The off-road vehicle market is constantly expanding, making it difficult to know which 4×4 is best for you and your driving needs.

Our helpful guide makes it easy, explaining the different levels of off-roading, the features to look out for and what to check out before buying a used 4 wheel drive.

What is an off-road car?

An off-road car is a vehicle that can be easily driven off the ground and paved roads. Where standard cars generally have only two powered wheels, off-road cars have four. This is why they’re also often referred to as 4x4s.

By featuring four powered wheels, off-road cars provide increased power and stability off the road, which helps them navigate difficult road conditions with ease. For better protection and capability on uneven grounds and rocky terrains, some 4x4s also feature rough body structures and frames.

Different levels of off-roading

When purchasing a 4×4, it’s important to consider the type of off-road conditions you’ll be driving in. Different off-road vehicles cater to different conditions. Think about the types of terrains you’ll be driving on and the activities you plan to do. These might include:

Level 1: Dirt road exploring

If you’ll be using your off-road car to explore some dirt roads, then a vehicle with higher ground clearance is a must. Not only will it provide you with better visibility of the road, but it’ll reduce the risk of your car’s underbelly scraping the ground when navigating rocky stretches.

Level 2: Overlanding

Planning to drive out into the wilderness for days on end? You’ll need a four-wheel drive with a low range to help you navigate any loose dirt and rocks on the road. And if your car will be heavy from additional passengers and luggage, look out for stronger shock absorbers to help you handle the increased weight.

Level 3: Rock climbing

Rock climbing is one of the most extreme forms of off-roading UK activities and is not for the faint-hearted. Essentially, it sees you seeking out the worst possible road conditions and challenging yourself to navigate them. Conditions might be so extreme that rock crawlers often call upon other people to guide the driver through the unpredictable terrain.

In conditions like this, a low range and higher ground clearance are essential. A locking rear differential will also help to increase your traction if conditions are tough, while a front-mounted winch (or rope) can be handy in case of an emergency situation where you find yourself stuck.

What features should you look at when buying an off-road vehicle?

When you’re looking for an off-road vehicle, it’s important to know about the different features available and how they can benefit your drive. These include:

1. Good Torque Output

Torque power refers to a car engine’s ability to twist, which is an essential skill when you’re trying to drive out of a mudhole or up a mountain. The best off-road vehicles have a high torque number, making them better at dealing with tricky terrain situations.

Keep in mind though that torque output can be affected by a number of things – from ground conditions to the tyre’s grip quality.

2. High Ground Clearance

Ground clearance refers to the amount of distance between the bottom of the vehicle and the ground. When you’re driving off-road and over rocky terrains, high ground clearance is beneficial as it reduces the risks of the underbelly scraping against road bumps and damaging the car.

Vehicles with high ground clearance also offer higher seat positioning, providing drivers and passengers with more visibility of the road. The pros of being able to see more include being able to see over lower vehicles and spot upcoming traffic jams. However, one of the disadvantages is raised gravity. As a result, your car is more likely to roll over in dangerous collisions or unforeseen circumstances.

3. A locking differential

During turns or on uneven terrains, a vehicle’s wheels can often rotate at different speeds. A good example of this is if your 4×4 is caught in a position with one wheel off the ground on a very low traction surface. In this situation, you’ll have difficulty getting your ‘off-road’ back ‘on the road’.

A locking differential fixes this issue by mechanically locking the axles together to make sure the wheels rotate at the same speed. When the wheels are locked, the wheel off the ground won’t receive any torque because there’s no traction.

Locking differentials can be automatic and require no driver action. Alternatively, they can be driver-selectable, which means you’ll have to activate a switch to activate the locking mechanism.

4. Low range transfer case

If you’re driving up a steep hill, a low range transfer case will give you an extra pull when your wheels are turning slowly. It will also assist you when you’re driving back up the hill by maintaining your speed and direction without you even having to press the brakes.

5. Special equipment

Driving off-road requires both special car safety equipment and extra care when driving. For added peace of mind when navigating tough conditions, you’ll want to make sure your tyres are up for the job of navigating different terrains and surfaces.

A reliable body lift kit might be pricey, but it’ll come in handy when you need to lift the body of your car for extra height. Pay attention to the bumpers too – high-quality ones will protect you (and your car) from things like rocks, trees and even animals on your adventures.

Photo by Saeid Anvar from Pexels

Top tips for buying a used 4WD

If you’re wondering what the best 4×4 to buy second hand is, it’s important that you first get a feel for what it is you’re looking for. Here are some essential things to consider when browsing the best used 4wd cars:

1. Understand what you want and need

By knowing what you want and need, you can create your shortlist of the best second-hand 4wd cars in no time. Leaf packs are great if you’ll be carrying heavy loads on the road, while coil springs are better if you prefer a more comfortable ride. Taking the family with you on your drive? Look out for 4x4s with ample safety features and rear-seat room – small off-road cars might be best avoiding.

If you’ll be using your car for short trips and city drives, perhaps small off-road vehicles with electric engines are worth considering. Automatic engines are great for those lacking confidence with 4x4s, while petrol 4x4s are cheaper to buy.

All of these subtle differences can make a huge difference to the type of off-road car that will suit you best. Think about what you’ll be using the car for and decide what you’ll need from there.

2. Do your research

Once you have a shortlist, research everything you can about the models. Get an idea of the average prices, conditions and speeds of each one and decide which one will best suit your needs.

Forums are great for discovering common snags associated with various models, while online videos are great for getting a visual feel for the vehicle – both inside and out. Consult with an expert if you can too. By doing your research, you’ll get a good feel for the problem areas to look out for while understanding the fair market price for your vehicle.

3. Petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric?

Off-road cars are available with petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric engines. Petrol 4x4s are generally cheaper and more powerful, while diesel cars usually offer better fuel efficiency and lower maintenance costs. At the same time, diesel cars can be more expensive to repair.

Think about how much off-road driving you plan to do. Diesel cars provide plenty of low rev torque, making it easier to navigate rocks and obstacles without stalling, while petrol engines generally require more revs to get up steep hills.

If you’ll be using your off-road car for lots of short trips and city driving, it’s worth considering an electric 4×4. While the outlay will be more expensive, you’ll save on fuel costs and tax rates while also reducing your carbon footprint. However, if long, adventurous drives are your thing, having to regularly charge your electric car may prove a huge inconvenience. An electric car’s range and charging time vary, with better battery capabilities driving up the overall cost.

Meanwhile, hybrid cars offer the best of both worlds. Built with a conventional engine, electric motor and battery, hybrid 4x4s are more expensive but tend to offer a decent economy and emissions, making them great for both long and short drives. Our buying guide for Fuel Types has a lot more information on the pros and cons of each engine.

4. Manual or automatic?

When buying a 4×4, you have the choice between a manual or automatic transmission. Manuals are a lot cheaper than automatics and tend to offer better fuel efficiency. In addition, they’ll also give you the feel of having more control over the vehicle.

On the other hand, automatic cars are a lot more straightforward to drive, which is particularly handy if you’re new to the world of 4x4s and don’t really know what you’re doing. The fact that you don’t need to manually change gears in stop-start conditions also makes situations like heavy traffic a lot less frustrating.

Our Manual vs Automatic Buying Guide has more information on the pros and cons of each transmission type.

5. Ignore the sales pitch

When you’re buying a second-hand 4×4, it’s important to bear in mind that the owner of the car is essentially looking to sell. He or she might therefore embellish things when talking up the car’s best assets.

Don’t fall for any embellished stories and make sure to ask plenty of questions in order to spot any potential flaws in their story. If you spot any inconsistencies in the sales pitch, it’s best to be cautious. After all, if things sound too good to be true, they probably are.

6. Prioritise mechanical stability

While going for fancy upgrades and modifications is tempting, it’s important to prioritise mechanical stability. Car owners who’ve taken their car for mods have likely done so because they wanted their vehicle to better handle rough rides and challenging off-roading UK adventures. As a result, the car’s probably taken a good beating.

If there’s evidence of modifications, ask to see installation receipts and relevant warranties. And if the owner has modified the vehicle themselves, the car is best avoided.

7. Check under the bonnet

When viewing your potential new vehicle, make sure to factor in some time to check under the bonnet. Any leaks from engine components, brakes and transmissions should be a red flag, as should any wear and tear faults like cracking, rust and evidence of bodged repairs.

Make sure to check the oil too. If you remove the oil filter cap and spot any foamy residue, it could be an indication of a leaking head gasket. Meanwhile, brown and grimy coolant could signal a lack of servicing. If you spot issues like this, you’re best off moving on.

8. Check under the car

Since 4x4s are exposed to extreme conditions, they can often take quite a beating. When buying a second-hand off-road drive, it’s therefore important to take a look under the car to check for any serious off-road damage.

Don’t be afraid to get up close and personal with the car. Check that there are no leaks coming from the exhaust system and take a close look at the conditions under the car. Any signs of cracking, leaks, rust, misalignment and scratching should raise a red flag.

9. Check the bodywork

Another thing to look out for when inspecting a second-hand 4×4 is signs of accident or frame damage. Check the bumper for cracks and the bolts for signs of scratches indicating replacement or adjustments after a crash. Again, this is where it pays to ask the seller numerous questions if things don’t add up.

Minor scratches aren’t a huge concern, but you could use them to your advantage to negotiate a better buying price.

10. Test drive the 4×4

You should never purchase a used 4×4 without taking it for a test drive first. Get a feel for the vehicle and listen out for any strange noises and warning lights appearing on the dashboard. Look out for leaks and if possible, experiment with different speeds and accelerations to get the best idea of how the car will perform on the road.

It’s also a good idea to park up at some point during the drive and check under the bonnet again for any new leaks.

11. Make sure all the paperwork is correct

While most people are trustworthy, it’s important to see evidence of any services. Check the paperwork for the car’s full-service history, double-check the dates and take note of any major issues about the car. The best second-hand 4wd car owners will have all the details to hand.

If the vehicle has an incomplete servicing history – or worse, no history at all –, it’s best to avoid buying the car. It could lead to some hefty repair fines in the future.

12. Get a full inspection

Found the car you want to buy? If you’ve completed the checks above and taken the car for a test drive, it’s a good idea to get a full pre-purchase inspection before finally pulling the trigger.

By having your car thoroughly checked over by a qualified 4wd mechanic, you can make the purchase with total peace of mind. And if they spot any niggles during the inspection, it’ll save you a fortune on car repairs later down the line.

Looking for more information?

Our Best Of articles are here to help. Read about everything from 4x4s and off-roading cars to convertibles, saloons and sports cars.

Now that we’ve covered all the essential information about off-road cars, you’ll hopefully have a much better idea about what it is you need from a 4×4. And if you need more information, check out the rest of our Best Of articles.