October 13, 2013

Crossovers: what you need to know

Land Rover Freelander II, one of the best crossovers, but its ability comes at a fairly high price.

Base LS version of Mitsubishi's Outlander works well and it even has 70-series tyres.
4wdNewz is a site about 4x4s with low-range gearing and has carefully avoided coverage of crossovers or soft off roaders – the ones with no low-range, little ground clearance and lousy approach and departure angles. However, we've had a flurry of questions recently about the softies and so break the self-imposed rule for this roundup.

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. However, most buyers don’t tick those options. Here’s what soft off roaders can do, what they can’t, and why
Toyota's latest RAV4 gets a bit of creek time.

Why they can

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, thus maintaining forward progress.
Why they can’t
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 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 ripping off or otherwise damaging 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. They don’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 on anything but sand. The low-profile sidewalls lack flex, treads quickly fill with mud, turning the tyres into useless slicks. They’ll strand you even in a damp paddock faster than you can shout “stuck!”

What to look for
If you think you might want to do some off-roading, don’t buy a crossover-soft off-roader. Get a proper 4WD. But if you must, 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.
Which one to buy.
Despite what the brochures and websites say, most soft off roaders have much the same ability to press on. However, a few have impressed 4wdNewz 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.
Subaru XV – surprisingly good

One is the Subaru XV, which 4wdNewz wasn’t expecting to be nearly as good off the road as it was. Among its attributes are fair ground clearance and first-class traction control. And it’s a blast to drive on the road. 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 wasn’t good off-road. Fortunately it is, and may just be the best of the bunch. Something used? Check the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute.


  1. No more soft off roaders pleeeeease!

    1. Wasn't intending to but, in its first day, this has been the most-visited item ever posted on 4wdNewz! Who'd have thought?

  2. What about the Subaru Forester? Are you saying the XV is better? I'm thinking of buying a Forester.

    1. Test drive both. My preference is for the XV but I'd be happy with a Forester, too. Both have very well sorted 4WD electronics.

  3. what about the daihatsu terios? Seen doing remarkably well offroad on youtube

  4. A Terios? You must be kidding.

  5. Terios is crap. Think of a RAV4 and minus 50 %. The Feroza, that's a different story all together; great little truck,

  6. Good information, thanks, it cuts through the hype and publicity you find elsewhere on crossover SUVs. And your other post about the driver being the weakest link makes good sense. I just found this website and really like it. Congrats.