Project Budget 4×4: In the rough stuff

I’ve spent many days this week writing a Blog all about our new lives, with an in-depth look into our escape from the rat race, changes in personal outlook and what it’s like to live with sod all income. Turns out I’m rubbish at it, but happily my wife isn’t so if you haven’t already, head to Growing Things and Making Things.

I may revisit my feeble attempts at telling our life story at some other point, but for now, it’s back to the cars.

Like an excited child awaiting Christmas, for some reason I was very, very excited about heading out to tackle the Byways of Nant-y-Moch in my budget 4×4. I was joining a trip organised by West Wales Laning, who quickly became essential buddies when I decided that I rather liked getting off the asphalt track. My group was led by a chap in a Land Rover Discovery – they’re very popular as they’re cheap and very capable – with me second and a Range Rover L322 bravely following, as well as a Land Rover Defender.

Ford Maverick laning

This is what it's all about. Off-the-tarmac fun!

I guess some of the excitement was sheer anxiety. I’d done my research, but would the Maverick actually be any good in off-road conditions? Not that it is technically off-road. These are public highways which just don’t have a surface. Ramblers please take note. We are good 4x4ers who stick to the routes we should do. We don’t just go tearing off where we like – though sadly some must always spoil it by doing whatever they want.

I quickly learnt that the Maverick really is very capable in the mucky stuff. The only real downside was a ride which was rather unyielding. By the end of the day, I’d had enough of being bounced around. I’m sure the Range Rover was easier on the spine. The Maverick coped with driving on three wheels at times, displayed impressive axle articulation, refused to conk out when subjected to bonnet-high waves of water and clambered over all obstacles, often with ease.

This is immensely pleasing. I wanted to prove that buying at the bottom of the market needn’t mean a compromise when it comes to green lane fun. Perhaps I have. After all, while the L322 Range Rover was mightily impressive, I bought my Maverick for the cost of a pair of second-hand Xenon headlamps for the Solihull luxury machine. It’s all clever stuff, and very effective, but buying cheap and keeping it simple worked just as well.

And the Maverick really is simple. The basic 4-wheel drive system – rear-wheel drive for most conditions, with selectable four-wheel drive via a high-low ratio transfer box – is similar to that used on Land Rovers for decades. Yes, the limited slip differential at the rear is quite fancy, but it compensates for less suspension travel than a Land Rover possesses. There is no centre differential, no traction control and certainly no Hill Descent Control.

That the Maverick is good off road really shouldn’t be a surprise. While Toyota’s Land Cruiser gets all the plaudits for toppling the once-mighty Land Rover, the oft-forgotten partner in crime was the Nissan Patrol – a car many Australians rate ahead of the Toyota. The Maverick is a Nissan in all but badge and the Blue Oval had very little to do with the design. As part of the first wave of ‘soft’ roaders, the Maverick actually isn’t very soft at all. Few compromises have been made on the off-road ability, even though the on-road performance is surprisingly strong.

The project looks to have been a success then. So far, the only fly in the ointment (other than brake issues…) is a slightly disappointing 22mpg. I look forward to seeing if I can top that figure, as in its off-road ability and in its everyday-practicality and ease-of-use, the Maverick has become a car I really quite like.

Project Budget 4×4: Off the tarmac at last!

I didn’t actually set off from home with the intention of tackling some local byways, but found myself in Nant-y-Moch. I’d gone for a drive primarily to get some new photos of the Maverick and also to help the new brake pads and discs bed in. The Nant-y-Moch area has many byways, though still some idiots insist on heading off-piste. I always stick to the routes signposted by Tread Lightly as I consider myself a responsible 4×4 owner.

On the drive over there, while I checked that my injured back was up to it, I began to compare the Maverick to the Range Rover I owned last year. The Range Rover was the first European 4×4 that made any attempt to behave like a car. It was quick, comfortable and handled well. That was by the standards of 1970 though, and by 2011, my 20 year old Rangie felt far too much like a wallowy barge.

The Maverick behaves much more neatly, with controlled bodyroll and a surprisingly comfortable ride for such a short 4×4 – though it can’t match the Rangie for sheer comfort. It beats it hands down for handling though, with a delightfully sharp turn in. You do have to be careful though. It’s rear wheel drive only on the road, with a limited slip differential and the short-wheelbase combining to make a spin an easy possibility if you aren’t careful. I am careful, but I do bear it in mind.

After a pause for photos, I decided to tackle one of the Nant-y-Moch lanes. I know it pretty well, so I knew that there shouldn’t be anything too challenging. Heading away from tarmac on your own is always a risk though, especially in a new vehicle.

Ford Maverick green lane

The Maverick tackles a Nant-y-Moch byway

Once on to the rock and gravel track, I dropped it into 4-wheel drive and the low ratio gearbox. That gives greater control and as this lane is mainly rocky, and I was not wanting to damage my back, I would be travelling slowly. Initial impressions were good. While the ride was firmer, I wasn’t in any pain and a few tricky sections were tackled without a lack of traction.

Pictured is a sinuous, rocky climb up a very narrow passage. The Maverick seemed to be handling this fine, and while the petrol engine lacked the lugging torque of the Range Rover’s diesel, it was making light work of this. All good.

Then I got stuck. One very rocky section required maximum flex from the suspension. I hadn’t considered that it would struggle here as the Range Rover just plodded through here using its massive axle articulation to keep all wheels on the ground. The Maverick came to a wheel-spinning halt. I tried a bigger dose of power, but it was no good. No traction here, despite that limited-slip rear diff.

The only option was to reverse. This is the good thing about getting stuck on an incline. It’s usually quite easy to get yourself moving again. I then tackled the section with more momentum, in low second. This time – and no doubt with at least one wheel waving in the air – it cleared the obstacle. Phew!

For a modern 4×4, the Maverick actually has pretty decent axle articulation, but chatting with friends on the Nissan 4×4 Owners Club, it seems likely that the rear anti-roll bar is hampering flexibility. The advice is to remove it, but I shall consider this decision for a little longer yet.

There then followed some icy fording sections, reminding me that it had been very cold out this way recently. Thankfully the depths were not an issue and I was soon able to return to the beaten track once more.

So, there we have it. My first off-road spell and I’m pretty impressed. It struggled with axle articulation, as I suspected it might do, but I did not get irretrievably stuck and it felt very capable. A longer, more challenging route will be attempted as part of a group this coming weekend. I shall report back.