It used to be simple, years ago. You had a car. Or else you had a 4WD. Neither of these could be confused with the other. The line between the two was pretty clear. But over the last 10 to 15 years, things have changed and now many buyers really love the idea of an SUV, but realise that they probably won’t need to go off road, well, ever – but it would be nice to be able to get out of a muddy field or pass through a flood. For this type of buyer, of which there are increasing numbers, there exists the crossover vehicle.
They are not quite full-fledged, mud-plugging SUVs but they are taller and tougher than the average car. 2006 saw the arrival of three new players to the market with the Daihatsu Terios re-emerging as a good-value dinky SUV, alongside the Skoda Octavia 4x4 and the Fiat Sedici, which is a joint venture with Suzuki. So, what are they like and are they any good? To find out, we threw a Kia Sportage into the mix, as it is one of the most popular SUVs on the market right now. As you might expect, we headed for the hills in all four cars.
The Wicklow Gap provided the perfect blend of winding roads and muddy fields to get a decent impression of just how useful or otherwise any of these vehicles will be. First up was the Daihatsu Terios. The first generation of the Terios was a sort of 4x4 supermini. Few took it too seriously, but it did claim some kudos among buyers for its cute looks. Beyond that, there really wasn’t much to talk about. The new generation, based on a Japan-only Toyota SUV, is aiming to be taken altogether more seriously, pitching itself against the likes of Suzuki and, ironically enough, Toyota, as a cut-price alternative. The new one is better than before. It is certainly larger and chunkier and more robust but then it really had to be.
It comes with proper SUV styling, chunky bumpers, high clearance, a side-hinged rear door with a spare wheel and, in this model at least, full-time four wheel drive. It comes with just one engine option and that is a 1.5-litre, 105bhp petrol engine. A five-speed manual gearbox is standard. Inside, the quality of the plastics is not bad for a car that is the cheapest of this line-up. Things do look a little dated for what is a brand new car but the price tag largely mitigates this. Because the car is manufactured by Daihatsu, who make incredibly reliable cars, you know that this is going to be a pretty fault-free experience but the drive itself is so disappointing that this fact doesn’t really help.
The 1.5-litre engine is easily exhausted by some pretty tame inclines and the handling is not very impressive either. One would hope that most Terios would spend their time in the town or city performing urban errands, because on a back road this thing is awful. And the manual gearbox is not up to much either, as the gear changes were stiff and awkward. You do have to keep telling yourself that this is the cheapest car here but at the same time it is not hard to feel very underwhelmed by the Terios. Stepping out of the Terios into the Sportage is a considerable leap. The Sportage has been doing great business for the Korean manufacturer both domestically and abroad, and it is not hard to see why. It looks and feels like a proper SUV – it is almost as tough and rugged looking as its Hyundai sibling, the Tucson, with many of the same design cues. Only two engines are offered – a slightly coarse 140bhp petrol that powers a couple of 2WD models and a rough old 2.0 diesel that produces 111bhp and 245Nm.
Both are offered in 2WD and 4WD guises. We have the 2.0-litre diesel model here, which, despite being a little rough around the edges, feels a world away from the Terios immediately. Then again, it is a world away financially too – a full €10,500 more expensive as tested. Space inside the Sportage isn’t bad. Front and rear passenger room is acceptable, the boot is a good size and there are lots of useful cubbies in the cabin. The cabin is reasonably pleasant and not badly laid out but the slick steering wheel, the cheap stereo and the indicator and wiper stalks on the wrong side are irritating. The Sportage is no hot hatch to drive. The ride isn’t bad, but the steering is slow and there is a bit too much body roll. Sure, there is enough grip and there are no major surprises, but it isn’t really that much fun.
The diesel engine does at least offer plenty of torque and this makes it more pleasant and less tiring to drive. Next up was the Skoda Octavia 4x4, which was without doubt the surprise package here. Many buyers would discount this car from their list simply because it is the wrong shape and isn’t going to offer the SUV dimensions that have become so desirable. But, on the other hand, there are those who really don’t want to be lumped in with the whole SUV-gas-guzzler brigade and for them this car would be the perfect way around all that. The 4x4 Octavia is the most unassuming 4x4 there is. This car has so much to offer for what is a really good price. Our test model was the 1.9-litre diesel version with 105bhp and was in Elegance spec, costing a mere €30,240, which really isn’t bad. You are getting a vast car, sitting on that much improved Golf Mk5 platform. There are no low-ratio gears here or indeed locking differentials, but you do get the second generation Haldex clutch technology: with the car running in front-wheel-drive mode most of the time, sensors monitor the traction at all wheels, and the clutch transmits torque to the rear axles when needed – enough to get you out of most situations.
The fact that this is actually a car that has been raised rather than an SUV means that it is without the compromises of the other vehicles here in terms of handling. It is pretty stiffly sprung, however, and this firm ride might not suit some drivers. But on the back roads of Wicklow it easily felt the most competent. And with that generous boot at the back it will be immensely practical too. If your budget allows, we would recommend going for the 140bhp 2.0-litre diesel over this rather outdated 105bhp 1.9-litre, but performance isn’t half bad from this old unit either. Lastly, the Sedici also offers a different perspective to all of the other vehicles and, like the Skoda, this was a car that surprised us in a good way. It’s not a half-bad-looking car for starters. It is no beauty but it is at least quite distinctive.
This is a joint venture with Suzuki, so a certain blending of design languages is evident. Only two engines are offered, a 107bhp 1.6-litre petrol and the model we have here, the 120bhp 1.9-litre diesel. The diesel is better able to cope with the heavy body and 4x4 hardware but because it’s got such grunt, it’s not that much more economical than the petrol. Inside, the Sedici’s dashboard is well laid out and simple to use, and most of the materials come from Suzuki and will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time at all in a Swift. The interior space is actually pretty good, with enough room in the back for three adults to sit in reasonable comfort. The drive is not bad either. The handling is not spectacular but it is competent and leans more towards the Skoda’s abilities in terms of handling. There is plenty of all wheel grip, the steering is light and direct and overall the handling is to be commended. We were also pretty surprised with the Sedici’s ability to get out of a muddy field. This is because it is equipped with an electromagnetic central differential that uses sensors from the anti-lock brakes to determine the slip and grip levels.
The driver gets a choice of three driving modes, each selected by pressing a single switch mounted down by the handbrake. Switch it to Auto and you get on-demand all-wheel drive, which is perfect for when the weather gets nasty. The four cars featured here cover a broad spectrum of price and ability. The Terios could really be treated on its own here, simply because it is so cheap. At €23,495 for the model we tested, it is seriously inexpensive for something that is at least SUV flavoured. It won’t be mistaken for something that is going to feel overtly tough or chunky though, because it is neither of these, and we found its on-road manners a let-down. A much better vehicle than we thought it would be, the Sedici is actually quite likeable and was surprisingly competent through the mud, although it did suffer a flat tyre on our test as a result. At €26,400 for the diesel version, it isn’t all that cheap and would certainly be unlikely to be worth half of this after three years of ownership.
The Sportage feels like a proper SUV and it is easy to see why it has become so popular here in Ireland, offering decent space, comfort, a strong if slightly gruff diesel and that high-up feeling that is so coveted by potential owners. But it is the Octavia that impressed us most. Sure, strictly speaking, it isn’t an SUV and there isn’t a hope in hell that a young buyer or a female buyer without a family would go for an Octavia Estate, but if you have a family and you want something that will get you out of a sticky spot or look after you when the weather turns nasty then we would recommend you spend your cash on the Skoda.
PLUS: CHEAP, CHEERFUL
MINUS: AWFUL TO DRIVE, WEAK ENGINE, POOR ROAD MANNERS
Daihatsu Terios 1.5 4WD
Engine: 1,495cc 4-cyl, 105bhp, 140Nm torque
Transmission: 5-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Acceleration: 0-100 km/h in 12.2 seconds
Top Speed: 160 km/h
Economy: 7.9 litres/100km
Boot Capacity: 380 litres