How often do you drive off-road? From remote locations to car boot sales and caravan parks, you could be surprised by how many drivers expect more of their cars than the designers ever expected. The SUV’s popularity means the vast quantity of second hand cars for sale includes plenty of off-road friendly, robust 4x4s.
It’s easy to see why they appeal. They’ve got a high driving position so you can see what’s up ahead – or right beside you – and older models have a strong chassis that won’t mind bumping over a tree stump or overlooked rock as much. Most of them have strong suspension and axles too; ideal for shrugging off potholes on-road that are often worse than anything you’ll find on a dirt track.
This does mean that older examples could be subject to abuse, though. Remember to check the MOT history of any second hand SUV and pay particular attention to suspension, rust on the chassis and the condition of the brakes.
What makes an SUV suited to off-road driving:
1: It can follow the herd – or the flock
Most farm tracks and bridleways tend to be rutted, or have two tracks and a middle bit more suited to tractors. The ground clearance of an SUV is helpful here, but it’s also useful when clearing verges, compensating for heavy loads such as camping gear, or fording streams. Remember that not all SUVs are designed to go that far off-road though, so before heading into floods and streams check the wading depth of your vehicle.
2: It’s got the right tools for the job
Traction control, grip control, diff locks – whichever SUV you go for, it will probably have some means of limiting wheel spin. Usually the gearbox will have low or crawler gears, too, and there should be skid plates or other protection underneath. You don’t need something big – even a Fiat Panda 4×4 has all the essentials – but a good SUV such as a SsangYong Rexton or Land Rover Discovery will give you all that and the space for seven people too, meaning your off-road adventure can be shared.
3: Getting a grip – all-wheel drive
Thecheapest route to effective 4×4 off-roading is often a double cab pickup – strong, yet often surprisingly comfortable, they have the best hardware for tackling serious terrain, great towing capability, and yet they’re not expensive to buy compared to a similar age of Land Rover or big SUV. But that all-wheel drive is shared by many wannabe off-road vehicles, so as long as you choose one with 4×4 and good ground clearance you’ll be able to tackle towing out of a grassy car boot field or climbing the forest trail to a mountain campsite with equal ease. The Land Rover Discovery Sport is remarkably good with 4×4, but you can even get older Nissan Qashqais or X-Trails that drive well on-road but aren’t phased by a green lane.
4: The most crucial thing? Tyres
What really makes an SUV efficient off-road is the standard fitment of grippy mud and snow tyres on many models. You wouldn’t fit a racing car with knobbly tyres and expect it to stay on the track, and the same applies in reverse – the tyres that let you corner quickly and cruise quietly on motorways are like slicks when you get them into muddy tracks, so before going anywhere off road – make sure your tyres are up to the job.
Responsible off-road driving
Want to know the safest, most interesting routes to drive off road – without incurring the wrath of dog-walkers and horse riders alike? Join the Green Lane Association (GLASS), and you’ll get advice, days out with experienced off-road enthusiasts, and clear route and legal guidance so you don’t stray off the legal path when straying off the beaten path. They’re particularly supportive of drivers and passengers who need the freedom to drive to locations in order to access them, and a very inclusive group as a result.
What’s the most efficient off-road car?
That depends on what you need. If you’ve got loads of people, camping gear or work equipment to carry, then a Range Rover or Land Rover plug-in hybrid will perform well – as long as you maintain the battery charge, because otherwise they’re quite heavy. Which leads to the most efficient conventional tech – the smallest, lightest you can get is always the rule. Which means a Suzuki S-Cross, Vitara or Jimny, or a Fiat Panda 4×4.
Or, of course, a pickup. The Mitsubishi L200 is one of the lightest options and has permanent four-wheel drive on most models, for easy driving in all weathers and conditions.