Is a softroader any good offroad?
Is there any point trying to drive offroad in a softroader?
AS A JOURNALIST SPECIALISING in 4WDs, I tell people that a car-based all-wheel drive softroader, or SUV, if you must, is not designed for the same sort of difficult terrain, duty cycles and carrying capacity as a full-sized four-wheel drive with low-range gearing. But does that mean these cars have any off-bitumen use at all?
Well, yes, they do, actually. In the right hands, with the right equipment and with enough time they can go along many 4WD-only tracks, but it’s an effort.
You’ll scrape more often, have to use more momentum than is ideal, and have to move logs or rocks out of the way that larger vehicles would amble over. In other words, progress will be slower and more painful. This will be fine if you’re out to drive for the sake of it, but if you’re wanting to progress from A to B perhaps with a look at C, then over the course of a day you’ll lose a lot of time. And many people just want to get out there, and aren’t too bothered about the challenge of driving.
There will also be times when the softroader just flat-out won’t climb the hill or make the bog no matter the driver skill or risks taken. Touring 4WD tracks are designed for medium-sized vehicles with low range like the Pajero and Prado, not the Sorento, Santa Fe or CR-V. You can cruise any virtually track in say the Victorian High Country knowing your low-range car will do the job, but in the softroader you’d always be worried about what comes next. That’s a nice challenge if you want it, but not if you’re just there to cruise.
Then there’s load. Add 500kg of people and gear to say a Prado and it’ll carry it, but that same load in a lighter-duty vehicle will significantly decrease its offroad capability.
Finally, wear and tear. Aside from the scrapes, there will be a lack of underbody protection, potential overheated transmission and the other components working hard. It’s not unlike towing a 2500kg trailer with a car rated to 2500kg vs a 4WD rated to 3500kg.
The reasons for the lack of softroader capability are in brief – mostly a front-drive transmission that doesn’t effectively drive the rear wheels and is prone to overheating then disconnecting (“lock” buttons aren’t centre diff locks by the way), low ground clearance, limited suspension travel, small-diameter wheels, shallow wading depth, poor approach/ramp/departure angles, and while low range won’t be around forever, not having it now means lack of ability to climb steep hills. Descending is a problem also due to lack of low gearing, but the latest hill descent control systems are now excellent. The softroader advantages of relatively small size and weight don’t outweigh these disadvantages, and anyway softies are no longer as small and nimble as they once were.
If you’re wanting to go seriously offroad touring, then if you have say $40k to spend you’re better off with a secondhand low-range wagon or ute for $30k and $10k on accessories, than $40k on a brand-new softroader. Speaking of which, the softie won’t have off-the-shelf gear like snorkels, suspension, cargo systems, long-range tanks or dual batteries, all gear tourers typically fit, either as soon as they get the vehicle or a bit later on.
Just because a softroader can make an obstacle unloaded on a training course doesn’t mean to say it can, or should do the same time after time in real bush conditions with a touring load.
But the softroader’s limited capability pays off on simpler trips, even ones where you could take a normal car.
For example, our family of two adults, two kids and two grandparents went wildlife spotting in a local national park hoping to see a koala, because overseas tourists like that sort of thing. Six up was a fair old load, and while all the roads were dirt they were a little slippery, there was the odd washout entering a carpark and more than a few potholes. These were all conditions our test car, a Kia Sorento, lapped up – it has all-wheel drive as required, reasonable clearance, tyres that can handle the dirt and suspension to take some corrugations plus enough clearance not to worry about a dip here and there. And there’s a full-sized spare should we need it. Have a look at the photos and ask which car would be best for the conditions – a softroader or a roadcar.
Sure, we could have taken a roadcar, but especially with five, or more, people that suspension would be sagging, we’d need to tip-toe around the dirt road potholes, and I would have worried about scraping something. In the same way the SUV can, kinda do 4WD tracks, the roadcar, can, kinda do this sort of forest dirt road. You just spend more time driving and being careful, and less time trying to spot those elusive koalas… You never know when you’ll need a bit of 4WD either, as on one track we found a couple of CFA trucks across the road. The captain directed us onto the grassy, rutted and soggy bypass around the vehicle, and that little detour wouldn’t have been possible without some basic off-road capability.
It is interesting to note that yesteryear’s roadcars were more capable in the rough than today’s – softer suspension, more clearance, full-sized spares, no premium fuel, much lighter weights. Go back to the days of the Model T and those ‘roadcars’ had better clearance and angles than many of today’s dedicated 4WDs.
Back on the highway and the Sorento, like most softroaders, isn’t going to have enthusiast drivers queuing up for a turn at the wheel. But it doesn’t matter, because the car did it’s job – it got the six of us out into the forest quickly and comfortably, drove everywhere we needed and cruised us back. It’s not the car’s fault the koalas were hiding because of the rain!
PS. Not all vehicles without low range lack capability. There are exceptions….