EVERY so often, car manufacturers will come up with a new genre of cars. Whether it is to cater for a new segment or to create demand, we will not know, but sometimes these new genres confuse even the most experienced motoring journalists.
Consider the four-wheel drive (4x4) vehicle segment; it used to be you driving a bone jarring, utilitarian off-roader or having the whole hog Range Rover with all the gizmos.
Now the 4x4 market is awash with such a dizzying array of models that it gets hard to tell what you actually bought.
Is an Evoque a sport utility vehicle (SUV), a crossover or a luxury 4x4? While no one will mistake it for a Jimny, most people can’t tell what it actually is. Since four-wheel drive is one of the most popular segments, it requires a little more knowledge to tell one from the other.
Everyone knows the ubiquitous Land-Rover Defender is a serious off-road tool but the real sellers have been the softer versions. Mostly buyers have come from the passenger car segment, perhaps looking for a little more space and comfort (and a little off-road style). This is where the crossovers, SUVs have an advantage over the traditional four-wheel drive.
A 4X4 EXPLAINED
This is where the trend first started. The segment was so-named from the fact all four wheels were driven by the engine to get them almost anywhere.
All true 4x4s use a rugged chassis frame, with the body bolted in place on top of the chassis.
This construction is heavy and not particularly precise in handling capabilities but it makes them exceptionally tough and good at towing trailers. This simple engineering was also versatile, allowing for different bodywork on the same four-wheel drive chassis.
For example, the Land Rover Defender is available in a multitude of versions on two different chassis; spanning from short-wheelbase soft-tops to tow trucks and even fire engines.
These four-wheel drives are the models favoured by off-road experts and modern-day adventurers who don’t mind a little discomfort in trade for utility and off-road performance.
Rarely is the four-wheel drive powered by a petrol engine. Usually the high-torque, large capacity turbocharged diesel engine is the power unit of choice.
Simple construction and durability far outweigh the smoothness and less noise a petrol engine would offer. However, the newer diesel engines now rival their petrol cousins in power output and smoothness.
A stylish four-wheel drive vehicle with better road manners, lower running costs and improved luxury and comfort describes the SUV.
The main difference between a 4x4 and the SUV is that the bodywork and chassis form one complete piece, the monocoque construction saving weight and making the SUV more rigid.
This construction is similar to how passenger cars are built and is, therefore, less versatile than the ladder chassis frame of the four-wheel drive. A complete re-design would be needed for a simple wheelbase change, for instance.
For this reason, an SUV is more car-like to drive. Crash-test results are also greatly improved by more effective crumple zones, distributing the energy of a collision in a safer way. The monocoque construction also has other benefits such as less weight and thus smaller engines, meaning better fuel economy and lower running costs.
Many SUVs are petrol-powered with a diesel option for those looking to emulate their off-road cousins. While the SUV is more superior in luxury and comfort, they lose out when the going gets really tough.
However, most SUVs are quite capable in off-road situations and are a viable option if your driving includes some dirt.
SO WHAT IS A CROSSOVER?
They are everywhere under your noses but hard to identify. In a nutshell, a crossover has more in common with a hatchback rather than a traditional 4x4.
A crossover might have the tough looks, chunky bumpers and raised ground clearance of a four-wheel drive but is usually front wheel drive and powered by the same engines in other hatchbacks and superminis built by the manufacturer.
The main raison d’etre of a crossover is looks and economy. Most crossovers can achieve more than 60mpg whereas the SUV and 4x4 suffers more due to their driven wheels and associated weight disadvantage.
Crossovers are usually petrol-powered (smoother, less noise) but a few have diesel engines, and no more than 2.0 litres.
Hybrid models are also coming online. To confuse things further, crossovers also come in family-size or even supermini sized. Sometimes, they even share their looks with the saloon or hatchbacks of the manufacturer.
But a crossover should not be confused with a mud-slinging off-road four-wheel drive. While it may look like it is capable of it, you shouldn’t take a crossover where you wouldn’t drive your family car.