Hawaiian youngsters prefer 4x4s

In your town, it’s probably common to hear the thumping bass from a stereo that’s vibrating a little two-door compact (with big wheels, decals, spoilers and a loud-for-no-apparent-reason muffler) down the street. Hey, it’s just what the kids drive these days.

You might be surprised to learn that that’s not the case on the ultra-laid-back tropical island of Maui, some 3,000 miles left of Los Angeles. In fact, the “sport compact” scene, at least as it’s defined on the mainland, has almost no street presence whatsoever in Maui.

Yes, the roads are littered with sightseeing tourists and their rental Ford Mustangs, Jeep Wranglers, Chevy HHRs and Malibus and Chrysler Sebring convertibles, but that’s how you spot a tourist around here.

The friendly and modest folks in Maui drive rather inconspicuous vehicles save for one very conspicuous category: the 4×4. Actually, make that white Toyota 4×4 trucks with giant off-road tires, lift kits … and the loud-for-no-apparent reason muffler and hard-hitting stereos. I call it “sport compact off-road.”

It’s so blatantly obvious, I had to ask around the small surf village of Paia on Maui’s north shore to get the dirt, so to speak.

Off-roading is an oh-so-natural thing here since there are plenty of farms and plenty of rain, which means goopy rutted paths everywhere. There’s also dramatic elevation changes in short distances, aka steep grades. There are two inactive volcanoes on Maui, the tallest being a whopping 10,000 feet. From there, it’s a steep slope to the lava-lined shores where that same 4×4 is good for getting as close to the ocean as you can. The beach sand, which is ground up coral bits washed ashore and not your typical “sand,” is deep, soft and sticky. In many places here, you can drive right down to the ocean, light a campfire and tip a few cool ones with your buddies. You’re not getting down there with a rental Mustang. For that, you’ll need an off-roader.

In between the 10,000-foot crater top and sea level is pretty much every climate you can think of and just about every type of terrain. There’s even snow from time to time high up on the crater, which is a state park that takes a good hour of driving to get to. And the dramatic 52-mile Hana Highway serves plenty of remote communities and residents who have steep (and narrow and slippery) dirt and gravel roads to contend with.

So, the 4×4 is really for carrying surf boards, lumber, supplies and/or your buddies anywhere on this small island you need to go. However, the number of Toyota trucks — old and new — vastly outnumbers the competition, and white ones at that.

The reasons seem speculative and somewhat anecdotal, even for the people driving them, and range from the high level of Asian influence (thus the Toyota connection) on Maui to outlandish tales of off-road adventure, outright superhero durability and wide-parts availability.

“The salty climate plays havock with electrical systems and the Toyotas just seem to last,” says one 30-something mainland transplant gassing up his newer Tacoma TRD 4×4. “You’ll even see lots of really old Toyotas still driving around here.”

That’s certainly true. Some are beat up and rusted out and others are fixed up with show paint and shiny alloy wheels.

“I don’t know why some jack them up so high … the axles are still the same height off the ground, so what’s the point?”

Maybe there’s a simple explanation.

“They’re just so cool looking,” says a 25-year-old woman, a staff member of the quaint Paia Inn, who loves off-roading. “They’re white because it shows the dirt, which is sort of a badge of honor. The more dirt you can get on it, the cooler it is.”

You know, that sounds a lot like an answer I would get from just about any young off-roader on the mainland.

On Maui there’s only about 140,000 inhabitants and there are few sports cars, vintage cars and sport compacts roaming the streets. Although nice to have, the simple fact is there’s much more use for a 4×4 here than any other vehicle. The “sport compact off-roader” is a natural extension of necessity and personal expression, just like a two-door Acura RSX or a Volkswagen Golf is for mainland youth. It’s the “sport compact,” Maui style.

Rhonda Wheeler is a journalist with Wheelbase Communications, a worldwide supplier of automotive news, features and reviews. You can e-mail her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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