It seems like every midsize SUV coming out these days is a crossover, rather than a proper off roader. Just look at the marketplace – it’s a sea of all-wheel-drive machines, but these are built to be a front wheel drive which occasionally send the power to the rear when slip is detected.
There’s a good reason for that. Most people aren’t taking their vehicle off the beaten track, and having a two wheel drive vehicle that transforms into all wheel drive when it needs to actually saves fuel, because it’s only powering two wheels instead of four most of the time.
Some of these crossovers are purely front wheel drive, which is all but useless if you want to head off road somewhere. As if it’s a final insult to the SUV community, some of these front wheel drive pretenders actually have hill descent control fitted to them.
Seriously, who is going to be using hill descent on something that they don’t take off-road? In a carpark? If that hill descent button isn’t a joke on that kind of vehicle, we’re not sure what is.
That makes trying to find midsizers that are built as a proper off road machine quite a difficult task. But it is possible – you just have to know where to look.
That’s why we’ve done some digging, searching and browsing to find midsize SUVs that have the classic four wheel drive system.
Why are four wheel drives better?
We’re not going to say that crossovers are evil, by any means. They are very good at transporting people, and will happily hop a kerb or two occasionally. Some will even get up and over a rock every now and then (see Jalopnik’s wonderful take on the Mitsubishi Outlander).
But there’s one area where crossovers are not that great, and that’s climbing over boulders, or even wading through deep mud. You know, the kind of stuff tackled by traditional off roaders.
For that, you’re going to need four wheel drive. You can read more about the difference between all wheel drive and four wheel drive, but the main advantage of four wheel drive is that it can lock all four wheels together indefinitely.
Sure, a lot of crossovers have a 4WD lock button, but all this does is engage the rear wheels for a short period of time. For example, on the Hyundai Santa Fe, for instance, the locking remains until it hits 40kmh (25mph), and then it automatically disengages and doesn’t re-engage until you drop below that speed and press the button again.
In addition, if the rear differential and Haldex system overheat, it doesn’t matter how many times you press the button, it just won’t engage. Not great if you’re stuck up to your axles on the beach.
Four wheel drive, on the other hand, doesn’t rely on clutches to engage. There’s a physical connection using gears, which means it won’t suddenly drop back from all-wheel-drive to two-wheel-drive again. It stays with all four wheels locked together.
This gives you the maximum traction possible when getting into some boggy ground. But it also makes sure that you don’t lose any torque when a wheel is in the air.
Torque follows the path of least resistance, and a wheel spinning in the air is losing all of its drive. If all four are locked, then the vehicle can continue to inch forward and get out of the sticky spot.
This is why a lot of crossovers have stability control. The electronic brain senses the slip (or spin) and brakes that wheel, stopping that wheel from wasting the torque.
But it’s not perfect, and often the brakes will overheat because they’re being used so much. A four wheel drive doesn’t suffer from that problem.
The other thing four wheel drives have is low range. This shortens the gearing which allows the vehicle to climb up steeper slopes, putting all of its power behind short ratios. It also helps when pulling someone else out of a sticky spot.
So, having four wheel drive is a good thing. But the trick is to find the vehicles that have it.
Which midsize SUVs come with 4×4?
Currently, only the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Wrangler come with a proper 4×4 system that has low range. Going a size down, there’s also the Suzuki Jimny.
The Grand Cherokee may look like every other crossover, and inside it has more of a luxury focus, but this midsize Jeep Grand Cherokee is just as capable off road as plenty of other Jeep models.
Depending on what you option, you can get the Quadra-Trac II system which gives you low range. It also has a pretty neat stability control system as well as hill ascent control. If you add chunky off road biased tyres, there aren’t too many places the Jeep GC can’t go.
You can also add a limited-slip rear differential, skid plates, and front tow hooks if need be.
The Wrangler, meanwhile, sets the standard for off road prowess at this price point. With the Land Rover Defender now put out to pasture for a while, the Wrangler enjoys its solitude as the go-to machine for serious off-roading.
It has been built from the ground up to have standard off-road gear like four wheel drive, low range transfer case, hill descent control and good, grippy tires.
It also gets approach and departure angles which make it the envy of plenty of other vehicles. You can even option a shorter low range ratio for more hardcore 4x4ing, while some Wranglers even have a removable hard top. There’s also a soft top version.
The Mopar division allows you to build your own Wrangler and get even more hardcore, all while retaining your warranty.
The Nissan Terra is probably the only other option we can think of, though that could almost be classified as a large SUV, given its seven seat status.
In five seat guise, however, it has all the hallmarks of an off-road beast, with four wheel drive, low range and plenty of ground clearance.
The Terra comes in both petrol and diesel, depending on your market, but currently it’s limited to Asian buyers only.
What are the alternatives?
Well, there are plenty of good crossovers out there, but really you want them to have an off-road focus.
Again, you’ll have to watch your brakes if you’re out in the bush for hours, but they will get you a lot further that you could imagine.