There are four-wheel drives and there are four-wheel drives. There are those that spend their time doing the rounds in town, while looking like they could go bush if need be, and there are those that are made to do their time deep in the mulga, but get bogged down in the ’burbs.

Two vehicles fit into the latter category, no argument, Toyota’s LandCruiser and Nissan’s Patrol. They’re the two heavyweights that slug it out for the bush bragging rights.

The LandCruiser had a head start. It was here first, won an enviable reputation on the Snowy Mountains project in the 1950s, built on it on mining and construction sites in the most remote parts of the country in the years since, but the Patrol has plenty of fans as well.

Both are serious four-wheel drive wagons, capable of plunging deep in the bush or towing a heavy load. They’re heavy-duty workhorses, at their best on the job.

Model watch

The GU Patrol replaced the popular GQ in 1997. Coming after the GQ, a rough and tough four-wheel drive wagon that had a big following, the GU had some big tyre tracks to follow.

The Patrol follows common practice in this class of off-roader with a wagon body perched atop a separate chassis, which is considered the best way of tackling the toughest of conditions a vehicle of this type might encounter.

That not only makes it tough, it also makes heavy. The heaviest model the in the range, the 4.2-litre turbo diesel, weighs in at a fraction over 2.4 tonnes, which has an affect on performance, fuel consumption, handling and braking.

A separate chassis also has the affect of raising the cabin quite high off the ground, which makes it a bit of a climb to get in to. It also cuts down on the interior space, and the Patrol is surprisingly tight inside given its overall size.

Nissan offered a choice of one petrol and three diesel engines. The petrol engine was a 4.5-litre single overhead camshaft fuel-injected six-cylinder unit that had a chain driven camshaft and put out 145 kW.

Performance with the petrol engine was good considering the massive hulk it was trying to move, and the fuel consumption was acceptable for the same reasons.

The diesel choices were a 2.8-litre single overhead camshaft turbo diesel six-cylinder engine producing 95 kW, a 4.2-litre overhead valve delivering 91 kW, and a 4.2-litre overhead valve turbo diesel pumping out 114 kW.

The 2.8-litre turbo diesel was replaced by a 116 kW 3.0-litre in 2000 in the GU II update, and with that came plenty of trouble.

Performance of the diesels wasn’t as punchy, but the low down grunt they delivered was welcome along with the fuel consumption savings.

There was also a choice of a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed auto trans.

Drive was through all wheels, with a choice of two-wheel drive for the highway and dual-range four-wheel drive for off-road use. Front hubs were manual locking on the entry level DX model, but the others had auto hubs so you could switch from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive high range on the move.

Buyers could choose between three models. The DX five-seater kicked off the action with steel wheels, power steering, vinyl trim and floor mats, basic sound, limited-slip diff, manual hubs.

The popular seven-seater ST also had side steps, wheel arch flares, more civilised cloth trim, carpets, central locking, power windows and mirrors, cruise, console, better sound, CD player and map lamps.

Atop the range was the Ti, the burger with the lot, which added alloy wheels, auto air-con, remote central locking, ABS, superior sound, leather trim, power driver’s seat, and two-tone paint.

In the shop

While the Patrol is generally a rough and rugged vehicle with few faults, there is a cloud hanging over the 3.0-litre turbo diesel. The problem generally manifests itself in the form of melted pistons, but the most likely explanation is that it’s caused by a piston oiling/cooling problem.

Not all engines are affected, those most likely to succumb to the problem seem to be those doing a lot of highway cruising.

Nissan have increased the oil fill, and played with alignment of the nozzles that spray oil on the pistons for cooling and lubrication purposes, but there seems to be no consistent fix for the problem.

It’s important to keep an eye on the oil level in all engines, but particularly so in the 3.0-litre turbo diesel.

Apart from the 3.0-litre turbo diesel engines woes the Patrol is generally a tough and rugged vehicle that gives good service over the long term.

That said the manual gearbox can have problems with fifth gear spline and hub.

It’s important to check for a service record, particularly if the vehicle has spent time off road.

It’s also important to check under the vehicle for damage sustained off road, like bashed suspension and chassis components, brackets, exhaust etc.

On the exterior look for scratches and scrapes from trackside bushes during of road excursions.

Consider carefully before buying a Patrol that’s clearly been off road as there are plenty that haven’t spent much time off the black top and they are a better choice.

In a crash

It’s good to have mass on your side in a crash so the Patrol will provide protection if you hit a smaller vehicle when it will inflict considerable damage on the other car.

The separate chassis construction, however, doesn’t perform as well in a crash situation as does a mono-construction body, which crumples in a more controlled way and absorbs the crash energy better.

In a crash where the Patrol hits a larger, more solid object then occupants are likely to suffer greater injuries than if they were in a regular passenger car.

It’s also worth remembering that because of its mass the Patrol takes longer to react, to the steering or brakes, in an emergency situation.

All models except the DX had a driver’s airbag from the beginning, the DX joined the club in 2000 with the GU II update. The Ti had dual airbags.

Owners say

Ed Niemiec owns a 2000 GU II Patrol with the new 3.0-litre turbo diesel, and says it’s the best car he’s ever owned. He uses it in his work as a quantity surveyor with a need for high ground clearance and room to carry gear. It has now done 125,000 km, and apart from normal servicing, he has replaced the tyres and front disc pads. The fuel consumption has always been between 11 and 12 L/100 km. It has never missed a beat, he says, and sits on the highway like a dream. His only complaint is that he had to modify the suspension to handle the loads he has to carry.

Nissan replaced the pistons and rings in Rex Rickard’s Patrol at 28,500 km, after which it suffered intermittent power loss and poor fuel consumption. Nissan has since replaced the air flow sensor, the injector pump, injectors, and the computer, and now say they can do no more. A lack of response to his phone calls has added to his frustration with his dealer and with Nissan.

Colin Lockyer has a 2000 3.0-litre diesel Patrol, which he says is great, but he knows of five others that have melted piston number five at around 100,000 km and is concerned his, which has done 98,000 km, might suffer the same fate.

Look for

• Avoid the GU II 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine

• Reliable apart from 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine

• Serious offroader at its best in the bush

• Bulk makes it less responsive in an emergency situation

• Poor fuel consumption

• Small cabin for its overall size

The bottom line

Tough truck best suited to serious offroad use or heavy towing, but really unsuitable for every day use around town. Don’t touch the 3.0-litre turbo diesel GU II.