How to Buy a Used Four Wheel Drive

Buying a used four wheel drive is no different than buying any other sort of vehicle. 4x4's are designed for a purpose and buying second hand simply requires inspecting some additional areas. It should be an emotionless process based solely on fact.

Which Model?
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- Start with industry reviews and look at specifications.

- If you have a 2 tonne boat then you need a 4WD capable of towing 2 tonnes.

- If it needs to act as a family vehicle then make sure your 2,3,4 or 5 children can use it comfortably.

- Make sure your wife/husband/partner finds it easy and pleasant to drive.

- If you plan on touring the Australian Outback then Toyota spares are easy to come by while a Porshe Cayenne transmission is going to be hard to source.

- Can I park the thing? Can my 70 year old wife/husband climb into the cab of a raised F250? Do I want to feed fuel into a V8? Am I ever going to use the 4WD function? All practical questions that only you can answer.

- If you approach the buying process with no desire for a particular colour - you expand your choices considerably. If you must have a 'candy red' four wheel drive then you have just rejected 97% of all available used vehicles.

Research, Research, Research

This is the point where you really 'buy' your used 4WD. You have 'X' amount of money to spend and you know which model you want..

Get hold of the local newspapers and Trading Post and work out which model 4x4 you can afford. Check the internet for used car sales. Determine which four wheel drive your money will actually buy. This process should take no more than a couple of hours. Used vehicles from a dealer will generally cost 15-25% more for the same car in a private sale.

This research process should narrow down your target vehicle. For instance - you have $10,000 to spend and want an 80 series Landcruiser. By studying the 'For Sale' ads you have determined that, on average, 10K will get you a 1995 model with 180,000km on the clock. Water finds it's own level and the fluctuations of the used car market follow much the same pattern.

Armed with this knowledge you can narrow down specific vehicles, keeping an eye out for bargains. $10,000 may buy an older model with really low kilometres and lots of accessories or a much newer model with a lot more mileage.

The Inspection

- Inspect the vehicle in daylight at the sellers home. This gives you some reassurance about the authenticity of the deal and gives you an opportunity to detect what sort of life your prospective new/old 4WD has had. Are wrecked cars and parts everywhere or does the seller own a boat? - indications that the seller may be a 'backyard dealer' or the car has been used for beach launchings.

- Dealers and many private sellers are masters at disguising problems in motor cars. Most people understand that first impressions are often the point where potential buyers 'get hooked'. Polished paintwork and tyre black are meaningless. The buyer needs to look beyond the pretty face.

- Early morning inspections are best. Choose clear daylight with a car that hasn't had the engine started. Insist on this. Tired engines display most of their faults at startup.

- Begin with the body by checking for panel damage and signs of panel repairs. Eyeball along seams for straightness and true lines. Check for variations in colour and make sure doors align properly when shut. Anomalies in these places may indicate repair work after being crashed. Panel repairs aren't necessarily an automatic red light - they indicate that closer inspection is required to confirm there has been no structural damage.

- Check for blistering paint and rust around windows, along roof gutters and around doors. Everywhere. Surface rust is not terminal but deeply ingrained corrosion doesn't improve by itself.

- While you are looking at the doors check the seals are intact and the doors seal against them. Badly sealed rear wagon doors are painful in dusty conditions, costly to repair and indicate lots of corrugated, gravel kilometres.


- Continue the search for rust underneath the vehicle. The beauty of four wheel drives is their ground clearance and the ability to get right under for a decent inspection.

- Get an overview of how much off-road work the car has done. Scratches, dents, broken or missing bash plates and dented diff housings all paint a picture of a hard life.

- Look for cracks in the chassis, subframe and springs and check along rails and channels for residual sand or mud and consequently rust. Check the inside of the tyres for signs of abrasion and chipping.

- Check grease nipples along the suspension components and drive shafts for grease - indicating good maintenance or a lack of it. Bushes around suspension mounts should be firm and intact.

- Oil leaks are giveaways of potential problems. Oil stained concrete driveways reveal a lot about the car that parks there.

- Good four wheel drives are designed to be taken off-road and shouldn't be rejected out of hand. Just ascertain, as best you can, that the car you're looking at hasn't been thoroughly abused.

The Engine Bay

Again, try and get a general idea about the sort of service life the car has had by it's appearance under the bonnet. Are cables and fluid lines secured and neatly arranged and does everything have an original factory look? Mismatched bolts and general untidiness under the bonnet point to lots of mechanical repairs. Badly sealed air boxes, parts vibrated lose or worse, lost and discarded, should all generate suspicion. Has the engine bay been tidied up for the sale?

- A quick degrease hides many sins but residual oil around switches, covers and seals can reveal ongoing problems.

- An engine bay coated in CRC or WD40 tells you that you are dealing with a seller that understands the power of first impressions.

- Remove the radiator or coolant reservoir cap (cold) and inspect the colour of the coolant. Rusty brown water is a sign of neglect, especially in engine blocks made from alloy. Check for oil in the coolant - pointing to a transfer of engine oil into the cooling system - potential head problems.

- Lift the engine oil filler cap and look at the underside for black sludge (tired motor) or milky residue (cooling problems).

The Interior

The interior of a four wheel drive will usually reflect the sort of care that has been taken with the vehicle over it's lifetime. Upholstery in good condition with intact trim with no dangling visors or handles reflects a careful owner who probably took the same care mechanically.

Silt in crevices shows that you may be dealing with a car that has suffered flood damage, as do peculiar mouldy smells. Mould may also indicate leaking windscreens and body panels and a history of water leaching into the cabin.

Worn steering wheels and calapsed drivers seats point to big kilometres.

The Test Drive

- Before you start the vehicle select each gear in a manual gearbox checking for sloppy engagement and noisy linkages. Do the same once the engine is running with the clutch depressed. Gear shifts should be slick and smooth. Make a final assessment while driving.

- Look for difficult starting and excess smoke. Any engine in good condition should start easily without 'special tricks' and idle from the get-go in a smooth fashion.

- Listen for engine rattles and squeaks while cold. Hot oil and engine temperature hide unusual noises.

- Turn the steering wheel lock to lock listening for a strained power steering box .

- Pull gently away with the park brake engaged to check for hand brake integrity.

- The clutch should 'engage' or 'bite' midway along it's travel. A clutch that engages fully from the top or bottom of it's stroke is an indication of wear or bad adjustment.

- Warning lights should operate on start-up and temperature and fluid levels remain constant and normal.

- Listen and Feel for clunks, knocks and thumps coming from drive shafts, CV joints and differentials.

- Try and drive in as many different conditions and surfaces as possible. If you are buying a four wheel drive you have every right to test it in 4WD.

- Try High and Low Range 4WD and check differential locks for soundness. Test 'economy' and 'power' ranges on automatics.

- Finally, test for a worn engine of fuel injector system by accelerating hard and looking for clouds of exhaust smoke.

The Legal Bits

The VIN plates under the bonnet should match the registration papers as should the owners address.

Check the manufacture date on these VIN plates against the registration also.

Most states have a registration and encumbrance check which in many cases can be completed by a quick phone call. It doesn't matter how much you paid for a used four wheel drive - if the bank or someone else owns the vehicle then it was never yours.

The Extras and the Deal

Sellers often claim justification for an inflated price for perceived extras and accessories. Is is just that - a claim. A thousand dollar winch is not worth a thousand dollars once it is purchased and bolted to the front of a 4WD. It is second hand winch. As such is worth whatever the market value is.

Likewise, big fat mud-terrain tyres or competition suspension. They are not "$5000 dollars worth of extras" if you wouldn't buy the brand and design yourself. It's a common sales trick designed to dupe buyers into a deal.

On the other hand, fairly point out faults that will require expenditure to remedy and attempt to negotiate a better price. Bargaining is acceptable and usually expected, especially from dealers. The used car business often resembles a poker game.

If you think you've located the right four 4x4 for you and the year, kilometres and condition seem fair then it's good advice to seek out a professional inspection by a mechanic or motoring organisation. A compression test can reveal unseen issues. Make a list of anything that bothered you during your inspection and ask for a thorough investigation of those areas.

Finally - never be afraid to trust your gut. Walk away, or investigate further if something just doesn't feel right.

The article 4WD Accessories, What do you need? offers some tips on outfitting a four wheel drive.

Reviews of our favourite off-road vehicles can be found in 'Classic 4x4 Reviews' in the Four Wheel Driving section.

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