Off-road alternatives

Off-road alternatives

There’s no doubt that in this country the need for a four-wheel-drive car is small. There’s an oft-quoted saying that the furthest from the road a Range Rover will get is the Waitrose car park. Whilst that’s probably true 99% of the time there’s no doubt that having drive to all wheels is a comfort when the going gets tough and the weather gets nasty.

4x4 4From time to time manufacturers let us test their cars off road to illustrate not only their capabilities, but also the ease with which one can travel over what at first sight can look like a no-go area. Suzuki did that recently, exhibiting their S-Cross 4×4, Swift 4×4, and Jimny.

The first two of these look like normal hatchbacks, but the 4WD option endows them with sufficient go-anywhere ability to satisfy most motorists. The Jimny however comes from the design manual of traditional off-roaders – it’s chunky and it’s tough. We took it onto the Yorkshire Outdoors 4WD course near Thirsk, where there was ample scope to test its abilities.

We were advised to keep to tracks that the Jimny could manage. That might sound an obvious thing to do, but it didn’t occur to two of the early drivers who managed to get a Jimny stuck in a seriously deep water/mud mix with its underside perched on the middle of the track. Our efforts were less adventurous, but as you can see from the pictures the Jimny can cope with a lot more than that track uphill to your in-laws’ country cottage.

Serious off-roading like this requires low ratio gearing and full four-wheel-drive, so that one wheel can’t be left spinning with the others doing nothing at all. Two or three decades ago you’d have been hopping out of the car and twiddling muddy things on the wheels to achieve it, but now of course it tends to be an electric control operated by a switch in the cabin; so it is with the Jimny – easy and clean.

4x4 3The Jimny is one of the smaller off-roaders, just 12 feet long, so everyday tasks like shopping and the school run can be accommodated easily. On road however, off-roaders are not in their element, so noise and comfort levels can be disappointing. All of which makes a 4WD version of your standard hatchback a very good compromise.

But, I hear you ask, isn’t a 4WD car thirstier in normal use? Well yes, to some degree. The extra weight of the 4WD machinery has to be carried around whether you’re using it or not, and that costs fuel. There’s also a penalty in driving four wheels rather than two thanks to the extra cogs involved. That’s why most 4WD systems are so-called ‘part time’; in other words the car will be in two-wheel drive until 4WD is requested.

That request might come from a switch in the cabin – as in the Jimny – or be completely automatic via the car’s sensors which detect slippage on one of the driving wheels. From Suzuki’s stable both the S-Cross and the Swift do things that way, so there’s no need for the driver to do anything, and the weight penalty isn’t sufficient to have too much effect on the fuel consumption. Looking at an S-Cross diesel for instance the 4WD fuel consumption penalty is less than 5%.

4x4 2There is of course something to pay in the list price for the extra hardware. Taking the S-Cross once again, the difference between 2WD and 4WD models is a very noticeable £1,800. For many buyers that’s apparently a price worth paying however, as around three in every ten S-Cross sales are 4WD versions. I asked Suzuki’s Product Manager whether they’d expected that many, and he told me that sales of both S-Cross and Swift 4WD models had surprised them, but the low fuel penalty was one good reason for it. It’s worth noting here that 4WD versions of Suzuki’s cars are limited to higher spec models, with prices to match.

Those living in the north of Britain will remember some cold weather last winter, but for most of us further south it was too mild for snow. There was an awful lot of rain of course, and on poor surfaces the owners of 4WD cars will have been grateful for the positive feeling from the transmission. But it’s the possibility of snow and ice next winter that really worries many drivers, and being able to ascend a snow-covered hill with comparative ease and safety is something for which the extra cost might seem a small price to pay.

Suzuki Jimny 4×4

Size:            3.68m x 1.60m

Price:          from £11,995


Suzuki Swift 4×4

Size:            3.85m x 1.70m

Price:          from £14,159


Suzuki S-Cross AllGrip (4×4)

Size:            4.30m x 1.77m

Price:          from £21,549

Full details of the cars above are available on the manufacturer’s website:

by Peter Cracknell