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?

SUV in the bush

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….




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  1. I think the duty cycle issue is important. Have a look at the harbour bridge support suspension arms that can take repeated punishment etc. Even connections behind the dash can be uprated and more resistant to the shaking of corrugations etc etc. Travel too far or too often in a softroader and it will catch up with you.

    A softroader is thus like a human, everything in moderation.

  2. I have pondered this question myself, as it seems our current two vehicles aren’t really multi taskers and we want a good allrounder for camping trips and a bit of 4WDing….our Mazda3 is great on the highway, but on gravel roads, its way too easy to scrape the underside, the tyres don’t have much grip, and the ABS calibration doesn’t seem to be that good….

    OTOH my 96 HiLux 4WD is great off road, but rubbish on it….leaf springs all round, NA diesel, short gearing and no sound insulation being the main problems at highway speeds….

    I remember as a child and even young adult going places in various 2WD vehicles that would be a nightmare now in our Mazda, yet back then they did it with ease….you almost need an SUV now to get the general all roads capability you once had in a regular car….

  3. Given that I’ve heard a journalist claim that a Freelander will go anywhere a Defender will, just a bit slower, this article is a breath of fresh air….

    1. Yes, I read that sort of thing quite often. Generally said journo is a non-specialist on a press launch. The vehicles are lightly laden driving over present obstacles. In some cases, the Freelander does it easier than the Defender…but in the real world there’s no way a Freelander 2 would keep up with a Defender with just some exceptions such as ice or flat mud.

  4. Is the Renegade 4wd system the same as the new non-trailhawk Cherokee? Both lacks low range, albeit renegade trailhawk may have higher Final Drive Ratio?

      1. that article discussed a lot of Renegade but nothing of Cherokee. They are both front wheel drive based, 9 speed transmission, car based suv from jeep. Both lack low range and rear locker, but relies on traction control, what’s the difference in their system?

        1. Here’s your answer, taken from that article:

          “And some other crawl ratios: Cherokee Trailhawk 56:1, Wrangler
          Rubicon 73:1. Both of these vehicles have low range as understood by
          everyone else in the world for many years, since 1941 in fact. The
          Cherokee does its low gearing a bit differently as it has its reduction
          gears in each differential rather than a separate transfer case, but it
          is still a set of lower gears regardless of how it is implemented. The
          numbers for the Cherokee are 4.7 first gear, 2.92 for the reduction
          gears and 4.08 final drive so multiply them out = 55.9 and there’s your
          proper 56:1 crawl ratio. The Wrangler has a conventional transfer

          The reason the Cherokee has its reduction gearing in-diff
          is to save weight and space, as well as make sharing the front-drive
          platform easier. We can expect more of this, at least until the time
          when reduction gearing is dropped completely as electric/hybrid drive
          takes over.

          1. oops, but I was discussing about the non trailhawk Cherokee at the beginning, which has no low range or reduction gear.

          2. but the weired thing is that standard Cherokee also has got the select terrain thing…

  5. If the outback is in the sights with lots of shall we say roughroad then SUVs can do the job. They benefit from more suitable tyres and may have to wait longer than a 4WD after rain.

  6. I like the reference to older vehicles being more capable in some respects. It’s great to see some people look back and not just at current vehicles. Thanks. I enjoy your reviews.

  7. What about a 2001 Forester manual n/a? 45% low range, a cheap sheet of 6mm ally and booyah you got a sump guard some all terrain tyres 205/70R15 to 215/70R15 (keeping it legal due to the discrimintory soft roader rule of only 15mm bigger diameter size increase). lift kits increase your ground clearance and if your lucky enough to find one with a subaxtreame bull bar and wheel carrier you have fixed approach and departure angles.

    or because I have low range I am excluded from the “soft roader” category?

    1. Thanks Tim, good note. There is no 15mm rule for softroaders. VSI14 describes the current rules. Whether a vehicle has low range or not is no longer a definitive statement of whether it will perform offroad. The Renegade pictured above is excellent, as is the VW Amarok auto and the Range Rover Sport single-range. Subaru Foresters can be modified to be highly impressive offroad performers – I have seen this first hand. The article wasn’t about modifying vehicles, just more stock-standard SUVs.

      1. true true and there is a 15mm rule in QLD. I was under the impression other states had adopted it. I quote

        have been told I can put 50mm large diameter tyres on my 4WD, they
        do this in other states and territories, is this permitted in

        Yes, the following types of vehicles can have their tyre diameter
        increased by up to 50mm or reduced by no more than 26mm from any tyre
        diameter designated by the vehicle manufacturer for that vehicle:

        4WD passenger vehicles specifically designed for off-road use (typically MC ADR category), or

        4WD goods vehicles and their 2WD equivalents if the chassis
        and running gear are essentially the same as the 4WD versions (N ADR

        Please note: All wheel drive(AWD) vehicles, commonly known as soft roaders,are not to be considered as one of the above mentioned vehicles.

    2. My SG manual had an LSD too which helped. Trouble with its LR was that it only changed the revs for a given speed by about 500 which wasn’t that much of a help for slow plugging on a rocky surface for example. But otherwise, on outback roads and tracks with a Subaxtreme sump guard and LT ATs it was a capable vehicle, even towing a light camper trailer.

      1. Yeah they still go quite well even with the 20% low range but a common mod is switching the SF gear set into the SG enhances the ability even further 🙂 that 2.5 is a grunty engine

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