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The Roadtripper’s Guide to Driving Australia Part 1: Choosing Your Wheels

AUSTRALIA | Thursday, 10 September 2009 | Views [9516] | Comments [1]

Pete Burke, the owner and founder of Traveller's Auto Barn, shares his extensive knowledge and experience about driving in Australia and making the most of your road trip.

There are a 1000 guidebooks dedicated to driving around Australia, but most, if not all, are written for people with big budgets who are planning an extended tour around Australia in a big expensive 4WD, or some kind of large motor home or RV.

However, this guide assumes that you are on a very limited budget, are a first time visitor to Australia, and may not even own a car in your home country. That being said, attempting to drive around Australia in an old Ford Falcon or some clapped out old campervan is definitely a challenge.  So, I’ve provided a few pointers that may keep you (and your wallet) safe.

In this first installment of the roadtrip tip series, I will explore the different vehicle options available to roadtrippers and how to choose the right wheels for your trip. We will also explore budgeting for your vehicle, reselling, and driving expectations.

Choosing the Right Car

Small manual diesel cars are very popular in Europe…but, if that’s what you are looking for in Australia, you are…WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Why are small manual cars popular in Europe? Because taxes are very high on larger cars, because fuel is very expensive, and because the streets are very narrow…

But, you are in Australia now. There is no significant tax difference between an old 4 cylinder car and a large 6 cylinder car. Fuel is approx ½ the price that it is in Europe and there is plenty of wide open space in Australia. The result? BIG cars are popular.

My advice? Buy a car suited to the journey ahead. So, what is the journey ahead?

  • Are you a couple lazily cruising the East Coast? If you answered yes, then buying a van would be an acceptable risk.

  • Are you 3 mates travelling either the East or West Coast and the Red Centre? Go for an Aussie made 6 cylinder wagon.

  • Do you want to go off-roading on Fraser Island? Rent a 4WD for the week.

Let me break it down for you.

Wagons, Vans and 4WDs


Do you need a 4WD to drive around Australia? To get to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock)? To make it to Kakadu? My answer? You don’t need one, and you won’t want one. A single tyre for a 4WD costs about $200 as well as the fuel consumption being much higher compared with a wagon or van. Oh, and if it breaks down, not to worry, just give the mechanic your left leg as payment.

That being said, driving a 4WD around Australia is FANTASTIC fun. When a 4WD is your chosen method of transport, you will need a bigger budget, more extensive research, and a bit thicker skin…as there may be times when you ask yourself ‘what have I done!?’.

My advice for first timers? In those places where a 4WD would be brilliant (such as Fraser Island, Cape York, Uluru, Broome) - rent one for a few days. Like I’ve always said: go mental, it’s a rental!

So, that leaves two choices for your great Aussie roadtrip (assuming you’ve opted to keep your left leg): a van or a wagon. Let’s compare your options.


  • Come in a multitude of differing makes and models
  • Have smaller engines
  • Nearly always have high kms (note: 200,000kms on a car in Australia is nothing)
  • Are less reliable than wagons
  • Are not easily repaired everywhere (plus, parts and labour are always much more expensive when paying for repairs)


  • Are robust and reliable (esp. Ford and Holden)
  • Are relatively inexpensive to buy
  • Are easily repaired on the cheap all over the country
  • Will carry 5 people, luggage and camping gear without stressing their big, lazy engines.

Vans will struggle, if you load them down. When you consider that many vans have been souped up to convert them into campervans (including the kitchen sink), and then you add anything more than 2 people and their luggage, you are dramatically increasing your chances of blowing up your engine at some point.

On a much more positive note, a van will save you anywhere from $40 to $100 per night on accommodation (although you can sleep in a wagon, most people don’t). With these huge savings, the risk involved in buying a van is easily balanced out. Nevertheless, if you were thinking of buying a van for only 2 months AND then the engine blew up, the accommodation savings will be gone!

So in a nutshell, couples travelling for 6 months or more should definitely buy a van. Mates planning on picking up along the way should opt for the wagon.

In all of my reasoning, I am clearly making a contingency for the worst case scenario. If you plan to have a breakdown, if you budget for a breakdown, but then you don’t have one…pop the champagne! However, it is unreasonable and naive to expect to drive around Australia in an old car and not have to have some sort of mechanical issue...but, of course we can all hope.

A word of the wise. There is also a fine line between getting you car ready for the roadtrip ahead and over planning. No matter how much money you spend on your car and in preparing your car, never rule out the unexpected.


Expectations. For me, mindset is the key to a successful roadtrip.

Success is not driving around Australia without a breakdown - that’s pure bloody luck. Success is not buying a car for $2000 and selling it for $2500 - that’s a bonus.

Success is buying a car, driving 10-20,000kms around Australia, having a few breakdowns, spending a little on repairs and selling the car in under a week.

Buying a car for how much you ask? Spending how much for repairs? Selling it for what? Well, how long is a piece of string?

But the real answer is this:

If you do all the above, add your accommodation costs, and the sum is equal to or less than the combined cost of the other option of accommodation costs plus bus, plane, train, tour and rental costs…then you are a winner!! (This assumes that there are more than two people on your roadtrip).

Something to think about: What option returns the greatest economic benefit?

A.)The couple that spends 2-3 weeks trying to sell the car they bought    for $4000, and eventually selling it for $1500 OR

B.)The couple that sells the car they bought for $4000 in 5 minutes for $1000, and spends the next 2-3 weeks in a REAL job?


Even if the couple of Option A sell their car for $4000, but it takes 2-3 weeks, I believe that the couple of Option B is still miles ahead (pun intended).

Selling your car at the end of your trip is underpaid hard work. This is where having a guaranteed buyback can be great insurance.

In conclusion, if your expectations are to buy a car for $2000, drive around Australia, absorb no repair costs, and then make quick profit at the end of your trip - good luck, you’ll probably be disappointed. Now we’ve all heard of someone who has done just this, but for every one who summits Everest there’s 100’s who don’t. On the flip side, if your expectation simply is to drive around Australia, and to do so more cheaply than hopping the bus – then you most likely won’t be let down, as you this a much more achievable goal.

Stay tuned…

So now you know what your vehicle options are. You’re ready to get out there, find that perfect set of wheels, and explore Australia. In my next installment we will discuss driving safety in Australia and what to avoid doing once you get on the road. 

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Tags: 4wd, australia, campervan, driving, road trip, travel, travel tips, van-tastic adventures

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