TEST TRACKS & BACK ROADS

A BEHIND- THE-SCENES LOOK AT WHAT GOES INTO CONDUCTING 4X4OTY.

WORDS RON MOON

THE RAIN was pelting down, the dirt road quickly turning to mud, while any semblance of traction as we crossed the black soil and the occasional low lying claypan, east of the Darling River, was quickly going out of the window. That was especially true of the four-wheel drives with road-orientated tyres – and that was most of the vehicles we had in our group for this year’s annual 4X4 Of The Year test. Only the Ford Raptor had rubber that was really suitable for these conditions, while the HSV SportsCat+, with its relatively good off-road tyre combo, wasn’t as well set-up for these slick muddy conditions. The other vehicles were worse off.

Then, just as quickly as we had hit the wild weather, the rain stopped and we were back on tracks that first sprayed drying clumps of mud everywhere and then became as dry as a chip, with a dust cloud billowing behind each and every one of us.

Our testing, though, had begun when we had met a day earlier at the Melbourne 4WD Training & Proving Ground out at Werribee. The morning started off raining, but then abated to a cool, windy day, so the tracks were damp and a little slippery. With our time limited to a day at this location we kept to just a couple of the hill climbs to see which vehicle performed the best in these conditions.

There is nothing quite like a man-made set track to test the capabilities of a range of vehicles. It’s no surprise, then, that it is the main reason we come to this proving ground where there are a variety of tracks and obstacles to test a vehicle’s prowess and to compare it with others in exactly the same situation.

All the vehicles climbed the hills, but some did it a lot easier than others, with the SsangYong Rexton struggling the most. Again, the VW Amarok proved you don’t need low range to climb a steep and rutted hill – just good low gearing, while a well-calibrated traction control and a rear diff lock both help.

We played in the river, too, but the water was pretty low which meant that even the low air intake of the VW wasn’t an issue. On the other side of the equation the tall Mahindra – which would have got a prize for the most improved – hardly got the rims wet and the optional snorkel fitted to our test truck was not required.

The next day saw us on a road trip through Victoria, crossing the border at Echuca and passing through Deniliquin before heading to Hay and Ivanhoe before taking to the dirt for the run across to the Darling River. It was along this section of road that dark clouds, thunder and lightning danced around us and water bucketed down, turning the route into a slippery, muddy passage.

After 12 hours behind the wheel we slipped through Menindee to camp on the edge of a drying Lake Pamamaroo, the water level much lower and further out from the shore than just a few months ago when we were last here. But it was still an enjoyable bush camp, where the next morning the video crew and the photographer were busy playing with the morning light and the mud-covered vehicles.

Backtracking towards Menindee we then took the Western River Road north to Wilcannia, the heavily loaded Hilux from Tough Dog Suspension and its non-aerodynamic load chewing fuel more than usual, to the point where we slowed the group and cruised quietly into the fuel stop; the Toyota making it on a sniff of diesel.

With full tanks we headed down the bitumen and then took station tracks. The vehicles flung clumps of mud everywhere; the noise of it testing the NVH of the vehicles, with the X-Class exuding a quiet ambience, whether on chunky mud or on blacktop.

It wasn’t long before we had made it to a private property we had access to and found a stretch of cochineal-coloured sand hills we called the Little Red Sahara. We played in the sand and then let the photographic crew set up some shots in amongst the vibrant red dunes, which positively glowed as the sun was setting.

Driving away from here we had permission to cross a couple of properties on back tracks that varied from freshly graded dirt roads to near nonexistent wheel marks; our route taking us across an area of lush green, the result of recent rain.

By the time we hit the Eastern River Road we were back in country that hadn’t received rain for ages. As we pushed north through Wilcannia once more and then took the Tilpa Road the country seemed to get drier. Along the way the Everest had a puncture, the second vehicle to succumb to the outback roads and an indication that most tyres fitted to modern 4x4s aren’t really suitable for the outback or even good dirt roads.

After an evening enjoying the hospitality of the Tilpa Hotel and yarning to a few locals, we again turned south to Wilcannia (we were beginning to like the place after the third visit in as many days) then took the blacktop to Broken Hill, where we fuelled up and washed the worst of the mud off the vehicles.

With the heat climbing we headed to Silverton for lunch at the pub, and then Eldee Station tucked up close to the rocky Barrier Range with the Mundi Mundi Plains stretching away to the west. For the next day and a half we drove a variety of tracks on the property from sandy creek beds to fast, flat dirt routes to rock strewn pathways. We expected the Raptor to go well here, and it did, and its less flamboyant sibling, the Ranger XLT, didn’t disappoint. With a better payload and towing capacity than either of the other Fords, it would be, in my eyes, a better touring tow vehicle than either of the other two.

With heat, wind and dust storms blowing over us, followed by spits of rain, all the gang, especially the hard-working camera teams, were feeling the hot spell, so it was with some relief that the last evening was spent enjoying a few cold ales, a plate of prawns and some fish to celebrate the week.

On the last morning our crew split up, some heading for Melbourne, others to Sydney and Adelaide. Another 4X4 of the Year was done and dusted – apart from the writing, the sorting of pics, the editing of video and the adding up of the all-important scores to find the eventual winner. Who will that be?

THE WINNER!

All eight vehicles completed the 2000km test without major incident or problems, with tyre punctures and loose mudflaps being the only casualties. Once the dust settled and the judges’ scores were in and tallied, the finishing order from the bottom up looked like this…

8 TH SSANGYONG REXTON ELX

A well-put-together 4x4 family wagon with an excellent powertrain that would benefit greatly from a small lift and firmer springs and dampers, something not difficult to do. An off-road specific calibration of the electronic traction control is needed to make it a serious 4x4 contender, while a better thought-out third-row seat is needed for family duties.

7 TH MERCEDESBENZ X250D PROGRESSIVE

Starting with what’s never been the best of the current utes, namely the Nissan Navara D23, Mercedes has done exceptionally well but still hasn’t produced a top-tier ute considering the asking price. It may be priced like a Mercedes-Benz, but it doesn’t perform like one. Hopefully the X-Class V6 will be better.

6 TH HSV COLORADO SPORTSCAT+

The wheel/tyre package and suspension lift helps the SportsCat+ off-road, but HSV has concentrated on tightening the chassis for more of an on-road focus. A coarse powertrain, too, in this company.

5 TH MAHINDRA PIK-UP S10

Despite the Pik-Up being the betterequipped S10 model, it’s still more crew-cab work truck than dual-cab 4x4 designed for recreational use. Nevertheless, it impressed everywhere and everyone. The single-cab version would be just the ticket as a budget farm ute.

4 TH FORD EVEREST TREND

Wagons aren’t as functional as dual-cabs when you need to carry camping gear, recovery gear and fuel, which may have worked against the Everest in this company. Nevertheless, it offers impressive refinement, off-road capability, on-road dynamics and ride in a family-friendly package.

3 RD VOLKSWAGEN AMAROK V6 CORE

This is the driver’s car of this lot. Terrific performance, polished on-road dynamics, unsurpassed ease of operation and very capable off-road despite not having low range. Lots of performance potential with the engine, too, as even the factory tune (in other applications) is as strong as 220kW and 600Nm. Just not the thing if you want to tow a heavy camper trailer in the High Country.

2 ND FORD RANGER XLT

The Ranger’s new engine and gearbox is very impressive and brings new-found refinement, better fuel efficiency and a tad more performance than the 3.2; although, it can’t match the lazy 3.2-litre five-cylinder for charm or character. Suspension revisions that bring a more supple ride complement the refinement of the powertrain and make this a far more polished Ranger than its predecessor.

FORD RANGER RAPTOR

BY NOT TRYING to be all things to all men, as all other dual-cabs try to be, the Raptor has come up with a winning formula based on a supple, well-controlled and sophisticated suspension. On any back road – the rougher the better – or any 4x4 track it works brilliantly and helps to make the Raptor an enormously fun-to-drive, competent and capable recreational 4x4 dual-cab.

It’s also proof that in the automotive world it’s always better to have more ‘chassis’ than ‘engine’. And while it’s not built for offroad racing, if there was a proper ‘production class’ (where you can only change tyres and brake linings beyond the mandatory safety mods) in something like the Finke Desert Race it would infinitely be better than any other showroom-stock 4x4.

More than anything else it’s a bold step into the world of taskspecific factory customs, which is hopefully something we will see more of.

JUDGES’ TOTAL SCORES*