Why do we squeeze a growing family of five into a single 4wd wagon?
Why not tow something?
At times we encounter some tough off-road obstacles along our routes. The main concerns include having to reverse out of any tight track and managing failed hill climbs. At times it takes us several attempts before we succeed in climbing up steep sand dunes or sandy banks. Not only would this be much harder to accomplish with approximately 1 tonne hanging off the back of the vehicle, but I'm not sure how you go about reversing back down after a failed hill climb attempt without jack-knifing the trailer. Until I either get comfortable with these issues, or start doing routes that don’t entail such challenging obstacles (not something you usually know in advance), towing is not in contention at this time. But I'm not completely opposed to the idea and would consider it further for less challenging trips.
We could significantly increase our cargo volume and payload by towing an off-road capable trailer. I’ve researched these quite extensively and have been very impressed with what is available out of Australia and South Africa. Setting aside the bloated and overweight end of the off-road camper trailer market (notwithstanding their often impressive suspension setups, at well over a tonne they're just too darn heavy to seriously consider towing off-road) there are a handful of trailers that look to have genuine off-road potential. Most are camper trailers, incorporating storage, a tent and kitchen. The Australian POD trailer, available as a camper or just an off-road gear hauler, weighs only around 400kg in its lightest format. The South African made Mission trailer (pictured to the left) is fully equipped from just 790kg. These best in class options undoubtedly have their temptations, but still I feel there would be a serious compromise to towing.
A bigger 4wd wagon?
The Pajero is the biggest 4wd wagon Mitsubishi makes, but there are bigger. Toyota 80, 100 and 200 series are all built on a wider platform that would allow a little more internal capacity. The relatively new Y62 Nissan Patrol is a beast, being even bigger than the full size Toyota’s by some margin, but is surrounded by controversy because it only comes with a 5.6 litre petrol V8 engine. This would be awesome to drive, but may not be practical for a heavily loaded 4wd going cross-continent and their may be limited spare parts availability. The Toyotas are certainly in contention and also have top end proven reliability. There’s really only one potential compromise to their added size, which is that in some places their width will be a disadvantage off-road. As this picture taken in Wales demonstrates, in the UK 4wd tracks were established almost purely around the width of Landrovers.
A narrow track in Wales
The Pajero/Shogun and Prado can fit on all those tracks because they share similar width to the Landrover platforms, but I know of cases where full size Landcruisers were unable to proceed along tracks too narrow and with no way around. This probably wouldn't put me off a full size Landcruiser - just something to be aware of. I think a 100 series Landcruiser, if you can find a low mileage example, would make an excellent overland vehicle. 200 series are very nice, but outside of developed countries you might want to think carefully whether it is wise to be driving such an expensive vehicle. You would want to be mindful of what this might signal to corrupt police that target foreign vehicles for bribes and also keep in mind that in many countries you’ll mostly have no access to comprehensive insurance. I'm mindful of the fact that in a worst case scenario I risk losing my vehicle entirely and having to bare the full cost. I don't let this put me off these adventures.
A double cab 4wd ute with a custom aluminium canopy?
The market is now full of increasingly popular 4wd double cab utes. These make a lot of sense for a family. With five seats and a ute tray at the back that offers at least double the capacity of a 4wd wagon’s boot, that’s a lot of additional cargo volume that can be achieved without towing and without increasing track width. Traditionally double cab utes have slightly lagged the off-road capability of 4wd wagons owing to their longer wheelbase and often a longer rear overhang, but this doesn't seem a concern now. Leaf springs and drum brakes in the rear aren’t likely to offer the same comfort and handling as a wagon, but they suit the increased payload capacity.
The main compromise with the modern utes is trying to find one with proven rugged reliability. Ignore the manufacturers marketing and look to real owner reviews and it seems that few of this new generation of turbo-diesel utes are generating the kind of positive feedback with regards to reliability that the Pajero and Landcruisers have been getting for decades. The Toyota Hilux once had a reputation as being almost unbreakable, but sadly some reviews would tend to suggest that the latest generation Hilux isn't maintaining this standard. The added complexity needed to keep these vehicles compliant with ever more stringent emissions standards has created real issues for vehicle manufacturers and owners alike. A lot of the utes that seem to be struggling with reliability are made in Thailand, whereas Landcruisers and Pajeros are still made in Japan. The manufacturers will tell you that their quality standards are the same regardless where the vehicle is made. The bottom line from my perspective is that subject to gaining satisfaction that a reliable double cab ute platform can be found, fitted with a purpose built aluminium rear canopy (like the one pictured above) it could be a fantastic option for an overland family.
The bottom line
With all of the above points taken into account, for us continuing with the Pajero at this time still makes sense. Not least of all because it's already built up for purpose and ready to go - it's costly and time consuming to take any 4wd from stock standard and prepare it for our intended use. Additionally, I know the Pajero mechanically very well, which is important given it's me that will have to fix anything that goes wrong. With over 200,000kms on the clock ahead of our 2019 Central Asia trip, quite a bit of which has been off-road, it still drives and performs essentially like new! All indications are that it’s one of those vehicles that can take a fair bit of punishment and just keep on going, subject to good maintenance and servicing naturally.