Want to go off-road in SA? Top 4x4 terms you should know

Cyril Klopper
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 ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW: Off-road and 4x4 expert Cyril Klopper enlightens readers on all there is to know about venturing off the beaten track. Pictured above is his Suzuki Jimny. Image: Cyril Klopper ~ Supplied

Cape Town - Were you bitten by the 4x4 bug? Welcome to the wonderful world of technical jargon, acronyms and colourful abbreviations.

As a newcomer to the sport one of your earliest investments should be a training course.

Don’t worry about suspension lifts and mud tyres just yet. Knowledge is worth more than any trick bit you can fit to a 4x4.

Some of the instructors at these training academies are a bit smug though. They’ll swagger around in their CAT-boots and two-tone shirts while spouting technical terms clearly designed to demonstrate their authority.

Level the playing field by familiarising yourself with these commonly used terms:

A

  •  ABS: Anti-lock braking system; Electronic circuitry sends quick bursts of braking force to each of the four brakes on your car, preventing them from heating up and locking in place. The equivalent of tap dancing on the brake pedal at a 100 taps a second!
  • Airbox: Unlike an air guitar, an airbox actually exists. It’s an enclosed chamber near the engine that routes fresh air to the carburettor or intake manifolds. Never drive through water that is deeper than the height of the airbox.

Read: 4x4 stranded on a beach? What the law says in SA

  • All-wheel drive (AWD): All four wheels are powered but the vehicle has no low range gearing. Subaru is famous for offering one of the best all-wheel drive systems money can buy.
  • Articulation: This refers to how far up and down the suspension allows a wheel to move. The greater the articulation, the larger the obstacles your vehicle can traverse.
 • Anti-sway bar: A rod on the front axle that prevents a vehicle from swaying from side to side. Unfortunately it also restricts articulation, which is why some enthusiasts remove theirs. I know a few dronkies who could use anti-sway bars themselves!
  • Approach Angle: The angle at which an obstacle may be approached before the front bumper will touch it.
  • ARB: An Australian manufacturer of off-road accessories, their most popular being the Air Locker differential.
  • Axle wrap: When a 4x4’s axle housing rotates in the opposite direction as the tires under acceleration, then snaps back to its original position relative to the chassis. Part-time 4x4 vehicles are prone to this which is why it is often better not to engage 4x4 on high-traction surfaces.
  • Axle housing: The exterior non-rotating housing that contains the axle shafts and differential that drive the wheels.
  • Axle twister: A rough trail that causes one or two wheels to be suspended in the air while the rest have to scramble for traction. You know your 4x4 is the business when all four wheels manage to remain on the ground no matter the obstacle.

B

 • Ball joint: A socket and joint found in front suspensions because it can accommodate a wide range of angles, allowing articulation and steering.
 • Beached: To get so thoroughly stuck in sand or mud that your 4x4’s underbelly touches the ground and you are unable to move forwards or backwards.
 • Bead: A rim around the inside of a tyre that prevents it from coming off the rim. Deflating a tyre to too low a pressure may cause the bead to slip off the rim and unseating the tyre.
 • Bleed: To remove air in a hydraulic braking system by replacing the fluid. A job best left to professionals lest you do the bleeding.
  • Bolt-on: An aftermarket part that can easily be fitted without special modification to your vehicle, such as this roof rack.
 • Body roll: The tendency of a vehicle’s body to lean over when speeding around a bend or driving on an angled surface. Also the roll of flesh that droops over the top of your pants.
  • Bottom-out: When a vehicle’s suspension is fully compressed and no further suspension travel is possible. Often caused by extreme overloading.
  • Bottom end: The available power at low engine speed, also known as torque.
  • Brake fade: Decreased brake power as a result of the brakes' friction surface or the brake fluid becoming overheated due to overuse.
  • Bulletproof: An allegedly unbreakable vehicle or component that just begs to be broken.

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C

  • Catalytic converter: A device that filters harmful pollutants out of exhaust gasses. Often removed by off-road enthusiasts in an effort to increase engine power.
  • CB: Citizens band radio. A two-way radio commonly used for communication between vehicles on the trail. Never spam others in the convoy by playing your favourite treffer into the receiver, especially not “De la Rey, de la Rey”.
  • Central Diff-Lock: A device that allows vehicles fitted with permanent four-wheel drive to lock up the front and rear prop shafts so that they turn at the same speed.
  • Chicken-handle: A handle above the door for passengers to grab when the vehicle sways violently. Feel free to use it, it beats having your head cracked against the door frame.
  • Curb weight: The total weight of your vehicle (minus passengers and luggage) with all the fluids it needs to operate plus a full tank of fuel.
  • CV joint: Constant velocity joint, commonly found on front driveshafts and front-drive axles. They require occasional inspection due to their tendency to leak grease. One of the first things to check when you buy a second-hand 4x4.

D

  • Departure Angle: Similar to approach angle, this is the angle at which you can leave a sharp decline. Fitting a tow bar can seriously affect the departure angle.
  • Detroit locker: A popular brand of automatic locking differential that requires careful driving on tarred roads.
  • Diff-lock: Lockable differential, a mechanical means to force both wheels on the same axle turn at the same speed thereby ensuring that the same amount of torque is sent to each wheel regardless of whether it has traction or not.
  • Directional tyre: A tyre that is designed to rotate in one direction for improved traction.
  • Duct-tape: Adhesive tape. The old adage goes: If it moves but shouldn’t, use duct tape. If it doesn’t but should, use WD40.
  • Double-line: The act of running a winch cable out to an anchor point and back to the vehicle again, thereby almost doubling the winch’s pulling power.

E

  • EFI: Electronic fuel injection; a computer-controlled fuel delivery system that is far more reliable than a carburettor but also far less repairable and serviceable than a carburettor.

F

  • Feathering: Repeated careful depressing and releasing the brake pedal while travelling down a steep descent, but allowing the engine compression and the lowest gear possible to do most of the braking. Also known as cadence braking.
  • Flat spot: A passing decrease in engine power at some point within the vehicle’s power curve. Also places to park and rethink your strategy on how to get up that dune.
  • Full-floater: An axle assembly that holds the weight of the vehicle on the axle housing instead of on the axle shafts. Also the nasty surprise your husband’s best mate leaves in the toilet.

G
  • G-force: Force of momentum, the force that pushes you into your seat when accelerating hard, or make you slide out of the seat when cornering hard.
  • Gnarly: A term made popular by surfers. It describes a difficult obstacle or challenging trail. It’s right up there with bodacious and radical, although the latter two are less popular among 4x4 guys.
  • Gun it: To rev the engine and accelerate as fast as possible. A method often employed to ascend steep sand dunes or in a futile attempt to impress women.
  • GVWR: Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, the maximum weight recommended by the manufacturer including the vehicle itself, it’s occupants and cargo but excluding trailers.
  • Ground clearance: The available open space below a vehicle that will allow it to traverse obstacles such as large rocks or fallen logs

H

  • Halogen light: A bright headlight or driving light that has halogen gas inside the bulb, allowing it to shine brighter.
  • Handle: Your nickname you use on your CB radio, also an alias used on internet forums.
  • Hub: The centre of a wheel where it attaches to the axle.
  • Hydro lock: The condition of an engine that has sucked up water through the airbox into its combustion chamber, causing the pistons to stop moving. You start sweating when this happens to you.

I

  • Independent suspension: The wheels of these vehicles are attached onto the body/chassis by suspension linkages. Each wheel is able to move up or down independently of the others.

Independent suspension. Image: Volvo 

L

  • Ladder frame: Two long metal beams linked together with struts that form the chassis on which a vehicle’s body is mounted. Very rigid and strong but also quite heavy.
  • LED: Light-emitting diode, a semiconductor light source that requires very little power. Ideal for lighting campsites using your vehicle’s battery.
  • Lift: The act of increasing the vehicle’s ride height either by fitting larger tyres, installing a body lift kit, or by modifying the suspension.
  • Limited slip differential: A differential that will send power to a wheel that has less traction than one that does. Not very effective in off-road conditions.
  • Line: A path that offers the best chance to successfully clear an obstacle. Choosing a correct line is crucial in off-roading
  • Live Axle: Also known as a solid axle, typically found in older 4x4 vehicles they sacrifice comfort in favour of off-road ability. Nothing to do with a Guns and Roses concert.
  • Low-range: A regular gearbox contains gears for everyday use. Vehicles with low range have an extra gearbox called a transfer case that reduces wheel rotation but retaining much of the power behind them, thus increasing brute strength by sacrificing top speed.

M

  • Manifold cooking: The quirky yet effective use of a hot engine manifold to cook food wrapped in tinfoil. Don’t smirk, they did it on an episode of Ultimate Braai Master!
  • Multilink: A live axle suspended on coil springs as opposed to leafsprings and the axle is located by longitudinal and lateral control arms.
  • Monocoque: A structural approach in which the body of a vehicle supports itself without the need of a traditional chassis frame.


Multilink suspension. Image: Cyril Klopper

N

  • Naturally aspirated: An engine that relies on atmospheric pressure and a vacuum to draw in its air/fuel mixture. Such an engine does not rely on forced injection or turbo charging.

O

  • Off-camber: A situation where a vehicle is at an angle that may cause it to roll over.
  • OEM: Original equipment manufacturer, the branded parts sold by your dealership.
  • OME: Acronym for the manufacturer Old Man Emu. OME is most famous for their suspension upgrades partly consisting of tell-tale yellow shock absorbers.

P

  • Panhard rod: A transverse rod attached to the vehicle's frame at one end and to an axle housing at the other end.
  • Paperweight: An important engine part that has broken beyond repair.
  • Payload: The maximum cargo a vehicle can carry excluding passengers.
  • Progressive-rate springs: Suspension springs that become progressively stiffer as they are compressed.
  • Pumpkin: The round housing that contains the differential link to the axle shafts and the prop shaft. Also known as the coconut, the third member, or simply the diff.

R

  • Ramp angle: The angle at which a vehicle can clear an obstacle like the crest of a dune without beaching itself.
  • Radius arms: Long brackets that hold the axle housings in place. Also known as trailing arms.
  • Rebound: The rate at which a compressed spring will return to its normal position. Typically the faster the rebound, the better. Unlike the period between divorce and marriage number two.
  • Recovery: The act of pulling your own or a friend’s vehicle out of a sticky situation.
  • Recovery points: Hardened anchor points on your vehicle on which to attach winch cables, tow ropes, or snatch straps.

Ramp angle. Image: Cyril Klopper

S

  • Softroader: A vehicle that has some, but limited, off-road ability. These vehicles allow access to mildly challenging terrain. Don’t attend a Land Cruiser Club Meet in your RAV4, you’ll get laughed at.
  • Snatch-block: A simple pulley device used loop a winch cable around and return the winch hook to the vehicle which doubles the winch’s pulling power.
  • Snatch strap: A thick and stretchable rope used to pull vehicles out of mud. Potentially dangerous and should only be used in conjunction with hardened recovery points. Also known as a kinetic rope or a decapitator.
  • Spotter: A co-driver who directs the driver over obstacles, often using hand signals. A handy scapegoat if you screw up.
  • Sweeper: The last vehicle in a convoy that makes sure that no man is left behind.

Having a spotter will make traversing dunes like these much easier. Image: Cyril Klopper

V

  • Vaporlock: A condition where air bubbles form within the fuel line or carburettor, impeding the fuel flow or causing excessive fuel to flood the carburettor. Usually occurs on very hot days.
  • VIN: Vehicle identification number, a unique serial number that identifies the matching vehicle. The first thing to disappear when a car gets stolen.

W

  • Wading depth: Typically the depth of water your vehicle can traverse before the cabin is flooded. Some vehicles feature doors that seal up well and allow you to drive through water as deep as the height of the air-intake.
  • WD40: Lubricating fluid. The old adage goes: If it moves but shouldn’t, use duct tape. If it doesn’t but should, use WD40.
  • Winch: An electrical or mechanical motor used for recovering a vehicle after it has become stuck.
  • Wheelbase: The distance from the centre of a vehicle’s front wheel to the centre of the rear wheel on the same side. Shorter wheelbases usually means better manoeuvrability and improved ramp angles, but less stability and poorer payload capacity.

 So now you know. Do yourself a favour and get some training before you head out on a Grade 4 4x4 route course. You’ll save yourself a ton of money in avoided damages plus you’ll be able to trash talk with the manne at the next 4x4 social event.

V

  • Vaporlock: A condition where air bubbles form within the fuel line or carburettor, impeding the fuel flow or causing excessive fuel to flood the carburettor. Usually occurs on very hot days.
  • VIN: Vehicle identification number, a unique serial number that identifies the matching vehicle. The first thing to disappear when a car gets stolen.

W

  • Wading depth: Typically the depth of water your vehicle can traverse before the cabin is flooded. Some vehicles feature doors that seal up well and allow you to drive through water as deep as the height of the air-intake.
  • WD40: Lubricating fluid. The old adage goes: If it moves but shouldn’t, use duct tape. If it doesn’t but should, use WD40.
  • Winch: An electrical or mechanical motor used for recovering a vehicle after it has become stuck.
  • Wheelbase: The distance from the centre of a vehicle’s front wheel to the centre of the rear wheel on the same side. Shorter wheelbases usually means better manoeuvrability and improved ramp angles, but less stability and poorer payload capacity.