BUYERS GUIDE - SOFT-ROADERS
In this article we look at the most popular pre-2008 softroaders in the used market and check out their bush cred’.
Coming from the company that started the whole softroader business with the Touring Wagon the Subaru Forester is a logical successor to the original, but things have changed in the 20-year interim.
The Forester may well have the pedigree, but it lacks the off-road toughness of its predecessors. There’s a particularly vulnerable plastic under-tray; the muffler is exposed to rock damage; there are ‘toy’ recovery points at the front; and on beach tests we’ve managed to rip the front inner mudguard plastic lining out.
The Subaru’s tyres are 215/60R16s with only a 95 load rating – a bit on the light side. However, there is a full-size spare wheel fitted.
On the plus side the transmission has a steel protection plate and the four-speed auto box comes with a new torque-distributing system.
The Forester’s payload is a respectable 550kg and it can tow a 1400kg trailer. The roof-rack load rating is a useful 80kg and the fuel tank capacity is a marginal 60 litres.
Ford Escape/ Mazda Tribute
This Mazda-built duo share a four-cam, three-litre V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission, and an on-demand, rotary-blade, fluid coupling 4WD system, with manual 50:50 lock-up.
Disc/drum braking is a tad agricultural these days, albeit with ABS/EBD control. Also undesirable is the Escape’s temporary spare tyre.
The Escape’s front recovery points are little more than shipping tie-downs, but there is a heavy steel ‘spine’ running aft from the front cross member that could be used to mount a heavier front recovery eye. The rear already has a solid recovery point.
The plastic engine and transmission under tray needs to be replaced by a metal one.
The aircon condenser is vulnerable to stone and stick damage and needs steel mesh protection, as do the muffler and fuel system ‘black box’.
The rear suspension lower control arms are easily dinged by rocks. The Escape’s tyres are 235/70R16s with a good 105 load rating.
The Escape has a reasonable 510kg payload, a marginal 61-litre fuel tank and a towing capacity of 1600kg. The roof rack won’t hold much, with a 45kg rating.
The CR-V uses a strange oil pump driven 4WD system that our testing shows doesn’t work well. In early 2005 Honda revised the pump design that brings the rear axle into play when the front end starts to slip, but we’ve found that it works well for a while in soft sand and then bails out.
That’s a shame, because the rest of the CR-V’s post-2005 specification is more bush-friendly than previously: 16-inch wheels with 98-load-rated tyres, including a full-size spare; larger disc brakes, standard cruise control and a five-speed auto box.
The four-cylinder engine has outputs of 118kW and 220Nm, but the fuel tank capacity of 58 litres is too small for bush travel.
The trailer capacity is 1500kg for manual transmission machines and 1200kg for automatics.
On paper the Nissan X-Trail looks hard to beat, which helps explain why it sits near the top of the compact SUV market. Buyers obviously like the 132kW, 245Nm performance, the All Mode selectable full-time 4WD system and the excellent 560kg payload and 2000kg trailer rating figures, but the 60-litre fuel tank is marginal.
However, the X-Trail doesn’t look so good when evaluated as an off-road machine, despite Nissan’s persuasive TV advertising.
The X-Trail is the lightest-built softroader and the worst-protected underneath. The engine sump and lower block are vulnerable, as is the air conditioning compressor that’s bolted to the bottom half of the block. The exhaust elbow leads with its chin.
The muffler is right in the belly angle and needs protection.
The front wishbones are aluminium – great for weight saving but we all know that cracks form in scarred aluminium. The rear suspension arms are very lightly made, but the 98-load-rated tyres are bush-friendly.
We wouldn’t take the X-Trail far from formed surfaces.
We’ve always been told not to judge a book by its cover and the ‘distinctive’, now-superseded twin-grille Outlander is quite strongly built underneath.
The Outlander comes with metal protection plates over the engine and transmission sumps. The rear suspension lower control arms are also more solidly made than most others.
However, it could do with additional protection for the exhaust system and the rear propshaft. The exhaust pipe runs under the rear diff, where it’s likely to get squashed if the vehicle bellies on a rock shelf.
The Outlander’s payload rating is a modest 470kg, as is its 1200kg trailer rating.
The baby Mitsubishi is fitted with two sturdy recovery eyes up front: one welded to a central ‘spine’ pressing and the other to the frontal crash protection tube, but you need to cut holes in the plastic air dam/grille moulding to use them. At the back the Outlander had two lightweight tie-downs – not real recovery points.
Some Outlanders are ‘nobbled’ for off-road use by being fitted with optional 215/55R17 94V tyres.
The Hyundai Tucson is pretty impressive on paper: 129kW, 241Nm, 2.7-litre V6 four-cam engine, Borg Warner on-demand 4WD drivetrain with manual 50:50 lock, a Torsen limited-slip rear differential on the Elite model, standard automatic sequential-shift transmission, four ABS/EBD discs, 65-litre fuel tank, 1500kg trailer towing capacity and 235/60R16 100H tyres.
It all works pretty well on and off road, as well.
The standard recovery points front and rear are strong and the under body is reasonably well protected, although we’d like to see metal where the plastic is.
An odd inclusion in the handbook is a warning that a load greater than 34kg may damage the roof, despite the fact that the roof rails are rated for a 75kg load.
The post-2005 RAV swapped the previous full-time 4WD system to an on-demand all-wheel drive system, activated by a computer-controlled electromagnetic coupling on the rear differential. It also bristles with electronics that leave the rest of the softroader pack gasping.
The new RAV is a front wheel drive vehicle until a loss of front end traction is anticipated by the ABS sensors, the steering angle sensor, the engine ECU and the deceleration sensor. Alternatively, a manual switch locks the RAV into full-time 4WD operation, up to 40km/h.
The RAV’s new Driver Assist Technology incorporates a Cooperative Control function that combines the functions of the electric power steering with the active 4WD system to provide steering assistance and variable torque split front to rear.
Cooperative Control also works with the traction control and ABS systems, and is said to be particularly useful when there’s a difference between right and left side tyres.
Apart from its greatly enhanced electronic control package the post-2005 RAV4 has an all-new platform that is longer in the wheelbase and wider in the track than before, and runs on 17-inch wheels, shod with 225/65R17 101H tyres.
The 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine carries over, but output is up by 5kW.
The RAV4 is fitted with threaded towing sockets up front that accept screw-in ring bolts. They should be fine for straight-pull recovery work. The rear end is equipped with a substantial recovery eye.
Like its predecessor the RAV4 has a short front overhang that helps keep the engine and transmission out of harm’s way, but the engine sump and the catalytic converter need further protection.
The exhaust pipe runs under the rear diff, where it’s squashable and the lower control arms are vulnerable to rock damage.
The plastic under tray should be metal.
The RAV4 has a good payload capacity of around 500kg and a trailer towing ability of 1500kg. The fuel tank capacity is a marginal 60 litres.