The 10 4X4s we all forgot about

Whether you’re shopping for your first 4X4, on a tight budget, looking for a banger, or just don’t like being predictable, here are the 10 4X4s we all forgot about Words by Dave Morley, Evan …

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Feb 12 2020
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Whether you’re shopping for your first 4X4, on a tight budget, looking for a banger, or just don’t like being predictable, here are the 10 4X4s we all forgot about

Words by Dave Morley, Evan Spence And Isaac Bober, Images By Arnold Archive Article from Unsealed 4X4 Magazine

We can’t all drop a bag full of cash on a bright and shiny new 4X4 and it’s pretty predictable going straight for an 80 Series or even a GQ Patrol. So, we thought we’d dig through the archives for all the 4X4s we forgot about.

A couple of the vehicles on our list had twins under the skin, like the Holden Frontera and Isuzu MU and we’ll bet you even forgot about the early (proper 4X4) Kia Sportage (a regular in ‘Merica’s Four Wheeler 4×4 of the Year in the 1990s) and Sorento. And don’t forget the Hyundai Terracan which was, to all intents and purposes, a second-generation Mitsubishi Pajero.

All the vehicles on our list have near-cult followings in various places around the world and, with the exception of the Asia Rocsta, should have accessories and modifications to help you take them a little further down the track. The Rocsta’s on the list because just seeing it gets Jeep owners all riled up which is always a giggle, right.

All the 4X4s on our list will have been flogged just about to death by now (with the exception of the Mitsubishi iO which was ignored almost as soon as it arrived), so we don’t need to tell you that if you are keen on one, then make sure you read up as much about them as you can and have a good hard look at the thing before you hand over any cash. And if you do go ahead and buy something on our list, or already own one, we’d love to hear from you.

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The Frontera came along before the Millennium Bug failed to bite and was made at a time when Holden was sourcing its off-roaders from Isuzu. Meaning, it was made by Isuzu, in a factory in Japan with the Holden badges plonked on almost as an afterthought. The key difference was that the Frontera borrowed its 3.2-litre V6 engine from the bigger Jackeroo, meaning every one of the Frontera’s 151kW and 290Nm had a fair bit less work to do. And the result was a car that was not only smooth (unless you revved it right out) it was also relatively fleet of foot. Thirsty? Yes’m, and the official figure of 13.5 litres per 100km combined tells you all you need to know. And that was despite the part-time four-wheel-drive set-up that allowed it to run in rear-drive on the tarmac.

The Frontera could carry 700kg and was rated to two a 2000kg braked trailer. Offering a proper ladder-chassis construction, the Frontera It offers reasonable approach and departure angles and proper low-ratios in the transfer-case. It was a bit tight inside even with the five-door layout, and the interior itself was pretty nothing-burger when new and will now be the same burger but with added damage and grime. But these things are now super cheap and stack up pretty well in a no-frills, not-too-big-and-clumsy kind of way.

Price guide: $1500 to $3500

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Think of a Hyundai station-wagon these days, and it’s an SUV of some sort that will probably spring to mind. Wasn’t always that way. Long before the market started demanding jacked-up hatchbacks instead of proper off-roaders, Hyundai had a real ace up its sleeve with the Terracan. Hyundai had a technology sharing arrangement with Mitsubishi that went back decades. That deal allowed Hyundai, for the 2001 model year, to build what was essentially a second-gen Pajero, rebody it in its own, erm, style, and sell it as a Terracan.

As you can imagine, with all that Pajero-spec chassis and driveline tech under there, the Hyundai would go pretty much anywhere. The base-model got a part-time four-wheel-drive system while the flagship Highlander had a full-time system with an electro-magnetic centre diff. Both variants had a limited-slip rear diff. Unfortunately, Hyundai didn’t really nail the suspension settings on the torsion-bar front and live rear axle, so the ride could be a bit rattly and the handling a tad flighty, particularly across high-speed ruts and such. Off-road, though, the Terracan was extremely good and really took some stopping.

There were two engines from which to choose, a 3.5-litre V6 (that would also have been very familiar to Pajero owners) and, from the facelift onwards, a 2.9-litre turbo-diesel. The V6 was good for 145kW and the diesel for 120kW. Both could be had with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic and the latter is definitely the gearbox of choice when it came to the diesel with its loping gait and oodles of mid-range. The petrol was quieter and smoother at the limit, but you’ll pay at the pump and the V6 is a thirsty bugger.

In many ways, the Terracan with its optional seven-seat layout should have been a taste of what was about to come out of South Korea. But, like many a good off-roader, the SUV boom put paid to that and the idea of developing a proper off-roader lost its shine.

Price guide: $1800 to $11,500

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It looks like a wheelie bin made sweet, sweet love to a crop-duster. And then nine months later… Okay, so the Suzuki X-90 was truly a wierdo of the highest order, but because it was based on the first-gen Suzuki Vitara, and because it had proper low-ratio gears, and because it had a ramp-over angle to die for, it would actually go places off-road like a much bigger vehicle. The part-time all-wheel-drive system and auto locking hubs were par for the course back in the mid-90s, and so was the suspension with its MacPherson strut front end and live rear axle with coil springs.

So, yes, it would go bush pretty convincingly. But there was a catch. And that was that you could only go bush for short periods of time. And that’s because there was pretty much little to no storage space anywhere in the vehicle and because it had a teeny-tiny 42-litre fuel tank which, even with the relatively thrifty 1.6-litre engine, would only get you so far. By which time you’d run out of sandwiches and clean clothes anyway. Oh yeah, the limited space also meant a space-saver spare, so that was a problem, too.

The X-90 was shorter than an MX-5 and bizarrely was taller than it was wide. That meant surprising legroom in the cabin, but only two seats. It also meant that cornering at bitumen speeds was a bit more of a lottery than it probably should have been. On-road performance was leisurely with the little four-cylinder putting out 70kW of power and 132Nm of torque. It was a rowdy little devil when you revved it, too, but off-road, the relative lack of herbs was hidden by the Vitara-spec gearing. Frankly, the Suzuki is for day-trippers only, and those who don’t really care what their vehicle is saying about them.

Australia got less than 500 X-90s, so finding one for sale now isn’t impossible, but they’re not falling out of the trees either. At least you’ll be the only person looking for one that day.

Price guide: $1800 to $5000

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When we think of compact, Japanese-branded four-wheel-drives, it’s usually the Suzuki Sierra or even it’s great-grandaddy, the LJ50 that we first saw here in 1974 that pops up on our mental Google-screen. But we should also remember the Daihatsu brand, because the first compact, off-road-capable Daihatsu, the F50, hit the Aussie ground running just a handful of years later in 1978.

By 1988, that Daihatsu product had morphed into the Feroza, a tough little critter that was largely based on the Rocky range of utes and tray-backs, but used a three-door wagon body and an independent (torsion bar) front suspension. The good news was that the Feroza retained the Rocky’s part-time, transfer-case four-wheel-driveline as well as the ute’s ladder-chassis construction, giving it big-vehicle off-road smarts in a small package.

You could have your Feroza with either a soft-top or resin hard-top, but either way it was with a 1.6-litre petrol engine and a five-speed manual gearbox (a four-speed auto became optional in 1995). The engine was pretty noisy, a bit crude and made just 70kW or so (which wasn’t actually too bad form 1.6 litres back then). Which means on-road performance was leisurely. But off-road, the Feroza could really hold its own thanks to that rugged construction and the proper low-ratios in its transfer-case.

The short wheelbase meant it could feel a bit flighty at speed and didn’t ride corrugations too well, but it was a constant surprise back in the day at just how deep into the mulga a Feroza could be persuaded to venture. There was a surprising amount of interior space, too, although the rear seat legroom was more a function of the front seats not travelling back far enough for taller folks.

The trick now will be to find a Feroza with any life left in it. Plenty were modified for bush-bashing and plenty more were simply worked to death. Finding a low-kilometre example with no history of being flogged around the scrub? Pretty unlikely, but you never know. Oh, and watch out for bubbles in the radiator or milky oil that suggests a blown head gasket (and the reason the vehicle is being sold). In the end, the dopey, pointless Daihatsu Terios signalled the end of the road for the Feroza. No justice there, friends.

Price guide: $1000 to $5000

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The Pajero has a little brother that you might not know about, called the iO (said eeeee-ooooo which is Italian for I or Me). It never really took off in Australia, and they certainly aren’t a common sight in the bush. But that could be a good thing for clever buyers and those looking for a first-buy rig to build-up on a budget (read: means they won’t have been flogged).

It was available as either a three-door short wheelbase with a 1.6-litre engine with manual transmission or as a five-door long-wheelbase with a 1.8-litre engine and the choice of a manual or automatic transmission. Power steering, windows and mirrors, air conditioning, driver’s airbag, alloy wheels, engine immobiliser, driver’s seat height adjustment and centre diff lock. The LWB version got a rear LSD and remote central locking.

The iO really was the essence of Pajero distilled into a smaller package. It got a version of Super-Select that allowed it to be run in four-wheel drive on bitumen at speeds up to 100km/h. Indeed, the drive split was 20:80 until there was a loss of traction when the Viscous Coupling Unit would split drive 50:50. It could be locked in four-wheel drive high- or low-range.

The live axle in the rear, low-range gearing and typical Mitsubishi tough driveline means the iO is actually a small four-wheel-drive, not another soft-roader. They also look rather stylish and are relatively comfortable for their size too. Diff locks can be purchased through the aftermarket industry, as the rear diff is the same as used in the older 2.5L and 2.8L SWB Pajeros. A small suspension lift isn’t hard to arrange either; nor slightly larger tyres. Sure, the iO will never win any awards when it comes to suspension travel, but it would be the ideal truck to take camping or to the beach.

Price guide: $1900 – $6800

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It was the Nissan Terrano II that arrived here in 1997. The first-generation model had been available overseas for years, and the second-generation Terrano was designed and engineered by a team at Nissan UK’s European Technology Centre with production at Nissan’s plant in Barcelona. This is the same factory the Navara and Mercedes-Benz X-Class is built in now.

If you can deal with the dated boxy exterior (and interior too, really), these things are absolute bargains. This is because they are tough, reliable, simple to work on and have a good usable amount of interior space.

There were two engines available in Australia, a 2.4-litre petrol engine and a 2.7-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel (TD27); this engine is one of the best old-school turbo-diesels ever produced. The early arrivals were only available with a five-speed manual (regardless of the engine) and automatic free-wheeling hubs were incorporated in the front axle of the part-time four-wheel-drive system. Four-wheel drive high-range could be selected at up to 40km/h without needing to dip the clutch.

The front bucket-style seats are okay and while there’s decent head and leg room in the back, but the third-row seats are best left for kids or early teens as there’s no footwell for taller passengers to put their feet. The third-row seats can be removed for increased luggage space.

The Terrano is heavy and has a relatively high centre of gravity so care has to be taken when hustling it around on the blacktop…not that you’ll be doing too much of that. But off-road, the thing stood out from the pack with good travel suspension and decent approach and departure angles. The maximum braked towing capacity is 2000kg.

A Nissan Terrano would make for a very capable touring vehicle without breaking the bank.

Price guide: $1700 – $4100

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Yeah, I know, I know… a Kia isn’t what you would initially think of when it comes to going bush in a four-wheel-drive but in the late 1990s when other makers were beginning to build soft-roaders, Kia released the Sportage. And while it might be soft now, it was anything but back then.

At the time the Sportage was released, Kia was being helped out by Mazda and Ford, indeed the first-generation Sportage was born of a Mazda Bongo platform. While most of its competition was unitary body construction, the Sportage is a proper separate chassis job and could be had with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder making 94kW and 175Nm of torque (the motor was from Mazda) mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. It was permanent four-wheel drive with low-range gearing and a rear limited-slip diff.

Building one is also quite affordable it seems. For example, the springs from a TJ Wrangler fit the rear of the Sportage and give it a 3-inch lift for a nice easy upgrade and can then be matched to Toyota RAV4 shock absorbers. Diff locks are available from a few outlets overseas, as is differential reduction gearing for helping with larger rubber. Throw in a body lift (35mm seems to be the popular choice rather than 2-inch) and a set of 30×9.5R15 rubber, and you now have an insanely capable wagon for less than the price of an overseas holiday.

Price guide: $800 – $3800

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What, two Kias. Yep, these early rough-road Kias were actually pretty handy in the rough stuff and a far cry from the vehicles that carry their names now. Sure, despite motoring writers at the time waxing lyrical about the Mercedes-Benz M-Class-esque look of the Sorento, you’d have to be nearly blind, and looking at the thing from a very long way away to think it looks like a Merc.

But it was well priced and well equipped with early models getting a 3.5-litre (became a 3.3L in 2007) V6 petrol engine (145kW and 295Nm of torque) mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. It offered plenty of storage space (486 litres and up to 1849 litres with the back seats folded down), a flip-up tailgate window (like the Toyota Prado), three 12-volt outlets and even underbody protection. And it has a separate body and chassis meaning suspension travel was pretty good even if it did weigh heaps (2027kg). You can swap from rear-wheel drive to four-wheel drive at up to 80km/h via a rotary dial, but you’ll need to be stopped and in neutral to select low-range. It’s worth noting that ESP switches off in both high- and low-range, although traction control remains active.

The best buy is a Sorento running a 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel which arrived here in 2007 – the same time the petrol motor switched from 3.5L to 3.3L. The diesel Sorento offered 125kW and 392Nm and could be had with either a manual or automatic transmission, it was widely regarded as refined and grunty. There’s only 208mm of ground clearance but a lift and taller rubber would improve things.

Price guide: $1700 – $6400+

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They might look like the result of a drunken one-night stand between a Suzuki Sierra and a Jeep CJ, but is that such a bad thing? The Asia Rocsta is definitely a no-frills off-roader, which is evident when looking at the solid axles and leaf springs at both ends. Kia is responsible for distributing the Rocsta (Kia owns Asia Motors), and the engines used are Mazda units (the diesels are badged as Kia motors yet are copies of the Mazda R series) that were commonly found in Australia. This means engine and driveline parts are cheap and easy to come by. Body and trim parts are much harder to source though, as not many were sold in Australia (they sold 33 one year… yep, all year). Still, if you are chasing ‘the Jeep thing’ at Suzuki prices, the Asia Rocsta could be a fun toy; but only if you find one cheap enough.

The Rocsta wasn’t around for long. It launched in 1990 and was pulled in 1997 and was a passenger version of a Korean military vehicle which, if you look back far enough, would have started life as a rip-off of a Willys Jeep. Throughout the course of its life it went from looking like a Franken-CJ to a Franken-Pajero (first-gen).

Price guide: $2640 – $4000

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Even though it was a little soft in terms of its off-road credentials, the Ford Explorer was a real trend-bucker by being from North America AND being a bit ahead of the technology curve for this type of vehicle. Ahead of the pack? Yep, at least in terms of offering a five-speed automatic transmission as well as an Auto setting for its Control-Trac all-wheel-drive system that allowed the vehicle to choose the settings while you just hung on a steered. Like a lot of newer systems, it used an electro-magnetic centre diff and offered High, Low, and Auto four-wheel-drive settings.

The five-speed auto was seen in the first Explorer we got, a V6 and, if you ticked the box for the auto, you got a 153kW V6 with alloy construction. Opt for the manual (and we never heard of anybody who did) and you were stuck with an old, cast-iron V6 with just 119kW. The gearbox was clever, too, with smooth shifts and the ability to skip – depending on throttle position and load – either second or third gear on its way to fifth.

By 2001, the Explorer got a new version of the five-door station-wagon body and the option of Ford’s modular, 4.6-litre alloy V8. Suddenly, the thing had 178kW but it’s worth remembering that both the power and torque peaks were produced pretty high in the revs, so it’s not the slugger you might imagine. And being petrol motors, both the V6 and V8 could empty a tank pretty quick-smart.

Just to remind you that these were US-market cars, there was some dumb stuff happening. Domestic-market Explorers didn’t have a locking petrol cap, but Ford Australia wanted one. So, our cars got them, but that required a separate key to the one that worked the ignition. D’oh! Interior plastics were also pretty awful and overall build quality was patchy to say the least.

Interestingly, these things had independent front suspension, but the early version made do with leaf rear springs. The upgrade that ushered in the V8 option, however, truly went against US traditions by offering four-wheel independent suspension and coil springs on each corner. And if you paid the extra for the automatic, you also got a standard limited-slip rear diff.

Never a truly exceptional off-roader compared with the Japanese competition, an Explorer can, however, be a really cheap way into something with enough ability to make weekends fun. Ultimately, the locally designed and built Territory signed the Explorer’s death warrant, and that should tell you a lot about how the market viewed the latter’s off-road credentials. Watch out for stretched timing chians on the V8 engine.

Price guide: $1500 to $9000

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