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Firing Order: What Makes a Good 4x4?

Posted in Features on February 21, 2018
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What makes a good 4x4? Is it gobs of gooey suspension travel? Locker-equipped diffs? Massive ground clearance? Sick approach and departure angles? All of the above?

By “good 4x4” I’m not referring to reliability in this piece, but rather functionality. My first 4x4 was a ’76 K5 Blazer, and I thought it was a good 4x4. It had a 4-inch lift and 36s (somewhat unusual in the early ’80s), which gave it good ground clearance for one of the biggest obstacles in my neck of the woods in northern Illinois farmland: deep snow. One time I went winter wheeling on unplowed seasonal rural roads with my friend who was driving his ’74 Dodge Ramcharger. His rig had no lift and stock-sized tires. The Ramcharger got stuck a lot—the K5 didn’t. He was less than enthused about his rig’s capabilities. However, during a summer romp on very off-camber trails near the Mississippi River, my K5’s taller center of gravity made for some creepy feelings, whereas he reported his Ramcharger felt stable. In that situation he probably felt he had a good 4x4. I was less than enthused about the K5 in that situation. I felt like I wanted to get my rig back onto somewhat level ground since I really didn’t want to flop my daily driver.

I have a brother-in-law who wheels almost every day. He’s a farmer and he regularly points his 4x4 into pastures and fields. His big concern is traction, because many times he’s pulling some sort of wagon or trailer and the soil is muddy or loose. His regular cab, Cummins-powered, manual trans Chevy 3500 flatbed dualie has mud-terrain tires and a rear locker. He purchased it new in 1995 and feels it’s a good 4x4.

Another brother-in-law of mine owns an excavating company and has a slew of 4x4s. However, his daily is a late-model Ford F-250 turbodiesel, and it’s called on to tow, haul, and wheel over some gnarly terrain. The truck is completely stock with a factory rear locker. The terrain and abuse that truck sees is evil, but it has been reliable and capable. He thinks it’s a good 4x4, even though it isn’t modified.

My old ’77 Scout, which I owned in the early ’80s, didn’t have hardly any mods, ’cept for aftermarket wheels and tires and some Rancho RS5000 shocks. But for the type of wheeling I did at the time, I considered it a good 4x4.

A friend of mine has a Jeep JK. It’s mostly a toy, and among other things has 44s, D60s, engine mods, an Atlas T-case, a sick long-travel suspension, and utterly amazing approach and departure angles. It has also met a Sawzall on more than one occasion. He trailers it all over the U.S. to wheel on mostly rocky trails where it easily creeps over nasty stuff. He’ll admit that the Jeep is a tad heavy and it isn’t a top performer when it comes to handling at speed, but it’s a wicked performer on the rocks. He thinks it’s a good 4x4.

The other day I was talking to a guy in Florida who has a mega truck. It’s about 10 stories tall, has a staggeringly powerful big-block, 2 1/2-ton Rockwell axles, and the suspension travel of a grocery-getter SUV. His truck is lightning fast and is unfazed by even the deepest mud. He thinks it’s a good 4x4.

A few years ago one of my friends had a compact, stock pickup truck. It had horrible ground clearance and lousy approach and departure angles. The little truck was pretty helpless off-road. However, he thought it was a good 4x4 because it got him to work when it was icy and he could use it to easily move firewood from his big ol’ woodpile to his back door.

Nowadays, many vehicle manufacturers are trotting out new 4x4s that have components that were recently only available in the aftermarket, like remote-res shocks and lockers. To some, these items are the things dreams are made of, while others simply don’t need a shock with increased cooling capacity or the ability to lock the differential in an axle. Some would label the new crop of trucks and SUVs as good 4x4s, while others would point to the 10-year-old rig in their driveway.

In the end, we’ll probably all agree that a good 4x4 is whatever gets the job done for its owner, whether it’s playing or working. How a 4x4 is modified, or not, reflects the type of wheeling the owner does.

Now it’s your turn. Email a high-res photo of your rig to and tell us a bit about your rig and the type of wheeling you do with it. If we get enough of ’em we’ll put together a readers’ rigs special in a future issue.

—Ken Brubaker

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