We all know your rationale when it comes to buying a medium-sized SUV with all-wheel drive. You want a vehicle with more room for the kid(s) – or kid(s) that are coming – but you also have in the back of your mind that one day you might need to go off-road.
Anybody that's done any proper off-roading knows that the type of off-roading you think you're going to do, compared to the type you'll actually do, is very different.
So, we assembled 10 of the best-selling SUVs in the medium-SUV segment to run them through three basic off-road tests to figure out which is most capable off-road.
Now, before our resident four-wheel-drive experts start smashing their keyboards and throwing chairs through windows, these tests are incredibly basic.
We didn't want to cross the Simpson Desert, we just wanted to see how far they would go in controlled conditions across three of the same tests.
MORE IN THIS SERIES: 2019 MEDIUM SUV COMPARISON
To keep things simple, each SUV will be subjected to the following three tests:
This may look like the easiest test in the world, but for SUVs like this lot, it puts an immense amount of technical strain on the drivetrain.
An offset mogul is designed to create a condition where diagonally opposing wheels have limited contact with the ground, and thus force the other two diagonally opposed wheels to manage the tractive load of the vehicle.
In a proper off-road vehicle, it's not an issue because you can easily lock a centre differential (which splits torque 50/50 between the front and rear axle) and further lock a rear differential (which splits torque 50/50 between the two rear wheels).
These tools allow the diagonally opposed wheels to manage the traction required to move the vehicle.
Most of our SUVs don't have a centre locking differential mechanism, and none of them have a mechanical rear differential lock, so they will all struggle to various degrees.
If the SUVs make it beyond the first stage of the offset mogul, we wait until two tyres have limited traction and then try to open/close the driver's door. It's in this condition that the body is forced to flex.
A rigid body structure will allow a certain amount of flex, but not enough to prevent the doors from opening and closing.
If we detect any contact between the door and the metal body guide, it'll be a fail in this test.
It's like Mount Rushmore, except it's not as scenic and it's covered in wet, muddy and slippery logs.
The point of this test is to see how the vehicles manage traction control, and how far they're able to make it up the logs before we pull the pin. Most medium-SUV owners would see a hill like this and likely turn around. But, for those brave few, we're keen to see how the climb goes.
The biggest risk with this climb isn't actually the climb, it's coming back down.
If the vehicle moves from the straight-ahead position while going back down, there's potential to come down at an awkward angle and potentially roll the SUV.
We're not expecting any of them to make it up here, so the litmus test will be to see how far the furthest will go and how each vehicle manages the traction available. We are also fully aware that the tyres will be the limiting factor to these vehicles making it up the logs.
To keep things fair and simple, traction control will remain on for each vehicle. If the vehicle has an 'off-road mode' or some off-road aid (such as a four-wheel-drive lock) it'll be engaged.
Beyond that, we won't change any modes or conditions for each vehicle tested. So, let's kick things off.
Toyota RAV4 Cruiser Hybrid
I was excited to see how the RAV4 would go on our course. It was the winner of our recent Medium SUV Mega Test, and by all accounts it's a brilliant car to drive on the open road.
It's also unique to this segment because despite being all-wheel drive, it doesn't have a driveline that runs down the centre of the vehicle. This helps save space and also creates fewer moving parts that require damping, and it's also more efficient.
Instead, the petrol engine pairs with an electric motor on the front axle, while the rear axle is powered exclusively by an electric motor. Additionally, the electric motor on the rear uses a braked traction-control system to act as a limited-slip differential.
As we entered the offset mogul, I was expecting good things given the added flexibility of being able to manage traction individually on the rear axle. The vehicle was put into 'Trail mode', which activates the rear axle and engages the vehicle's off-road controls.
But, it wasn't anywhere near as good as we expected. While it managed to get through the offset mogul, there didn't appear to be any traction-control device active on the rear axle.
The wheel in the air simply spun freely, and didn't stop spinning until I manually applied the brake. This became an issue when reversing out of the mogul, because it went from spinning at a high speed to instantly stopping when it made contact with the ground.
This caused a shunt through the car and definitely wouldn't be doing wonders for the electric motor at the rear. Thankfully, it passed the chassis flex test without any issues.
It then struggled with the log climb, barely making it past the first couple of logs. Again, the traction-control system didn't seem to be doing anything with the wheels freely spinning.
The Holden Equinox was the quickest SUV in our recent Medium SUV Mega Test, so it certainly has enough grunt for the course, but is it capable enough for some light off-roading?
We engaged the four-wheel-drive system (simple push of a button) and attacked the offset mogul.
The front-end lip protector made contact with the higher portion of the offset mogul, but it didn't prevent the vehicle from moving further into the course.
From there it was all pretty straightforward. The rear axle allowed enough wheel slip to get the vehicle moving, and then traction was allowed to flow to the front axle (you can see that front-right tyre rotating, despite other tyres having no traction).
It passed the body flex test, but we did hear a very light amount of contact with the chassis as we opened and closed the driver's door.
Despite not making it up the entire log mountain, the traction-control systems did an excellent job of managing slip as it traversed the terrain. You can see the front and rear wheels slipping, but it was reined in by the traction-control systems.
But, of all the SUVs here, it has the least all-wheel-drive controls. Aside from a Sport mode, there's no option to enter an off-road mode or do anything beyond just driving. That's the main reason I thought it would be a bit of a flop here.
Instead, it did a cracking job. It was one of the easiest cars to drive through our offset mogul test, and it was the least fussy inside, too. It simply powered on and shuffled torque as required to the wheels with traction.
Despite its hunkered-down front end, it also had enough clearance to pass over the top of the mogul, which we weren't expecting either. It also passed the chassis flex test without any issues.
Over to the logs, it managed to make it up as far as the Equinox with as little fuss. Again, it was unexpected because it has the least amount of four-wheel-drive controls to prepare the car for what you're about to do.
It wouldn't surprise us if it could make it further up the logs with a decent set of all-terrain treads.
The Koleos features a four-wheel-drive lock feature similar to the Equinox, where torque is directed to both the front and rear axles in a 50/50 split. This means that it should have managed to traverse our offset mogul without too many issues. But, it felt pretty sloppy, and it was just a bit of momentum that got it up the second half of the mogul.
It almost didn't get through the first portion while the front-right wheel spun freely. It eventually made it through, but it wouldn't fill us with confidence if we had to rely on it off-road. It passed the chassis flex test without any dramas.
It was the same story over at the logs. There wasn't really any control over wheel slip, which meant all four wheels just sat spinning instead of some level of control over their rotation. Put simply, it just felt average.
Built for people that spend more time outside on weekends than I do, the Forester is all about the adventure lifestyle.
This latest generation has ditched the sportiness of its former self, and instead just offers a naturally aspirated petrol engine with a CVT, but still uses a permanent all-wheel-drive system to keep it planted on the road. I was quietly confident this would do well.
The Forester offers several off-road drive modes, so we activated the mode most capable of dealing with muddy conditions to see how it would go.
Not surprisingly, the Forester did an amazing job. It walked through the offset mogul and dealt with rogue wheel spin quickly and effectively. Likewise, the chassis flex test was no issue at all – not a bad job.
What about the logs? Well, it made it the furthest up the hill. In fact, if it weren't for it getting slightly out of shape near the top, we're pretty confident it could actually make it all the way up with a bit of momentum and commitment.
The vehicle's traction-control system managed wheel slip effectively, and it simply walked up the logs with little fuss until it ran out of traction. Really impressive effort from Subaru.
Hyundai's Tucson was once the go-to SUV in this segment with a brilliant split of value and performance. But, it has been outdone in recent years by the competition. It's one of the only SUVs in the segment with a dual-clutch gearbox, and it isn't really a good one. It's also the main reason it did so poorly in this test.
Set to all-wheel drive manually, the Tucson entered the offset mogul and immediately struggled. Moving the steering wheel around a bit allowed one of the front wheels to get traction and move it forward, but it all stopped after that.
Rogue wheel spin and hesitancy from the dual-clutch gearbox meant it didn't get anywhere. While it passed the chassis flex test, it scored a fail for the offset mogul.
As we hit the logs, it was a similar story. The gearbox limited the Tucson from gradually offering torque and instead offered it in bursts, which meant it was hard to manage and didn't provide the smoothness to progress it any further up the logs. It made it as far as the others, but it didn't feel confident getting there.
Despite sharing a platform with the Tucson, the Kia Sportage couldn't be any more different, and the same can be said for its off-road performance.
Locking it into its four-wheel-drive mode, the Sportage is one of the few SUVs here with a regular torque converter automatic gearbox. This, in part, allowed it to perform exceptionally well in the offset mogul.
It passed the first stage without even slowing down, and only paused at the second half to gather its thoughts, send torque to the tractive wheels, and then progress through. It also passed the chassis flex test without any dramas at all.
It did well on the logs, but the traction control prevented it from getting beyond where it did. Instead of limiting wheel slip, it just span all four wheels on the spot, which prevented it from going any further. An impressive effort regardless.
It's the most expensive vehicle on test here – by a long shot. But that also means the Tiguan is well equipped in terms of equipment and drive modes.
We engaged the 'Off-road Mode', which allows extra wheel slip and also caters for an off-road braking mode, which allows the ABS to lock for longer during a hard stop.
While there isn't a manual lock for the all-wheel-drive system, the permanent all-wheel-drive system in off-road mode allows all four wheels to get traction constantly.
As we approached the moguls, we noticed the front end touch down a couple of times, which indicates it may not be the best option for continuous amounts of this kind of driving.
The dual-clutch gearbox caused it to struggle a little bit on entry. Much like the Tucson, it wouldn't really do much and then all of a sudden it would do everything, which resulted in a slight lack of control.
On the second half of the course, it breezed through, though, which was good to see.
But, it failed the chassis flex test. When the driver's door was opened with tyres off the ground, the driver's door couldn't close again. It made contact with the metal locator pin, which prevented the door from operating correctly. It needed a decent slam to close.
The logs were a real hurdle for the Tiguan. The dual-clutch gearbox struggled with moving up the hill, and there were several clunking and clattering noises as the gearbox sorted itself out. But, an upshot was the off-road mode catered for a rearward-moving hill descent control, which controls speed on a descent in reverse – a handy feature.
Like the Mazda CX-5, the CR-V has no four-wheel-drive modes or any ability to engage the all-wheel-drive system permanently. Instead, it uses an intelligent four-wheel-drive system that can send torque to the rear axle as required.
Also like the CX-5, we didn't have high hopes that the CR-V would manage to get very far in this test. But, like the CX-5, it surprised us.
On approach to the offset mogul, it walked through without any issues at all. At the harder second portion of the mogul, it also managed to walk up with limited wheel slip. Over to the chassis flex test, there were no problems opening and closing the driver's door.
Over at the logs it wasn't quite as impressive, though. While the traction-control system helped it progress up the first section of logs, when it became beached, the rear wheels stopped receiving torque altogether. But, it was impressive nevertheless.
The final cab off the rank was the adventure-focussed Nissan X-Trail. It shares a platform with the Renault Koleos, so we expected it to perform much the same.
It too has a manual four-wheel-drive locking feature that engages the all-wheel-drive system permanently.
The first section of the mogul was passed without any issues, but it struggled slightly with the second portion. There was plenty of wheel spin, and there didn't feel like a great deal of control was on offer.
When it finally managed to get traction it lurched forward quickly, too, which again shows there isn't a huge amount of control on offer when it does gain traction after slipping.
So, what about the logs? Well, not great. It only managed to get past the first couple before it just stopped dead. Again, the traction control didn't really do anything, the wheels just started slipping, and it was impossible to get any further. The X-Trail wasn't as good as we thought it would be on the off-road course.
MORE IN THIS SERIES: 2019 MEDIUM SUV COMPARISON
What an incredibly mixed bag of results. Real surprises in this segment were the Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5 and Kia Sportage.
Disappointing results came from Hyundai with the Tucson, the Volkswagen Tiguan didn't blow us away, likewise the Nissan X-Trail and Toyota RAV4.
There is a very clear winner here, though, and it's the Subaru Forester. What an impressive machine. It does a great job both on- and off-road, and proves that it's still the best option for people wanting an SUV capable of light off-roading.
It's worth pointing out that despite the advertising you see on television and all the off-road switches you find in medium-sized SUVs, a well-engineered all-wheel-drive system always comes out on top.
As we said in the introduction, this isn't the most technical or advanced off-road course, but it was a good benchmark for each vehicle, and an opportunity for us to find out how confident you can be with your new SUV if you find yourself at a muddy campsite.