Right, then: what car is best off-road? That sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
Only it isn’t. Not by a long way. Because off-roading, like no other discipline in this game, brings with it myriad complications.
Shall we start with tyres? I wouldn’t usually, because they’re not that interesting, but we should here, because they’re what you need to worry about most if you’re trying to find out ‘what car is best off-road?’. You see ‘what car is best off road?’ can quickly become ‘what tyres are best off-road?’ if you’re not careful.
Not that tyres are the only thing to bother you, because there’s always the ‘are you sure that bit of off-road is the same as it was three minutes ago, when you were driving a different car over it?’ headache as well. You don’t get that at Silverstone. At a race track the bit of circuit you’ve just driven around once will usually be in the same place you’ll find it next time. This pesky off-road stuff changes every few minutes.
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And then there are the other obstacles to getting the definitive answer. Figurative ones, not literal. I mean, does ‘best’ mean best at climbing up hills, or not getting stuck in mud, or crawling over rocks? Because a car might be good at one, hopeless at another and fine at the third. But anyway, look, let’s worry about that as we come to it, and I’ll muddle through as we go. This can be an off-road feature imitating modern British life itself, in a way.
The contenders, at least, are pretty straightforward. Land Rover says that the new Discovery is the most capable car off-road that it has ever made. It’ll go further, even, than a Defender, they reckon. Fair enough. Well done team. And it’s brand new, so that’s the basis for this entire test. Bosh, as they don’t say on a green lane in Wiltshire. But while we could do that whole thing where we test it against its nearest market rivals, such as a Volvo XC90 and an Audi Q7, on some back roads and motorways, where’s the fun in that when it’s said to be capable of so much more?
So here we are, in a disused quarry in Rutland, with a V6 diesel Discovery in high specification and alongside five rivals. I’ve chosen four that I think will be very handy in the rough, plus one that might not be.
The nearest traditional Discovery rival among them is a Toyota Land Cruiser, a big, luxurious, seven-seat SUV that has, at its heart, the same aims as the Land Rover: to be nice to spend time in but to be able to do the business if asked. Like the Discovery, it has a big diesel, but 2.8 rather than 3.0 litres and only four cylinders, although both cars drive all four of their respective wheels, both have air-suspension you can raise for off-roading, both have low-ratio gearboxes and a switch inside that can vary what power goes where and so on, depending on the terrain in which you find yourself.
Next closest rival, perhaps, is the Mercedes-Benz G-Class, the latest in the Gelandewagen lineage and now ‘oh crumbs’ expensive at nearly £90,000, despite only having a 3.0-litre V6 diesel. Inside it’s all leather and luxury, or as luxurious as it can be given the lineage, because it’s narrow in here, although on the outside that lack of width is probably an advantage, plus it has short overhangs and a lot of ground clearance. Again, there’s a low-ratio gearbox, although the coil-sprung suspension is set at a prescribed height. And while you can’t scroll through terrain modes, you can lock the centre, front and rear differentials independently.
Those are the three traditional SUVs. Car four is here to uphold the honour of the double-cab pick-up trend. We could have picked any of several, but that the Isuzu D-Max can be had with Arctic Truck-branded accessories, including massive balloon tyres and motorsport dampers, meant it was the obvious choice. It has high and low-ratio fourwheel drive options but no locking diffs or fancy terrain mode nonsense. But still, look at those tyres.
And then there’s the traditional, ‘real’ off-roader, the Jeep Wrangler, here in a 75th Anniversary spec (from last year), because Jeep came about while trying to win World War 2. You can’t buy this trim right now, with its ‘Sarge’ green paint and bronze badges, but it’s mechanically representative of a range that doesn’t change too frequently. The version that arrived might be hampered by being a long-wheelbase one, not a short one, because it ought to be slightly less capable than a three-door Wrangler, but still, it’s a serious piece of kit. It has limited-slip differentials and a low-ratio gearbox, and a 3.6-litre V6 petrol engine, which I rather like the idea of.
Then there’s the rank outsider, the Dacia Duster, a very small, lightweight SUV that doesn’t pretend to be as macho as the others. I like the Duster as a wildcard. No lowratio ’box, no locking diffs, no ride height adjustment. But you can select permanent 50/50 split four-wheel drive, so we do. In the other cars, we tend to stay in their lowest-ratio, highest-body settings, too. There’s only one car missing that I’d have liked here, a Suzuki Jimny, which wasn’t available at the kind of stupid short notice we manage to put in most phone calls. Sorry about that. I suspect it would do quite well.
Anyway, we asked that none of them come on hooky tyres. Optional ones are fine, we said, so long as they can be offered at the point of sale.
No car maker takes the mickey, thankfully, although the BF Goodrich Mud Terrains on the Jeep are the most serious tyres here. But the tests we’ve got in store are meant to nullify most tyre differences anyway, by avoiding too much testing in mud. If you’ve got the ground clearance, tyres matter more than anything else in really gloopy conditions, although vehicle weight undoubtedly plays a part, too.
The plan is that we stop before anything breaks: if a car can only progress by getting damaged, it’s out – and that has the added benefit of avoiding any embarrassing calls to the AA.
The first challenge, then, is a hillclimb from a standing start. One short, scrabbly, testing hill, a right turn and a left turn, followed by a second – and more brutally upright – ascent. I’ll admit to a slight agenda: it would be great if some cars didn’t make it through challenge one, so we could forget them for the next challenge, and so on, with an eventual winner emerging. Which might seem slightly unfair but, look, I’ve only got 2000 words here and you don’t have all day. I’m expecting that the Duster’s deficit of ground clearance, and that, uniquely, it’s a manual with a small engine, means it’ll be sidelined early on.
Only it doesn’t quite work out like that. All cars make it up both hills, albeit some more easily than others. The D-Max scrabbles and its live axle – it’s an unloaded pick-up, remember – bounces to provoke some axle tramp. The Duster clangs on the summit of hill one but makes it up. And with its clutch dropped in a hurry it fairly flies uphill two, owing to its low weight. The Discovery and Land Cruiser feel their mass up hill two, but on the descent – because we can’t leave them up there – it’s the G-Class and Land Cruiser that make you want to get straightest, so they don’t topple over. The G-Class’s slow, recirculating ball steering makes turning for the hill a pest, while the Jeep drives up and down like it’s going to the shops.
If you had to pick an order now, the Wrangler would be at the top of it, from the G-Class, then the Discovery, Land Cruiser, D-Max and Duster (in ground clearance terms, not climbing ability, where it’s second). Which means they all make it to test two: a rock crawl. The idea is simple enough: we navigate from one end of a series of large rocks to another, testing the ground clearance, traction and axle articulation.
I don’t think you find that many rock crawls in the UK but in North America, where access to rough terrain is much freer than here, they’re much more plentiful. The Discovery and Land Cruiser have modes designed for it, tightening differentials so an unloaded tyre doesn’t scrabble too much. And it works, although progress – guided by a Sherpa called Nik, from our sister title Pistonheads, who is the usual custodian of the Duster – is slow in both big cars. Now, because of the Duster’s ground clearance and because it’s Nik’s, I’m afraid it doesn’t make it through without threatening to ground its middle. But the Jeep and G-Class mooch over easily enough with delicate guidance, while the D-Max’s accessories give it such tremendous clearance that it could hop over Ken Dodd’s teeth without grounding. Yup, nothing but the latest cultural references here.
So, only one car down, although that sets up the penultimate test as I had hoped: the towing test, using a car that has ‘failed to proceed’ as bait. So the plan is that we get the Duster stuck in the mud, and then try towing it out with the rest, and see what works best. A kind of ‘horse trailer in muddy field’ test.
Only there’s a problem. The Duster will not get stuck. Despite only riding on Continental CrossContact tyres, which is hardly the most hardcore rubber here, the darned thing refuses to sink. Unlike the heavier cars, it skips across the top of the lake bed and, just when it looks like it’ll sink to its axles, drives itself clean out again. We go near in heavier cars, but here tyre choice becomes a factor where it wasn’t meant to be. A Discovery flounders; ditto a G-Class while trying to pull it out. Tyres, tyres, tyres – they become everything, and that wasn’t object of the game. So we need a new final showdown.
So tea is drunk, heads are scratched and I briefly try an Antarctic-ready Hyundai Santa Fe while we devise an alternative plan. I like the one we come up with, although it’s not out of the 4x4 purist’s handbook.
We pick a start point, an end point and a series of obstacles between the two, and I’ll drive as quickly as I think I can, from one end to the other, across all obstacles, without damaging the vehicles. Does that basically sound like I’m setting a lap time? Okay, it’s setting a lap time.
But I think the science supports it. The course goes: risk-of-grounding out yump, turning-circle test, steep descent, water wade, abrupt climb, gentle mogul, steep descent, open plain, narrow climb, muddy mogul, slippy corner, turning-circle test, and back to the start. Yes, only my intuition is telling me how fast I can take things, but when in doubt, mechanical sympathy will out. I think it’s fair, and fairer still when the results come off the stopwatch.
I’ve established that the Duster won’t make it up some of these crawls, so fifth is the Land Cruiser (2min 7sec), fourth the Discovery (2min 1sec). Both are excellent but both feel their girth. The Discovery is better. There are group tests it could win, should win, would win, were they to include even 500 metres of on-road driving, where it is imperious against all comers here and pretty much anywhere else. But this is a rough road test, and a G-Class gets where the Land Rover will but more easily, or more quickly (1min 58sec). The D-Max feels like it almost wants the abuse (although the ride quality and interior materials vie for which is the harshest) and, at 1min 50sec, it gets it.
But the Jeep Wrangler? Ah, the Jeep Wrangler. With its high floor, low ceiling and chunky rather than refined interior, it wouldn’t compete with other cars on the road, but here it’s in its element. There’s a terrific honesty to it, it seldom grounds, seldom scrabbles and never feels like you’re going to give it too much. You just stick it in its low ratio and forget the world, like you’re in a taller, heavier, even more robust, even more capable Ariel Nomad. At 1min 31sec, it laps the route a full 19sec quicker than even the D-Max. I adored it.
Objective? Enough for me. All of these cars are hugely capable in their own way. Some are better on the road than others. Some are the most complete cars on sale in the world.
But this test was of two days in a disused quarry, deciding which car was the best at coping with what it had. In an off-road test, then, perhaps it’s no surprise that the best offroader is the original off-roader.
Price £37,875 Engine V6, 3604cc, petrol Power 276bhp at 6350rpm Torque 347lb ft at 4300rpm Gearbox 5-spd auto Kerb weight 2125kg 0-62mph 8.9sec Top speed 112mph Fuel economy 23.7mpg (combined) CO2/kerb weight 276g/km
Price £88,800 Engine V6, 2987cc, diesel Power 241bhp at 3600rpm Torque 443lb ft at 1600-2400rpm Gearbox 7-spd auto Kerb weight 2612kg 0-62mph 8.9sec Top speed 119mph Fuel economy 28.5mpg (combined) CO2/tax band 261g/km
Price £58,795 Engine V6, 2993cc, diesel Power 254bhp at 3750rpm Torque 443lb ft at 1600rpm Gearbox 8-spd auto Kerb weight 2230kg 0-62mph 8.1sec Top speed 130mph Fuel economy 39.2mpg (combined) CO2/tax band 189g/km
Price £56,630 Engine 4 cyls, 2755cc, turbo diesel Power 172bhp at 3400rpm Torque 332lb ft at 1600-2400rpm Gearbox 6-spd auto Kerb weight 2400kg 0-62mph 12.7sec Top speed 109mph Fuel economy 38.2mpg (combined) CO2/tax band 194g/km
Price £16,195 Engine 4 cyls, 1197cc, turbo, petrol Power 124bhp at 5250rpm Torque 151lb ft at 2000rpm Gearbox 6-spd manual Kerb weight 1312kg 0-62mph 11.0sec Top speed 110mph Fuel economy 44.1mpg (combined) CO2/tax band 145g/km