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A hard-headed approach to buying a used 4WD


A used 4WD can save you thousands, but there are some tricks of the trade you need to be aware of.



You need a 4WD wagon or ute, but the budget won’t stretch to a brand new vehicle: what are your options?

Read through our stories in this 4WD Buying Advice section that help you decide between petrol and diesel, auto or manual and ute or wagon choices.

Then understand the task you need the vehicle for. If it’s for daily driving and frequent bush trips you really need a low-mileage vehicle, or one that’s been thoroughly inspected and warranted.

Some used 4WDs still have remaining original manufacturers’ warranties and those contracts may or may not be transferrable. Don’t assume warranty can be transferred: make sure by contacting the original maker or the warranty issuing company if the warranty is an extended one.

Used vehicles with extended warranties carry a relatively high price tag, but should make a much better purchase for long distance driving.

Buying a ‘tired’ 4WD that has very high mileage is asking for trouble, unless you have the mechanical background or backup to do a recon job before you set sail.

However, if your driving is short haul, a high-mileage 4WD mightn’t be such a bad deal.

Advantages of older 4WDs are fewer electronics and less emissions kit that can be high maintenance and beyond the capabilities of small-workshop mechanics.

The downside of older vehicles is less in the way of dynamic safety (ABS, EBD, ESC, TC) and passive safety (SRS, NCAP) equipment.

Get onto the many 4WD forums that list common vehicle problems. Some of these contain rubbish, but you’ll soon sort out the wheat from the chaff if you’re patient.



Inspection time


If you’re shopping in the broader used 4WD market you’ll need all the help you can get.

It’s handy if you can find some provenance for a 4WD you’re interested in. Best is when you know the owner, the vehicle and its history.

Regardless, you need to know the service history of any 4WD you‘re considering. Carefully inspect the service logbook, making sure that maintenance has been done. More than one logbook has been fraudulently filled out, so take time checking it.

A dyno report on engine output at the rear wheels is an ideal way of checking powerplant condition.

If it’s possible to take an oil sample for analysis from engine, transmission and rear axles, do it.

‘Repos’ are high-risk, because maintenance is often overlooked when finances are tight.

If you’re not sure of your mechanical aptitude to assess a used 4WD, take along someone with experience, preferably a mechanic.

A walk-around will give useful early impressions, if you’re not dazzled by desirable brand, accessories and paint.

Up front, pop the bonnet and inspect the engine bay. Beware mechanicals that have been glossed to look clean and shiny, because that varnish may hide perished rubbers, rusty fittings and filter housings that haven’t been opened for months.

Check for cracked drive belts and white or green stains that suggest coolant leaks.

Suspension and steering components should show signs of greasing and tyres should display even wear, without ‘feathering’ and with no sidewall or tread damage. Don’t forget to check the spare.

Disc brakes are easily inspected for wear and pad life: drums not so easily. In the case of disc brakes check the surface of the rotor. (Some disc systems require a complete hub and rotor replacement when the rotor is worn.)

Start the engine – looking for excessive start-up smoke – and turn on the lights and emergency indicators.

If the engine blows smoke check the tailpipe to determine if it is oil (blue) or fuel (black). Check oil pressure and temperature readings.

If the engine has been run before you arrived that may mask cold start-up problems.

Turn the steering from side to side. It should not clunk and the power steering pump should not make any noise.

Leave the engine running while you inspect the vehicle thoroughly.You can check for transmission rattle while you examine everything else.

Make sure the air conditioning is working during this inspection period.

Check the body and chassis for signs of loose bolts and rivets, and cracking. Check the bodywork and the inside of the chassis rails (the outer side will have been cleaned) for any signs of rust.

The 4WD interior tells a lot about driving history, because it’s possible to silicone-gloss-over, but not hide, damaged trim. Look for holes drilled into the trim or the cab metal.

Windows should go up and down without problems and all glass should be in good condition.

Instruments and controls should all work, of course. Check all the lights as well.

The seats can also tell a story. Take off any protective seat coverings and inspect the upholstery and padding for damage. Check that the seat adjustment mechanisms work properly.

With the engine off and park brake engaged, slide underneath and look for signs of regular driveline and rear suspension maintenance. Check shock absorbers for leaks and worn bushes.

Look for leaks from the powertrain and fuel tank. Are the fuel hoses or pipes damaged?



The test drive


A test drive is essential, of course. Make sure you can adjust the seat and mirrors to suit your shape.

Check that the clutch action is smooth and that you can feel the clutch engagement point. Gear engagement should be easy and noise-free.

Check that low range selection works easily and free-wheeling hubs (if fitted) engage and disengage easily.

An unladen 4WD should idle off from rest without any driveline shudder. Steering action should be smooth, without any friction points.

Make sure you develop ‘feel’ for the brake pedal before you drive on a public road. The 4WD should pull up straight and without noise when the brakes are applied.

Suspension condition is hard to judge on a short drive, but there should be no rattles or squeaks from the suspension.

An easy test ofshock absorber action is to feel the shocker bodies after your test drive: they should be warm to the touch. Generally, the left-hand shockers work harder than the right ones, so expect the left side shockers to be a little warmer.

Your inspection and test drive results will reveal some issues that may influence the final deal. Don’t go ahead if you’re unsure of the vehicle’s condition.

Good luck!



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