It's not hard to work out the softies

By Phil Hanson

Serious off-roaders should be wary of crossovers

The Subaru XV Photo / Phil Hanson
The Subaru XV Photo / Phil Hanson

This isn't going to end well. There's a guy heading down the rugged trail in his crossover, encouraged by marketing that says it can "go anywhere".

Most buyers of crossovers or soft off-roaders - the ones with no low-range gears and little ground clearance - probably have little interest in going off-road except to hop the odd curb or cross a paddock.

They're mostly bought as "interesting" alternatives to a wagon or family car. So much so that manufacturers are realising they don't need to bother with drive to all wheels, offering cheaper two-wheel-drive versions.

But there are owners who hear the call of the wild and those tracks well beyond an unsealed logging road. Sadly, most won't get far without getting stuck, or breaking something.

A few top-end soft off-roaders, such as the Volkswagen Touareg and the Mercedes M-Class, can be fitted with low-range gearing and other off-road aids as options, promoting them out of this segment. Most buyers don't tick those options.

Here's what soft off-roaders can do, what they can't, and why.

Well, they have all-wheel-drive (AWD), a term that has come to mean four-wheel-drive but without low-range gearing. They have more ground clearance than cars and that's good for avoiding rocks or other track irregularities.

They may have electronic hill descent control (HDC) that stops the vehicle going too fast down steep hills.

Most have some sort of electronic traction control that stops a wheel or wheels from spinning, maintaining forward progress.

The AWD system might not be much good. The driver might not be able to lock it so that all wheels are driving, no matter what.

Inability to lock means the computer might spend too much time trying to decide whether to be in two- or four-wheel drive or where to send the drive and, not being able to see the terrain, make the wrong "decisions".

It may have extra ground clearance, but not enough. Anything under 200mm is fairly pointless, up out softies to around 210mm is marginal.

It may have poor approach and departure angles, so that at the first sign of challenging terrain, you're risking a front or rear bumper.

Without low gearing, and despite the effect of the automatic transmission's torque converter, it might be poor at crawling around or over obstacles.

It doesn't have much wheel travel or axle articulation, so it's easy for one or more wheels to lose contact with the ground. Fortunately, electronic traction control will probably keep the vehicle going.

Most standard-fit tyres are hopeless off-road. The low-profile sidewalls lack flex, treads quickly fill with mud, turning the tyres into useless slicks. If you think you might want to do some off-roading, get a proper 4WD. But if you must get a crossover, look for:

*Good ground clearance.

*Short hangovers between bumpers and wheels.

*A drive system that can be locked in all-wheel-drive.

*A body with the fewest protrusions that can be easily damaged.

*Tyres with a bold tread and high profile - but you're unlikely to find anything taller than a 65-series.

Make sure the electronics suite includes some form of traction control.

Despite what the brochures and websites say, most soft off-roaders have much the same ability to press on.But a few have impressed Driven as being above average. It's not easy to define why; none has clear advantages in any area, but they come together as usable off-roadable packages.

Newest is the Subaru XV, which Driven wasn't expecting to be nearly as good off the road as it was. Among its attributes are reasonable ground clearance and first-class traction control. And it's a blast to drive.

The Nissan X-Trail can also go further than you'd think. Diesel versions have a small advantage. It also has the "feel" of a proper 4WD - and that's meant in a good way.

Given the experience of its manufacturer, something would be seriously amiss if the Land Rover Freelander II - just facelifted - wasn't good off-road. Fortunately it is, and may just be the best of the bunch.

Another European not afraid of a bit of dirt is the AWD version of Skoda's appealing Yeti.

Something used? Check the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute.

Learn ropes first

The best way to make a soft off-roader go further is to take an off-road driving course.

Until you do, adopt the adage: as slow as possible, as fast as necessary. Pointing your crossover at a track obstacle and giving it heaps won't end well. On the other hand, momentum may help you on dry, loose sand.

Assess an obstacle; look for the easiest way through; have a passenger get out to guide you; if you're fairly sure the vehicle won't make it, don't try.

Know your vehicle. Look underneath to see what's vulnerable. Carry basic self-recovery kit, a spade and a wide, strong piece of wood as a jack base. Know how to use the jack.

If you're beach driving, don't play Russian roulette with tides; allow plenty of time to get back.

- NZ Herald

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