Dear Car Talk: How do the newer, lighter SUVs (crossovers) stack up against classic Jeeps, Land Rovers and Chevy Suburbans for off-road use? While many tout the safety features and traction of all-wheel drive, they are never shown being driven anywhere except on paved city streets. At my job, many of the favored field vehicles are the older ('80s-model) Suburbans and Ford Broncos, which are almost indestructible but drink gas like it's water.
With fuel economy still an important consideration, we are interested in the hybrid lines of small SUVs (such as the Ford Escape or the Toyota RAV4). But do they have the features necessary for off-road use, or are we better off having a separate "excursion" vehicle for exploring backcountry byways? Thank you! -- Evan
The crossovers that interest you -- and interest lots of people these days -- are not really designed to go off-roading. The definition of "off-road" in a Ford Escape means you've turned off into the Whole Foods parking lot. Crossovers are designed with ground clearance and good traction, but that's really for snow, slippery roads or modest off-road use -- driving over dirt, some mud, grass, sand or gravel.
So if you're determined to drive over tree stumps, boulders and hibernating mammals, I think you'd be better off with a second, older vehicle just for that purpose. Besides, that kind of real off-roading punishes a vehicle. And do you want to do that to the family vehicle you plan to keep for years?
What we call "crossovers" are really car-based vehicles that have an SUV-ish body style; they're not actually trucks. And that's great, because most people don't enjoy driving a truck every day. Trucks handle worse, are generally less comfortable, get much poorer gas mileage, are harder to get into and out of, and tend to be less safe, in many instances (especially with on-demand four-wheel drive versus permanent all-wheel drive).
So you'll be a lot happier driving, day to day, in a RAV4 Hybrid than in, say, a Toyota 4Runner, which is based on a pickup truck. And you'll be happier parking your Ford Escape Hybrid in the Costco parking lot than you would be trying to fit your Ford Expedition into one of those "compact only" spaces. And you'll be happier with either one of those every time you go to the gas station.
If driving off-road is really something you're committed to, then do what your colleagues do: Get a used Jeep, or Bronco, or Tahoe -- or keep your current SUV -- and use that for your excursions. But you'll be surprised at how wonderful it is to get back into your crossover when you get back from Kidney Crusher Trail.