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GG van Rooyen: Can a 4×2 do 4×4?

2 January 2015

I recently wrote a column titled “It’s not about the 4×4”, and made the argument that less time should be spent on upgrading and fiddling with 4x4s and more on actually getting out there and travelling the continent. In other words, it’s not about the 4×4, it’s about what you do with it.

However, Leisure Wheels reader Sam Wood, upon glancing at the heading of the column, assumed it was an impassioned defence of the humble 4×2 – an argument that a two-wheel-drive vehicle can be just as competent an overlander as a 4×4.

Well, to Sam’s disappointment, that wasn’t the focus of the article, so he wrote a letter (published in this edition) asking for help in figuring out just how capable his 4×2 Isuzu KB is. The letter got me thinking, so I’ll do my best to address the issue here.

As mentioned, Sam has a 4×2 Isuzu KB bakkie. While it may lack a 4×4 system, it does boast some features that make it well suited to off-road driving. It has decent standard ground clearance, high-profile tyres and a rear diff lock. Sam has also fitted a handful of nice aftermarket accessories, such as a replacement bull bar and a suspension lift.

All of this ensures that the 4×2 KB can deal with bad gravel roads, and handle rock-strewn tracks and deep ditches. Thanks to that rear diff lock, the bakkie even has a fighting chance when things get really hairy.

The rear locker locks the two sideshafts of the rear axle together, ensuring that the same amount of torque is sent to both wheels, even when one of them is in the air. Without the locker, the differential would send power to the wheel that is easiest to rotate. So, if one rear wheel is in the air on a rear-wheel driven vehicle, spinning uselessly while the vehicle remains stationary, the driver has a real problem. A recovery lurks in the immediate future. The diff lock ensures that power is distributed equally between the two wheels, regardless of the speeds of rotation, which can obviously be a huge help.

That said, a rear diff lock can only do so much on a 4×2 vehicle. It can help in a situation where there is a lot of wheel articulation, but getting adequate traction can still be a problem.

On a hard surface, a 4×2 with a rear diff lock and good ground clearance can do exceptionally well, but once the surface becomes slippery, the lack of four-wheel drive will quickly become apparent. On sand, in mud, or on a steep incline, for example, the fact that all four wheels are driving the vehicle forward is a huge help. With a bakkie (especially an empty one, where the driven wheels are not forced down by substantial weight), proper traction can quickly disappear.

Of course, another obvious shortcoming of a 4×2 is that it doesn’t have low-range gearing. Four-wheel drive is not the only thing needed to tackle difficult off-road terrain. A low-range transfer case is just as important, because it allows one to traverse tough terrain slowly and in a controlled fashion. Without four-wheel drive and low range, there is no option but to attack a difficult obstacle with a very healthy dollop of momentum, which usually results in loads of wheel spin, a damaged vehicle and a rather adverse impact on the environment.

You can’t take a 4×2 to the same sort of places that you can take a 4×4. Even if you somehow manage to conquer harsh terrain in a two-wheel drive vehicle, the excursion would probably result in an unacceptable amount of damage to the vehicle and the environment.

However, there are still loads of worthwhile overland destinations that can be visited in a 4×2. Not only is a local wilderness area such as the Cederberg a great destination in a 4×2, but there are also fantastic places you can visit in Namibia, Lesotho and Botswana.

I would recommend joining a forum such as, and asking members for advice and guidance. I’m sure they would be able to recommend some wonderful destinations.

We’d also like to invite 4×2 owners to share their adventures with us. We’d love to hear where you’ve been in your two-wheel drive vehicle. We’d also like to hear from owners of trails designed for 4x2s. All stories and comments can be sent to [email protected]