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Soft serves

There is a clear-cut champion in the compact four-wheel-drive class.

It is the Subaru Outback, which does easily the best job for the majority of shoppers who want the size, comfort and command driving position of a soft-roader but don't plan to do much of the rough-and-tough weekend work in the bush.

The Outback is a high-riding and tougher-looking Subaru Liberty wagon, which means it is a new-age station wagon for people who are convinced that four-wheel-drives are the best bet for the 21st century.

But it's not the only way to go in a class which is as varied as any in Australian motoring.

The all-paw smalls are a split-personality line-up which ranges from serious bush buddies to suburban shopping trolleys, with everything in between.

Some talk the talk, but don't go remotely close to walking the wilderness, and others are surprisingly capable despite their soft-form looks. And looks aren't always the best – or easiest – way to make a choice.

The Daihatsu Terios has the high-rider style you expect to see in a serious four-wheel-drive, but it could have come just as easily from the world's best-selling carmaker – Matchbox.

The Suzuki Jimny is much the same, though it can really romp in the rough and is priced from just $17,990.

At the other end of the action, there are several contenders which push past $40,000, including the over-priced and under-done Land Rover Freelander.

The compact class also opens the options between "all-wheel-drive" vehicles focused on blacktop work and "four-wheel-drive" vehicles with serious off-road grip and dual-range gears, in a battle which rages all the way to the $100,000-plus machines in the luxury four-wheel-drive world.

The split between the soft-road and hard-rock vehicles means it's important to split the winners, with the Nissan X-Trail taking top honours for real off-road work and the Subaru Forester and best-selling Toyota RAV4 – now with a punchier 2.4-litre engine – scoring on the soft side.


Lowdown: A classy all-wheel-drive wagon that suits the real needs of the majority of four-wheel-drive shoppers.
Verdict: Not cheap but good value
Plus:Surprisingly strong in all areas
Minus: Costly, not for sand or big hills

The Outback was completely updated last year and picks up the five-star safety and top quality from the latest Subaru Liberty.

But it also gets a tougher look, extra ground clearance, rough-road tyres and all the other gear you need for weekend expeditions.

The price is pretty rich in a class where most of the action is below $30,000 – the H6 engine can lift it from $31,180 to more than $50,000 – but it's the one to recommend to friends and family if they can afford it.


Lowdown: The right choice for genuine four-wheel-drive use, with great go in the bush and practical touches in the cabin.
Verdict:Strong and enjoyable.
Plus:Serious go, funky looks.
Minus:Lacks on-road refinement.

The Nissan Patrol is a heavyweight four-wheel drive star and you can see and feel the family connection to the X-Trail.

It has the stumpy looks of a serious off-roader and backs it with a 2.5-litre engine hooked to a grippy drivetrain and a tough body.

Nissan has also created a funky cabin for the X-Trail, with all the right stuff for twentysomething owners.

It's not cheap, with pricing from $31,990, but the price is right for the class and the competition.


Lowdown: Boxy but good, with similar strengths to the Outback and a price from $31,490.
Verdict: A practical choice.
Plus: Tough, enjoyable.
Minus: Cramped tail, soft roader.
Rating: 17/20

The Forester, like the Outback, was developed for rougher roads than the regular all-paw Subaru family wagons.

So the Forester sprang from the Impreza, as the Outback did from the Liberty, but with a much bigger change to the body.

The Forester looks like it will work off the bitumen and it does, provided you recognise its limits.

It also comes with a punchier turbo engine, though it's not WRX, and Subaru Australia has just rejected a Forester STi which would have really rocked the compact four-wheel-drive scene.


TOYOTA RAV-4 16/20
Price: From $28,390
Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder (120kW)
Body style: Two-door wagon and four-door wagon

Getting old, but new beefy engine gives the RAV new life. Not for hard work off-road, but good fun on flat gravel or tarmac.


Price: From $31,990
Engine: 2.3-litre four-cylinder (108kW) and 3.0-litre V6 (152kW)
Body style: four-door wagon

Mazda Tribute twin does surprisingly well off-road and quite good around town. V6 can be thirsty. Big difference from Mazda is more macho look.


HONDA CR-V 15/20
Price: From $31,990
Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder (118kW)
Body style: Four-door wagon

A jacked-up Civic that really needs to stay in the suburbs. On-demand all-wheel-drive takes a while to kick in. Quality is good and the Honda badge makes it a popular choice.


Price: From $32,990
Engine: 2.7-litre V6 (132kW)
Body style: Four-door wagon

This is one of the better efforts from Hyundai, but there is still room for improvement. Good value and lusty V6 is a strong selling point.


Price: From $33,990
Engine: 2.3-litre four (108kW) and 3.0-litre V6 (152kW)
Body style: Four-door wagon

Same as the Ford Escape, apart from smoother looks. A nice surprise off-road and quite good around town. V6 can be thirsty.


Price: From $31,990
Engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder (100kW)
Body style: Four-door wagon

Another all-wheel-drive from the Mitsubishi machine, cashing in on Pajero's strength and trendy body. Arrived late for the party and doesn't really provide anything new.


Price: From $25,990
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder (94kW) and 2.5-litre V6 (116kW)
Body style: Two-door wagon and four-door wagon

Ageing model goes hard off-road with low-range gearbox. Others are doing it better. Not nice in town.


Price: From $39,950
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel (260Nm)
Body style: Two-door wagon and four-door wagon

Nothing special and a real disappointment in the Land Rover family. The compact Freelander is cramped inside, sluggish and a chore to drive. It's overweight and overpriced.


Price: $18,990
Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder (74kW)
Body style: Four-door wagon

Proof that style isn't everything. The jacked-up and re-badged Suzuki Ignis is popular for its trendy looks, but it's disappointing to drive and not up to Holden standards.


Price: From $18,950
Engine: 1.3-litre (63kW)
Body style: Four-door wagon
A cartoon car that's no match for a small hatchback, even off-road. Short gearing means it's noisy and uncomfortable on the highway. No.


Price: $24,990
Engine: 2.0-litre (94kW)
Body style: Four-door wagon
Long overdue for a replacement. Was an early winner for the South Korean brand, but has dropped well behind its rivals despite the rugged feel. Needs a change – now.


Price: $17,990
Engine: 1.3-litre four-cylinder (60kW)
Body style: Two-door wagon
More of a toy car than a real car, though surprisingly capable in the bush. Under-powered, poor quality and jumpy to drive, which makes the trip to the bush or suburban work a total disaster.
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