CARSGUIDE  ..  Three car 4WD SUV comparison. Picture: Supplied      cover / relaunch / dummy
CARSGUIDE .. Three car 4WD SUV comparison. Picture: Supplied cover / relaunch / dummy Mark Bean

Get the lowdown on best-selling SUVs

IT'S official. SUVs now outsell cars on the Australian new model charts. If you buy a new sedan or hatchback now, you're in a minority. Soon, people may think you're a bit weird for not driving an SUV ...

How times change. This is probably going to start a few pub arguments but I reckon that until the 1980s, there were no SUVs in Australia.

Sure, car-based wagons of that decade such as Subaru's L Series and Toyota's Corolla SR5 had all-wheel drive but the modern SUV as we now know it didn't really take shape until the mid-1990s, when the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Subaru Outback and Mercedes M-Class arrived in showrooms.

You can now have your SUV, or 4WD, in hundreds of different flavours. The difficult part is working out the differences between them and making a decision. Here's a guide to your options.

SUZUKI IGNIS: More of a high-riding hatchback than an SUV, the Ignis appeals thanks to its elevated driving position and its more rugged looks. just don't take it off the beaten track. Mark Bean


Many people couldn't care less - or don't even know - whether their SUV is front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, so some brands now have both with the same badge. Front-wheel drives are usually base models with a sharp price because they don't have all-wheel drive hardware. If you do most of your driving around town, you won't miss it. However some of the bigger, more powerful front-drive wagons, notably Mazda's CX-9 and Toyota's Kluger, suffer from torque steer - that tugging sensation at the steering wheel under acceleration - which is less of a problem with all-wheel drive.

Where can you take them?

The same places you can take a car. Go bush at your peril.

Top sellers

Tiddlers include Suzuki Ignis, Mazda CX-3, Mitsubishi ASX, Toyota C-HR, Audi Q2 and BMW X1, while mid-sizers include Mazda CX-5, Hyundai Tucson, Nissan X-Trail and Toyota RAV4. Holden Captiva, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Kluger are family freighters.

SUBARU FORESTER: An attractive compromise between genuine off-roader and city-focused SUV, the Forester has permanent all-wheel drive but steers and corners like a family wagon. Mark Bean


In on-demand all-wheel drive, torque goes 100 per cent to the front wheels in most conditions but some can also be sent to the rear wheels if the fronts begin to lose traction. In permanent all-wheel drive, rear wheels are permanently engaged and the distribution of engine torque varies according to grip, acceleration and other factors. Some models use a default 50-50 split for normal driving, others have front or rear bias.

These SUVs don't have low-range gearing but most transmissions allow you to lock in a 50-50 split in high-range, via a button on the dash, which gives you extra traction on slippery surfaces.

Where can you take them?

Any dirt road in reasonable condition will be fine and they also work well in low-grip conditions such as rain, mud, ice and snow. Most on-demand set-ups are fairly efficient and seamless in engaging the rear wheels when required. Permanent all-wheel drive gives you an extra measure of grip and stability, especially in slippery conditions. Models such as Subaru's Forester and Land Rover's Discovery Sport supplement it with specific traction control modes and hill descent control for challenging terrain. Don't get too ambitious because none of these has the ground clearance or hardware for serious off-roading.

Top sellers

Most of the models listed above as front-wheel drives are also available with on-demand or permanent AWD. Other small wagons include Subaru's XV and the Suzuki Vitara, mid-sizers include Mitsubishi Outlander, VW's Tiguan, Subaru Forester and Outback, Audi Q5, BMW X3/X4 and Land Rover Discovery Sport. Large SUVs include Kia Sorento, Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne.

TOYOTA LANDCRUISER: The grand-daddy of off-roaders, the LandCruiser will take you to the Red Centre and back without batting an eyelid. It's cumbersome in traffic, though. Mark Bean


The basic qualification for a 4WD is a low-range transfer case, which accesses a much more indirect ratio for each gear, allowing the engine's torque to be used to maximum effect at slow speeds in difficult terrain, especially when used with an off-road traction control mode that can automatically send drive to the wheels with the most grip and keep the plot rolling. Some 4WDs also have a locking rear differential as a get-out-of-jail card if things don't quite go according to plan.

Most heavy-duty 4WDs, such as the Toyota LandCruiser and Prado, plus 4WD wagons based on utes, such as the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (built on a Triton chassis) and Ford Everest (Ranger), use a strong separate steel frame, which also makes them well suited to towing.

Diesel is the dominant fuel, with petrol variants usually offered too. Given the size and weight of these beasts, diesel is the way to go - you'll use up to 50 per cent less juice than a comparable petrol engine.

Where can you take them?

High ground clearance (at least 200mm) is required for gnarly tracks, plus robust, long-travel suspension. Some luxury models such as the Range Rover have height adjustable air suspension.

The weak link in most production 4WDs is their tyres, which are usually designed for road use, puncture easily and don't bite deeply into loose or sloppy surfaces, though when deflated to about 20psi they are effective on sand. Owners who want to head for the scrub usually fit dual-purpose or off-road tyres with stronger sidewalls and chunkier tread.

Top sellers

Toyota is the big kahuna here, with the Prado and LandCruiser leading the field. Mitsubishi's Pajero Sport and the Isuzu MU-X are the top selling ute-based wagons, while the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Range Rover Sport are the most popular luxury 4WDs.


Most utes are available with either rear or four-wheel drive. Utes have rear leaf spring suspension lik a truck, as befits their load-carrying brief to take up to one tonne.

Dual-cab 4WD utes basically have the same hardware and operating parameters as 4WD wagons and they're a boom class because they can be used for work and play. Many now have a five-star ANCAP safety rating. However, the latest driver assist safety tech, such as automatic emergency braking and blind spot monitoring, hasn't yet made it to ute world.

Where can you take them?

Most places you can take a 4WD wagon.

Top sellers

Toyota's HiLux was Australia's top selling vehicle overall in 2016. The Ford Ranger came in fourth and Mitsubishi Triton ninth. VW's Amarok V6, with the most potent engine in the class by the length of the straight - a 180kW 3.0-litre turbo diesel - is the hot ticket among cashed-up tradies.

4WD owner Jasmine Rulli pictured with her 2015 Isuzu MU-X. Picture: Adam Ward
4WD owner Jasmine Rulli pictured with her 2015 Isuzu MU-X. Picture: Adam Ward Adam Ward

Mum Jasmine sets a confident 4WD course

A CUTE faux-wheel drive was never going to cut it for mother of two Jasmine Rulli.

She wanted a family car she could take off the beaten track, so she plumped for a heavy-duty Isuzu MU-X.

Not content to dream of tackling bush tracks and beaches, she signed up for one of Isuzu's 4WD training courses.

"We used to camp a lot when I was a kid and I've driven off-road but never really known how to do it properly,” she says.

The course involved a couple of hours of theory and then some practical experience.

"It's great to see how much your car can handle - we were up on two wheels at one stage,” she says.

The course has given her the confidence to take her kids on fire trails, a river crossing, some beach driving and a "pretty sketchy” downhill run.

"I'm now more confident about where I can go. I can take the kids and get out there camping,” she says.

4WD owner Jasmine Rulli pictured with her 2015 Isuzu MU-X. Picture: Adam Ward
4WD owner Jasmine Rulli pictured with her 2015 Isuzu MU-X. Picture: Adam Ward Adam Ward