The best used 4x4s and what to consider when buying a winter vehicle
It’s getting colder and wetter out there and the road conditions are getting trickier.
For many people this is the time of year where they start wondering whether they need a car that’s more suited to snowy and icy conditions than their regular hatchback.
Whether or not you really need a rugged off-roader for winter comes down to where you live and what you use your car for but if you are looking for a second-hand car that can handle the worst of the weather we’ve come up with a list.
We’re not talking the endless stream of two-wheel-drive SUVs with their faux 4x4 looks, no we’re talking about proper four-wheel-drive vehicles that can cope with more than a fine dusting of snow.
We’ve also spoken to AA Cars’ James Fairclough to get some advice on what to consider when looking for a winter hack.
Land Rover Discovery
(Photo: Land Rover)
Almost no brand is more associated with rugged, capable vehicles than Land Rover. It has built its reputation on tough go-anywhere vehicles and even its most luxurious models are more capable off-road than most rivals. The Defender is its most iconic and rugged vehicle but by today’s standards, used models are crude, cramped and unrefined. Instead consider the Discovery - a more well-appointed seven-seater with Defender-like abilities.
Says James Fairclough: “Land Rover is synonymous with producing quality 4x4s and the Land Rover Discovery is one of the finest all-rounders they offer. It’s a spacious, practical seven-seater and is full of Land Rover’s best off-road attributes. It merges luxury and practicality making it a great choice for both urban and rural drivers. Its Terrain Response system permits the driver to adapt the braking, traction and stability control systems to drive safely in the worst of wintery conditions. It has separate modes for mud and snow, making winter driving far less challenging.
Its almost toy-like size means the Jimny won’t suit everybody but from the way it looks to the way it performs off-road this is essentially a mini Land Rover. Suzuki has a long history of building 4x4s and the Jimny is an astonishingly accomplished vehicle when conditions get tricky, with a proper four-wheel drive system and low-range transmission. Its not as refined or well-equipped as many modern cars but if you need a small, affordable but truly rugged vehicle it’s a good choice.
Says James: "The Jimny certainly stands out in a crowd, and has the look and capabilities of a genuine off-roader. This surprisingly small 4x4 will mostly suit drivers navigating rural roads, but its on-road dynamics have been vastly improved with recent models. Its flat roof makes it easy to brush snow off and mount cargo racks to, and there’s plenty of boot space. Unlike many SUVs, this isn’t a natural family car, however, as the back seats can be a bit of a squeeze. But if that isn’t the priority, and the requirement is navigating trickier driving conditions, then the Jimny hits all the right notes.
Toyota Land Cruiser
Imagine a car with the Land Rover Defender’s rugged abilities and the Discovery's creature comforts but built by the brand with the world's best reliability record. You’ve just imagined the Toyota Land Cruiser. A rival for both the Defender and Discovery, the Land Cruiser is a big, tough 4x4 with loads of space and a rugged reputation. Available with seven seats and a heavy duty diesel engine, it’s perfect for large families or people who tow. If it’s good enough for the UN to use in war zones, it’s good enough for Britain’s winter roads.
Jeep is another brand famous for its go-anywhere, do-anything models, first developed to provide cheap transport for American GIs. The Wrangler isn’t Jeep's most luxurious or modern-feeling model but it is the most capable. A proper high/low-range 4x4 transmission, enviable ground clearance and suspension that will soak up the worst potholes you can find make it a seriously rugged choice, just be aware that it’s on-road manners leave something to be desired.
James says: “The Wrangler is often bought for its iconic looks, and its famous shape still harks back to its US army roots. However, its interior and mechanics have been vastly upgraded since then, with the most recent models becoming lighter and more efficient than ever before. Where it excels is over rugged terrain, though recent upgrades have made it better on-road driving. It’s certainly not the cheapest car when compared to its rivals, but its incomparable, vintage look is the real USP.
Mercedes G Class
Ignore the more recent associations with premier league footballers and well-off drug dealers, the G Class (also referred to as the G Wagon) is a serious piece of kit. Originally developed by Mercedes in the 1970s for military use then put into commercial production, it's one of the brand's longest-lived model ranges. Its longevity is largely down to the fact it can go anywhere a Land Rover can thanks to a solid four-wheel-drive system and torquey diesel engine and has a reputation for being adaptable and reliable. Avoid blinged-up AMG models with 22-inch wheels and skinny tyres and you’ll have an expensive but eminently capable off-roader.
Dacia Duster 4x4
If your budget won’t stretch to a Jeep or Mercedes, James suggests a lesser-known compact 4x4.
“The Dacia Duster is a compact SUV that offers great value for money - this is especially the case if you’re looking for a secondhand version. The option of four-wheel drive, more than 200mm of ground clearance, anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) help make it safe and reliable when tackling slippery roads.
What to consider when buying a ‘winter car’
Whatever model of 4x4 you are considering James has the following advice on what to look out for.
“First, you should pay close attention to the quality of the tyres. The legal minimum tyre tread depth in the UK is 1.6mm, but we recommend at least 3mm of tread depth for winter driving as this will significantly improve adhesion, steering and braking.
“If you live in a remote area of the country where wintery conditions are likely to be worse for longer, you might want to consider buying winter tyres or all-season tyres as they are made from a special rubber that gives better grip in cold, wet, snowy conditions.
“Secondly, you should consider ground clearance — and this is why SUVs and 4x4s are especially suited to snowy conditions. For bumpy, rough-terrain a higher ground clearance is better as it helps prevent the underbody of the vehicle from being struck and damaging the chassis.
“It is also important to consider buying an SUV or 4x4 with a dynamic chassis control (DCC)System or selectable four-wheel-drive modes. This type of system offers different driving modes which can adapt to various conditions. For example, an off-road mode or a snow mode will offer better driving characteristics on rougher terrain. These modes will provide better grip and will protect the vehicle against mechanical damage when driving on uneven surfaces. Most will also allow the vehicle to adjust the steering settings, suspension and other elements.
“Drivers should look out for traction and stability control, which have been standard in most vehicles since 2014 and were widely fitted before then. These control systems are variations of the same technology and use common sensors that detect swerving motions andminimise the risk of skidding even in treacherous weather conditions.
“Last but by no means least, you should consider getting your car inspected by a professional for added re-assurance to ensure that it is safe to drive in all weather conditions.”