Love ’em or hate ’em, SUVs aren’t going away any time soon. Families love the pseudo-fourbies for their practicality and user-friendliness while traditional sedans and wagons fall by the wayside.
And why not? An SUV’s versatile interior makes it more adaptable to an active lifestyle, the higher hip point makes them easier to get in and out of and load youngsters into, and the higher seating position gives a better and safer view of what’s going on around you. So it’s no surprise that SUVs like those in the recent Wheels megatest are selling like tickets to a Kylie concert in a men’s prison.
What might come as a surprise to some is that these vehicles will not climb every mountain and ford every stream as many buyers expect.
I’ve stood beside a white shoe-wearing salesman in a new car showroom while he told a prospective buyer that this (insert limp-wristed soft-roader model here) SUV would do everything a Toyota LandCruiser could do off road while being more efficient and less trucklike than the legendary off-road rig.
He might have been right about it being more efficient and less trucklike than the big Cruiser, but the heavy-duty Toyota would be just the type of vehicle this person would soon be looking for to pull him out of trouble if he dared venture to the places he wanted to go.
These SUVs might have clever traction control systems, locking centre diffs and a bit more ground clearance than your average family sedan, but a jacked-up ride height and some plastic body cladding isn’t going to get your SUV to Cape York.
Real off-road adventures require a fair dinkum 4x4 vehicle, and sadly these trucks are becoming fewer and softer. The days of LandCruisers, Patrols and Land Rovers that are made for serious off road use are behind us, and travellers are relying on the strong aftermarket industry to keep their older, more suitable 4x4s ready to tackle the back of beyond.
The most common thing we hear in the 4X4 Australia office from prospective SUV buyers is that they ‘only want to go off-road occasionally and maybe drive on the beach once in a while’. So a light-duty SUV will do that, right?
Sure, a properly prepared and well-driven SUV might get you there and back, but we’ve spent a lot of time pulling these cars out of bogs and off beaches only to find the highway-biased tyres are still inflated to road pressures. A little bit of driving knowledge goes a long way and could save you a lot of money. And you only have to go off road once to get stuck.
The perception that driving on a beach is easy work for an SUV can get the uneducated adventurer in deep trouble real quick. Being bogged up to your belly on the shoreline with the incoming tide fast encroaching is not a place you want to be. Believe me.
While there is a place for SUVs, soft-roaders, crossovers or whatever the latest buzz-term for them is, that place is not as far removed from the tarmacked suburban tracks as the advertising hype would have you believe.
EAGLE TAKES OFF
A few car companies would have you believe they alone invented the SUV or crossover style of car, but the trend surely started with the early Subaru 4x4 wagons from the 1970s. Another early player you don’t hear about is the 1980 Eagle SX/4 produced by AMC, which then owned Jeep, and saw the need for an AWD compact car suited to America’s snow-affected regions. The Eagle combined the body of the AMC Concord sedan, coupe or wagon (pictured) with a viscous-coupled 4x4 system. It was ahead of its time and gone by the end of the decade.
This article was originally published in Wheels August 2014.