An ode to the 4X4

For fifty weeks a year the UK's sizeable contingent of four-wheel drive SUVs are stereotyped as the unloved, unwanted and comically pointless leviathans of the city centre; blamed for global warming and scorned by cyclists, they're crudely and falsely dismissed as an accessory for middle class mums or the desperate boast of a middle-aged man.

But then the other two weeks roll around – the wintery fortnight we find ourselves slap bang in the middle of right now, which deposits a foot of snow onto the ground and travel misery into the air. Overnight the 4X4 is transformed from a poser's plaything into a go-anywhere goliath with the muscular appeal of a Chinook helicopter.
As the nation's saloons, hatchbacks and MPVs flounder, the 4X4 driver can be seen marching across the icy landscape wearing the steely determination of Ray Mears and the grin of an X Factor contestant.

Their conspicuous glee is the result of finally finding a use for the unusual and expensive tool they once agonised over buying. Most SUV owners never require low range or lockable diffs or hill descent control on the school run, but now buttons can be flicked and switches toggled with the solemnity of a soldier loading a sniper rifle.

Any battlefield analogy is apt with four-wheel drive technology of course, because all today's off-road vehicles are the direct descendants of the machines which rumbled around the Western Front in the hands of a thousand Yankee G.I.s. With the Willys Jeep the US showed the world that only the saps marched – the industrialised armies of victory were marvels of mechanisation, and the little olive green utility vehicle was their GTI.

Not long after the war a British manufacturer grabbed the concept with both hands and produced the Series 1 Land Rover. Twenty years later they nicked another idea from the States in the form of the luxurious Jeep Wagoneer, and promptly hit their own effort out of the park. The original Range Rover remains the blueprint for every European SUV that's emerged since the 1970s.

That list includes the so-called crossovers, which have become the sales success story of this decade. The crossover has appropriated the SUV's profile, but often foregone the all-wheel drive technology that existed beneath it. For fifty weeks of the year the front-wheel drive convenience of the new class of car is perfectly adequate (better even) but for the designated two weeks of severe British winter they suddenly seem vacuous and foolish next to their red-blooded siblings.

This isn't to suggest that the current snowfall requires the capabilities of a Humvee or even a Land Rover Defender. Four-wheel drive comes in all shapes and sizes nowadays, and combined with a sensitive right foot, decent tyres and a smidgen of ground clearance, the most basic setup is likely to see you through the worst of the UK's current 'crisis'. Autoblog UK recently tested a Nissan Murano – a car that was never intended to spend the majority of its life off road – which cut through the snowy scenery like an icebreaker.

But we'd be lying if the old-school SUV didn't hold a special place in our hearts. The first duty of any car is to transport you somewhere, and when there's a foot of snow on the deck we wouldn't choose anything over the flinty, crunching traction of a traditional 4X4. The Jeep Grand Cherokee in the pictures was picked up for under £3k with six figures on the clock, but we wouldn't wish for anything else this Christmas. Not for the next two weeks anyway.

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