It wasn't that long ago, it seemed like all SUVs were going for style over tradition. Now, we're seeing something of a revival for the big box SUV!
Five years ago, it looked like the days of the boxy four-wheel drive were numbered. Or, at least, consigned to the second-hand classifieds for eternity. While new makes and models are on a constant pilgrimage towards more refinement, safety and modernity, the traditionally uncomplicated four-wheel-drive segment has seemingly been taken up in the current.
And I think in that process, something special was being lost. I’ve got nothing against refined cars. And considering how quiet, powerful, efficient and safe affordable cars have become since a decade ago, there is plenty to celebrate.
However, there’s something special about driving a car that needs to be driven. Something that gives your ears, eyes, fingers and seat-of-pants plenty to ponder.
More often than not, that kind of connection for me came in the form of a boxy four-wheel drive. As the years rolled on, opportunities to get behind the wheel of something like this were getting further apart.
While the general car market seems to only get more refined and more upmarket, it can sometimes come at the expense of driving experience. If you want a car that doesn’t feel like a chest freezer to drive, you’re forced to look at something like a Mazda MX-5 or Toyota Supra.
Nissan’s Patrol hasn’t really been boxy since the mighty GQ, but the current Y62 certainly adopted curves in place of right-angles. Land Rover’s proper-boxy Defender ended production in early 2016. Just about every 4x4 ute was chasing a more car-like driving experience, with comfort, refinement and quietness all headline acts.
Appearing in 2005, the Toyota FJ Cruiser (more of a retro-bodied Prado than a proper standalone model) showed that buyers love something that sits apart from the increasingly homogenised pack. Toyota’s 70 Series LandCruiser has been a constantly successful seller, without any hiatus to speak of. And when the squared-off Suzuki Jimny JB74 was released in 2018, the stage was set for a sellout success. And it's still selling out, nearly three years and one pandemic later.
Now, it seems like the niche has been recognised, and the tide is turning. There is a new wave of box-shaped four-wheel drives set to be released around the world, with most of them slated to make it to Australia.
While old-school four-wheel drives are never going to be accused of being sporty, you can’t deny that they are involving to drive. While improved refinement is nice, it can sometimes insulate the driver from the mechanical experience a car can offer. While you might be getting a better experience in terms of the all-important NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), some of the more engaging, connecting parts of a car’s nature can be lost in the translation.
These new, boxy 4WDs will hopefully be filling that void. Not engaging vehicles to drive at ten-tenths, but rather involving, fun and engrossing to drive all the time. Even down to the shops can be fun, if the car is right.
In one fell swoop, Land Rover has taken the most antiquated, traditional and off-road vehicle design and brought it to the bleeding edge of technology and modernity. Unlike many other 4WDs, which show a progressive evolution through successive iterations, the Defender’s four-year hiatus yielded something entirely different.
The main reason why so many love the old Defender is because it’s an old Defender. Unfortunately, the main reason why the old Defender was axed is the same. It's old, and wasn't selling in enough numbers to justify itself. However on first impressions, Land Rover has done a good job of marrying up seemingly incongruous elements: engagement, excitement, technology and refinement.
It’s no mean feat trying to emulate something old, compromised and utterly loved, and carry on a similar spirit with something safer, more dynamic, technology laden, refined and capable. What we found on our first drive was that despite being thoroughly new and modern, the Defender impressed with its playful and engaging nature. I feared the Defender was going to drive the same as a Discovery or Range Rover, but it thankfully doesn’t.
While certainly rounded off and more modern-looking in comparison, the new Defender is at least recognisable and relatable to the old model. Interestingly, the new Defender’s drag coefficient has improved from a heinous 0.62 to a much more palatable 0.38. That’s the same as a 1990s ‘NA’ Mazda MX-5.
Read more: Land Rover Defender
The new Defender doesn’t exactly replace the old model. It’s much more modern in terms of its design, mechanicals, technology and components. Gone are things like coil springs, live axles and chassis rails, for example. There’s an ultra-modern aluminium platform, from which hangs things like independent suspension and air suspension.
One fellow by the name of Jim Ratcliffe thought that the old Defender’s demise left a gap in the market, and the new one didn’t exactly plug it. Mr Ratcliffe also happens to be a hideously wealthy man, with the ability to fund an all-new vehicle aimed at filling that void.
Ineos is a company that deals mainly in gas and chemicals, and has made no secret about how its first automotive venture, the Grenadier, is inspired by the discontinued original Defender.
With engines supplied by BMW and gearboxes from ZF, the Grenadier plies a very traditional off-road trade of live axles front and rear, coil springs, Panhard rods and (seemingly) off-road-focussed tyres.
Let's be honest: while you can see skerricks of G-Class and Jimny here and there, the Grenadier very reminiscent of the old Defender. It's an all-out, box on wheels, classic old-school four-wheel drive. And when it finally lands, it’s going to rightfully stand out.
Unlike most other new vehicles, the Grenadier promises to keep utility and capability at the foremost of the design. How much that will impact drivability and livability remains to be seen.
Read more: Ineos Grenadier
Perhaps the most aggressive retro design we’ve seen in a while, the Ford Bronco is a 100 per cent throwback design to the original Bronco of the 1960s. Square corners, emblazoned grille, minimal overhangs, flat sides and prominent arches.
The experience doesn’t finish inside, either. Although there is a big infotainment display and plenty of tech, the new Bronco keeps things simple and uncluttered, clearly inspired by the days of steel dashboards and minimal complexity.
The Bronco promises to be a serious operator off-road, as well, with locking differentials, 35-inch tyres, and great overall ground clearance. Such modifications might leave the Bronco a bit less refined than a Ranger, for example, although we're hoping it feels and drives like an old 4x4. In a good way.
Although the new Bronco uses the Australian-developed Ford T6 platform, albeit highly modified, all indications are currently that it won’t make it to Australia. I’m hoping that won’t be forever, though, and maybe after the huge demand for the Bronco in left-hand-drive markets, Ford will look to introduce the Bronco to the much smaller right-hand-drive markets around the world. I’m going to be keeping my fingers crossed.
Read more: Ford Bronco
While many love the aesthetic that comes with a squared off and slab-sided off-roader, it's important to remember that it's not about looks alone. Such a design is relatively simple and cost-effective to produce.
It's also conducive to good ground clearance and visibility off-road, with plenty of space for big tyres and suspension components. Let's hope the box-shaped 4X4 continues to live a long and happy life.