The "Part Road Closed" sign was quite ambiguous. What exactly does "Part Road Closed" mean? Does it mean that half the road is unusable somewhere up ahead? Am I to expect roadworks along the way? I mean - "Road Closed" is an easy concept to understand isn't it? It means, "Do not proceed any further and turn around." But "Part Road Closed"???
The context to this confusing conundrum with the indecisive sign was that I was driving down an interesting gravel track that was partly within State Forest and occasionally within National Park, taking a short cut home after a very long day. This day had involved a 4am start, followed by a two-hour drive and then a 38 kilometre run/hike through a very pristine wilderness, looking for waterfalls. Yes, I know, don't go chasing waterfalls.
In any case the track I was driving on was called Fenwicks Road, located about 150 kilometres west of Port Macquarie, and it was actually in pretty good shape. A lot of the forestry and National Park roads that I travel on have had a touch up lately. Governments have wanted to undertake "shovel ready" projects to alleviate some of the negative economic effects of the zombie apocalypse, and grading and enhancing bush roads must qualify. The fact that Fenwicks Road, although gravel and relatively remote, was in good shape was a comfort given my choice of vehicle was a JCW Mini Countryman. The Countryman may have all-wheel drive, but a Rubicon it isn't. I had nervously chosen this more direct route to the Oxley Highway out of the Werrikimbe National Park over the more trafficked Kangaroo Flat Road I had come in on, hoping the surface would be kind to a car that is much more at home on a twisting piece of tarmac.
A low slung hot hatch on a remote forest road in the fading daylight and a sign that was as clear as mud - what could possibly go wrong?
In any case, before too long the road was partially blocked by a very large tree that had been felled by the catastrophic fires of late last year. I squeezed the Mini through the very narrow gap left between the massive black tree trunk and a bank of dirt and breathed a sigh of relief. Surely this was what my confusing sign was warning of - the road was indeed partly closed because of this fallen tree.
Unfortunately my relief was short lived. The real reason for the warning sign soon became apparent, with my goal being to leave the bush track and gaining the safety of the sealed Oxley Highway within a short distance. The same fires that had felled the tree on the road behind me had also taken out the substantial timber bridge over Fenwicks Creek (hence the sign) leaving a very rudimentary and rough crossing that was both very steep and very slippery. It had obviously been created by drivers of lifted and lockered monster trucks who were looking for a bit of sport and a challenge.
The only way across started with an almost vertical seven metre drop to a short bog hole, followed by a tricky half-metre high lip. Then crossing the creek itself was followed by a wet and slippery incline over 30 metres to gain the road again. I knew this was way beyond the ability of any Mini, but faced with a choice of being sensible and turning around and adding literally 100 kilometres to my journey home, I pointed the nose of the Mini downwards into the abyss, turned off the traction control, put the car in Sport mode and did what every red blooded Aussie bloke would do and floored it.
The designers of the Countryman probably thought the tray under the Mini's nose was for aerodynamics, but on this day it served perfectly as a sled at the bottom of the near vertical entry. The car then paused briefly in the bog hole, wheels spinning and scrabbling for traction, before jumping the lip and fording the river, finally with all four wheels furiously spraying mud, slithering up the slippery bank to the solid ground of the road surface on the other side.
An hour or two after this lucky escape, as I drove home down the highway, after I changed my shorts and my heart rate had returned to nearly normal, I realised my beloved Mini was completely unscathed. But it also occurred to me that it was time that I got serious about buying a vehicle that was actually designed for driving off road.
To be honest, I had been trying for quite a long time to purchase a four-wheel drive. My problem has been that nothing which is currently available is exactly right for my personal needs. I have a manual Mustang that is (for me anyway) the perfect muscle car, and my daily driver is the Mini which (for me) is an absolutely perfect everyday car. Finding the perfect 4WD has proven to be much more problematic unfortunately. I tried very hard to like the 200 Series LandCruiser but it is very expensive and feels so old. The Prado is almost dangerously slow in my opinion. The Nissan Patrol was a better option, but a thirsty V8 petrol in 2020? I fell in love with the Defender when it was announced and would have ordered one except my experience with the dealer was below par and the price just didn't feel like appropriate value to me. I got to $130k on the configurator without really trying too hard.
I've owned a dual-cab ute before and hated it. I just can't get my head around leaf springs and drum brakes in a car being sold in this century and the ride was awful. I drove the Jeep Gladiator and I thought it was an excellent Jeep (I've owned Jeeps before) but the $90k plus pricing was off-putting. Kudos to Jeep for bringing us an interesting, capable and very funky car, however. I liked the Ram a lot and I believe that few vehicles would be as wonderful at long distance travel than this beast with its wide open spaces inside, comfort and relatively reasonable economy when cruising. Not so good at tight bush tracks though, and I'm not heading off on the big lap any time soon.
The burnt bridge incident also highlighted another factor regarding the purchase of an off road vehicle - do I really want to be taking a $100k car to the places that I like to go? Do I really want to be throwing a muddy gravel bike into the leather lined back of a new car? How much do I want to leave an expensive car on the side of a remote bush track for hours and days at a time as a target for damage or theft whilst I'm out running or riding? Will bush pinstripes really add character to the hugely costly paintwork of my trendy Defender or will it just cause me angst? Do I really want to sell a car that I love so that I could buy what I consider to be a compromised off roader and then have to drive it every day?
The answer to all these questions was actually an easy one once reason came into play, and that answer was to find a good, low-cost second hand, light duty off road car. I've owned Subarus in the past and enjoyed them so I started by seeking diesel Outbacks and Foresters in manual guise. Nothing I found was ideal until a Forester diesel popped up on a country dealer's yard. A quick trip inland to the dealer led to the discovery that the particular Subaru I had enquired about obviously had not enjoyed an easy life, with sad paint and a very questionable clutch action.
However a very tidy RAV4 diesel auto was also available from the same outlet. The only downside to the RAV was an odometer indicating that it had travelled 140,000 kilometres, but a test drive demonstrated that the car had not only been very well cared but it felt like it had been loved by the previous owner. A perfect service history, an unmarked interior and paintwork and that rock solid feel that Toyotas seem to have immediately allayed any fears I had regarding the relatively high distance travelled, and the deal was done. The price was also attractive and probably similar or less than the first day's depreciation of most new cars I could have chosen.
The very best thing about buying a car that is relatively inexpensive and understated is that your expectations are quite low. Even on my 300 kilometre journey home those expectations of my little RAV were beginning to be exceeded. The 2.2-litre engine in the Toyota is neither cutting edge or particularly refined, but it has a gruff and gravelly honesty that is quite endearing. And 340 torques is usefully motivating to a lightish car like this. You never really feel short changed when overtaking. My biggest surprise on the homeward trip was how nice this soft roader was at high speed cruising. The legal limit sees less than 2000rpm on the tach, good cabin NVH suppression and an indicated fuel usage in the mid sixes.
This small SUV would make an outstanding budget wagon in which to undertake the big lap. Handling is very average but the RAV can be made to slice through smooth open corners with some ability, and any time I think negatively about any lack of cornering prowess on the twisty bits I remember that I am almost certainly going quicker and having more fun than anybody piloting a Prado or 200 Series.
Of course the reason for buying this car was not so much for its on-road ability but because I wanted to save my Mini from hot hatch destroying tracks, and to comfortably go off the beaten track without worrying about damaging an expensive new car. The RAV is also in front of my expectations on this front as well. Keep in mind that I have owned Jeeps, a Ranger, a Disco 3, and a Niva amongst other off roaders, so I completely understand what a proper four wheel drive is capable of. The surprise in driving the RAV off tarmac is not so much what it can't do but what it is actually capable of. To be honest, the places that the RAV can't get to are places that I personally don't want to go - with very few exceptions.
I live on the coast so my little Toyota proudly wears a beach permit on its windscreen and it uses that privilege regularly. I may have had other cars that make lighter work of sand driving but I can't remember any being better than the RAV. Simply ensure that traction control is off, drop the tyre pressures and away you go. It's just good fun. I have made a few mods to the car to help it on harder surfaces. I found an excellent alloy skid plate to protect the engine and transmission from rocks - the ground clearance isn't enormous but neither is it a deal breaker, particularly with the protection in place.
All terrain tyres now replace the road tyres, giving assistance with grip on loose surfaces but more importantly reducing the chance of sidewall damage. A nudge bar holds up a pair of driving lights that greatly enhance the fairly ordinary standard beams. A tow bar protects the plastic rear bumper on those occasions when the departure angle isn't adequate. You will also be surprised at the ability of the RAV on steep and technical terrain. The gearing isn't low but the auto box copes well with steep climbs, and the hill descent control works much better than I have experienced before in more hardcore 4WDs. There is a centre diff lock that works below 40 kilometres per hour. I haven't noticed much of a difference when using it or not using it.
Within the context of the price, the downsides of this car really are minor quibbles. The standard suspension is underwhelming. Of course smooth roads are handled with no issues, but sharper edged bumps can be transmitted to the cabin with too little suppression. My reading of contemporary road tests from 2015 regarding the RAV mention this flaw. It really isn't terrible and you will be absolutely comfortable most of the time; its just that the rest of the car is so good that the lack of compliance is slightly disappointing and a bit surprising. I run relatively low tyre pressures to compensate and this helps reduce any shocks.
The other curious negative of the diesel RAV is its restricted towing capacity. In Australia this little SUV is limited to towing a tonne. In some overseas markets you can pull 1.8 tonnes, so I'm not sure if we are restricted because of our temperatures or by legislation but it means that even small camper trailers are off limits. This is a bit of a shame because theoretically the driveline should be able to cope with more. Finally there is good and bad in driving something bland and mainstream like a white RAV. It certainly doesn't flatter your ego like many of the more butch off roaders, but it has an honesty and likability that is very appealing. I also like knowing that I have a relatively small amount of risk financially when negotiating narrow tracks or when parking it remotely. Then there is the look of astonishment on the faces of the drivers of lifted dual cabs when you join them at the top of a technical climb. Worth the price of admission right there.
The latest RAV has just been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century with the addition of smart phone mirroring, however you will find only basic tech on the 2015 version. Bluetooth yes, and keyless entry also, while the sound coming out of the standard fit sound system surprisingly good. I also like the one-touch, three-flash indicator function. A small thing I know but it was one of the things missing that I noticed when I test drove a new 200 Series and that demonstrated how old that platform is. Roll on 300 Series.
So there you have it. If you really do want to actually go off road - and let's face it, very few people really do - and if you don't want to damage and devalue an expensive new car, consider a second hand SUV. The RAV is a perfect car for forestry tracks, light beach work, highway cruising and moderate technical tracks. If it wasn't for an ambiguous sign in the middle of nowhere I may not have had the opportunity to enjoy this lovable little car.