Q. Which small SUVs can do light off-roading? I'm shopping for a four-cylinder, four- or all-wheel-drive utility vehicle or compact SUV. It will mainly serve as a second car, but I expect to do some light off-roading (no rock crawling) and beach driving. Among possible candidates, are there significant differences in the way the four- or all-wheel-drive systems operate, and which would be superior for light off-roading?
A. Just about any compact SUV can handle "light off-roading," such as mildly rutted, unpaved trails, but the Subaru Forester and Outback and Jeep Patriot are among the more capable crossover SUVs. They offer enough ground clearance for light off-road work and are comfortable and livable on pavement.
The Forester and Outback have 8.7 inches of ground clearance, which should be more than adequate for your needs. The all-wheel-drive system on both models is always engaged and automatically distributes power among the wheels depending on driving conditions or, as Subaru used to say, "from wheels that slip to wheels that grip."
The Patriot can be equipped with a Freedom Drive II off-road package that gives it 9.5 inches of ground clearance and a four-wheel-drive system with a low range for off-road driving, skid plates and tow hooks. If that is more than you need, the Freedom Drive I full-time four-wheel-drive system is available. On smooth pavement, most power goes to the front wheels, but in slippery conditions the system transfers more power to where it's most needed.
Several smaller SUVs use on-demand systems that operate in front-wheel drive under most conditions and send power to the rear wheels when the front wheels slip and then revert to front drive once traction is normalized. Among vehicles that operate in this manner are the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Equinox and Ford Escape.
© 2011, Cars.com