Hardcore 4WDers are going to hate me for this, and I brace for the incoming tsunami of ‘you’re an imbecile’ comments, but this piece isn’t about what I want or don’t want. It’s about what the manufacturers are foisting upon us whether we might like it or not.
Take gnarly rock-crawling and serious bush-bashing out of the equation. Situations where only the toughest of modified 4WDs will ever progress anyway. There remains a place for that, and there remains the situation where that kind of vehicle is the best or only option. In the future, though, you might need to source a second-hand vehicle if you want low-range.
My theory about the decline of low-range relates more to the 4WDing that most people enjoy: dirt tracks, exploring for campsites, sand driving, heading to the river on a fishing trip, family holidays into the bush. All the popular off-road pursuits. That makes up the bulk of off-road driving in this country, despite the fact that when you’re ensconced in the off-road community, it’s easy to forget that everyone isn’t as serious or dedicated as you.
Rusted-on off-roaders used to rubbish automatics when it came to towing and serious off-road work. Now, there’s constant correspondence claiming how much more appealing the Toyota 70 Series would be if you could get it with an auto. So much so, that there’s more than one business around the country offering that conversion as a drive-in/drive-out deal. Automatics won off-roaders over a while ago, and in many instances a manual makes things harder rather than easier off-road.
Serious, properly rugged off-road vehicles are pretty thin on the ground now in showroom-standard trim anyway – aside from dual-cabs that is. The new Land Rover Defender will be altogether different when it is finally released. The aforementioned Toyota 70 Series (which I absolutely love by the way) is a veritable dinosaur in 2018 terms, the Jeep Wrangler is still plugging away, and that’s about it.
Everything from the 200 Series and Patrol down have been softened off, fattened up with extra equipment, and focused more toward around town, on-road driving than heavy-duty off-road work. They do still have low-range, though. For now…
The whole idea of low-range gearing was always about making the toughest terrain easier and safer to tackle, no matter who was behind the wheel. Throttle response, low-speed crawling, best use of the engine’s torque delivery, low-speed descents – low-range was always about aiding tough off-road terrain in a precise manner.
Remember, too, that low-range was really only a solution given the simplicity of three- and four-speed manual gearboxes and primitive drivelines. Manhandle an old Land Rover off-road (or any ancient 4WD for that matter) and the genuine lack of power and torque from the wheezy engine, combined with a dodgy old gearbox, made low-range mandatory for proper off-road work.
Despite that, one of the most enjoyable off-road tests I’ve ever conducted was an original Nissan Patrol that had been restored. It was one of the most unfiltered driving experiences I’ve ever had behind the wheel of any vehicle.
However, vehicle manufacturing is changing, and multi-speed gearboxes combined with clever electronics are leading the charge. Yes, I know, the more electronics on board, the more that can potentially go wrong. It’s happened to me. I’ve been stuck in the middle of nowhere more than once during testing thanks to an unidentified ‘electrical gremlin’ in a modern 4WD. That argument won’t matter, though, when you have no option on the showroom floor. You’ll be back where I suggested above – with a second hand, older style off-roader.
Think about it. Electronic throttle calibration has already softened up the pedal feel and response. Switch to off-road mode and everything can be relaxed a little, so there’s no sharp acceleration when you don’t want it. Modern 4WDs deliver a pedal that is easier to modulate off-road than any old 4WD ever could.
Smaller engines are making more power and torque than older engines twice the size. Modern turbos spool up faster, thus suffering less lag, and there aren't many that leave you with a hole in the power delivery somewhere in the mid-range either, like boosted engines of days gone by. Engineering is therefore making redundant many of the reasons we needed low-range in the first place.
Electronics are also taking care of the best use of available grip now too. We’ve taken a full-time 4WD Amarok everywhere its dual-cab competitors have gone on numerous tests – without needing low-range. The Amarok has only required a rear diff lock (rarely) and clever electronics to match it with the field. Yes, none of the testing has been serious rock crawling, but that’s not the point.
If you’ve got only one tyre on solid ground, few things are smarter than retarding drive to the other three – and directing drive to the one tyre that isn’t kicking up a rooster tail of rocks and dust – to get you out of a sticky situation. I’ve watched it in action more than once, and the case for electronics is compelling.
Gearing seems to be the only contentious issue – and I reckon that is just about sorted now too. Let’s take a nine-speed automatic as a case in point. There are 10-speeders out there now too, of course, and it begs the question 'When is too many gears well too many?', but let’s work with nine ratios in this example.
Electronics now are so clever, it’s easy to have the vehicle set up so that when you’re around town in the default normal driving mode, the gearbox could start from fourth. That would leave first, second and third for super-low gearing, thus delivering an effective low-range system anyway. Around town, up to say 80km/h, you’d use fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, leaving eighth and ninth gears for highway cruising above 100km/h. Most vehicles with that many ratios are already scarcely using first gear anyway.
Low-range transfer cases add weight, they add a degree of complexity to the manufacturing process, and they therefore add cost. Manufacturers love reducing all three, so you can bet your snatch strap they will quickly phase low-range out if there is an effective alternative.
Low-range isn’t quite dead yet, of course. Hill descent control systems work, but they can overheat brakes under repeated use down long declines, and they aren’t as sophisticated as they would need to be to make low-range-enabled crawling extinct. Automatics also work their torque converters pretty hard under off-road conditions too, and proper low-range helps to offset that.
As I wrote above, automatic gearboxes have more than earned their keep. Those of us who suggested that diesel might be slowly on the way out seem to be earning their keep too. That might be closer than you think. Low-range might be next, and the death knell might not come from where you’re thinking it will come from either.
Your off-road future is almost certainly hybrid – and almost certainly a petrol engine paired with a sophisticated electric drivetrain.