What to look for when buying a second hand 4X4

[ Article featured in Field & Game magazine ]

You’ve spent hours searching, swiping and, viewing all the online second-hand sales sites and revisited what you think you’re after in a four-wheel drive a dozen times each. But do you know what to look for when buying a second hand 4wd? It’s time to take the plunge and hand over those hard-earned dollars in exchange for a second-hand vehicle. But it’s a big move. Are you ready?

Buying a second-hand four-wheel drive can be a fantastic experience, or it can be a complete disaster, and we’ve seen plenty of both!

Our overarching advice is to be careful and try not to rush. When we force ourselves to make decisions under pressure, they can be irrational and spur of the moment with blurred vision.

It would help if you considered a few things when purchasing a four-wheel drive, second hand or brand new, and this is a conversation we have with many potential purchasers;

“Is the vehicle you’re looking at going to achieve what you need it to at the end of the day?”

“What is its main purpose?”

“What type of driving are you undertaking? Where?”

“Is fuel economy an issue?”

“Have you looked at load-carrying ability, GVM and towing capacity?”

“Are the aftermarket accessories you want readily available for your vehicle?”

And lastly, “what budget are you working to’?

It’s a lot to chat about but can often narrow down the size of your car park. Wants and needs are also more clearly defined for your purchase.

service history_what to look for when buying a 4wd 4x4

Vehicle manufacturers tell us that modern four-wheel drives are more reliable than predecessors. But as with any vehicle, if not serviced regularly and with a consistent maintenance schedule, they can quickly become an expensive and frustrating project. And how old is no longer modern? And what’s so wrong with older four-wheel drives anyway?

If you’re in the market for a second-hand four-wheel drive, here are a few of our tips on what to keep an eye on the next time you arrange a little look. Whilst a lot of the looking can be completed onsite, it’s always great to have your mechanic involved as well.


Common Rail Diesel engines all have fuel injectors. As with any functional component, they can wear out and need replacing to avoid engine failures. These can be expensive to replace and usually set you back around $400 per injector. Keeping in mind the number of cylinders your engine has, the same number of injectors.


Blocked inlet manifolds due to exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) soot build-up is another issue that we see regularly. Identifying this on someone’s kerb can be challenging but often includes low power and excessive black smoke. A timely process to rectify and return to working order. Whether your mechanic has a set fee or hourly rate can also add to your expenses.


Dust ingestion in some models of four-wheel drives is common and can result in worn turbochargers and a mixture of engines needing to be completely rebuilt or replaced. Any dust observed on the clean side of the air filter is a concern that should be investigated further. Once the dust has penetrated, an engine has been ‘dusted’ and can cause excessive wear on cylinders, resulting in low compression, oil usage, and lack of performance.


Whilst we all hope for honesty and transparency, checking for recent panel maintenance or new paint is advisable. Good repairs are hard to pick out and are rarely a problem moving forward but remember that not all repairs are good. The old magnet over the panels trick exists for a reason! Most vehicles that have had a massive impact are written off under insurance and are not repairable. But in older cars, quick repairs to hide rust or bogged up dents can very quickly reappear and cause headaches for the new owner.

under bonet check_what to look for when buying a 4wd

Internally, taking a little peep behind cabin seals and factory plastic trims can show you insight into driving history and even the quality of aftermarket electrical work completed on the vehicle.

We love a four-wheel drive walk around, but the underside can always tell you a great story, and we recommend heading on underneath and taking a good look.

It’s best if you get the chance to put the vehicle on a hoist.

Here you can see if your potential purchase, even well used, has been maintained. If it hasn’t, the tell-tale signs soon start to jump out at you.


Leaking swivel hubs- identifiable by the visible oil and grease residue leaking externally on the swivel hub, a visual check can generally pick this out, also keep an eye out for recent pressure cleaning of this area.

A visual inspection of CV (Constant Velocity) Boots will allow you to see any grease splatter on the boot or surrounding area. The idea of the boot is to keep the joint lubricated and clean. Any damage to these indicates that there may be further damage inside the CV Joint. Remember that there are two boots per drive shaft.

When looking at four-wheel drive model vehicles, try engaging 4wd high-range and checking low-range. Listen for any noises, and you will differentiate quickly between expected function or possible damage. Find a local gravel dirt road, where tight U-turns will load up the 4wd system and give loud clicking noises if there is damage to the CV Joints. Low speed left and right turns can also create any noises that may appear from suspension systems. If the vehicle has aftermarket differential lockers, now is also a great time to give them a try. And whilst out and about, try stopping to see how those brakes are.

4wd swivel hub leak_what to look for when buying a 4wd


As mentioned, many areas are easier to assess when the vehicle is on a hoist, and universal joints fall under this banner. You can identify excessive play by physically moving the universal joint with your hands. Dry universal joints also tend to make a squealing noise and can give the vehicle an unusual vibration. It’s a good idea to have a mechanic assist with this as a broken Universal Joint isn’t ideal on that weekend away. Having drive isn’t essential, is it?


Challenging to check without a thorough inspection but worthwhile getting looked at are dirty or contaminated gear oils. Metal, water and mud or even incorrect oils can tell a lot about the vehicle’s history. And no, teeth appearing in the container does not mean a visit from the tooth fairy!


A trained ear can hear failing wheel bearings. The distinctive grinds, squeals and wails never amount to good things. But for the average person, these need to be checked by having the vehicle on a hoist or jack. You can find movement by rocking the wheel back and forth towards the chassis and identifying sounds by rotating the wheel.

diff oil 4x4_what to look for when buying a 4wd


It’s a bonus to find a four-wheel drive with your desired aftermarket accessories already fitted. Regardless of your brand of choice, all accessories require an inspection as a vehicle extension. When you’re out on the tracks, it’s often the accessories that can be the difference between a great day or 4:30 pm track becoming a nightmare.

If a vehicle has aftermarket locking differentials, it’s wise to check the engagement system to ensure that the ‘Lockers’ are working correctly. You may also need to ensure that any associated devices such as compressors are in complete working order. You can check the basics when test driving the vehicle. However, we would also recommend a mechanic inspect the differential.

Checking the operation of a winch, forward and reverse and inspecting the cable or rope can save you heartache when you’re about to hold the weight of your four-wheel drive on a hillside. We mount an electric motor to the front of our vehicles to face the elements, but we’re reluctant to service it! Most common brands of winches are easily serviceable with spare parts available.

Inspecting any bar work for visible signs of damage is more accessible than most people think. Many manufacturers powder coat and paint their products, so visually looking for cracks, or large dents is easy. You will also need to inspect back to the airbag brackets or chassis mounts. When bar work has sustained a significant impact, it tends to absorb it at the mounting systems. Although many manufacturers offer an extensive list of spare parts for their protective equipment, replacement mounting brackets are generally not on the list.


Having a basic understanding, or access to someone who does, of on-road legality issues and engineering requirements can also save time and money. Incorrect tyre sizes and non-engineered modifications can catch you out after you’ve driven on your merry way.

You can lessen some of these issues by buying your vehicle with a roadworthy certificate. However, they will often pass a roadworthy test because it’s entirely safe for the vehicle to be on the road. Roadworthy inspections don’t always take into consideration engine life or component wear.

There is nothing wrong with buying a vehicle that requires some love if you know about it and have allowed for the cost to get the repairs or servicing done to bring it up to scratch. Most issues we find with second-hand vehicles are all repairable and can leave you with an incredibly reliable, solid four-wheel drive waiting to get you to those loved locations.

A mechanical workshop pre-assessment is a great idea, but also keep in mind that most workshops will require notice before completing this for you. A post-purchase assessment is more common to create a maintenance schedule and pay attention to any issues found.

We’re always here to help with these enquiries and love to see second-hand four-wheel drives and the new chapters they produce in people’s lives.

Glenn Markley_what to look for when buying a 4wd

Want to book a Pre-Purchase Inspection with an SG Off Road Mechanic?

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