Will this winter be as bad as the last? If it is, then all-wheel drive cars are likely to become even more popular, but you don’t have to fork out for one of the leviathans. Peter Cracknell looks at some small alternatives…
Mention four-wheel drive cars, and most listeners will immediately conjure up the image of a mighty off-roader, all sharp edges and wallet-sapping fuel consumption. But it doesn’t have to be like that. There are quite a few small cars which not only have most of the go-anywhere abilities of their larger cousins, but are just as adept as the two-wheel-drive variety at nipping into town for the weekly shop and parking in the wee spot that Chelsea tractors must pass by.
We’re looking here at four-wheel-drive versions of standard smaller cars. They’re designed for motorists whose need for all-wheel-drive is occasional: the fear of snow, or perhaps the steep slippery track to their cottage in the wilds of Devon. The important point is that with one of these three cars you’re not going to lose the benefits of small car motoring – you’ve still got all the in-town convenience, and you’ll get pretty close to the excellent fuel economy of the two-wheel-drive version.
Readers old enough to have grown up with the original Mini will raise an eyebrow or two at the size of the Countryman. Here’s a vehicle for which the very word ‘MINI’ has to be considered a relative concept; just take the length for example – it’s more than a metre longer than the original Issigonis creation. But it’s still MINI when compared to the likes of a Range Rover.
If you want 4WD versatility – termed ‘ALL4’ by MINI – the Countryman is the version you’ll be getting, and diesel versions come with either Cooper D or Cooper SD credentials. We tested the Cooper SD version; powered by BMW’s 4-cylinder 2.0-litre unit this pushes out 141bhp, though the kerb weight of 1,470kg does keep performance within reasonable bounds. Official combined consumption however sounds impressive enough at 57.6mpg.
The Countryman’s size makes sense of the five doors, which in turn allow its use as a true small family car (there are just two individual rear seats, with a third available as an optional extra). The size also allows for successful amounts of sound deadening, not that the engine is anything but refined; there’s the odd body rattle as the firm suspension copes with UK potholes, but the lasting impression of this MINI is that it’s a solid, quality car.
Interior design is, like that of all the other MINIs, a tad funky and fun, though I can’t enthuse about the small, fiddly switches for windows, fog lights and so on set low down in the centre of the facia. Items like the central ‘rail’ that offers movable cup holders, trinket box and arm rest, do however confirm the impression that you’re sitting in something out of the ordinary. But just as the dimensions have expanded over the years, so too has the price tag. This Countryman is a seriously expensive piece of kit, but if you like the styling, and can afford it, you won’t be disappointed.
The largest of our three test cars, the 4WD version of Skoda’s Yeti is powered by Volkswagen Group’s 2.0-litre diesel, in a choice of three outputs. The Yeti follows the MPV design style, which means it’s tall, so you don’t need to worry if you are too; there’ll be room.
On road, our range-topping 168bhp diesel engine was refined enough to make tyre noise more of a problem, but all round it’s a relaxing car to drive, and super-easy to park thanks to the vertical rear end and deep windows. Our test car had auto wipers and lights, which these days we do appreciate. Passengers will be more thankful that the seats are comfortable, and shaped to hold you firmly when the driver is pressing on, which bearing in mind the reserves of power and torque might be a frequent event. The permanent 4WD system utilises a Haldex clutch, which in everyday road use will normally direct 96 per cent of the engine power to the front wheels. Put yourself on the slippery stuff and it will donate more to the wheels that can best use it.
The more we drive the Yeti, the more we appreciate the quality and practicality. The driving position is fully adaptable to a wide range of shapes and sizes, and the adjustments are generous. Interior design is for the most part dark and typical Volkswagen group, but there are brighter touches such as the chrome bezels around the gauges that lighten the mood. Rear seats fold flat, tumble forward, or can be removed entirely, so the luggage and passenger space ratio can be optimised. The only minus point is the tailgate, which is awkwardly heavy.
The Yeti, launched little more than two years ago, has proved a popular model for Skoda with the 100,000th example being produced at the Czech plant in June 2011.
The SX4 sits in the middle of the Suzuki range, and is sculpted in the increasingly popular crossover style. The 4WD diesel version is powered by the 2.0-litre DDiS engine, which at idle isn’t the quietest of motors, as it generates an indelicate rattle that gives the game away as to its fuel type.
SX4 is the result of a joint development agreement between Suzuki and Fiat Auto, which also spawned the Fiat Sedici – no longer sold in the UK. All SX4 models have a bold SUV appearance with wheel arch extensions, side protection mouldings and front and rear skid plates. Looked at from any angle, the styling seems suitably butch, and well suited for the car’s intended tasks.
The 4WD system is a selectable type, with which you can choose 2WD, 4WD Auto, or 4WD Lock. Selecting 2WD does give the benefit of maximum fuel economy, though 4WD Auto will in almost all situations achieve the same by directing power to the front wheels only; when one of these starts to slip some power will be fed to the rear.
Suspension has been tuned in Europe to Euro tastes, and as ever that means it’s not soft, but even part-time off-roaders have to be firm enough to deal with the rough stuff. The driver isn’t blessed with wheel reach adjustment, so those with short arms and long legs might have trouble getting comfortable. Passengers though should be delighted with the high roofline and ample leg room whether sitting in the back or front. Boot capacity can be increased by tumble folding the split rear seat, and very unusually this doesn’t require the front seats to be moved forward.
There are some small faults, such as indicators that are reluctant to self-cancel, but what you get with Suzuki is incredible reliability at a very reasonable price, and for many buyers those two criteria are at the very top of their list.