While Costa Rica is fairly infamous for its general road conditions, in recent years government efforts have actually improved infrastructure a great deal. The new highway in Guanacaste through Liberia and the coastal highway in the Central Pacific are good examples.
So nowadays in some areas you may not need anything more than a 4 x 2 SUV (front or rear wheel drive) that will give you enough ground clearance to get over the speed bumps at the Auto Mercado, or in your local town center. While in other areas a monster truck would still be an appropriate choice.
This article covers what the mechanical difference in these drive trains is in a non-technical fashion, and also for what type of terrain each is more appropriate. The hyperlinks in the article link to detailed articles on each vehicle model mentioned, if you want more detailed information.
4 x 2 SUVs – front or rear wheel drive
Many of these “sport-utility” vehicles are all-terrain in name only. However some actually have the same suspension and chassis as the model that does have 4×4. When you don’t need the 4 x 4 traction capability, these offer you the advantage of the size and ground clearance of an SUV, while at the same time being easier on the pocket book to begin with. They can be better on fuel economy, sometimes because of a smaller engine displacement, and also because the 4 x 4 capability reduces fuel efficiency to some degree when used and because of the parts involved may cause friction or additional weight even when not in use.
If you live in an area with generally paved roads and only occasionally go on gravel or even use the vehicle only in dry season, then a 4 x 2 SUV could be a great choice. The Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4, and Nissan Xtrail are smaller SUVs that come in 4 x 2 versions. The Mitsubishi Montero Sport and Toyota 4runner are also 4 x 2 in some models, and offer greater capacity for 5 adults and gear or luggage.
All Wheel Drive SUVs – AWD or 4 x 4 high setting
Some of our clients live in areas where you don’t need traction in all 4 wheels 95% of the time, however when you need it, you DO need it. For example, we were in the Ojochal area of the Southern Pacific Coast visiting the Whale’s Tail at Uvita. The main road is fantastic, and most of the roads in the local villages were also really good.
But the house we rented, and this was true of many available on line, offered great ocean views, at the price of a steep gravel entrance. If you are living in such a situation, then you may need traction in all four wheels for just the last bit, but if you don’t have it you really can’t get in and out.
Another situation is where you have gravel or sandy roads near the beach. The terrain is flat and the access is good, but being able to engage the all-wheel drive will allow you to catch that shady spot at the end of the beach, without worrying about trying to get out at the end of the day.
All Wheel Drive SUVs come in either manual or full-time models. A full-time all-wheel drive model is always engaged and there is no 4 x 4 lever or button. Combined with ABS brakes and an anti-skidding control device, this is great safety feature when rainy season comes along. Some gravel roads in Costa Rica are in good condition, and the same benefit allows you to travel more quickly but safely on those.
A manual version of the all-wheel drive SUV gives you the control of whether or not to engage the all-wheel drive. This does result in improved fuel economy, and some argue that it also decreases wear and tear on the engine, although others argue that it doesn’t – or the difference is negligible.
Most of the smaller category SUVs only offer this traction class, not the true 4 x 4 described below. The Daihatsu Bego, Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Tucson are good examples.
With all-wheel drive you have a solid 4 x 4 capability that will get you in and out of most situations. The newer models with traction control features are almost better than some of the older models with true 4 x 4 capability. However, if you commonly travel rough and steep roads, have a difficult entryway, or frequently cross rivers, then probably all-wheel drive won’t be enough.
True 4 x 4 – The Differential
If you live in an area with difficult access, then you will need a vehicle with true 4 x 4 capability, a vehicle that has a 4 x 4 “low” setting. Within this category there are even some differences, and in some cases you will need a vehicle with a locking or limited slip differential.
The low or true 4 x 4 gives you the necessary power and traction to get through difficult situations, particularly steep roads with slippery areas. Since traction is provided to all 4 wheels via the differential and since the low setting actually changes the ratio in the drive train, you can really feel the difference when it is engaged, even when testing it out on paved roads.
In simple terms, when the low setting isn’t engaged, the engine and transmission work together to provide power for acceleration and top end speed. When the driver engages the low setting, this changes and they work together to provide only power. You actually CAN’T go very fast with the 4×4 low setting engaged, and if you can go fast you don’t need to have it engaged! In a manual transmission you would use only 1st or 2nd gear, and in an automatic transmission you can manually select “L” or “2” to keep the transmission from shifting when it shouldn’t.
Most smaller SUVs don’t offer this feature, the notable exception being the Suzuki Gran Vitara, which is based on a truck style frame and generally does offer 4 x 4 with a low setting. Larger SUVs, like the Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Nissan Pathfinder or Xterra, and Toyota 4runner do generally offer this capability.
The 7 passenger SUVs like the Mitsubishi Montero Wagon, Nissan Patrol or Toyota Land Cruiser also have this, and in some cases – particularly the Montero – you even have an additional feature, the limited slip differential.
In extremely difficult terrain it is possible for even the true 4 x 4 to run into problems. One case is where either axle goes up into the air, for example going over a protruding rock. Another case is where one wheel goes down into a muddy hole or ditch. The power ends up going only to this wheel, which doesn’t have any traction and only spins. You’re stuck!
The limited slip differential gets around this through a system that detects a spinning wheel and redistributes power to the other wheels. The old school solution to this problem was the locking differential, which on the old Toyota Land Cruisers and also Land Rovers was engaged via a separate lever. This caused all 4 wheels to turn at the same speed no matter what, which is what you might call “crude but effective”. The disadvantage of this mechanism is that turning becomes difficult and dangerous, and causes a great amount of stress on each axle, which is why the limited slip differential is the preferred system for more modern vehicles.
Most of our clients get SUVs with either all-wheel drive, or the true 4×4. Better safe than sorry is quite often the case, and otherwise they really need it for their area. Another element is the resale value, if the SUV has 4×4 capability, you will find more potential buyers.
However if your budget is tight and/or you definitely don’t need it, then it doesn’t make sense to spend extra for something you don’t need, and you will be able to get a newer vehicle for the same money, or less. Your fuel and maintenance costs are likely to be less over time as well. Just make sure you keep a tow rope in your emergency kit!
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If you would like to see information about other vehicle types and models, click here — Vehicle Makes and Models in Costa Rica — for a list of articles on our site.
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