Just how far can a stock-standard 4WD take you?
Just how far can a stock-standard Ford Everest 4WD take you? Ford took me to Tasmania to test my (very basic) off-road driving skills and find out.
THERE’S ALWAYS THAT defining moment in any adventure. As I stood beside a rocky, slippery creek bed, looking at the winding gravel track ahead, I thought, that’s not so bad. I can do this, I thought.
Until I realised it was that creek bed we’d be driving up, not the track.
It’s not too bad a gig sometimes, this motor writing business. Come to Cradle Mountain in Tasmania, they said. Take a beautiful new Ford Everest for a drive out into the wilderness, they said.
Sounds like a lovely relaxing little holiday, right?
What they didn’t mention was that at one stage, I’d be looking out my passenger side window almost directly into the ground, with an uncomfortably close view of some sharp-looking rocks. We were still a good 10 degrees or so from the tipping point for this vehicle and terrain, apparently, which gave me about as much reassurance as you can imagine.
However, I had yet to take the wheel and drive across steep rocks, mud, slippery moss and gravel. So as our convoy set off from Devonport Airport in Tasmania’s central north, I was looking forward to some new and challenging experiences.
Our first destination was a quick stop at the renowned Baker’s Beach for lunch and safety instructions, meaning this first leg of the journey gave me and my co-pilot a good feel for how the Everest travels on the road.
As PM’s Robert Pepper noted earlier this year, the current model is on the larger side of the current range of SUVs and is essentially a wagon built on the Ford Ranger platform.
Ford’s pitch for the Everest is that it strikes the balances between weekday and weekend, and that’s the purpose of our test. We’re here to see if a car that’s perfectly adequate as a day-to-day drive, can also be reassuringly competent for the odd weekend when you want to take the family out for a drive in the bush.
Serious 4WDers are likely to want to kit their car out with a range of modifications, probably lifting the suspension to begin with.
For those who just dabble in the occasional off-road experience however, the need for such modifications can be off-putting. And it might just not be worth the investment.
Therefore, the cars we drove were stock-standard, deliberately so, and not top-of-the-range models for the most part, either. So we have the chance to see what the car is actually capable of, before you begin to add any expensive modifications.
We also used standard road tyres and didn’t even adjust the pressure, though our Ford team’s reconnaissance on the previous day meant they knew we wouldn’t be hitting any surfaces that were too treacherous.
Speaking of treacherous, back to that creek bed, which is around O’Neill’s Creek in the Mount Roland Conservation Area. After generously allowing my co-driver to tackle it first (and therefore, getting a close-up look at those rocks), I quickly realised the driver’s seat is actually where you want to be.
When approaching a surface like this, you’ll want to choose Rock mode. In a new car like the Ford, this is very easy: there’s a simple central dial with icons for the three different modes, part of what Ford calls its Terrain Management System or TMS.
You’ll need to stop and put the car in neutral, choosing low-range 4WD before changing over, but if you don’t get it right, there’s even a helpful ‘wizard’ on the dashboard that tells you what you need to do, step-by-step.
Click around to Rock mode and a couple of things will happen. The brake traction control will tighten up, kicking in early to avoid wheelspin and acting on each wheel independently. This is exactly what you want when navigating an uneven surface, where each tyre might find different degrees of traction (not least because one or more may be in the air!)
There’s also a standard cross-axle differential lock on the rear axle which will help with rocky terrain.
In addition, you’ll find your accelerator in rock mode feels very ‘doughy’ and much less sensitive. You’ll need to apply to more firmly to get a response, while you’re held to a low speed and low gear.
This serves a very practical purposes, making sure that as you bump around over uneven surfaces, you’re not bumping the accelerator as you go and giving yourself – and your passengers – a very bunny-hoppy ride.
This all helps make creeping up that creek bed surprisingly easy. The luxury of driving a brand new 4WD means you can let the car do all the work (and enjoy a very comfortable ride at the same time).
Interestingly, this is where I imagine there’s a split between ‘old school’ 4WDers who love the physicality and control of this kind of driving and are committed to their dual gearsticks and manual locks and levers; and those driving a newer model, where all you do is turn a dial.
However, there are clear advantages to both, and several of the more-seasoned off-roaders in our group point out that previously, they’d been so focused on looking down at the dash and controls, they often missed some of the best scenery.
The newer features means they can relax a little more, put their head up and take a look around.
For those looking for a further challenge, there’s always the option to not use the available features. Again, it’s all part of the deliberate flexibility intended for this vehicle.
Back to our drive, and a sharp turn at the top results in that now-you’re-awake lean I mentioned earlier. The feeling is reminiscent of this experience, though of course, it always feels much more impressive from inside the cabin. The view from the outside is disappointingly moderate.
Toward our next destination, and some slippery gravel roads mean we get to try mud/snow mode, which can be chosen on the fly and is also ideal for gravel.
One click around the dial, and you’ll feel the accelerator become a little less sensitive than in the Normal mode.
This, together with recalibrated traction control and earlier gearshifts to keep RPMs down, also help reduce the chance of wheelspin in slippery conditions.
This leg of the journey also includes a couple of steep hills – steep enough that you’d struggle to walk up or down them – but it means we get to experience the very cool hill descent mode.
Activate this by tapping the button in the middle of the dial, and you can actually let go of the brake as the car controls your descent, managing wheels, power and braking to keep you on track.
Of course, you can intervene at any time, by applying the brake or manually adjusting your speed using the cruise-control setting on the steering wheel
Hill descent only applies up to 32kmph though, and will automatically switch off once you exceed that speed.
Finally, a couple of water crossings and few sandy patches mean I’m in slightly more familiar territory and able to try out the sand mode.
One of the keys to driving on loose sand surfaces is that you don’t want to lose power, even when the wheels are slipping a little. This option means a more reactive throttle (the opposite of rock or mud/snow mode) plus plenty of power to those wheels.
Our highway tyres serve us well here, too – you don’t benefit much from driving on sand with big chunky 4wd tyres that break up the surface.
After overcoming all the serious challenges, our trips wraps up with some good fun – from churning through pools of mud and water at an abandoned rock quarry, to creeping slowly along narrow and shady wilderness tracks and pretty little creek crossings.
There’s a reason off-roading is so popular in Australia – it’s a heck of a lot of fun and we have some exceptional places you can go.
A really challenging four-wheel-drive trip can present some heart-stopping moments, but a well-equipped vehicle will make you feel much safer and more comfortable.
Would-be off-roaders really shouldn’t be put off by the perceived need to spend a fortune on modifications and equipment. That’s far from the case, as basic offroad touring can be done with a stock-standard vehicle as this trip proved. Indeed Practical Motoring regularly takes standard 4WDs on similar trips.
Yes, accessories can be handy and are often essential for longer or tougher trips, but you can certainly get started by driving a standard Everest out of the showroom and into the bush.
The good thing about cars like the Ford Everest is that they’re sophisticated enough to keep the enthusiasts happy, while also being a great way for the dabblers to try some new experiences without the need for a huge additional investment.
Given a car is such a big outlay anyway, anything that gives you an excuse to do more with it sounds like a great idea to me.
The writer traveled as a guest of Ford Australia. All images supplied by Ford.