Back in the days, four-wheel drive vehicles are for farmers and those that lived in far-flung places. Their mod-cons and on-road performance were secondary, and their utility sat at the fore. The modern-day proliferation of luxury SUVs has shifted much of that focus, and we’re seeing functional workhorses re-trimmed with plush upholstery and seamless panel-work, while their mechanical muscle has given way to a bevy of computer-managed driving aids.
Most dyed in the wool off-roaders will shun such devices, citing that mechanical systems are more durable, reliable and easier to manage if they breakdown in the bush. However, it’s hard to ignore that some of these systems have become stock standard, even in the most traditional product lines, and the newer developments are proving to be a huge success for those who aren’t looking for such a rough and rugged drive. When it comes to occasional off-roading, weekends at the ski resort, towing and outback track touring, these electronic conveniences will dramatically improve your experience.
Before heading out on any serious adventures, find out what electronic aids your vehicle has, what they do and when and how to use them. Talk to the manufacturer, read the manual and if you’re offered any driver training when you’re buying, be sure to take up the opportunity.
1. Traction Control
Traction control systems are common in all vehicles nowadays and go a long way to improving river safety. Older-style systems utilise the same hardware as an ABS braking setup and uses selective braking to allow differentials to redistribute torque where its needed. For more specific 4WD applications, more recent developments have produced torque management systems that use electronic monitoring and additional mechanical components to prevent the loss of traction in the first place.
2. Stability Control
Stability control has gone a long way toward reducing accidents on the roads. Electronic stability control (ESC) systems use sensors that can tell when a vehicle is beginning to lose control and will apply selective braking to individual wheels to bring the vehicle back under control.
3. Terrain Settings
Many new 4WD vehicles allow the driver to select from a handful of settings that are geared toward specific terrain. These may include settings such as gravel, dirt, snow, rock, and so on. Each mode adjusts the properties of stability control, traction control, throttle response and other bits and pieces to suit the driving style of a specific terrain. These can be useful but are not always a guaranteed success. It will pay to learn how each one affects the vehicle and to weigh up whether it suits your situation. Remember that no two sections of track will be identical, so a broad terrain setting may not always be exactly right.
4. Hill Decent Control
Electronic hill descent systems were first developed for 4WD vehicles that aren’t fitted with low range, since they lack the ability to utilise the low-range engine braking that’s favourable on steep descents. Instead, these systems use selective braking to maintain a speed, kind of like a slow-going cruise control – any acceleration of braking intervention from the driver will override the system.
5. Tow Assist
This little piece of automotive wizardry takes all the difficulty out of reversing a trailer by simply doing it for you. The driver enters the details of the trailer, tells the system where it wants it to go and then the car takes over and does all the mind-boggling backward manoeuvring. Watching it in action is much like watching a self-parking system, which is becoming more and more common, in that the driver takes their hand off the wheel and the car’s sensors ensure the trailer ends up in the right spot without damaging surrounding scenery. All the driver needs to do is keep one foot hovering above the brake pedal, just in case.