x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

When it comes to the right SUV, new isn't always the best choice

Sometimes an older 4x4 can serve your needs better than a new one.

As much as I appreciate the latest evolution of a car model, for off-roading purposes I remain stubbornly convinced that a used vehicle is preferable.

Personally, I want my off-roader to be built like a tank, with high, metal bumpers; not soft, rounded plastic decorations hanging down and just waiting to be ripped off. I also want it easy to fix in the field, with the minimum amount of electronic parts. I want to drive it through thorny bushes and scrape it through tight gorges, and look at each scratch with pride as a seasoned battle scar. And I want it to be unique, and modified to suit my preferences, with auxiliary lights and high-lift jacks and axes bolted to the roof rack. In other words, I want a used vehicle.

But not just any used 4x4 will do. There is a clear hierarchy of desirability based on reputation of reliability, sturdiness, performance and of weaknesses, too - some models are known to overheat, or have a low-hanging radiator, or are difficult to fit larger tyres to.

And so, here is my top list of older 4x4 vehicles: any Toyota Land Cruiser - yes, even the old tractor-engine FJ-40 (engine can be replaced); any Nissan Patrol, especially the Y60 (1987 to 1997) short wheelbase, known as the old box-shape - the famed "capsula" in Arabic. These two models have withstood the test of time and the abuse of dune bashers. If the local boys can't break it, buy it.

Following closely behind would be the Range Rover Classic, which must be a V8 petrol, and the YJ Jeep Wrangler, up to 1995, with the venerable 4.0L in-line six engine which runs on leaf springs. I wouldn't mind an older Jeep Cherokee, either, but with the spare tyre on the back, not inside and certainly not underneath.

In any case, and beyond personal preference of the model, an older 4x4 must be inspected carefully before purchase. I would budget an extra 30 per cent on top of purchase price for repairs and a full overhaul, and carry them out immediately after the purchase. I would also budget a further 30 per cent for useful modifications to turn it into a fire-breathing desert beast (legally, of course - no turbo or other prima donna mods: reliability is not worth compromising for power).

I would inspect the engine beyond listening to it - a pressure gauge will read the compression of each cylinder, determining piston ring wear and the condition of the head gasket. The gearbox and transfer case must be smooth, even under pressure, and the differential gears must make no creaking noises or jerking movements. The rest I can repair quite easily: radiator, water pump, driveshafts, wheel bearings, brake disks, exhaust systems, I would consider them all consumables.

In the end, a used vehicle is a bit of a gamble but, with a good inspection when purchasing, and a strong focus on repairs and maintenance, an older 4x4 will outperform and outclass most new vehicles off-road, with its mechanical simplicity and tough personality.