Not everyone’s looking for a family SUV for the soccer run…but when it comes to the rough stuff not all SUVs are equal. Here’s our Top 5 Rugged Medium Family SUVs.

THERE’S NO DOUBTING the rise and rise of the SUV. But the definition of what an SUV is, is one that’s been messed around with by car makers and motoring writers. Look at a dictionary and it’ll generally describe an SUV as a passenger vehicle like a station wagon built on a light-truck chassis…by that definition anything other than vehicles like the Ford Everest, Mitsubishi Pajero Sport and Toyota Fortuner would be best described as a crossover.

Some like to suggest an SUV is a cover-all term but generally only covers vehicles with a raised ride height and all-wheel drive. But even that doesn’t stop car makers from slipping in jacked-up two-wheel drive vehicles and plastering SUV all over them. But the point of this article is not try and argue terms of reference because that would be like trying to hold back the tide. Pointless and impossible.

Only, for this article we are drawing a line in the sand and saying that this list only contains vehicles that we feel to be ‘genuine’ SUVs and when I say ‘genuine’, I mean vehicles that offer all-wheel drive (or more) and raised ground clearance, at the minimum. That means this list different intention from the one we ran recently, top 5 medium family SUVs.

Our list of vehicles has tried to consider a variety of uses and users and covers a wide price range; not all the vehicles are directly comparable but they’re all aimed at people looking for a family SUV that’ll take them beyond the bitumen. Like always, we’d love to hear what you think, see you in the comments below.

Built for Dirt – Subaru Forester

The Subaru Forester is an icon of the SUV set. It was first revealed as a concept in 1995, before going on-sale in 1997, and intended to capitalise on the success of the Subaru Outback in America, a vehicle that was promoted with the help of our very own Crocodile Dundee.

Top 5 rugged medium family SUVs

Based on the old Impreza platform (the new Impreza rides on Subaru’s new modular platform) there have been four generations of Forester with the Japanese car maker recently refreshing the current fourth-generation model earlier this year. With every generation, the Forester has either grown bigger or taller, and sometimes both, while the square edges of the first Forester have been successively softened.

While there is a new Forester coming soon we’ve got to make do with the current car that was last updated in 2016. And it was an important update, in that Subaru sent engineers down to Australia to tailor the Forester’s suspension to suit our driving conditions. It’s often forgotten that Subaru Australia’s local engineers send a lot of ride and handling data on mules for integration into the final product – Australia is one of the key markets for Subaru globally. There’s a range of variants in the Forester line-up from petrol and diesel variants to the turbocharged XT which shares its motor with the WRX. All, of course, get good ground clearance of 220mm (better than some 4×4 wagons) and permanent all-wheel drive.

No matter the variant the engines available are all good and the CVT isn’t bad either. The steering was tweaked during the mid-life update and is both direct and consistent in its action. The Forester also gets Subaru’s X-Mode which helps to tweak the throttle, transmission and stability and traction controls when driving on rough roads. It’s one of the best systems of its kind and having tested the Forester off-road on the sort of terrain that would have had others in its segment crying in the corner, we can say the Forester is one of the most capable rough-roaders on the market without low-range.

There’s good ground clearance, as mentioned, and the fact that all the mechanicals are tucked up and out of the way. The hill descent control is excellent and while there’s not a lot of suspension droop, the Forester will negotiate deeper ruts than its key competitors. On faster dirt roads, the steering and grip is excellent as is the ride quality.

The Forester’s interior is practical and comfortable and it feels within spitting distance of the most recent vehicles released. There’s plenty of soft-touch materials and the infotainment system is easy to use but there’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto like more recent releases from Subaru. The Forester gets Subaru’s EyeSight active safety system.

The front seats are comfortable and thanks to the box shape of the Forester vision right around is great. The back seats are well shaped and there’s decent leg and shoulder room; there are no rear air vents or power outlets. You get two ISOFIX mounts on the two outboard seats and top tether anchors for the three seats. Probably the most annoying feature is that the middle seat is mounted in the roof and needs to be clipped together to be used. The boot offers a standard 422 litres which grows to 1474 litres when the 60:40 split-fold seats are dropped.

The Forester really does offer segment-leading rough terrain capability.

Rough-Road Newbie – Jeep Compass Trailhawk

The Compass 4×4 is a small five-seat 4×4 wagon with a monocoque body structure and fully independent suspension. There are three models in the 4×4 line-up: the $41,250 Limited with 2.4-litre four-cylinder Tigershark petrol engine; the $43,750 Limited with 2.0-litre four-cylinder MultiJet turbo-diesel engine; and the $44,750 Trailhawk with the MultiJet turbo-diesel. All 4×4 models are equipped with a nine-speed automatic transmission; the Limited models feature Jeep’s Active Drive 4×4 System with Selec-Terrain Traction Management while the Trailhawk has an Active Drive Low 4×4 System and Selec-Terrain with Rock Mode and Hill Descent Control.

2018 Jeep Compass Trailhawk Review

The Compass Limited 4×4 is well equipped with standard gear including 18-inch alloy wheels with 225/55R18 Bridgestone Turanza tyres (the spare is a 225/60R17 on a steel wheel), leather seats, 8.4-inch touchscreen with satnav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, nine-speaker BeatsAudio, seven-inch colour instrument cluster display, power eight-way driver’s seat and four-way passenger’s seat, front and rear parking sensors, Park Assist, dual-zone climate control air conditioning and heated front seats. Options include a two-tone black roof ($495), a dual-pane sunroof ($1950) and an Advanced Technology Group ($2450) that consists forward collision warning, lane departure warning, exterior mirror courtesy lamp, power tailgate, adaptive cruise control, auto high beam and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross path detect.

The Trailhawk has a redesigned front bumper for improved approach angle, revised rear bumper and an off-road suspension package that lifts running ground clearance to an impressive 225mm, up from the Limited 4×4’s 212mm, and increased maximum wading depth of 480mm, up from the Limited 4×4’s 405mm. The Trailhawk also has an Active Drive Low 4×4 System, which essentially means it can be locked in first gear for an overall reduction of 20.4:1, providing a low crawling speed for slow driving in tricky conditions. And its Selec-Terrain is equipped with a Rock Mode, in addition to the Limited’s Auto, Snow, Sand and Mud Modes, as well as Hill Descent Control.

Despite its compact dimensions the Compass offers a reasonably spacious interior. There’s plenty of fore/aft adjustment for front-seat occupants and the steering is adjustable for rake and reach. The front seats in the Trailhawk are wide and supportive but quite basic, with six-way manual adjustment for the driver and four-way for the passenger.

Unless the front seats are fully extended, rear-seat occupants are afforded a decent amount of legroom in the Compass. The seat base is a little short, however, and it’s quite low, so passengers have to adopt a knees-up position. The centre position isn’t all that comfortable and there’s not a lot of width back there for three occupants, but it’s well suited to two people. There are air conditioning vents in the back as well as a 230V/150W power outlet and a USB port, and cup-holders in the fold-down centre armrest, which also doubles as an access port to the cargo area.

The Compass Trailhawk benefits from a different front-end design to the other models in the line-up, losing the lower front valance panel which increases approach angle to 30.3-degreed compared to the Limited’s 16.8-degrees. Raised suspension also improves ramp-over (24.4-degrees) and departure (33.6-degrees) angles, and with 225mm of ground clearance the Compass Trailhawk will make its way up rocky tracks that will stop many other small 4x4s.

The Compass makes do without a two-speed transfer case, but hitting the 4WD Low button in the Trailhawk ensures the transmission holds the low 20.4:1 first gear, and it cancels the electronic stability control, providing a relatively slow crawl speed and good control for dealing with tricky sections of track.

The Compass Trailhawk is no rock crawler, but there aren’t many five-door compact wagons that will go near it off the road, except perhaps the Suzuki Grand Vitara, which is the only vehicle in the segment to offer a two-speed transfer case.

Honest, affordable and reliable – Suzuki Grand Vitara

For those with a $35k budget it’s hard to go past the five-door Suzuki Grand Vitara Sport. The current-shape Grand Vitara has been around for almost nine years, first being launched to market way back in 2009, but there have been many significant upgrades and changes along the way, including the deletion of the V6 petrol and four-cylinder turbo-diesel engines from the line-up, leaving just the 2.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine.

Claimed peak power and torque is a rather modest 122kW at 6000rpm and 225Nm at 3800rpm, and the engine can be mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed auto – yep, it’s getting long in the tooth. The Grand Vitara’s driveline is hardly cutting edge, but it does feature a full-time 4×4 system with a lockable Torsen centre diff, as well as a two-speed transfer case and electronic traction control.

With a hybrid monocoque/ladder-frame body and fully independent suspension, the Grand Vitara provides a good combination of on-road comfort and sporty handling. Wheel travel isn’t fantastic for off-road use, but the electronic traction control provides adequate grip when the Grand Vitara lifts a wheel in the air.

The compact and light Grand Vitara is very manoeuvrable in tight spaces thanks to a 10m turning circle. Despite its dimensions, it offers a surprisingly spacious interior, with seating for five and a 398-litre cargo space. With the rear seats folded the cargo area expands to 1386 litres.

Standard equipment on the Grand Vitara Sport includes 18-inch alloy wheels, multi-media system with satnav, USB and Bluetooth connectivity and climate control air conditioning. Safety gear includes six air bags, ABS with EBD and BA, electronic stability control, reversing camera and fog lights.

It might be a little dated compared to the current crop of small SUVs, but the Grand Vitrara will leave those ‘soft-roaders’ in its dust once you steer off the highway.

Premium Rough Roader – Land Rover Discovery Sport

The Discovery Sport is the entry into the Land Rover range and takes over where the Freelander2 left off. It adds family styling with its rounded edges and, now that we’ve seen the new Discovery, baby Discovery proportions.

In terms of pricing, though, the Discovery Sport TD4 SE vehicle we tested most recently is the cheapest of the ‘premium’ brands ($56,595+ORC) with the closest price rival being the new XC60 D4 Momentum at $59,990+ORC.

2017 Land Rover Discovery Sport TD4 150 SE Review by Practical Motoring

In five- or seven-seat trim the Discovery Sport is a roomy medium SUV with permanent all-wheel drive and while it misses out on a low-range transfer case its Terrain Response system means it’s an incredibly capable vehicle. More capable than most buyers will ever need.

Like that forward-angled C-pillar, the clean, straight lines and clearly labelled switchgear on the dashboard, offer updated hints of Freelander, but the design of the dashboard itself is clearly from the Evoque. There is very little hard, scratchy plastic inside the Discovery Sport with plenty of hard-wearing, sure, but either soft-touch or good quality plastics used, which is a must in the premium segment.

Unlike a lot of other SUVs that have bits and pieces of shiny plastic peppered throughout to show up greasy finger marks and dust, the Discovery Sport has been cut from a more understated and utilitarian cloth. Sure, there’s the odd smattering of gloss plastic on the inside, but it’s not used on touch points, indeed, all the dials are wrapped in soft-touch and grippy rubber which make them easy to see and use even in full sun.

The front seats are comfortable and, in typical Land Rover fashion, not overly bolstered. There’s plenty of adjustment both forwards, backwards and up and down with good adjustment on the steering wheel too. Vision right around the vehicle from the driver’s seat is good, although rearwards visibility is reduced a lot when the third-row seats are being used.

The back seats can be slid forwards and backwards with the backrest able to be tilted which makes fitting child seats a little easier. Unfortunately, the seats are 60:40 split but the 40 is on the road side which means those clambering into the back will be doing so from the road rather the footpath.

So, what about the occasional use third-row seats? Well, these when not being used fold flat into the floor and can be raised via two straps, meaning you can use one or both seats. It really is too tight in the back for an adult but this is only because there’s very little foot room. In terms of head and shoulder room there’s stacks of space and visibility out of the back is good too. But, with all three rows used the boot space is reduced to virtually nothing; we managed to fit two soft bags in there only but these needed to be squashed. Drop those third-row seats, though, and the boot is a gargantuan 829 litres with the seats slid all the way to the back; push them all the way to the front and the space grows to 981 litres.

The Discovery Sport is a comfortable vehicle to drive or be driven in. The suspension errs on the side of comfort and only those travelling in the third-row will notice sharper hits given they’re sitting right on top of the rear axle; everyone else is kept insulated from the worst of the roads imperfections.

What about on a rough dirt road? As you would imagine, the Discovery Sport is good. The Discovery Sport isn’t intended to be as dynamic as its key competitors from Audi or BMW but it is intended to be more usable in more situations and it is. But that’s not damning it with faint praise, the Discovery Sport might be more comfortable than sporting, but it’s not half-bad when being pushed harder along a twisting road.

The Discovery Sport is a practical and versatile family-oriented SUV that’s designed to get its feet dirty and not just provide a jacked-up ride height for city-dwellers. It sits slightly behind key competitors for on-road dynamics but it beats them when the bitumen runs out; it also wins the battle of the boots.

A bit bigger than the others – it’s a wildcard – Mitsubishi Pajero Sport

The Mitsubishi Pajero Sport GLX represents amazing value for money when you consider the mechanical package and standard equipment on offer. We’ve included the Pajero Sport on this list, one, because it ties in perfectly with the dictionary definition of an SUV, and while it’s technically classed as a Large SUV we think you’ll forgive us this transgression because including it gets you to think about vehicle you might not have considered, and because it can cost less than $45k it represents incredible value for money in its segment and is price competitive with others on this list…

Pajero Sport review - Australia

Based on the Triton 4×4 ute platform, but with a coil-spring rear suspension, the Pajero Sport is powered by a 2.4-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine that’s mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Mitsubishi’s Super Select II 4WD system provides selectable full-time four-wheel drive, and a reduction of 2.566:1 results in impressive low-range gearing.

With a claimed 133kW at 3500rpm and 430Nm at 2500rpm on tap, the Pajero Sport offers lively on-road performance. The eight-speed auto is a gem, providing almost imperceptible shifts and a ratio for every occasion. Ride quality is on the firm side but the suspension works well over a variety of surfaces and the Pajero Sport offers good handling although the steering could be a little quicker in its action.

But that doesn’t matter at all once you get off-road where the Pajero Sport shows itself to be one of the best off-road wagons, not just medium-sized, wagons you can buy.

An effective traction control system combines with the excellent low-range gearing to provide good off-road capability, but in GLX spec the Sport misses out on a rear diff lock, so it’s not quite as impressive as the higher-spec GLS or Exceed. The Pajero Sport has a reasonable 218mm of ground clearance and while approach angle is good, departure angle isn’t, so care has to be taken when dropping off rock shelves or exiting gullies.

In GLX trim the Pajero Sport is a five-seater, and for those who don’t need an extra two seats it offers more cargo space than its GLS and Exceed siblings. The front seats are comfortable and the steering is reach/tilt adjustable. There is electric seat adjustment on the Exceed but not a lot of it.

The second row is a bit spartan. A bench seat, 40:60 split, nothing special, not even air vents. It doesn’t slide backwards and forwards either. The second-row seatbacks can at least be tilt-adjusted, and there are two positions for the cargo blind to accommodate different angles.

Standard equipment in the Pajero Sport GLX includes 18-inch alloy wheels, traction control, stability control, trailer stability assist, hill start assist, reverse camera and parking sensors, seven-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and climate control air conditioning. You won’t find a better-equipped five-seat 4×4 wagon for the money.


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  1. Yes the Subaru Forester is a much maligned SUV. Not the most stylish but its functional, practical, great visibility, reliable AWD system when the going gets a little challenging, and just a good all round family vehicle.

  2. Nice article. My money goes to the Grand Vitara– a practical and reliable 4×4 that’s not too big. The upcoming Cherokee Trailhawk is something to look out for, hopefully there’s no reliability issues.

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