| BUYERS GUIDE
ISSUES WITH 2003 SOFTROADERS
Don't believe the off-road antics you see on TV ads.
TV ads show softroaders doing all types of off-road driving, but none is really suitable for hard-core bush work. Knowing its shortcomings is the first step to happy off-bitumen travel in a softroader. We looked at five 2003 softroaders and drew up some criticisms and recommendations.
The Mazda was fitted with a central steel ‘spine’ pressing that ran aft from the front cross member. There were two heavy bolts in that section that could easily be used to mount a sturdy recovery hook.
There were also ample attachment points for a metal engine and transmission protection plate, to replace the plastic one.
The air conditioning condenser was open, literally, to stone damage, so the lower grille opening needed to be fitted with metal mesh. The test vehicle’s condenser fins were already badly scarred.
Muffler and fuel system ‘black box’ were located in the belly angle and needed protection.
Lower control arms on the rear suspension were vulnerable to stone damage and needed to be replaced by more robust tubing.
The Tribute had two lightweight tie down eyes up front – not real recovery points.
The rear end was better equipped, with a solid rear recovery eye.
The Outlander was one of the better-designed 2003 softroaders and came with metal protection plates over the engine and transmission sumps. The rear suspension lower control arms were also more solidly made than most others.
However, the Outlander needed its recovery points enhanced and additional protection for the exhaust system and the rear propshaft.
The exhaust pipe ran under the rear diff, where it was likely to get squashed if the vehicle bellied on a rock shelf.
The baby Mitsubishi was fitted with two sturdy recovery eyes up front: one welded to a central ‘spine’ pressing and the other to the frontal crash protection tube. Problem was that neither could be used on our test vehicle, because the plastic air dam/grille moulding was in the way. If we had used the points with a snatch strap we’d certainly have caused expensive damage to the front of the vehicle.
At the back the Outlander had two lightweight tie-downs – not real recovery points.
The X-Trail was one of the lightest-built 2003 softroaders and the worst-protected underneath. The engine sump and lower block were vulnerable, as was the air conditioning compressor that was bolted to the bottom half of the block. The exhaust elbow led with its chin.
The front wishbones were aluminium – great for weight saving but we all know that cracks form in scarred aluminium. The rear suspension arms were very lightly made.
The muffler was right in the belly angle and needed protection.
The X-Trail was kitted out the same as the Tribute, with a pair of lightweight tie downs up front and a solid recovery eye at the rear end.
The Subaru underbody reflected Fuji Heavy Industries’ many years of making bush-tolerant vehicles, but the lack of proper recovery points and the use of a plastic engine tray were disappointing factors. However, the transmission was well protected by heavy steel pressings.
The rear suspension control arms were located out of the way of rock shelves, but the muffler needed additional protection.
Subaru has gradually ‘softened’ its vehicle lineup in the years since the Touring Wagon and the Brumby were kings and it was disappointing to find only a pair of lightweight tie downs up front and a single recovery eye at the rear end.
The RAV had a short front overhang that helped keep the engine and transmission out of harm’s way, but the engine sump and the catalytic converter needed further protection.
The exhaust pipe ran under the rear diff, where it was squashable and the lower control arms were vulnerable to rock damage.
Despite its compact size the RAV4 ran on the second heaviest load-rated tyres.
The RAV4 came with a pair of front tie downs that were more robust than the other tie downs, if not quite up to recovery eye specifications. The rear end was fitted with a robust recovery eye.
The best solution for improving softroader recoverability is to opt for a metal under-engine belly plate, with sturdy hooks at its leading edge. This addition improves sump and transmission protection at the same time.
The tyres fitted to our entire softroader sextet were highway oriented, with the highest load index being the RAV4’s 100. All the other tyres were rated below the 100 mark – passenger car territory. For comparison a 10-ply-rated light truck tyre has a 120 load index.
Before heading Outback on Australia’s stony bush roads in any of these vehicles we’d recommend a tyre change, to light truck rubber.
Packing it in (and on)
Putting a bush trip load into these compact softies wasn’t easy and ‘thinking thin’ was the rule of thumb. Don’t forget that the payload rating of these vehicles covered everything you put into or onto them – people, luggage, camping gear, fuel, fridge, food, beverages and water.
They all travelled better on a bush trip if they were just two-up, with the back seats taken out or folded and a cargo barrier installed behind the front seats.
If people went four-up it’s most likely they needed to tow a trailer.
The four-cylinder Tribute scored a 90 kg payload rating boost over its six-cylinder relos, but it was still only a meagre 473 kg. The roof rack capacity was a tiny 44 kg, making it likely that people didn’t bother to buy a roof rack for a bush trip.
Towing capacity was a legal maximum 750 kg unbraked and 1000 kg in the case of a braked trailer.
The Outlander had a limited payload of 470 kg, including an 80 kg roof rack capacity.
The Outlander’s cargo space was quite useful, if noticeably narrower than the X-Trail’s.
Only average engine outputs made the Outlander’s trailer ratings of 750 kg/1500 kg, braked/unbraked, quite realistic.
The X-Trail’s light construction and relatively low tare weight gave it a reasonable payload capacity of 560 kg, of which 100 kg could sit on the roof.
The X-Trail’s boxy shape gave it a very useful cargo space and its grunty engine could pull the rated trailer loads of 750 kg (unbraked) and 2000 kg (braked).
The Subaru had a good payload capacity of 533 kg and with its strong engine could pull trailers up to its rated capacity of 1400 kg.
Low roof height made a Forester roof rack easier to load than was the case with most softroaders. The roof rack rating was a useful 80 kg.
The little Toyota had the lowest cargo floor height in the softroader business, making loading and unloading a breeze. Despite its compact size the RAV4’s payload capacity was a very respectable 565 kg.
The RAV4’s roof rack capacity was 100 kg and trailer towing capacity was 750 kg/1500 kg.
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