny.

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Yes I know that feeling I had a 79 Suzuki LJ80/Jimny👍

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Cheeky little buggers those Jimnys. 😊

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They sure are🤣

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I have found 4 wheel drive to be very useful at times. Usually in the winter when the roads get snow covered and icy.

Yep, for me I don't think I'd go another way considering what I do with my vehicles. Sure, they're big and bulky in the city but once off the hard stuff and they shine!

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Might be interesting to show some of the things you face on your 4WD travels and how to tackle them from time to time. :)

I should yeah. I'll have to get onto it. Means more trips away! 👍🏼

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I debated on this when I was buying my truck this year and opted for a 2WD as there really isn't much to do here and I have yet to even try something like that. However, I did it as a thought to first get accustomed to being in a truck first. As I have fallen in love with it, I look to continue improving as time passes so my next one will probably surely be a 4WD.

That's smart. Many just go for the 4x4 first and then later come to the realisation that they don't need to drive all 4 wheels. For me it's essential.

There's always a downside to 4x4. Additional weight, diesel usage, cost of service and repair etc. No need to wear that if there's no need for 4xr in the first place.

Smart move.

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