Of the two and a half million cars currently on Scottish roads, around half a million of them have off-road capability, if not full-scale four wheel drive, and yet many of them are unlikely to ever get their tyres dirty.
It seems we like the sense of security that comes from some degree of go-anywhere ability should we head for the hills or find ourselves caught in a big dump of snow. The raised ride height of the bigger SUVs is appreciated by many and the general feeling of being in a safer big box goes down well with owners with young families.
But dig deeper into the sales figures and you’ll find there’s more to it. While sales of big SUVs have remained steady in spite of predictions of their demise for many years, the biggest increases have been in crossovers – lookalike SUVs which often have only front or rear wheel drive – and compact four-by-fours like the remarkable Fiat Panda 4x4 and the test car, the wee Suzuki Swift 4x4. They both combine low purchase and running costs with that extra little element of admittedly low power to all four wheels which allows it to take on minor challenges like wet grass, a covering of snow or muddy tracks.
In the case of the Suzuki, there’s a simple, fully automatic and permanent four wheel drive system which transfers extra power to the rear wheels when it’s needed in slippery conditions or to help with cornering.
At its heart is a viscous coupling containing silicon fluid which acts as a centre differential between front and rear axles. Increased friction in demanding conditions heats the fluid and allows two metal plates to lock and transfer power to all four wheels.
It’s all a bit technical for me but what matters is the effect it creates. Obviously it’s not designed for tackling really rough stuff but, for everyday use in a range of conditions and for added security over the winter months, the Swift 4x4 is a great value compact alternative to a conventional SUV-sized vehicle.
With ground clearance of 140mm, it has a slightly raised ride height over the standard saloon to allow for rougher surfaces, but I was a bit concerned to see how low and seemingly vulnerable the rear differential was to damage from rocks even on modest tracks.
The SZ4 specification test car had a beefier appearance with front and rear skid plates, black wheel arch extensions and black side skirts, and both that and the cheaper SZ3 spec have 4x4 badges as the only other clue that this is something different from the standard model.
For even greater security during winter months, cold weather tyres are also available and Suzuki run a programme where they’ll supply them on steel wheels for £130 each and, for a charge of £30, they’ll change the complete set and store the others for you when not being used.
The whole car weighs only 65kg more than the standard model and consumption is only 5mpg higher.
Suzuki claims to be the fastest-growing top 20 brand in Britain and is outselling the likes of Mazda and Volvo. Its current VAT-free deal – which runs till the end of June – has been very tempting to existing Micra, Punto and Fiesta owners who can immediately save more than £2,000 and helps account for the big rise in sales last year, when more than 11,000 Swifts took to Britain’s roads.
Overseas it has earned more than 60 Car of the Year awards in 19 countries and is the fastest-selling model in the company’s history. The 4x4 has been on the market only since the tail end of last year but already it has clocked up sales in the UK of more than 700 so far and is likely to hit 1,000 in a full year, which is way ahead of expectations.
You could say the 4x4 has scaled new heights.
Car Suzuki Swift 1.2 litre SZ4 4x4 5 door
Price £13,116 (+VAT after 30 June)
Engine 1.2-litre petrol, 4 cyl, 92bhp, 87 lb ft
Performance Max speed 103 mph; 0-62 mph 13.4 secs
Economy 51 mpg