Wheelers love to debate about what works and what doesn’t. Verbal punches thrown around a campfire or work bench often revolve around topics like lockers and tires as well as which vehicle brand is the King of the Hill. But another topic that really fires people up is Jeep versus fullsize.
Jeep owners like to point out how utterly amazing their short-wheelbase rigs are, while fullsize owners scoff and note the inherent benefits of a long wheelbase. Most of the time, the short-wheelbase crowd consists of Jeep Wrangler owners, but can include bobtail Broncos, Suzuki Samurais, Chevy Trackers, and the like. The long wheelbase contingent contains fullsize rigs like the Ford Super Duty, Chevy Suburban, and Dodge Ramcharger.
Like you, the Four Wheeler staff is always down for a debate and we’re as opinionated as it gets. With that said, each staffer was polled to weigh in with their preference of short wheelbase or long wheelbase in a given type of terrain. We chose the most common types of terrain that wheelers encounter (mud, sand, and rocks) and we also included general trail riding. Following are opinions from Four Wheeler Editor John Cappa, Technical Editor Sean P. Holman, and Senior Editor Ken Brubaker.
The goal of this piece is to provide food for thought for those who haven’t made up their mind as to what type of vehicle they want to own/build. Is short wheelbase the way to go, or is long wheelbase the answer?
From the thin, mega slippery stuff that appears after a rainstorm on Last Dollar Road, near Telluride, Colorado, to the deep, aromatic goo that’s found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Cappa: I’m a wuss. If I’m hitting mud I want a real windshield, hardtop, and glass windows that I can roll up. Considering my current fleet of 4x4s, that means I’m taking the long-wheelbase fullsize truck. But it’s not all bad. A short wheelbase typically wants to swap ends in the mud and quite often it won’t have enough power to churn the deep stuff that I like to hit (unless it has a swapped-in V-8 motor or tiny tires). I also want some pretty heavy parts underneath for when (not if) an axlehousing or steering component slams into some errant rock or root hidden in the mire. Lesser components can give up and leave you stranded in such a scenario. And I don’t like wrenching on things while knee-deep in the bog. Dinky Jeeps and other short-wheelbase vehicles just don’t have what it takes for me to make the most of a mud run. It’s like showing up to a Halloween party without a costume and with a keg of non-alcoholic beer.
Holman: Hate the stuff and try to avoid it at all costs, but if I had to do it and could choose my vehicle ahead of time, it would be an S-10 so that the agony would be over as soon as possible. Between a Jeep and a fullsize, I would pick the fullsize for a more stable platform (the long wheelbase is helpful to survive unforeseen pitfalls) and for the extra power to keep the wheel speed up. Also, the chassis is usually more robust. The only thing worse than being stuck in the mud is being stuck and broken in the mud.
Brubaker: Mud is the number one obstacle here in northern Illinois at the Four Wheeler Midwest Bureau. We have several water-saturated areas in our pastures and experience has taught us to avoid ’em like the plague. They’ll swallow all four tires faster than you can say “oh, crap” and leave your rig sunk to its belly. Typically, a long-wheelbase rig is going to weigh far more than a short-wheelbase rig, and that poundage means you’re going to have to compensate with wider tires to increase flotation. You’ll then need more power to spin those big meats and overcome the resistance of the mud. You’ll also need drivetrain upgrades so everything holds together. All of those things cost money. If I have to traverse deep mud on a regular basis I’ll opt for a short-wheelbase rig as long as it isn’t saddled with a bunch of aftermarket weight. Short-wheelbase rigs are great at skittering over the mud, and if they do get stuck their light weight makes ’em easier to retrieve. As a bonus, the short-wheelbase rig will be much quicker to clean than the larger long-wheelbase rig.
From beach roads to sand recreation areas to wicked, monstrous dunes.
Cappa: Sand is kind of a split for me. I love the ability to remove the windshield and slap on a pair of goggles before carving through the dunes, but when the wind kicks up you’ll feel like you’ve been loaded into a bead-blasting machine. I spent most of my early wheeling days powering through the Glamis, California, dunes in a 79-inch-wheelbase, V-8-powered Jeep. There’s not much you can’t do in something lightweight with plenty of power. And with the windshield off, rolling over is not that big of a deal. Truth is, most people roll or nearly roll the first time they try and drive through the deep dunes. It takes time to learn to read the sand and be able to predict where razorbacks, witches eyes, and soft spots will be. You’re better off learning in a short-wheelbase Jeep or a total pile that you don’t care about. But once you get the hang of it, a fullsize can be fun. There’s nothing like cruising through the middle of the deep dunes in a fairly typical fullsize 4x4. People on motorcycles, quads, and in sand rails just kinda stare wondering how the heck you got that thing out there.
Holman: I could go either way, but a Jeep that is geared properly with enough power trumps all. Nothing like light weight and maneuverability in the sand. Big trucks can be fun too, but they just don’t have that “sand buggy” feel that makes sand such a blast.
Brubaker: Driving on sand and playing in the sand are two vastly different things. For general driving on sand in places like the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Coos Bay, Oregon, and South Padre Island in Texas, I’ve found that stock, long-wheelbase rigs with aired-down tires work just peachy. They typically have plenty of power, they offer a smooth ride, and they have plenty of storage for all the things needed to sustain a full day or a camping trip on the beach. Heck, you can even unroll your sleeping bag in the back of a long-wheelbase pickup or SUV and sleep comfortably. Long-wheelbase rigs are often set up for towing, which means they have stout cooling systems for the engine and transmission, which can keep these components in their happy place temperature-wise during extended sand driving. However, if I wanted to romp wild in sand dunes I’d definitely choose a short-wheelbase rig. They’re agile, tossable, less likely to get high-centered on a dune, and they’re easier to recover if you get them stuck.
From trails dotted with melon-sized rocks to full-on boulders.
Cappa: If everyone else has a long-wheelbase fullsize, I want a Jeep. If everyone else has a short-wheelbase Jeep, I want a long-wheelbase fullsize. It’s not just that I want to be different, I want a challenge. That’s why I go four-wheeling. If I wanted it to be easy I’d leave the transfer case shifted into 2WD and stay on the street. Also, I don’t want to be spotted through a section of trail. If I wanted someone else to drive for me I’d ride in the passenger seat. For me, wheeling is a fun challenge and sort of a memory game. I try to recall where I want to place my tires and where I don’t. Having a spotter is like cheating on a test and stealing the answers from the guy next to you. It has nothing to do with ego, don’t steal my fun. Anyway, I don’t mind winching my short-wheelbase 4x4 up climbs that the long-wheelbase guys can drive right up, and likewise I don’t mind having to drive my long-wheelbase rig over different lines than the short-wheelbase guys.
Holman: I’m going to go ahead and throw a wrench in the works. For rocks, I want a long-wheelbase Jeep, such as the JK Unlimited or an “LJ.” They pack the perfect mix of size, maneuverability, and stability, while still being able to tackle the toughest obstacles. To me, a short-wheelbase Jeep is too sketchy on climbs and off-camber situations, and a fullsize is just too big to take the line I want, yet a long-wheelbase Jeep allows it to split the difference, hit the obstacles with the rest of the Jeeps, but take a more interesting line for the challenge of it.
Brubaker: Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but I’ll take a long wheelbase in the rocks. Through the years I’ve done a fantastic job of successfully damaging both short- and long-wheelbase rigs on rocky trails, but interestingly I’ve damaged less of the long-wheelbase rigs. Why? I dunno, maybe it’s because I actually pay more attention when behind the wheel of a bigger rig. I tend to choose lines better and be more cognizant of the rig’s sheetmetal. Be aware though, long-wheelbase rigs need more modifications to be self-sufficient in really big rocks, so they’re not for everybody. Boat sides and narrowing vastly increase their capability and lightening up the rig helps, too. Personally, I like the stability of a long-wheelbase rig when tipped every which way. A long-wheelbase rig may spend more time tethered to the winch cable, but that’s OK with me. It saves wear and tear on the drivetrain.
General Trail Riding
A potential hodgepodge of obstacles, whether deep in the woods, winding through a canyon, or high in the mountains.
Cappa: If I’m planning on general trail use, I typically want a fullsize, unless the trail is really tight. Why? Because I’m probably going camping. And it’s not that I need all the extra space for a hair dryer, portable shower, generator, or anything like that. I actually pack pretty light. But I hate unpacking nearly everything just to get to my cooler or snacks. And speaking of coolers, I like to bring a big one. There has to be plenty of room for frosty beverages and food. Big coolers don’t fit well in small vehicles. I also like to bring lots of firewood, and where better to store it than in the bed of a fullsize truck? Nobody wants firewood tearing up their interior, and putting heavy firewood on a roof rack negatively alters your vehicle’s center of gravity. In the end, you just can’t physically or conveniently fit as much stuff in a short-wheelbase rig. If you try, you’ll typically find yourself dependant on someone else to carry or bring something you need. I like to be self-sufficient. Also, a loaded-down short rig will never handle the bumps and whoops as well as a fullsize 4x4 carrying the same amount of gear.
Holman: For general trail riding, I’ll take the fullsize. I like having the extra room and if there aren’t hardcore obstacles in my way that extra space makes for more comfortable camping and driving. Plus, a fullsize can carry more of what makes you self-sufficient, allowing you to stay out in the backcountry longer. All things being considered, the long-wheelbase offers a much more comfortable ride for long days in the dirt.
Brubaker: You never know what you’re going to encounter when exploring a backcountry trail. If I was planning a trail tour I’d want to be planted in the driver-seat of a short-wheelbase rig. Why? Because I’d rather err on the side of caution and have a lightweight, agile machine. After all, there may not be a way around that stinky, deep mud hole or that towering sand dune. And the rocks they casually mentioned back at the general store/bait shop/tattoo parlor may turn out to actually be car-sized boulders. There’s an economic element, too. Most often, the short-wheelbase rig will be less expensive to purchase, it’ll return better fuel mileage, and replacement parts may be less expensive. Heck, you won’t need to buy as heavy a winch either, which’ll save you more green.
Obviously, the Four Wheeler staff has opinions that are as varied as the terrain we wheel. The take away is that choosing between a short- or long-wheelbase rig depends on a number of factors including where you live, how and where you wheel, and what kind of budget you have.