Years ago we used to be involved in 4WD of the year and camper trailer of the year award testing and judging for several different magazines and that experience is why we don’t make any such awards these days.
Back in our magazine days we’d spend at least one week every year evaluating and judging differently named, but similar 4WD of the year and camper trailer of the year awards. The criteria for entry was a 4WD or camper that had been launched in the previous 12 months, so the annual winner wasn’t necessarily the best vehicle in its segment, just one of the newest.
To get onto a judging panel back then you needed to have plenty of off-road driving experience, in vehicles that had none of today’s ‘mod-cons’, including satellite navigation and traction control. You also needed to know how to do mechanical repairs, snatch-strap recovery, hand-winching, wheel changing and flat-tyre repairing.
The procedure was roughly the same each time: head out of the city with a convoy of around eight finalist vehicles – loaded to around two-thirds gross mass rating – driven by experienced journos and independent industry experts, in the company of a photographer or two and drive them on beaches and fire trails, as well as secondary bitumen and a variety of gravel roads. We’d camp some nights and go to motels on others.
On the final day, we’d fill in score sheets that covered all aspects of fit and finish, interior comfort, cargo capacity, safety, vehicle behaviour on and off road, as well as judging ease of servicing, warranty conditions, and the availability of accessories and after-market modifications.
Then came negotiations and arguments, before a final decision was made.
In the early days, when the 4WD awards didn’t mean all that much, the judging was straight-up, but, as award significance increased, so did subtle pressures. Magazine editors were the senior judges on these events and could ‘encourage’ judging scores that favoured one make or another, depending on the amount of advertising that brand put into the magazine. Not all editors succumbed to that pressure, but many did.
Another load on judges was ‘peer pressure’. Much of the buying public identifies with one brand or another, so there was always a risk of alienating magazine readers by picking a winner that didn’t have popular appeal. One such instance was the year that one judging panel clearly thought the then new, all-independent-suspension Grand Vitara was an absolute stand-out – even on some pretty hard-core trails – but the voting eventually went the way of a more ‘blokey’ machine.
As the years rolled by, the award process became more complicated. Firstly, the need for more dramatic photography meant that more time was spent on setting up photos than on actual testing. Where in the early years of 4WD awards the ‘shooters’ had to fit in what the journos and experts were doing, the photographers progressively dictated the schedule. That situation became much worse when video came on the scene and our insiders on a few of these recent awards have told us that there’s no time for real testing these days.
Then came the desire by magazine publishers to reduce the cost pressures of doing awards. A week or more away dictated food drink and accommodation expenses, plus the cost of employing additional experts and freelance journos. One publisher’s ‘solution’ was to use cheaper labour: fledgling journos without much bush travel experience.
The next money-making step was to invite award ‘sponsors’ – typically after-market equipment suppliers – who used the exposure of their sponsorship to commercial advantage. Soon, that sponsorship involved bringing their own modified vehicles on the judging event to star in some of the photography and video footage. This was yet another distraction from the main purpose.
Another reason we tired of the drama of ‘best 4WD’ judging was that very few such new-vehicle purchases remain in factory-standard condition. Most 4WD buyers make changes to their new vehicles, to better suit bush travel.
Suspension and tyre changes are the most common and we know from the experience of driving many such modified wagons and utes that the changes transform the standard machines’ behaviour – some for the better and some for the worse. However, the point is that it seemed increasingly stupid to be giving out annual awards for standard vehicles that most buyers would modify!
In the case of camper trailers, the award process became something of a joke, when some publishers charged camper makers an entry fee – around 10 grand we’ve been reliably told: no up-front payment; no possibility of an award. How can anyone judge a product fairly if its maker has paid plenty of dollars and expects a return on that investment.
Another issue that caused the most number of feedback complaints from magazine readers was that the annual award often went to a vehicle that was far from the best in its class – just the best of the ones launched that year. It was a blatant pursuit of advertising revenue.
Novice-judge mistakes are much more common these days. We’ve read several award reports where no-one measured tyre pressures every day, before testing. That’s basic stuff, because you can hardly criticise ride and handling if you don’t know what the tyre pressures are. Also, most awards testing is done with lightly-loaded or unloaded vehicles – even utes.
Nearly all standard ute brands have picked up awards at one time or another, but all of them without exception need rear suspension changes if they’re tested towing a rated 3500kg trailer with a rated 350kg ball load.
Nearly everyone who buys a big Yank Ute or a LandCruiser 200 or 300 Series intends to tow, but awards testing doesn’t usually involve checking out the contenders pulling a heavy trailer. Yank ute rear suspensions are designed for heavy ball weights, but LandCruisers definitely are not.
One website’s 4WD award went to the petrol-powered Patrol, for the best seven-seat-SUV gong. That’s fine, unless you want to: put cargo drawers and a fridge in the rear, where the floor isn’t level; tow a heavy trailer and watch the rear suspension drop to the bump-stops; buy fuel for it in the bush, where very, very few servos sell the 95-98 octane petrol that the Patrol engine demands. You can get only Opal 91-octane petrol in most bush centres.
Land Rovers and Range Rovers regularly pick up awards, despite the fact that their intercoolers are located at the ends of their bumper bars, where even a low-mass animal strike causes a leak that disables the vehicle.
Many SUV brands win awards, although nearly all of them have run-flat tyres, toy spares or just a can of tyre sealant, instead of a proper spare wheel and tyre. None of these is suitable for travel anywhere in Australia outside cites and large towns.
The lessons of hindsight
Image from the Lemon Caravans-RVs in Aus – Facebook group
Apart from the pressures of running such award processes there are the much more relevant considerations of judging reliability and longevity. Buyers want to know how good a product is over the long term; not just a week.
Short-term testing a new 4WD or camper won’t tell you anything about its reliability or longevity. Unfortunately, only time can allow judgement of those criteria.
When we served on many award evaluation panels over the years, there was always the lingering doubt after the votes were cast: will this choice prove to be a good vehicle as the years of use roll by? Unfortunately, over the years, all judges – including us – have voted for vehicles that proved to be less wonderful in the long term!
That’s why we don’t have vehicle or camper of the year awards at Outback Travel Australia. The only guidance we can offer 4WD and camper buyers is to analyse our test results and see if they align with their needs. The next factors to consider are the reputation and after-sales support of the maker. Most European brands have no dealers outside major population centres.