Jaco Van Der Merwe
Regardless of a vehicle’s brand or body shape, the concept of a 4×4 has become extremely popular on the South African motoring landscape. No doubt aided by the ever-increasing sales of double cab bakkies and SUVs sporting the familiar badge.
Yet many motorists who drive a vehicle equipped with a four-wheel-drive system will probably never utilise it, meaning the sought-after badge will be purely for the show. Depending on where you plan to take your vehicle, a two-wheel-drive might be more than sufficient for all your motoring needs, let alone a more affordable option.
A quick glance over the new car price list gives you a general idea what the premium is you pay for a four-wheel-drive over a two-wheel-drive derivative. A two-wheel-drive Renault Koleos 2.5 Dynamique costs R489 900 compared to its all-wheel-drive sibling, which goes for R529 900. Not only is the latter R40 000 more expensive, but it weighs 67 kg more (1 498 kg v 1 565 kg), which will result in increased fuel consumption.
You don’t need a four-wheel-drive to tackle a tame gravel road.
A BMW X3 sDrive 20i retails for R750 984. The four-wheel-drive derivative – the xDrive 20i – costs R65 952 more at R816 936 and also tips the scales at 40 kg more. In the bakkie listings, you’ll find a rear-wheel-drive Mahindra Pik Up 2.2 CRDe S4 for R210 499, with the four-wheel-drive version costing almost 20% more at R251 499 and is a full 100 kg heavier.
It is not always as clear cut as these comparisons however. Some model ranges, like the Ford EcoSport for example, isn’t available with four-wheel-drive, while others like a Jeep Wrangler only comes in four-wheel-drive. And not model ranges offer similarly specced two- and four-wheel drive models as some car makers tend to offer all-wheel-drive versions only for higher specced models or models with more powerful engines.
So why the difference in price and weight on comparative models? Without getting too technical, the obvious difference between a two-wheel-drive car and a four-wheel-drive vehicle is to which wheels the power is sent. In the case of a two-wheel-drive, or as some manufacturers like to refer to as 4x2s, power is distributed to either the front wheels, like a Honda Jazz for example, or to the rear wheels, like a Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
In some cases, a four-wheel-drive system in non-negotiable.
A four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive system is capable of sending power to each wheel. This is achieved either through permanent all-wheel-drive which is controlled by the car’s own system in the case on an all-wheel-drive or can be manually selected by the driver part time in the case of a typical four-wheel-drive, or some sort of combination between the two.
When the car is in charge, it tends to be either front-wheel or rear-wheel bias in normal conditions like on dry tar roads in order to run more economical, and then only decide to change the power distribution when needed. The ability to send power to all four wheels means that these vehicles are equipped with an additional drive shaft and transfer case, which results in the extra cost and weight.
Hard core off-roaders, whether their day jobs demand it or is practised purely for recreational purposes, will look no further than a four-wheel-drive, and a part time one equipped with low range gearing and a differential lock at that. With the terrain they plan in tackling traction is going to be limited. For mountainous, muddy, hilly, twisty and eroded tracks, adventurers can’t do with anything less and especially when they wander out remotely without anyone to come and tow them out of trouble.
Serious off-roaders offer a low gearing system.
But for many others four-wheel-drives are certainly not a “must-have” if you look past impressing your friends. If your car is going to spend the majority of its life on tarred roads with the odd venture on a gravel road, byways in the Kruger National Park or a few sandy stretches in Mozambique, parading with 4×4 decals on your ride simply isn’t worth the money. In fact, many farmers who get around mostly in their trusty bakkies on farm roads than anything else, don’t even opt for four-wheel-drives as they simply don’t need it.
What many motorists are after is a vehicle offering a high ride position which normally means generous ground clearance and there is a general misconception that you need a “faw-buy-faws” for this perk. But if you take a Toyota Fortuner for example, which boasts a ground clearance of 279 mm that contributes to one of the highest riding positions in any new vehicle, the two-wheel-drive version has the exact same measurements as the four-wheel-drive derivative. This means that you can enjoy all the benefits the vehicle has to offer in the more affordable – R28 700 to be exact – two-wheel drive version should scaling mountains not be your thing.
Like in the case of the Fortuner, many of these so-called “4×2” options which is offered alongside a “4×4” sibling is equipped to handle a fair share of gravel by sheer design already. The aforementioned ground clearance is a huge advantage, very able all terrain tyres and the added advantage of a diff-lock all combine to take a vehicle without a “4×4” sticker much further than you would expect.
Not your everyday driving conditions.
Even on sand, where a low tyre pressure could be more important than the ability for power to be distributed to all four wheels. And even should you get stuck once in a while, getting someone to help get unstuck is still cheaper than the price difference a four-wheel-drive will cost you more.
As far as all-wheel-drive models go, especially higher up in the food chain, the system is part and parcel of the package, like for example the Volkswagen Golf R or Audi S3. Performance cars like these need all-wheel-drive systems to ensure to maximum amount of power is delivered to the wheels and to assist with better grip at higher speeds. And in slippery conditions like on icy roads, they’ll be able to operate more efficiently under normal speeds, similar to the all-wheel-system which features on all Subarus.
In South Africa where snowy roads isn’t a daily problem in city traffic, the need for an all-wheel-drive vehicle in under normal circumstances is very slim. In fact, even in pouring rain, a good old front-wheel-drive Toyota Tazz with good wiper and tyres can get you home just fine.
High-performance cars like John Cooper Works Minis utilise all-wheel-drive systems.
These all-wheel-drive cars are not intended for off-roading and usually don’t feature low range gearing or diff-locks. If you find yourself on the two far sides of the sphere, you shouldn’t have a problem deciding on a four/all-wheel-drive or two-wheel-drive. But for those stuck somewhere in the middle, making the right decision could save you a pretty penny. Choose wisely.
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