Dear Car Talk:
I used to do a lot of off-road adventuring in my 1986 Chevy S-10 Blazer. Now, in my later years, I would like to get a vehicle to go on some of the unpaved roads in the Southwest. In particular, one area I want to frequent has deep sand, but not serious rock crawling.
My question is, What would be the best vehicle to consider? I would like it to be comfortable for on-road driving, but still high clearance and capable of off-roading. I've looked at the Subaru Forester. Is Subaru's all-wheel-drive system as good as a "regular" four-wheel-drive system? Thanks! -- Stephen
Subaru makes a very good all-wheel-drive system, but whether it's as good as truck-based four-wheel-drive systems depends on what you plan to use it for. The Subaru is not designed for serious off-roading. It's designed to get you through a snowstorm, up the rutted dirt road that leads to your ski house, or across the muddy field where there's auxiliary parking for the Lilith Fair. It's not really designed to drive over tree stumps, boulders or even deep sand.
While the ground clearance is pretty good, the center and rear differentials are not as rugged as they are on four-wheel-drive trucks. Plus, the underside of the Subaru isn't as well-protected with skid plates and armor. Would a Subaru get you through some deep sand? We've never tried it, though it probably would. But as a vehicle in which you're going to seek out deep sand recreationally? I don't think I'd recommend it.
If you're really determined to do off-roading as a hobby, you're probably better off with a truck of some kind. Many pickup trucks are actually pretty comfortable on the road these days. Of course, you'll get half the mileage that you'd get in a Subaru Forester. And you'll have to pass up parking spaces that you used to fit into.
Another option is one of the trail-rated Jeeps. If comfort is a priority, I'd skip the Wrangler, the Compass and the Renegade. The Grand Cherokee would be the most comfortable and most versatile of the bunch, but it's going to be a lot more expensive than a Forester.
Given the compromises you'd have to make to get a vehicle rugged enough to do serious off-roading, you should think hard about how often you're really going to do it. If it's just a fantasy, or a once-a-year thing, you're probably better off buying a car that suits your needs 51 weeks a year, like the Subaru, and renting a Jeep on your vacation. Or, even better, borrowing one from your brother-in-law.
But if it's really going to be a regular activity, then something like a pickup truck or a trail-rated Jeep is probably what you need. And don't forget to order the optional plastic pail and shovel kit in case you get stuck, Stephen.