It's also time for automakers to start taking them seriously.
If you ask the average off-road driving enthusiast what the recipe for an excellent off-road vehicle is, it will inevitably involve a ladder frame chassis (often referred to as body on frame chassis), solid axles (opposite wheels are connected laterally by a single beam or shaft), and a low-range transfer box. They would be correct if your idea of off-roading is on the extreme side. A ladder frame is a strong backbone for a vehicle that will get battered around in the harshest of environments, solid axles are strong to deal with big power and weight, and a low-range transfer box changes the gear ratio to better leverage the torque generated by the engine.
However, we've recently seen the rise in popularity of the light or mild off-road vehicle, pejoratively known as the soft-roader, as in a standard family vehicle with basic modifications for minor off-road use, as a package. The popularity is for a reason, and the soft-roader is far from new, as it has been serving people since the 1970s.
However, automakers need to understand the soft-roader better to serve their customers properly and not risk stranding them off the beaten track.
The now ubiquitous crossover vehicle comes from the early soft roaders. If you really wanted, you could trace the soft-roader back to the Model T, as it was renowned for its cross-country abilities born out of necessity as roads were sparse and dirt tracks were the norm.
Jumping forward to when the road system resembled what it does today, the AMC Eagle appeared in the 1970s as an answer to people that wanted light off-road capability while retaining the ride comfort and handling of a road car. It was a lifted car with all-wheel-drive and is generally, and retroactively, considered the first crossover SUV.
Taking that idea further, the second-generation (XJ) Jeep Cherokee was a unibody SUV and kept up Jeep's reputation for off-road ability in the 1980s.
However, it was the Toyota RAV4 that popularized the crossover SUV, and RAV4 stood for "Recreational Active Vehicle with 4-wheel drive." In reality, full-time four-wheel-drive was optional, but it was there for off-road ability. Since then, the crossover has become predominantly road based, with all-wheel-drive being there for snow. However, Subaru has kept the torch burning for soft roaders and, with its symmetrical all-wheel-drive system. It has served Subaru well.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic came along, and people started looking back to the outdoors for recreation. It's easy to socially distance in the US outside the cities, and people have begun to discover the great outdoors again. And to get to those hiking or camping spots, dirt roads are often involved, and you often need an increased ground clearance and, when it's wet, a set of all-terrain tires and a four-wheel-drive system.
All-wheel-drive has become reasonably common on modern crossovers, but the rest is usually lacking.
As a result of so many customers wanting more ability from their crossovers, automakers have started adding off-road trims to vehicles you wouldn't normally associate with off-roading or even building specific models to appeal to the outdoorsy types.
For example, Hyundai now has its X-Line, Toyota has stretched its TRD Off Road line to the RAV4, and Honda recently introduced its TrailSport badge to the Pilot. Subaru has even got in on the act with its Wilderness line of more extreme soft-roaders. Mazda has gone the extra mile for the US market with the CX-50, which doesn't need a package added to get onto a dirt track with confidence.
Generally, these packages are based around a lifted suspension by a couple of inches, all-terrain tires, and programmed off-road modes for the all-wheel-drive systems. However, they're not all equal.
When we get a vehicle to test drive (typically over a week) that mentions off-roading in the press or marketing materials, we don't just take it to a dirt parking lot and drive it through a puddle. Here in California, we have miles and miles of tracks and trails of varying grades.
Most of our favorites for spectacular views, scenery, hiking, and camping spots are only challenging when wet. Even when we get out into the desert, you don't need something purpose-built to get way out there to find good spots. Although when sand is involved, a second vehicle to travel with is always a good idea.
For most, buying a heavy truck-based off-roader with a thirsty engine is overkill for their off-road needs and an expensive and often awkward proposition to drive daily -hence the crossover was born in the first place.
On top of that, when the money goes into the drivetrain on something like a Toyota 4Runner, the interior quality and technology tend to suffer. However, give something like an all-wheel-drive Honda Pilot a two-inch lift and a set of all-terrain tires, and you have both worlds covered.
The problem is that there's more to it than that, and automakers need to pay attention to the details.
Something that highlighted that for us was when we took a Toyota RAV4 TRD Off Road on trail out across the desert and found the ground clearance wasn't enough for comfort. At the trail's end, a rock pierced a tire, and (yes, we should have checked first) we found the spare was a space saver.
A few miles earlier, when we were scrabbling up steep dirt hills, it would have made life harder. It could have become a real problem if we had been out there while it was raining and the surface had gotten slippery.
On the flip side of that experience, we took the Honda Pilot TrailSport out during heavy rain on a long dirt track over a long hill, and the extra ground clearance got us over new deep cracks in the track while the all-wheel-drive and all-terrain tires kept us from sliding around wildly. It also had a full-size spare tire.
With many soft-roaders available now, it's essential to scrutinize the spec list and ensure it covers all the basics and has the ground clearance and approach angles you need. For example, a well-prepared off-road packaged car will have a front bumper, modified or not, that allows the vehicle to start up a steep bump or incline without grounding out. It will also have a full-size spare wheel with the same tires on each corner. It should also have a front and rear tow hook that can take the strain of pulling the vehicle out of trouble, not just rolling onto a tow truck.
Ideally, it should also include a first aid kit (including at least two emergency blankets) as standard as a bare minimum. Ideally, automakers would include a tow strap, a lifting jack for soft ground, and some essential traction pads. A flashlight built into the glove compartment stored on a charger like you could get in the old days would also be welcome.
Other things, like inflators/compressors for tires, start getting expensive and shouldn't be needed, but for those worried they might need to air down tires, there's a chance for automakers to sell some accessories.
As mentioned, soft-roader is often used pejoratively, but it's time to end the snobbery. The popularity of people either giving their own all-wheel-drive vehicles added ability through the aftermarket or buying off-road packaged cars to get and do the things they want, like hiking, biking, camping, or whatever, is only rising.
Cars, crossovers, SUVs, and trucks are built as transportation and soft roaders are transporting people out into usually harder-to-access areas to places they want to go and do the things they love. Plus, they're enjoying the drive, which is what owning a car should be about.
That's not something to sneer at. That's the kind of thing that breeds more enthusiasts.
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