This is a particularly special issue; or rather, this is an issue of Specials. We are taking a look at the fascinating world of bespoke 4x4s, built for those people who want, and can afford, something very different. Now, while taste will always be somewhat subjective, engineering and build quality is far more objective and there’s no doubt that the vehicles we are reporting about this month score highly with the latter. Maybe some of the models will upset the traditionalists, especially Land Rover fans, but to be honest, I quite enjoy doing that! Kahn Design’s long-nose Land Rover Huntsman on this month’s front cover looks just terrific to us, but maybe not to some members of the Series I Club!
We are also very pleased this month to be able to reveal the latest concept vehicles produced by Jeep, intriguingly produced by a group called the Jeep Underground. Although something that has been done before, this is actually the first time in the last few years that Jeep has released such a collection – an indication of its growing confidence, thanks to an impressive new collection of production vehicles. And for vehicles that have been called ‘concepts’, they are pretty close to being production realities, or at least special builds. Obviously the Renegade, Cherokee and Grand Cherokee models that we report on could be produced, as they are all based on standard vehicles with Mopar accessories, but even the more outrageous models all drive and work as they should. Even if you are not a great fan of military 4x4s, you have to say that the Wrangler Staff Car would put a smile on your face, although not perhaps a replica US Marine helmet on your head while driving it. The Search and Rescue Wrangler would make a lot of sense, and while the window-less Chief SUV is completely barmy, you must admit that it made you smile! Imagine cruising on a sunny day with the Beach Boys ‘Surf’s Up’ on the radio (younger readers need to check out iTunes, although for proper audio excellence it has to be the vinyl original).
Given the boyish good looks and youthful sparkle of the photograph on this page, it may surprise some to realise that I have been around the block a few times; quite a few trips while travelling in a Modified vehicle, as it happens. A lot of these Modifieds have actually been of the performance, or motorsport, persuasion, starting with the humble Mini. I still have a small paperback book called Tuning The Mini, written by a guy called Clive Trickey. It was actually the third edition, published in 1972 and the first time it had been produced was way back in 1966. I always felt that the guy should go into business running a garage called Trickey Modifications, but I’m not sure that ever happened. He was, however, one of the first to recognise the less than perfect quality of the casting of the cylinder head for the, then relatively new, A-Series engine in the Mini. Attacking the head with grinding bits and emery paper he improved the whole thing, significantly improved the power output and got us enthusiasts to use words like ‘porting’ and ‘gas flow’ as if we were real engineers. Like thousands of young would-be racers, I bought a set of grinding bits, borrowed my dad’s electric drill and attacked the lump of British steel on my ‘bog standard’ Mini’s engine, making everything look nice and shiny. Bolted back on the engine, and on my first test run through the lanes in Norfolk, I was convinced that the power output of the wheezy knackered old unit had been greatly improved. Of course, the Mini went even quicker when I later spray-painted it lime green (a standard Renault colour if I remember) with a matching matt black roof. Lowering the seat, adding a throttle pedal extension. There were no limits to my modification abilities…
Last month we enjoyed our drive in one of the original modern SUVs, the Suzuki Vitara; in our view, one of the most significant SUVs ever produced, a model that started a whole new genre of ‘lifestyle’ 4x4s. Intriguing, therefore, this month we have been able to drive in the UK what is quite possibly an equally significant, but this time brand new, SUV – the Jeep Renegade. This fresh new small 4x4 could, in this writer’s view, become the most significant SUV of the decade. At a time when we are regularly bemoaning the fact that SUV manufacturers are watering down the off-road abilities of their latest models, Jeep is taking a different tack. Yes, you can get a Renegade that just has the simple on-demand four-wheel drive system – indeed, you can even get two-wheel drive models – but you can also get a full-fat Trail Rated version with the highly efficient Terrain-Selec system, which even includes a Rock crawl mode, coupled to a superb nine speed automatic. For once, having the basic option does not dilute the brand, thanks to the Trailhawk option available for those who still value a decent 4x4 system. Of course, there are no transfer levers to struggle with, but there is Low Range. Yes it is electronically selectable, and thanks to the very clever automatic gearbox, hill descents and hill start assists perhaps need less actual driving ability and rather more techniques honed by computer gamers and the tablet generation, but this is 2015 after all. That we enjoyed our beach drive over the rocks and through the soft sand on a superb private beach in Scotland, was enough. In fact, it was more than enough, it was terrific! Check out page 24 for more.
Rapidly developing technology is a fact of life. Everything gets more sophisticated, and more mind-bendingly baffling. You see youngsters using tablets while still strapped in pushchairs. Of course, it’s not for them to reflect on how all this stuff actually works, they just accept this technology as ‘normal’. Quizzical reflection and head shaking is left to us mature members of society, who can remember the world before everything became digital. Now, before you get the idea that this is going to be a ‘grumpy ol’ man’ rant, let me confess that the latest 4x4 technology absolutely fascinates me. As regular readers will know, this magazine proudly covers the very latest developments of companies like Jaguar Land Rover; we are often astonished learning what is now possible. We have visited that company’s Virtual Reality Cave in the design department and stood slack-jawed in our 3D-glasses, completely amazed at what is now possible. Absolutely brilliant. However, there are times to reflect…
Well, who would have thought? While this is the time of year when many 4x4s are purchased by people seemingly caught by surprise that the winter months mean poor weather and difficult driving conditions, meaning 4x4 sales rise dramatically, finding the Volkswagen Touareg as top of the second-hand sales league table is still something of a surprise. The claim is made by the respected Glass’s Guide, the largest vehicle data provider in Europe, traditionally ‘the book’ that keeps tabs on all UK second-hand vehicle prices. According to these guys, the Touareg was top, with the Skoda Yeti also in the ‘hot five’ fastest selling cars in January. Our decision to have the VW Touareg as the Buying Guide for this issue can therefore be considered as an example of how we have our editorial finger firmly on the pulse of 4x4 second-hand sales in the UK, or merely a coincidence. We will let you decide on that one.
There’s no denying, however, that the Touareg – especially the earlier models – is an excellent, large, family, off-roader. My memory of turning the ignition key on an early V10 model is still strong. Come on, a V10 diesel engine in a family SUV! Astonishing. Rupert Pontin, head of valuations at Glass’s Guide describes the Touareg as offering “fantastic build quality, superb engines, great handling and subtle looks. This is the thinking man’s Porsche Cayenne.” We’re not quite so sure of the last bit, but agree with the rest, especially the ‘subtle looks’. To support this month’s Buying Guide, we have also been able to drive the very latest model (First Drive on page 26) and one thing that disappoints is the way that the design has morphed into looking like every other VW. One amusing, and surprisingly accurate, description of the design of the latest Touareg is that it looks like a ‘bloated Passat’.