Can a crossover or a wagon really be a legit overland rig? They tick a lot of the right boxes: car-like comfort, all-wheel drive traction, and plenty of room for the family. What they lack in hard-core off-road capability, they make up for in other ways. Is the softroader the future of overlanding?

Crossing Over

A challenge that a great deal of would-be explorers face is simply the question of whether or not to buy a completely dedicated overland rig. Maintain one vehicle for daily commuting and family duties, and build out a 4x4 of your choice for weekend off-road fun. Honestly, this is an ideal situation. Driving back and forth to work every day on 33" tires and lugging around a roof tent really drags down the gas mileage and doesn't offer particularly good driving dynamics. The family Camry, while a perfectly competent car in almost every respect, won't be up to the task for most backcountry adventures.

However, for many of us the luxury of having more than one vehicle isn't an option. Whether due to budgetary constraints, access to parking, or other factors, one car is often all we have to work with. So, are you stuck with your sedan, limiting your back-road options, or will you have to deal with the drawbacks of daily-driving a purpose-built overland rig? What if there was a middle ground?

Jeep's Cherokee Trailhawk
Jeep's Cherokee Trailhawk

The Softroader

The fastest growing segment of new car sales is - and has been for some time now - the crossover. Sometimes also referred to as CUVs (crossover sport utility vehicles), in the overland world we like to think of them as "softroaders". What defines this type of vehicle? The foundation of a modern softroader is rooted in a traditional sedan structure and drivetrain with a handful of distinguishing features. First, a mechanically or computer controlled all-wheel drive system that sends power to all four wheels either full-time, or as driving conditions dictate. Second, a slightly lifted suspension - maybe 1" to 2" taller than the original platform the softroader is based on. This often includes softer shock damping, and larger tires to fill the wheel wells and add ground clearance. Third, softroaders usually have a taller and often wider body shape that make CUVs look like the little brothers of more traditional 4x4s. These cars are almost all unibody construction.

Every manufacturer now sells some version of this formula in varying sizes and levels of off-road ability, whether designed on a dedicated architecture, or built off a traditional car foundation. Offering car-like comfort, ride, and efficiency, coupled with an increase in interior space, as well as all weather and off-road proficiency, it's understandable why the crossover dominates the car market now. We live in the age of the crossover, and they are an attractive alternative to the old-school 4x4 as a potential overland platform, but how did we get here?

A Brief History of the Softroader

One of the forerunners of the contemporary softroader was the AMC Eagle. Produced throughout the 1980s, AMC took a wagon or sedan body and mated it to four wheel drive running gear. It relied on full-time four wheel drive system with a torque-biasing center differential, and the Eagle rode and drove not unsurprisingly like a Jeep. Also in the 1980s, Audi was the first OEM to really normalize all wheel drive in passenger cars in the US market with its quattro system in the 4000 and 5000 models. But these proto-softroaders weren't quite the same as today's crossovers. The Eagle was basically a Jeep with a sedan body, and the Audis were simply sedans that sent power to all four wheels. It took a small Japanese brand with six stars on the grill to revolutionize the segment.

AMC Eagle Wagon
AMC Eagle Wagon

Subaru had quietly been selling quirky, underpowered four wheel drive wagons in the US since the mid-1970s. The push-button part-time four wheel drive system Subaru developed was strong, simple, and shockingly effective, particularly in the snow. Coupled with decent ground clearance and fuel-efficient boxer motors, four wheel drive Suburas were the darling of the ski community, and you could find them running all over the mountains of Colorado, California, and New England. But Subaru's market share was tiny, and the cars were nothing more than basic transportation. Other than the nifty four wheel drive system, they were fairly primitive and rough around the edges.

As the company evolved and Subaru developed more refined models, they modernized their part-time, driver selected four wheel drive drivetrain into a full-time all wheel drive system. 

1985 Subaru GL Wagon 4WD
1985 Subaru GL Wagon 4WD in US Ski Team Trim

Similar to Audi's quattro (though not identical in operation), it became Subaru's calling card starting with the Legacy sedan and wagon in the early 1990s. However, it was 1994's Outback trim Legacy that truly introduced the world to the softroader. Sticking to the formula discussed above, the Outback was simply a Legacy with a lifted suspension, larger tires, and some rugged-looking body cladding. Helped along by huge success in World Rally racing, and a memorable marketing campaign featuring Crocodile Dundee (Australian actor Paul Hogan), the Outback launched Subaru from a backwater brand into the fastest growing Japanese manufacturer in the US. It hasn't looked back.

Second Generation Subaru Outback
Second Generation Subaru Outback

Successive evolutions of the Outback saw it grow into its own separate model, and it spawned Outback-trimmed Imprezas, the taller and more upright Forester wagon, some of Subaru's larger SUVs, as well as the contemporary CrossTrek. Other brands dove into the softroader waters with enthusiasm, trying out all kinds of different takes on the idea, from Toyota's RAV4, to Suzuki's tiny X-90, to the Audi All-Road quattro, to the Ford Escape, and the Porsche Macan. Everyone was rushing a crossover to market and consumers ate them up as fast as they could be built. Some of these turned out to be better cars than others, but the concept stuck, and we have Subaru to thank for it.

Softroaders for Overlanding

If you're thinking about using one of these practical vehicles as a basis for an overland build, you're not alone. With nearly two decades of development and diversification across the auto industry in the crossover segment, manufacturers have dialed in the formula. Today's all-wheel drive systems are astonishingly capable, and the off-road and overland aftermarket has recognized the potential of these cars as adventure rigs. Even the OEMs are offering overland-ready trims, complete with optional add-ons from the dealer like roof racks, roof top tents, and body armor. You can even get a winch bumper for your Outback if you want one.

Subaru, of course, still leads the pack when it comes to softroaders - they've built their entire ethos and reputation on it. For example, the 2023 Outback Wilderness features 9.5 inches of ground clearance (my old Jeep Cherokee only had 7.5 inches), all terrain tires, skid plates, an integrated roof rack that carries hundreds of pounds, and revised low-range gearing. Toyota is offering a TRD-Pro package on its RAV4, and Jeep's Cherokee Trailhawk, as well as Ford's Bronco Sport Badlands rock all-terrain tires, lift kits, and intelligent all-wheel drive systems that go pretty much anywhere. Ford and Hyundai are offering miniature pickup versions of the softroader in their Maverick and Santa Cruz models.

2023 Subaru Outback Wilderness
2023 Subaru Outback Wilderness

Are these vehicles rock crawlers? Are they global expedition ready? Probably not. Can they access 90% of the terrain we tackle as overlanders and carry most of the gear we need to travel in remote places in North America? Definitely. The overland community has found creative ways to outfit their softroaders for both weekend and extended overland travel without compromising too much on their every-day drivability. A great combination for those of us who need to stick to one vehicle.

A handful of caveats about the softroader. First, even though modern all wheel drive cars are pretty amazing in a variety of conditions, they're still not designed for hard core off-road terrain the way part-time four wheel drive trucks and SUVs are. If you tend to be more aggressive or adventurous in your wheeling, you may want to steer clear of the softroader. Second, while they can be more fuel efficient, loading up a crossover with hundreds of pounds of people and gear, as well as mounting all-terrain tires, will take a huge bite out of the fuel economy figures you might see on your daily commute. Plan your fuel consumption accordingly on longer trips. Third, overall payload and carrying capacity of softroaders usually lags behind traditional pickups and SUVs. Watch your weight when planning you build.

Is a softroader the answer to your overland plans?


Images: Volkswagen, Wikipedia, Jeep, Subaru, barnfinds.com