At the end of a tough working week, there is nothing City lawyer James Cole looks forward to more than jumping into the car and high-tailing it to his retreat in the depths of Devon. It’s a four-hour drive, but not so much four hours door-to-door as four hours door-to-start-of-track – and that’s where the journey often gets tricky.
The track in question is rocky, rutted and unforgiving, weaving its way for a country mile through a 30-acre wood before arriving at a tunnel of stunted beech trees that lead to the door of what must be one of the most remote and achingly romantic hidden homes on the whole of Dartmoor. Cole first encountered it at the age of seven while walking the moor with his late father and vowed, there and then, that he would one day own it.
The only down side to the place is that track, which demands to be negotiated in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. As a result, Cole makes the journey in a Land Rover Discovery, which effortlessly accommodates his family and luggage and devours the tricky last leg with ease. The problem, says Cole, is that his family’s passion for the environment is entirely at odds with having to use such a large car for the entire trip when he only needs to call on its four-wheel-drive capabilities at the very end.
“What I need is a relatively small and planet-friendly car that will be practical in the city and get us up the motorway in comfort, but which can also tackle the track in rain, sleet or snow without leaving us stranded in a pitch-black forest in the middle of the night.”
Enter the latest offering in the Mini line-up; the Countryman (from £16,340) – the first Mini to have four doors and also the first to be available with optional all-wheel-drive. Now, for those who remember the original Mini born in 1959 (10ft long and 4ft 7in wide), the modern-day successor launched a decade ago has always appeared on the big side – but it is nothing compared to the Countryman, which really pushes the boundaries of Mini-ness at 13ft 6in x 5ft 10in.
Nevertheless, the Countryman All4 (from £20,300) does present itself as a genuine alternative to a larger, more conventional 4x4: it is still (just) small enough to be regarded as a practical city car; the diesel version is impressively economical (up to 64mpg); it will carry four adults in comfort (five at a push); it can be specced-up to quite luxurious levels; and, perhaps most usefully of all, it really will make light work of moderate to medium-difficult off-road driving. Indeed, its potential is about to be demonstrated by a series of specially prepared cars that are taking part in selected rounds of this year’s World Rally Championship, before making a full assault on the title in 2012.
The Countryman is probably the most capable and impressive of an emerging breed of so-called “crossover” 4x4s filling the gap between small saloons and full-sized SUVs. Large four-wheel-drive vehicles have long borne the brunt of the environmental brigade’s distaste, and punitive taxation measures have been introduced in some markets to demonstrate that their owners are being made to pay for their perceived excessive contribution to global warming (although Land Rover operates a scheme that means emissions from its vehicles are offset for the first 45,000 miles).
Ironically, however, the demand for cars with four-wheel-drive capability appears to be increasing. For the past three winters, Britain’s roads have turned to chaos after being blanketed in snow and ice for unusually long periods of time – cue a sudden rush on pre-owned off-roaders and widespread interest in winter-tyre options. It is true, too, that the Brits’ ever-growing enthusiasm for outdoor pursuits has stoked the demand for four-wheel-drive vehicles among those with hobbies such as mountain biking, sailing, skiing and climbing, which frequently require them to take a car off-road, if only onto mildly undulating terrain. And it’s because of these reasons that several manufacturers are now turning their attentions to compact, capable and environmentally friendly off-roaders.
The idea of a small four-wheel-drive car is, of course, not entirely new; it is simply a category that for many years attracted relatively little interest. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Volkswagen had the Syncro version of its Golf (which evolved into the 4Motion ), Subaru had the Justy, Citroën an all-wheel-drive AX hatchback and, perhaps most successfully of all, Fiat offered its Panda 4x4 that, while tinny and of fragile appearance, attracted a large and loyal worldwide following due to its remarkable off-road capability.
It is, however, probably fair to attribute the “invention” of the original compact crossover to Toyota, which introduced its groundbreaking RAV4 to Europe in 1994. Designed for drivers who wanted the load space, all-round visibility and four-wheel-drive of a traditional Jeep-style vehicle with the handling and fuel economy of a smaller car, the bijou RAV4 paved the way for a whole new automotive category. Sadly, it has evolved into just another, rather bloated SUV with minor off-road pretensions.
The same cannot be said of the Panda 4x4, which Fiat reprised around five years ago. The ultimate derivative is the Panda Cross (from £13,975), a rugged-looking machine with chunky body mouldings and a more aggressive appearance than the standard car. As a fan of small cars – and the Cross is really tiny – I was instantly drawn to it. Having travelled several hundred miles in one during the past week (quite a few of which were off-road), I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who needs regular four-wheel-drive capability but has an alternative car for long distances.
The “wheel in each corner” design makes for minimal body overhang (great for tight off-roading), the suspension is remarkably pliant and the permanent 4WD system combined with an impressively torque-heavy engine makes the car a delight to drive on rough and hilly surfaces. It’s exactly the sort of vehicle to keep at a ski chalet or as a country-home runabout, but it is also entirely at ease in an urban environment – the neat “city” button, which activates an electric power-steering booster, really does make it a joy to manoeuvre.
Impressive, too, is Skoda’s endearingly named Yeti (from £14,645), which retains a small-car feel while offering a useful amount of load space. The four-wheel-drive diesel version is the one to go for (the petrol engines are disproportionately thirsty) and, of course, you needn’t be ashamed of the Skoda badge on the bonnet. The Czech-based firm that was once the brunt of every cheap car gag in the book has been wholly owned by VW for 11 years now and its trophy cabinet is replete with quality awards – the Yeti, in fact, scooped the “car of the year” title at last summer’s Auto Express New Car awards.
Its nearest rival is probably Nissan’s Qashqai – a sort of inflated Micra with optional four-wheel-drive – but it is a mite too large to be a true contender in the small car/off-roader category. Nissan has, however, addressed any shortfall in that department with the highly impressive Juke 4x4 (£20,345), which was penned at Nissan Design Europe in London to a brief that called for a combination of SUV and sports car. The lower half, with its high ground clearance and butch-looking stance, accounts for the SUV part, while the high waistline, tapering side windows and coupé-style roof lend a sports-car feel. The car remains practical with an opening rear hatch, plenty of load space and, in particular, a four-wheel-drive option that looks set to make it a favourite with occasional off-roaders who need a snappy town car with decent long-distance capability.
All the above, however, will have their work cut out as of this summer when Land Rover’s new “baby” Range Rover, the Evoque (from £30,000), is due to go on sale. Smaller than the capable Freelander and with more car-like handling characteristics, the Evoque is set to become the benchmark by which the current crop of more economical, more planet-friendly, lower-key 4x4s is judged – on road and off.