the evolving 4x4 market

there's no more controversial group of vehicles on the roads today than the ubiquitous 4x4. these vehicles are extremely popular and that popularity is continuing to grow but only a fraction of the motorists who buy these all-wheel-drive models ever explore their capacity for off-road travel.

the evolving 4x4 market

By chance, the features that 4x4s evolved to help them climb rocky hillsides and plough up mud-clogged tracks out in the wilds have endeared them to family buyers in our towns and cities. Manufacturers have capitalised on this basic appeal, building in better on-road driving dynamics along with higher specifications and more versatile interiors, so that there's now a 4x4 to suit just about everyone - even those who really do plan on getting their tyres muddy.

Much of the criticism levelled at 4x4 vehicles is based around size, whether it's in terms of the extensive exterior dimensions or the gas-guzzling V8 engines that are imagined to be throbbing away under the bonnet. If you want a leviathan off-roader with single figure urban fuel economy, it is possible to get one but most people don't, and that's why the majority of 4x4s sold are from the compact 4x4 sector.

These 'soft-roaders' typically take-up no more space on the road than the average family saloon and are packing modest petrol or diesel powerplants. Manufacturers have forsaken some of the off-road ability in order to build in a more comfortable on-road ride and more accurate handling, although most will still cope well with light forays off the beaten track. The major players in this sector include the likes of Nissan's X-Trail, Honda's CR-V and Land Rover's Freelander with Subaru's Forester being a popular choice for those that like to tow caravans. Many 4x4 enthusiasts of a more practical nature have started to consider popular 4x4 pickup models like the Mitsubishi L200 and the Isuzu Rodeo.

Family 4x4s are bigger and more expensive than their compact counterparts. Many feature an additional row of seating in the rear, boosting capacity to as many as seven persons. Increasingly, they also incorporate MPV-style seating systems where the individual chairs slide, fold or lift out altogether to give greater flexibility to the cabin space. Legroom in the middle row tends to be quite adequate but the rearmost seating in most models is best reserved for smaller children.

The Luxury 4x4 sector is populated by vehicles which attempt to bring the refinement and lofty specifications of high-end saloon cars to the 4x4 market. Expect painstakingly crafted interiors swathed in leather and decked out with a raft of hi-tech gadgetry. In this sector, as with luxury saloon cars, badge equity is key and most of the top prestige marques are represented. Leading players include BMW's X5, the Mercedes M-Class, the Range Rover, the Porsche Cayenne, Lexus GS450h, Audi Q7 and the Volkswagen Touareg.

The latest member of this sector is the Sports Utility Vehicle or as they have come to be known as - SUV's. These vehicles, as their name would suggest, offer a more sporting flavour in their design and performance than the standard 4x4 and are epitomised by models like the Ford Kuga, Nissan Juke, Nissan Qashqai, Suzuki SX4 and the up market Range Rover Evoque. What is more, many models in this sub-sector of the market now offer a standard two-wheel drive layout as an alternative to the expensive and weighty 4x4 system. Manufacturers realised that the main reasons the 4x4 format was so popular was its high ride driving position and its perceived attributes as a safer vehicle in which to transport the family. Having a vehicle driving all four wheels is of less importance to many SUV owners.