Bush or ’burbs
Thirty years ago, the SUV didn’t exist. Hard-core dual range 4WDs such as Toyota’s LandCruiser, the Nissan Patrol and Holden Jackaroo were the only alternatives to Falcon, Commodore and Camry wagons, our favourite family freighters back in the day.
In the 1990s, a few imaginative car companies tried their luck with wagons that combined elements of both and the SUV was born. Pioneer SUVs such as Subaru’s Outback and the Toyota RAV4 were light, safe, fuel-efficient, comfortable and easy to drive — just like a car — but they also had extra ground clearance, high-range all-wheel drive and dual-purpose tyres so you could also point them at a dirt road without embarrassing yourself in front of the family.
To say we went for the concept is an understatement.
The SUV is now available in hundreds of different flavours, led in the sales charts by Mazda’s CX-5.
The conventional 4WD wagon is still with us, of course, but it sells in much smaller numbers than SUVs.
Toyota’s Prado has dominated this market for 20 years but last year’s launch of Ford’s new Everest, Mitsubishi’s Pajero Sport and Toyota’s Fortuner could well spark a 4WD revival.
Everest, Pajero Sport and Fortuner are basically wagon bodies dropped on to an existing one-tonner 4WD ute chassis — respectively, the Ranger, Triton and HiLux.
They’re credible family vehicles largely because their crash protection, which wasn’t even an optional extra on onetonners or 4WDs of yore, is now comparable with the majority of cars and SUVs, at least according to ANCAP tests.
One-tonners are still way off the pace, though, when it comes to the latest hi-tech driver safety aids such as radar cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane keeping — these are available, for now, only in the Ford Ranger and Everest.
So the 4WD v SUV family wagon decision in 2015 requires you to make fewer compromises but it’s still worth asking yourself exactly what you want the vehicle to do, where you’re going to use it and what your priorities are. Work this out and you’ll know which way to go.
If your most ambitious offroad excursions will be on access roads to popular national parks, or the snow in winter, an SUV will do the job perfectly well and you won’t be paying for off-road hardware you’ll never use or the extra weight of a 4WD that costs you serious money every time you fill up or get it serviced.
Despite the fact that AWD and stability control essentially do the same job — improve grip, control and safety in slippery conditions — an all-paw SUV is still worth thinking about if you do regular highway hauls because it does give you an extra measure of grip.
If bopping around town is all you do, many SUVs now include a front-drive variant, which will be fine in this application and is usually thousands of dollars cheaper.
In six or seven-seaters, check whether the side curtain airbags extend to the third row. In some wagons only the front and middle row passengers are protected.
The SUV became more popular than the 4WD because during the noughties people realised that the latter is complete overkill for everyday suburban driving.
However if off-road adventuring, outback travel or towing are on your agenda, the 4WD wagon or one-tonner will usually do the job much more easily and reliably than an SUV.
The trade-off is relatively sedate performance, ponderous handling and higher running costs. These things are, after all,