SUVs which actually work off-road

SUVs which actually work off-road

This may sound like a sweeping statement, but it’s fair to say most people that buy Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV) don’t do so with the intention of driving them off-road much, if at all. Recent years have seen sales of such SUV’s soar in the UK, being snapped up like hot cakes by all kinds of customers. SUVs like the Nissan Qashqai, Kia Sportage and Hyundai ix35 are in as much demand at our used car supermarkets as anywhere, but mid-size SUVs like these and their larger cousins such as the BMW X5 and Volvo XC90 largely keep their proverbial feet planted firmly on the tarmac.

The aforementioned mid-size and premium SUVs are immensely effective as family, commuter and leisure vehicles, with fantastic visibility, toughness and practicality, along with a desirable image. They are also unarguably capable of tackling slightly more demanding terrain than other types of car, from wet fields to farm tracks. But if the urge, or indeed the necessity, to tackle some very serious off-road terrain arose, most of them would struggle, especially if they were front-wheel drive.

Okay, the Land Rover Discovery and early generations of the Range Rover were being sold in the 90s, but the vehicle which in many ways started this appetite for luxury, prestige SUVs was the Mercedes ML-Class, introduced in 1998. It was actually fairly respectable off-road, providing it was fitted with tyres suitable for the job, as it came equipped with a low-range gearbox – one of the key ingredients for more hardcore off-roading. BMW swiftly jumped onto the SUV bandwagon and launched the X5, which bettered the Mercedes in many areas, but wasn’t as capable off-road. We wanted to take a look at more off-road-focussed SUVs produced over the last decade or so, right up to today.

Mitsubishi Shogun

Mitsubishi Shogun

This Japanese hero of a vehicle has been around since the early 80s when it was called the Pajero. It has since attracted a loyal following and is now in its fourth generation as the Shogun, retaining its overall styling but with a more modern slant. In their own words, Mitsubishi say the Shogun is “unstoppable in the wild, built to tackle whatever you throw at it and carry you through in style”. Its interior, although attempting to be luxurious, feels quite left behind by the likes of a Range Rover, but the Shogun costs considerably less and is seriously capable off-road. With 210mm ground clearance, its Super Select 4WD system with selectable high and low range gearing, a wading depth of 700mm and a lockable centre differential (which makes the front and back wheels move at the same speed), the Shogun still very much means business.

Suzuki Jimny

Suzuki Jimny

Source: Suzuki

We were going to list the Grand Vitara instead, but it will soon be replaced by an all-new version, so in the meantime our mind is on the firm’s stalwart Jimny, which in many ways is a mini SUV. It may not be practical for some, only having two doors, and its interior is pretty old-fashioned, but the Jimny still packs a respectable punch off-road and its pint-size proportions mean it can be driven and parked almost anywhere. It’s only got a 1.3-litre petrol engine, but once again off-road capability is made possible by its low range transfer system. Four-wheel drive can be selected at the touch of a button and the Jimny feels rock solid, built to last. Its 190mm ground clearance and light weight also put it at an advantage when tackling the rough stuff - although we did find its compact width resulted in it getting stuck in the tracks of wider 4x4s, if you didn’t carefully straddle them.

Range Rover

Range RoverSource: Wikipedia

Moving from the smallest, capable 4x4 to one of the largest and most prestigious; the Range Rover is an absolute must to include. Its interior is absolutely beautiful and most models since 2010 even have a clever screen which allows the passenger to watch digital TV whilst the driver can only see the sat nav or audio system. But it’s off-road where the Range Rover still excels. Kitted with an intelligent, permanent four-wheel drive system providing optimum grip and minimal waste, it also allows you to switch between high and low range at speeds of upto 37mph. High range means the axle (and ultimately the wheels) moves at typical road speeds but with less torque, or brute force. Low range gears mean the axle moves more slowly but more torque/power is produced, improving traction on difficult ground. The air suspension lets you increase the ground clearance to a leading 310mm and it can wade in water upto 900mm; just under the headlights. Wheel articulation and poise are also class-leading thanks to the Land Rover Terrain Response 2 system, which automatically configures the car to suit what terrain you’re on. The firm’s Freelander, Discovery, Evoque and Range Rover Sport also feature Terrain Response, so are very capable off-road too.


Toyota Landcruiser

Toyota Landcruiser
Source: Flickr

The fact that the United Nations has lots of these on their fleet speaks volumes. The Landcruiser was designed to be used in some of the most hostile climates around the world. It’s been around for 60 years and during that time it’s helped reinforce Toyota’s reputation for reliability. The latest incarnation of the full-time 4x4 Landcruiser comes with Multi-Terrain Select, which lets you choose between Rock, Mogul, Mud & Sand and other terrains, whilst controlling the vehicle’s traction, throttle and braking to maximise grip. For people who find themselves perched at funny angles in their Landcruiser, the Body Angle Display system shows them a graphic of exactly how they are positioned whilst in Crawl mode. Active Traction Control keeps all the wheels moving and has Downhill Assist Control for creeping down steep slopes.

Volkswagen Touareg Escape

Volkswagen Touareg Escape
Source: Auto Express

The Touareg has long been the sibling of the Porsche Cayenne and they’ve shared many similarities since their respective 2003 launches. The Escape version of the latest VW Touareg is the current pick if you want to do serious off-roading. The new 4XMOTION system allows low range gearing to be selected and what’s particularly impressive are the centre and rear differentials both being lockable. Hill Descent Assist will get you safely down sharp drops, and the adjustable air suspension can be raised to give an excellent 300mm ground clearance. Inclines as sharp as 45 degrees can be tackled, as they’ve designed the Touareg with short overhangs; it also comes with extra layers of underbody protection.

Mercedes GL-Class

Mercedes GL-ClassSource: Wikipedia

We’ll skip over the undeniably cooler G-Class, or G-Wagen as it’s often referred to, and focus on the more affordable Mercedes-Benz GL-Class. Like the Toyota Landcruiser and Mitsubishi Shogun, the GL has the advantage of seating seven. Although the latest GL-Class has become more focussed on luxury, you can specify it with the On-&-Off-Road Package with six selectable driving/terrain modes; Off-Road2 being the toughest. Mercedes’ 4ETS Electronic Traction System guides power to the most appropriate wheel(s) and the air suspension can be raised by as much as 90mm, giving it a total wading ability of 600mm. Not bad for what is effectively a luxury S-Class on stilts.

Ssangyong Rexton W

Ssangyong Rexton WWikipedia

This is perhaps one of the lesser-known SUVs out there with decent off-road capability. The 7-seater Korean is marketed as a “no nonsense vehicle” and, you guessed it, has a low range gearbox, making it a great choice for towing as well as off-road driving. The Rexton has been around since 2001 and it’s fair to say the latest version is by far the most acceptably-styled. The vehicle offers go-anywhere ability at a very competitive price, complete with a modern, efficient diesel engine at long last. Its ladder-frame chassis can cope with mighty peaks and troughs, helped by the 28-degree approach angle. The Rexton might be well behind other SUVs in its on-road manners but it certainly provides a very interesting alternative choice.

Jeep Grand Cherokee

Jeep Grand Cherokee

What 4x4 feature would be complete without a Jeep? They’ve been around for aeons and picked up more awards than any other SUV. The new Grand Cherokee looks more in-your-face than ever, whilst retaining traditional design cues like the 7-slot grille. The interior quality has improved significantly and the new version is certainly very attractive, comfortable and well-equipped, although not quite matching German rivals overall. Jeep’s latest off-road system is called Selec-Terrain and works in conjunction with the firm’s Quadra-Drive suspension system and Quadra-Trac/Drive 4WD system. A two-speed transfer case and rear axle electronic limited slip differential does the hard work, retaining the Jeep’s place amongst 4WD greats.


We haven’t covered every single 4x4 in this article but there are loads more out there. If you’re keen to test drive any SUVs we have in stock, from a Qashqai or an Evoque through to an X5 or an XC90, our friendly experts would be more than happy to assist.

  • On: 22 October 2014
  • By: CarShop

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