What makes a truly versatile and effective off-road vehicle? Does size come to mind first? It shouldn’t — that’s hardly all that matters when it comes to building the perfect off-road beast.
What makes a real off-road vehicle can be broken down into several different characteristics:
When you travel over rough terrain, you’re going to need plenty of space between your undercarriage and the terrain beneath. Underbody damage is a risk if your vehicle doesn’t have adequate ground clearance over rocks, stumps, and boulders.
Even with proper ground clearance, off-roading can take its toll on the underbody of your vehicle. Protective skid plates will minimize, if not completely prevent, damage. Skid plates should cover rocker panels, gas tank, and the transfer case. It’s also smart to protect the differential, oil pan, and anything else that could be damaged by rock crawling.
While you’re at it, rock rails (aka sliders) are a good investment too.
The approach angle represents the steepest incline a vehicle can possibly climb without hitting the front bumper. A vehicle’s breaker angle is how steep of a crest it can travel over without bottoming out. Naturally, the departure angle is how steep a vehicle can tackle a decline without hitting the rear bumper. The key to having good angles has to do with ground clearance and a short wheelbase.
Wheel travel is crucial when traveling off-road. Keeping tires on a surface maximizes traction and stability. Many people prefer a solid axle as it provides more articulation. However, independent suspension provides a smoother ride for desert racing.
Low End Torque
You might think horsepower will get you through it, but it’s the low end torque that gets those wheels rolling through challenging terrain. A 4×4 with a torquey 4-cylinder that’s properly geared will outperform a big V8 that’s tuned incorrectly (and geared improperly).
Too many people have made the mistake of buying “cool” tires without actually buying good tires. We’ve written extensively about tires here on Mototstew – check out our posts:
- Picking Tires for Snow and Ice
- The Right Tires for a 4×4 That Commutes But Still Needs Grip
- How to Pick the Right Tires for Your Desert Dwelling 4×4
Most vehicles are equipped with open or limited slip differentials, which leads to inconsistent and/or difficult to predict behavior on the trail. When it comes to off-roading – especially the technical stuff – a locking differential is a great add-on. Not only do they provide consistent, predictable power on any surface, but they also come in different gear ratios that help unlock more power on the trail.
Obviously, it’s essential to be able to see where you’re going. If you can’t see the terrain ahead, you’re bound to find yourself in tricky situation sooner rather than later.
Light and Small
So finally we get to the point: big vehicles aren’t the be all end all for off-roaders. Small, lightweight vehicles make excellent off-roading machines. Their short wheelbases are a great when coupled with high ground clearance. Lightness equals nimbleness, so a 2,000 pound or so vehicle makes a great base for a good off-road vehicle.
Look for a vehicle with these features if you’re on the market, but don’t discard your current vehicle if it’s not perfect. Nearly any 4×4 can be made into a good off-road vehicle, 90% of “good” off-roading is the driver. 10% is the vehicle.
Still, with the right mods, you can accentuate the off-roading characteristics of your vehicle — check out our selection of deeply discounted parts (members-only) and get to work fixing up your rig!