Drive Car Of The Year

Best Off-Road SUV 2023

Best Off-Road SUV

Big and bustling four-wheel-drive wagons play in two important disciplines: spacious and comfortable family haulers during the week, and capable adventure machines on weekends and holidays.

There is no doubt that Australians have gone gaga for four-wheel-drive utes in recent years. But in the face of that rampant popularity, we shouldn't forget about the four-wheel-drive wagon alternative.

Often, they are a better fit for families, with more interior space, a better ride quality and more family-friendly features inside. And if you need a big family vehicle that pulls double duty on weekend adventures and road trip holidays, then a big four-wheel-drive wagon should be in your sights.

The Toyota LandCruiser and Nissan Patrol – staples of the Australian four-wheel-drive scene – didn't make the cut this year. The LandCruiser because it was defeated by the carryover champion Land Rover Defender previously, and the Patrol hasn't been upgraded enough to warrant fresh consideration.

Instead, we've got the Defender facing off against two new rivals: the Ford Everest and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Winner: Land Rover Defender

Land Rover

Land Rover Defender

Land Rover Defender

21 variants available

$ 81,950 - $ 226,500* MRLP

What we love

  • -Air suspension and big tyre diameter give high levels of clearance off-road
  • -A feast of off-road technology
  • -Highly refined and composed on dirt and bitumen

What we don't

  • -Wheel diameter is less suited for off-roading than the competition
  • -Pricing goes from expensive to very expensive
  • -Is it too nice to take off-road?

The new Land Rover Defender blends modern refinement with a capability defined by the legendary nameplate.

This modern remake of the brand's icon continues to impress, especially from an off-road point of view. Incorporating a modern aluminium platform with independent suspension and adjustable air suspension gives loads of clearance overall, allowing the Defender to overcome obstacles other vehicles cannot even attempt.

Wheel diameter – limited by the size of the brakes – is high for off-road usage. Some variants can have 18-inch aftermarket wheels fitted, but the (mostly) standard fare of 19-plus inches doesn't always suit off-roading. Overall tyre diameter is high, however, at more than 32 inches.

The range of available powertrains in the Defender are great, going from a bright and punchy four-cylinder turbo petrol (P300) through smooth six-cylinder diesel and petrol options to a stonking (albeit expensive) supercharged V8. They suit on-road and off-road driving admirably, and matched by suspension tunes that offer an impressively wide bandwidth of performance.

Locking rear and centre differentials, along with a highly advanced and adept traction-control system, mean wheel spin is a rarity. It makes the Defender feel composed and highly capable, even for inexperienced drivers behind the wheel.

This all comes as cream on top of a package that is impressively refined on the blacktop and around town, as well as dispatching corrugated dirt with aplomb. So, unrivalled off-road yet luxurious and refined on-road, is the Defender too good to risk getting dirty?

Runner-up: Ford Everest


Ford Everest

Ford Everest

8 variants available

$ 52,990 - $ 77,530* MRLP

What we love

  • -Optional V6 engine is torquey, smooth and competent 
  • -Practical additions to the interior are good
  • -Adept suspension performance on-road and off-road

What we don't

  • -Infotainment system can be buggy at times
  • -Off-road traction-control system not as effective as the Land Rover
  • -10-speed automatic can feel busy

Co-developed with the new Ford Ranger, Ford's new Everest SUV continues to impress in its new generation. Don't forget that the Ford Everest came away with top honours back in 2015, winning the crown of Drive Car of the Year.

A choice of diesel engines matched to a 10-speed automatic gearbox and full-time four-wheel-drive system with low-range transfer case (in 4x4 models, of course) makes for drivetrains that are refined, torquey and tough. The new 3.0-litre V6 is the star of the show; however, the carryover (but reworked) 2.0-litre twin-turbocharged four-cylinder is also strong and flexible.

Generally good overall ground clearance and a locking rear differential put the Everest in good stead off-road. Having optional all-terrain tyres helps, along with 17-inch and 18-inch diameter wheels to choose from. However, the off-road traction-control system is not as adept as others (especially the Land Rover), and seems to switch off when the rear locking differential is engaged.

The refinement of the driving experience through the chassis is good, providing absorption and compliance over varying road and dirt surfaces, using coil springs and a Watt's linkage at the back and independent front suspension. Noise insulation and refinement are also highlights.

The 10-speed automatic gearbox can be busy at times with so many tightly packed ratios to choose from. It's more at home on the open road, but can get pressured keeping up with the fast-changing demands of urban driving.

Finalist: Jeep Grand Cherokee L


Jeep Grand Cherokee

Jeep Grand Cherokee

8 variants available

$ 77,950 - $ 119,450* MRLP

What we love

  • -Modern, high-end interior is impressive
  • -Big and spacious, with loads of room for occupants
  • -Impressive tech in top specification

What we don't

  • -Noticeably behind the pace off-road
  • -Reduced payload and towing capacities
  • -Carryover petrol V6 is your only choice of engine

Jeep's new Grand Cherokee L brings the big American brand back into the seven-seat SUV game and replaces a successful but ageing model.

The recipe has changed with this new-generation Grand Cherokee. It's much bigger (in this long-wheelbase L variant especially) and loses the option of a turbo diesel powertrain. There is a shorter five-seat variant coming (which loses the L designation, but is still 5.2m long), but this model retains the ability to carry plenty of people and gear inside.

The interior of the Grand Cherokee L is impressive in terms of fitout, and a clear step up over the previous generation. There is a lot of technology to dig through as well.

While the Grand Cherokee's carryover 3.6-litre petrol V6 is smartly calibrated by Jeep – and well handled by the eight-speed automatic gearbox – it lacks the mid-range torque of competitors because it doesn't have any kind of forced induction.

And while on-road compliance from the suspension (including the air suspension of higher model grades) is mostly good on-road, it doesn't handle the rigours of off-roading as well. It can feel firm and crashy when raised, and doesn't offer much in the way of articulation.

The addition of a low-range transfer case in the Summit Reserve specification is an important addition for off-road driving, but that also comes with the hindrance (off-road, at least) of 21-inch alloy wheels.

You can read about all the other 2023 Drive Car of the Year categories and winners here:
Drive Car of the Year categories and winners

Other Award Categories

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