So you have a growing family, a business that takes up space in your car boot, a love of the great outdoors or maybe a house that’s situated at the end of a rutted track. You need a certain type of car. But which one?
A decade ago the answer would have been simple: you need a 4×4: a big, rugged off-roader that went anywhere and carried almost everything. They were often called ‘jeeps’ even though only a small number of them on the UK’s roads were actually built by the famous US manufacturer of 4x4s.
There were all sorts of four wheel drive cars available: big and small (Range Rover to Fiat Panda 4×4), petrol and diesel (no EVs), and built in Europe, Asia and North America.
But the last ten years have seen a massive change. The traditional 4×4 has almost (but not quite) ceased to exist. They were hardly ever used to actually go off road anyway, but the styling was still popular among a broad cross-section of buyers. And the car makers knew this.
They built similar-looking, ruggedly styled cars but without the expensive, complicated, fuel-sapping four-wheel drive systems driving everything underneath.
Many of these popular models became two-wheel drive only: some were given traction control for an element of loose surface capability but many were only fit for the road like their saloon and estate car cousins.
In came a platoon of utility vehicles with varying capabilities but all with one thing in common: their taller, roomier, more rugged styling and design. They were generally also slightly better over rutted, bumpy surfaces due to their increased ride height and they often made superior towing cars for caravan and trailer owners.
Although this sort of vehicle had existed for a while (the Toyota RAV4 was an early pioneer in the mid-1990s), it was the launch of the British-designed and British-built Nissan Qashqai in 2007 that kick-started a soft-roader revolution around the world. It’s become a mainstay in the UK best-sellers list ever since.
And that approval and popularity of these ‘lifestyle’ vehicles in the UK has continued unabated, with increasing numbers of models becoming available and almost every car maker offering a rugged, family alternative into its car range.
In addition to the Nissan Qashqai and smaller Nissan Juke, models like the Kia Sportage and Niro, Hyundai Tucson, Ford Puma and Kuga, Volkswagen T-Cross, T-Roc and Tiguan, Peugeot 2008 and 3008, and the Vauxhall Mokka often pop up in the monthly list of the ten top-selling new cars in the UK.
That’s before the more established 4×4 brands such as Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, and SsangYong muscle in. Even Jeep and Toyota, which have built reputations for hard-as-nails off-roaders like the Jeep Wrangler and Toyota Land Cruiser, now sell far more crossovers than genuine 4×4 vehicles today.
But it’s not just mainstream brands cashing in on the SUV revolution. The very highest of high-end marques have all been getting in on the act, too: there’s the Bentley Bentayga, Porsche Cayenne, Lamborghini Urus, Aston Martin DBX and Rolls-Royce Cullinan.
Even Ferrari, that most famous manufacturer of supercars and racing cars, is getting in on the act with an SUV model that is set to be unveiled later this year.
So what are the options?
Traditional 4×4 (or 4WD)
Drive from the engine can be directed to all four wheels when necessary and clever locking differentials and electronic technology evenly spreads power to the wheels that need it most ensuring that there’s very little wheel-spin and plenty of grip and traction.
Many 4WD vehicles can be turned into 2WD vehicles at the flick of a switch, or the pull of a lever, when full grip isn’t needed. They also have high and low ratios which can help when the going gets especially tough. Low ratio will allow the car to ‘crawl’ over rocks, boulders and slippery inclines safely and securely.
You’ll need a 4×4 if you live in a remote area, at the end of a farm track, or in a region where there is regular ice, snow and bad weather. If your job involves regularly traversing poor surfaces (farmers, surveyors, builders) or you tow a heavy trailer or caravan you might also consider one. They’re more expensive than two wheel drive versions but they can be worth their investment if they help you out of a hole just when you need them to.
Some of these vehicles are still built using the traditional ‘body-on-frame’ method, which can provide superior off-roading ability but compromises on-road ability. However, this is becoming quite rare and even highly capable off-roaders like the Land Rover Defender are now built using the more modern ‘unibody’ method for more comfort and reduced weight.
SUV (sport utility vehicle)
If the majority of your driving is going to be on roads rather than off them, your choice of car should reflect that. And there are certainly plenty of choices – so much so, that the lines between passenger car and utility vehicle have been endlessly blurred and smudged.
Although modern SUVs tend to look very similar to traditional 4x4s, they’re generally built to prioritise on-road comfort on a day-to-day basis. They’re all a unibody design, just like any regular saloon or estate, despite the rugged styling.
Smart, modern, good-looking and versatile, they are a popular choice among many drivers in the UK and tick a lot of the boxes a busy family would ask of a car.
Some are still quite capable off-road (especially any Land Rover models), but electronic wizardry tends to help manage that, instead of the driver manually adjusting high and low range transmissions or fiddling with locking differentials.
SUVs can either be 4WD or 2WD, depending on whether you need the extra traction. Even then, most 4WD models will often be capable of running in two-wheel drive on the road and only call on the extra two wheels when they’re really needed. But for some owners, the confidence and peace of mind of having four-wheel drive capability when required is very reassuring.
To make matters more confusing, some models are available in purely 2WD form, for drivers who know absolutely that they’re not going to need any particular off-road ability. With their increased ride height and chunkier tyres, these two-wheel drive SUVs can often still perform reasonably well – and far better than a normal car – over bumpy or slightly slippery surfaces. For many people, that will be all they ever need.
They do, however, want space, flexibility, maybe the option of seven seats (usually folded down in the boot area when not in use), a good high driving position and a generally effective all-round offering. That’s why this sector of the automotive market is so popular and competitive.
Even more difficult to distinguish is the crossover – a term first coined in North America. Despite the chunkier looks and higher seating position, they are essentially just a passenger car underneath.
Compared to the 2WD SUV models above, crossovers may look similar but have very little capability off-road and often run tyres that are similar to what you’d find on a regular saloon or estate, with no additional grip on muddy or icy surfaces.
Some crossovers are available with a form of 4WD, often in hybrid models where the front wheels are driven by the petrol engine while the rear wheels are powered by an electric motor. The car can switch between either system or both together as required. It still doesn’t really help much for off-roading, though.
Want a decent, strong, honest car for ferrying around the kids and work equipment but don’t need any sort of off-road capability? A crossover might just do the job for you.
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