BUYERS GUIDE - SOFT-ROADERS
Our continual monitoring of softroaders since 2000 has seen us checking out some in head-to-head comparisons. Here’s a test we did in 2008.
Although the ‘200 killer wasps’ V6 attracted most of the 2008 RAV4 headlines, the 2.4-litre four we tested, with its 125kW and 224Nm, was no slouch, propelling the Toyota compact more than competitively. The torquey engine spun up happily from low revs and needed relatively little prodding from the five-speed box.
The RAV4 and the Nissan X-Trail were the most responsive performers on this test.
The RAV4’s ergonomics were judged OK and it scored a plus for having a tilting and telescoping steering wheel. However, the driver’s seat didn’t rate very highly, having good, lever-actuated height adjustment, but a smallish seat cushion, poor shoulder support and no lumbar adjustment.
Toyota stayed with a wand for cruise control, while there was a move among its competitors to steering-wheel buttons. The wand mightn’t have looked as flash, but it worked fine.
The RAV4 suffered from excessive road noise on some bitumen surfaces.
Black-top handling was judged excellent, thanks to firm, well-damped suspension and precise steering.
On gravel roads the RAV4’s firm suspension produced some steering wheel kick and bump steer, but the combination of responsive engine, slick transmission and effective stability control made dirt road driving good fun.
Although Toyota has changed the original full-time 4×4 system to an on-demand one the transition was seamless and the RAV4 felt sure-footed on loose surfaces.
The RAV4’s firm setup meant it didn’t like lumpy trails very much, but it romped around in soft sand like a dune buggy.
The 2008 Forester bodywork sat on top of the successful ‘boxer’ symmetrical powertrain and full-time 4WD system, so little wonder the new vehicle felt familiar.
After the torquey RAV4 the Forester was a little ‘flat’ in response, but the performance was there. The Subaru’s engine figures were almost identical to the Toyota’s. Also like the Toyota there was a high-performance option: the turbocharged Forester XT model.
The cabin was more spacious than before and ergonomics were well thought out. The steering column tilted and telescoped and the wheel was fitted with audio and cruise control buttons.
The seating offered good adjustment and location, with positive shoulder support. The driver’s seat adjusted easily for height, using a side-mounted lever, but there was no lumbar adjustment.
The Forester was an excellent bitumen-road performer, with smooth power delivery through most of the rev range and no sign of the opposed-cylinder throb that the earlier models had.
Ride quality on lumpy black-top was supple and that characteristic carried over to gravel roads.
Stability and traction control were standard features, so punting it enthusiastically on loose surfaces felt quite safe. The Vehicle Direction Control system could not be switched off, but the traction control could.
The Subaru was the equal best vehicle on gravel roads, having a combination of compliant ride and predictable handling.
In off road conditions the Forester had the edge on the other four vehicles, because it was the only one with low-range gearing. It’s not low range to the same degree as ‘real’ 4WDs have but a low range ratio of 1.2:1 is better than no low range at all.
The third-generation CR-V was one of the most popular softroaders on the market and the 2008 model had enough improvements to maintain that degree of acceptance.
The 2.4-litre engine provided ample grunt and was kept in its optimum rev band by a very sweet six-speed transmission.
Ergonomics were judged very good, although the CR-V lacked driver’s seat lumbar support and the steering column adjusted for tilt only.
By locating the gear lever on the dashboard Honda provided the CR-V with squeeze-through space between the front seats, which could be handy in tight parking spaces, or when it wasn’t safe to open the driver’s door.
The Honda CR-V was one of the best smooth-bitumen performers, with flat handling and a gear ratio for every occasion. However, its steering was a tad on the heavy side and camber sensitive, so driving straight on lumpy bitumen required constant steering input.
On gravel roads the Honda reacted like a front wheel drive vehicle, where the other four had obvious four-wheel driving ‘feel’. The Honda also suffered from some front end torque steer, but never got too far out of shape, thanks to its VSA stability system.
The CR-V bodywork drummed on corrugated surfaces and the rough road ride was very firm.
The CR-V didn’t like our sandy creek bank test area very much, because the revamped Real Time 4WD system was more an ‘unreal time’ system that allowed too much front wheel spin before the rear axle got any torque. By then the front wheels had dug holes that the CR-V had to climb out of.
We judged the CR-V the least suitable on and off road machine of this quintet.
The 2008 Outlander looked a lot better than its predecessor and the example on this test was the only machine in the group with a third-row seat option.
Ergonomics were judged fine, although the steering column adjusted for tilt only, and the seats gave adequate support.
Standard propulsion fare was a 2.4-litre four, but there was an optional constantly variable transmission (CVT) to help keep it on the cam, or a three-litre V6.
We tested the five-speed manual 2.4 version, which was probably the least impressive performer in the Outlander lineup. On paper the 2.4 should hammer along with the best of this bunch, but it felt lacking in torque.
The CVT transmission behind the 2.4-litre four, or the V6 with six-speed automatic box options would be the way to go if you’re in the market for a used Outlander.
The Outlander loved smooth bitumen, where its sharp steering and well-damped suspension provided quick, relaxed driving. Smooth dirt was also a blast, if the stick was stirred appropriately. Fortunately, the five-speed box worked smoothly.
On corrugated surfaces the ride wasn’t harsh, but the Outlander’s stylish bodywork and trim vibrated noisily.
The stability control and traction control systems worked very effectively.
Off road, in our sand pit, the Outlander needed a bootful of revs to match all but the CR-V.
The X-Trail was a money spinner for Nissan and the 2008 model continued the trend.
Slight styling changes, more grunt from the 2.4-litre four and a choice of a CVT or six-speed manual kept the X-Trail near the top of the softroader class.
Ergonomics were improved by the move to a conventionally-positioned instrument layout, replacing the original’s central pod. The steering column adjusted for tilt only, but the driver’s seat had height and lumbar adjustment, so it was easy to make the X-Trail fit most shapes.
One quirk was too much gap between the accelerator pedal and brake pedal heights.
The X-Trail’s ride was on the soft side, so it wouldn’t appeal to hot-mix boy racers as much as the firmer RAV4. However, the engine was very responsive, matching the Toyota four in this respect.
The X-Trail’s supple suspension liked lumpy bitumen and rough dirt roads, and the bodywork didn’t drum or vibrate excessively on corrugations.
Our test passenger preferred the X-Trail to riding in the others.
The X-Trail’s stability control wasn’t overly interventionist and corrected out of shape behaviour unobtrusively.
What the X-Trail lacked in gearing when compared with the Forester it made up for with grunt, locked 4WD transfer and strong traction control. The X-Trail’s hill descent control and hill start assist should be boons in steep, slippery conditions.
Black top, gravel, beach sand and mild trail driving
Any one of these five test vehicles would fulfil most buyers’ requirements for a used, compact softroader wagon. They were well made, performed briskly, handled predictably and rode acceptably. Ergonomics were judged very good and the rear vision mirrors provided excellent coverage.
The differences between our top two choices – the Subaru Forester and the Nissan X-Trail – and the other three were relatively minor.
We tried to upset them in soft sand, by running road pressures, but all five managed creditably. However, we’d caution running any of these machines on tidal beaches, where a bogging could result in a swamped vehicle.
As good as they are performing their intended function none of them is suitable for prolonged periods of rough-road or trail driving with typical family camping loads on board. For the true Outback task you need more ground clearance, greater vehicle strength and increased body capacity.
If evaluated purely from the on and off road driving point of view our findings were that the Subaru Forester and the Nissan X-Trail shared the honours. The Subaru would be the multi-purpose, on and off road vehicle of choice, while the X-Trail got the gong for mainly on-road use.