Hard Vs Soft: How to choose the right SUV


There’s an epidemic of people wasting large sums of cash on the wrong vehicles. Immunise your family against marketing BS syndrome now - and learn how to choose the right SUV. 

If both these vehicles are on your shopping list, you're doing something wrong.

If both these vehicles are on your shopping list, you're doing something wrong.

Video Transcript

This happens all the time, and it can lead to a $60,000 mistake. SUV buyers are the most susceptible - especially those dropping the big bucks on seven seaters. Hopefully hoped this video will be the antidote, entering your brain via the optic nerve and turning off critical bullshit receptors for long enough to allow you to make an informed decision. A clinical trial, of sorts.

These outwardly nutty - but serious - enquiries flood my inbox.


Christine’s enquiry below is typical:

"We've done our research but can't decide between Mazda CX-9 Touring or the Mitsubishi Pajero Sports GLS. Both with seven seats. Purpose for the car is to accommodate tall people (5'8" is the shortest) and the family dog (German shepherd). We don't intend to do any 'true' off-road work with the vehicle. Need storage for family holidays and day trips with the dog to the beach. Also, looking into the future, our girls need will need connectivity (USB ports)."
- SUV buyer, Christine

Isn’t that marvellous - children: now with USB connectivity. I like it. Look, I get how you can be in this position. I’m not having a shot at Christine - or others in this position - it’s bloody hard to choose the right vehicle, and car company websites don’t help.


"Combining style, luxury, cutting-edge technology and genuine four-wheel drive performance, the sleek Mitsubishi Pajero Sport fuses elegance, space and safety for urban driving with agility for off-road excitement." - Mitsubishi Oz


While Mazda claims this, equally effusively:

"Get it for your family. Drive it for yourself. Inside and out, the superb styling of Brand-New Mazda CX-9 redefines the 7-seat family SUV with incredible visual appeal." - Mazda Oz

Utter marketing bullshit, times two. Entirely unhelpful, choice-wise. If you’re not a car nut, you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s therefore a Rumsfeldian ‘unknown-unknown’ - the worst kind. So let’s translate.


If the aim was information - helpfullness - and not subterfuge - Mitsubishi should say:

"Look: We already did the hard work and designed the Triton ute. So it made sense to spin it off into a hastily adapted 4WD wagon. And OK it’s a bit rough around the edges, but it tows a shitload and you can throw it at really rough terrain without breaking it." - what Pajero Sport really is

And those ‘horse and rider as one’ bestiality specialists at Mazda should say:

"Off road? Heavy towing? Are you smoking crack? This is a sophisticated on-road machine. A de facto family wagon sexed up to look like an SUV, simply because that’s the fashion now. We should call it a people mover, but that would be commercial suicide." - what CX-9 really is

That’s how this plays. There’s a Grand Canyonesque chasm down the middle of the list of large SUV wagons, and marketing arseholes on both sides are doing their best to cover it with branches so you’ll fall in, uninformed. I hate marketing arseholes, but at least they’re consistent. You can count on them, just like you can count on Malcolm Turnbull waking up tomorrow, looking in the mirror and still being a smug prick.


On one hand you’ve got SUVs that are really converted utes. The transgender wagons - I was a wagon trapped in the body of a ute. Then they gave me the surgery.

I’m talking about the Ford Everest spun off the Ranger ute, the Toyota Fortuner, cut from the cloth of the Hilux, the Pajero Sport, as discussed, the Holden Trailblazer, nee Colorado, and the Isuzu MU-X, like a retarded Trailblazer sharing its DNA with the D-MAX ute and Colorado. (Below: in order, L-R.)

Don’t get me wrong: These vehicles are great value heavy tow platforms. If you’re towing two tonnes or more - they have serious capability. If you will actually be driving through rivers, or on the kinds of rough terrain you can only just walk over - also, they’re a great idea. And they’re good value, for that.

But they are poor choices if you’re just going to do the school run, collect the brats, pick up the groceries and drive on made roads - freeways, highways, dirt roads, or around town. These former utes are simply not the best SUVs you can buy for normal driving.

And the reason is: Engineering compromise. You cannot build hardcore towing performance, and heavy tow capacity into a vehicle without copping a hit in refinement and value. You just can’t. These things all feel like utes, to a greater or lesser degree. And that means they are unsophisticated, unrefined, poorly equipped, bad value shitboxes - if all you want to do is normal driving.

Mazda CX-9 has extremely limited adventuring potential

Mazda CX-9 has extremely limited adventuring potential



If you’re considering buying a CX-9 for adventuring - it’s also time to recalibrate. Not designed for adventuring. Designed to drive comfortably and capably to the public car park at any national park. Goes anywhere a Toyota Corolla will go. Just not designed for the hardcore stuff.

I get people all the time asking me about how far off road the likes of Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, Nissan X-TRAIL, Subaru Forester, XV and Outback, Mitsubishi Outlander - et cetera - will go, off road, and I have to say these vehicles are not designed for any significant off-roading. Best ‘umbrella’ answer: ‘none’.

In the case of CX-9, VX and X-TRAIL (above) - and some others - they don’t even have full-sized spare tyres. I wouldn’t even, therefore, poke them down a dirt road, or tow a light trailer further than the tip. Santa Fe, Sorento, Forester, Outback - full-sized spares. Sure, you can drive them on a dirt road. All day long. Not problem.

But the most outrageous obstacles I’d be throwing at them is a fire trail or really hard-packed sand. Anything rougher and you’re just begging for damage. And of course the dealership will love you for it. Damage equals owner abuse - and abuse it’s covered by warranty. Happily enough (for the dealer).

The benefit of these softer SUVs is refinement, value and equipment level. They’re nicer to drive - and that generally means safer as well, for things like emergency braking and swerving. This is inherently an engineering compromise. If you pump up off-road performance, it has a negative effect on on-road performance.

I’d much rather swerve around a kangaroo in a Santa Fe or an Outback than in a Fortuner. In the five-seat domain I'd be looking hard at the Hyundai Tucson >> and Kia Sportage >>

The softer SUVs generally offer more fruit for lower pricing. Case in point - Holden Trailblazer LTZ (above left) - the most expensive variant of that ugly shitheap. Mid-$50s. No adaptive cruise control. Santa Fe, Sorento, Outback (above, next to Trailblazer, L-R) in the same pricing ballpark: adaptive cruise all round.

Look me in the eye and tell me Trailblazer is better for eating up those freeway miles. Adaptive cruise is such a huge asset on the open road.


The key message here is that, if you have Pajero Sport and CX-9 on the same short list, or Santa Fe and Trailblazer, etc. - any of the converted utes against any of the softer SUVs - simply invoke your GPS and plan a direct route back to the drawing board. Because if one of these categories of vehicle is right for you, the other is definitely wrong.

If you need that extreme off-road and/or tow performance, the CX-9, Outback and their softer philosophical bedfellows are just never going to deliver that. And if you want a family wagon, the Fortuner and its transgender cohorts that formerly identified as utes are ultimately going to be a bad fit.


And that means I need you, as a car buyer, to do a very difficult thing … at least it is for a lot of car buyers. It’s going to be a real challenge. I need you to think logically, and be realistic about what you actually need the vehicle for. Because there’s a great deal of ill-considered fantasising at dealerships, to the effect of: ‘but honey - one day we could cross the Simpson Desert in this baby’.

Two things on that: One: you could cross the Simpson in a bomby old Camry. And, two: one day never comes. How many used 4WDs are there out there, on sale right now, that have never once engaged low range. Nearly all of them. ‘I didn’t even know we had that. Amazing. I just hung my handbag off it.’

Buy the vehicle you need for the kind of driving you’re actually going to do. And don’t forget the classic Latin phrase: nil ostentatio proscripto bastardum carborundum: don’t let the marketing bastards wear you down. Hope this helps. I’m John Cadogan. Thanks for watching.