Life Motor Talk

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Why we need to get it into our heads that 4x4 does not mean we should go off-road

Eddie Cunningham

Published 12/06/2014 | 02:30

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A Skoda 4X4
A Skoda 4X4
A Skoda 4X4
A Skoda 4X4

It was not ‘4x4’ weather as we know it. The sun blazed, mosquitoes (or their cousins) bit, and we were getting to grips with slippery water-filled skid paths and gravelly steep slopes.

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The contrast wasn’t lost on us. Only a few winters ago people couldn’t get out of their driveways – especially those with rear-wheel drive cars and ordinary tyres – during the Big Freeze.

So here we were trying out stuff that can avert a repeat of that without really breaking new technological ground. That is what is extraordinary really: the level of technology we have come to take for granted.

We’re not talking ‘off-road’ 4x4 here – though the technology on the Skodas we were driving was notably capable.

No, we’re talking traction, grip and greater assurance on the tarmac under slippery conditions.

We slid, skidded, drifted (fun) and counter-steered our way through specially prepared slippery and wet conditions, on the flat and on an incline. We alternated between Skoda Superbs (right) with just front-wheel drive and those that had 4x4.

Now, I’m not going to say there was a marked difference and take the usual line, because I expected there would be a contrast. After all, if you are going to spend an extra €3,000 or so on a 4x4 version and are prepared to sacrifice some fuel economy, you are entitled to notice and benefit from the difference.

No, what I noticed was the change in my attitude. Just because I had a 4x4 under me emboldened me to push harder, take more risks and stretch the capabilities of car and driver – in the knowledge that ultimately the system would look after me. With ordinary two-wheel drive I took it a lot easier and was a more responsible individual altogether. I should point out that we were on a special course not a public highway.

So the big lesson I took away from this specially prepared course was not so much the ability of the technology but the mindset of the driver.

And I think car companies need to tell people that 4x4 is not, NOT about going off-road. There is a subliminal link between the two, I feel. Really 4x4 is about making on-road driving a lot safer. It is about picking the correct gear and it is about taking it easy on the throttle when, for example, going up a slippery slope or a frosty suburban street. Flooring it, as so many did in the Big Freeze winter (and a few on this course) only spins the wheels like mad (yes even with 4x4) and gets you nowhere.

It may be nearly mid-summer but some lessons are needed all year round and this was a good opportunity to take a fresh look at them.

The best fun – and easily the most dramatic example of 4x4 capability – was in the Yeti crossover (left). I drove up and down some of the steepest inclines I’ve come across (and I’ve done a Range Rover down a ski-slope so I’m not easily impressed).

Then I asked one of the real experts to drive me. Sweet God folks, these lads are fearless. For a second I feared the car would flip back over itself such was the steepness of the hill.

No doubt this was a good test of a car's ability to have all four or just one wheel driving it. Yet in many ways the hero of this section was Hill Descent Control where the system takes over and keeps the car from running away down hill. It is so easy to yield to the temptation to use the brake. Not a good idea. Going downhill I just steered it; never put a foot near the brake or accelerator.

Going uphill you do have to judge it more. Go too fast on the gravel and the wheels can scramble and you slow to a wheel-spinning halt. Go too slow and you lack momentum to get you to the top; a little bit of practice and you can judge it easily. The technology is there, it is phenomenal in its own way. We just need to learn to adapt to and use it better.

As I said at the start it is all in the mind: how you approach it and how patient you need to be when conditions are not good.

Yes, mid-summer may not be the ideal time to be talking about slippery roads, loss of grip and scuppering up stony hillsides. But one thing is as sure as water on a skid pad, there will be a freeze, there will be a flood and there will be a rush of demand for cars with 4x4 technology.

It's just a matter of when, not if.

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