It’s only in the last century or so that roads have been wide, flat expanses of tarmac or concrete – before the popularity of the car, dirt roads and tracks once used for horses and livestock were the main routes to trains and ports. Early cars were designed to cope, but once we had motorways and fast, flat surfaces, car design could be focused on low, wide, efficient models. No ground clearance, but amazing grip and aerodynamics were the rule – and farmers could buy a Land Rover. Or a tractor.
Roads aren’t that good anymore. Even motorways have potholes, and some rural locations may as well revert to dirt roads. It’s no wonder that ‘something like a Land Rover’ has become so appealing for urban drivers. So what you’ll find when searching for 2nd hand cars will inevitably include a lot of SUVs and 4x4s. Their popularity has increased not just because of the opportunities for leisure and adventure; the high driving position with good views ahead and perception of strength and safety are also very real benefits.
If you do need to drive off-road though, a secondhand 4×4 will make it easy. Remember to check the MOT history before going to look at a used car – that way you’ll know which areas to pay particular attention to and will also have a heads up of any mileage discrepancies.
What makes an efficient off-road car:
1: Ground clearance
It doesn’t matter how many wheel drive you’ve got if the centre of that dirt track is scraping the bottom of your car, or a small rock could hit something expensive. The first rule of an off-road car is ‘be tall’ – make sure the wheels are big enough, the suspension flexible enough, and the tyres chunky enough to drive over any obstacle.
For the best off-roaders today, that means allowing the suspension to lower at speed for more secure handling and economy. An efficient off-road car, therefore, will either have a low-body over high ground clearance, or like the Range Rover or Land Rover Defender, will have air suspension for good manners on, or off, tarmac.
2: Talk the torque
Off-road cars don’t need speed, they need strength. An engine with all the torque produced low-down is ideal, matched with nice low-range gearing for fine control. Or at least, that was the way it was done before hybrid technology arrived. Electric motors are smooth, clean and above all, strong – they produce their maximum pulling power from the lowest revs, meaning an off-road car can pull its weight without having to spin the engine or gears quickly.
So an efficient off-roader could have a nice, modern turbocharged diesel engine, but the best designs use that engine as a generator and use electric motors to turn the wheels. The Land Rover PHEV, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and Jeep Renegade 4xe all offer this electrified control, but it’s becoming more popular – even the Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4 has the potential to be good off-road, with the right tyres.
3: Get all the wheels turning – 4×4
You can drive most dirt tracks with a Peugeot 3008 or 5008, or similar front-wheel drive SUV, because they have lots of ground clearance and traction control. Some even have special modes for off-roading. But ultimately if both front wheels are spinning, you won’t get anywhere without a push.
You could ask a farmer, but if you’ve got four wheel drive all you need is a locking centre differential, which most all-wheel drive cars feature one way or another. Some sense that wheels are slipping, some use the car’s brakes to force traction to other wheels, and the best have the option to lock it yourself so you don’t get stuck as easily in the first place.
The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen and most double cab pickups such as the Volkswagen Amarok or Isuzu D-Max will give you the most flexibility here, but even a Dacia Duster has enough tech to tackle the rough stuff. With the right tyres…
4: Choose the right footwear – tyres are crucial
Even a six-figure Lamborghini Urus will get stuck on a grassy, muddy field if you don’t have the right tyres. Big wheels with skinny, high-speed low profile tyres might look good on the high street, but for mud and snow you need the right gear. Helpfully, the tyres are called ‘mud and snow’ tyres, so you’ve really no excuse for going hiking in the car equivalent of Louboutins.
Driving efficiently off road
Plan your route carefully. The best way to enjoy and plan off-road trips is to join the Green Lane Association (GLASS), particularly if you want to access scenery and locations you might otherwise be unable to get to.
Don’t rev and race – use low speeds, high gears, and slow down with gears as well – use brakes sparingly much as you would when driving on snow.
If you have a plug-in hybrid, let your battery charge on the drive to the off-road trail. Not only will other users appreciate your lack of noise and exhaust pollution, many hybrid 4x4s need that battery charge for the all-wheel drive to work at its best.