Most modern SUVs are really crossover vehicles, which is to say they're car-based vehicles that typically have a slightly elevated ride height and sometimes the option of all-wheel drive. Vehicles like the Cadillac SRX, Ford Edge, Honda Pilot, Honda CR-V and Toyota Highlander are popular examples of crossovers. They have some SUV attributes but really do their best work on-road.
But what if you want a SUV that can tough it out when the pavement ends? Not just hard-packed dirt trails or fire roads, but real, middle-of-nowhere off-roading. A car based SUV with all-wheel drive just won't work. When shopping for that off-road-ready SUV, here are the best off-road features:
1. High Ground Clearance - If want the real deal when it comes to off-roading, you'll want to consider body-on-frame SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe, Jeep Wrangler, or Toyota 4Runner. These types of SUVs naturally have a higher ground clearance than a car or car-based crossover vehicles. Purpose-built SUVs like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Land Rover Range Rover and Land Rover LR4 are also great off-road because they're specifically designed to go off-road. In fact, both the Land Rover LR4 and Range Rover as well as the Jeep Grand Cherokee have adjustable suspension, so you can actually raise the vehicle's ride height with the push of a button.
2. Low Range Transfer Case - Having low range capability is important for negotiating steep hills. The low gearing provides extra pull while the wheels are turning slowly. Conventional gears are too "tall" to be useful off-road. On paved roads, a low engine speed and high wheel speed might help you get better fuel economy, but that won't work off-road where the ground is typically slippery or uneven. Also, low range gearing help ease the vehicle down steep hills without having to use the brakes. This helps the driver maintain control over the direction and speed of the vehicle.
3. Good Torque Output - Horsepower is the ability of an engine to do work over a distance or period of time; torque is the rotational or twisting power of an engine. The higher the torque number, the more likely your vehicle of choice will be able to pull you up a hill or out of a mud hole - provided there is sufficient grip from the tires and ground.
4. Finally, AutoTrader.com's resident off-road expert, Ted Ladue, says, "A locking differential is very important, too. Most trucks (and some cars, for that matter) have a 'limited-slip' differential. This means that the wheel that's getting the least amount of traction will spin. So in a conventional four-wheel drive that comes with a limited slip differential, you might only have two-wheel drive - one front, and one back - when you get in the slick stuff or off-kilter situations. A locking differential is similar to posi-traction - it locks the differential so BOTH wheels on the axle are rotating at all times. Any truck that's serious about off-roading should have some form of locking differential. For example, the Toyota FJ Cruiser has a sort of electrical version that uses technology similar to Hill Assist, while more traditional trucks such as the Wrangler have a mechanical locking differential. Some trucks come with full locking differentials (all wheels are rotating at all times), some with lockers just in the rear, such as on the 'desert-racing' versions of the Tacoma and the Frontier. Even rear-only lockers are a lot of help off-road."
Other features that might not be essential but are certainly helpful include Hill Start Assist. This helps keep a vehicle from rolling backward as it climbs a hill - it's sort of like a brake that prevents the vehicle from rolling backward if the driver lets off the accelerator. Hill Descent Control uses traction control and anti-lock brakes in conjunction with the low range gearing to maintain a safe speed when going down steep hills.
The right tires are also important - the more aggressive the tread, the better grip you'll get in the dirt, mud and snow. Also, if you plan to do some serious off-roading, you might want to consider an SUV with skid plates. These are metal plates placed under the vehicle to protect the underside of an SUV (this type of extra protection is typically not needed on paved roads). Skid plates can help prevent damage from sharp rocks, loose gravel and other debris.
Not everyone who buys an SUV needs or even wants to go off-road. If you really need a family hauler that will never leave paved roads, a crossover like the Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Equinox or Nissan Murano will probably work well. However, if you actually go off-road, make sure your next SUV has the best off-road features available.