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Top Gear mag's greatest cars - off roaders

From farmyard refugee to essential accessory, the off-roader has come a long way

  1. For Top Gear magazine’s 300th issue, we celebrated the best 50 cars over 299 issues: here’s our pick of the best off-roaders

    ‘We’ve got the lot – every car is here in our great first issue.’ Back in October 1993, that was a ballsy cover-line and an unforgettable image, but now it looks like a dispatch from a parallel dimension.

     

    Here’s why. You have to count five rows back on that rammed cover image before you get to an SUV. It’s a first-gen Land Rover Discovery, the three-door with the stepped roof and stripes. Behind it is a Jeep Cherokee, only a Fiat Cinquecento’s width away from a Daihatsu Fourtrak. Remember that? Farmer’s vehicle, right? Searching beyond row six is akin to reading the Snellen chart at the optician’s, but you can make out a Jeep Wrangler, a Mitsubishi Shogun and an Isuzu Trooper. Good for towing horseboxes or boats. Bad at everything else. A decade or more after style commentator Peter York first wrote about Sloane Rangers, only the original Range Rover – by now a superannuated 23-year-old – had designs on something grander than mere utility. Who would have guessed that this very aspiration would be one of the defining narratives of the next 23 years.

  2. It would take a while to unfurl, though. When BMW bought the Rover group in 1994, it was Land Rover (and Mini) the company grandees really wanted. Everyone loved the Defender (now more than ever, weirdly). R&D boss Wolfgang Reitzle also sensed potential in the Range Rover’s singular sense of purpose, although BMW arrived too late to do much about the P38A iteration. When Ford bought JLR in ’99, Reitzle left BMW to run the group’s premier division (PAG, including Volvo and Aston Martin, is ancient history now), and sank more than £1bn into 2002’s all-new Range Rover.

    Some numbers: in 1996, Land Rover sold 125,222 cars worldwide. Last year, it shifted 434,583. There’s the SUV boom in a nutshell. The Discovery also came of age, and we’d nominate 2004’s third-generation car as a definitive piece of contemporary automotive design. Its architectural surfaces hid a vehicle of monumental off-road ability and such a supremely relaxed on-road character that it became the de facto 21st-century family car – and not necessarily one that lived in a Wiltshire manor house or had an SW3 postcode. Inevitably, LR gentrified the Disco as it evolved and improved the quality, but even now a well-used LR3 is one of those classless cars that makes a serious case for itself – even if it does weigh a ridiculous 2.7 tonnes, and can do things few owners will ever ask of it.

    In fact, the corpulence of modern SUVs, in tandem with their increasing ubiquity, soon made them hate figures for the Left and environmentalists. It would be remiss of us not to mention current London Assembly member and Green Party activist Sian Berry, whose anti-SUV campaigning – remember the fake parking tickets? – briefly made her a household name in the mid-Noughties. She’s got other things on her mind now, but one wonders what she’d make of the SMMT’s current stats: in 2016, UK SUV sales were up 28 per cent year-on-year to 437,931, setting a new record in the process, and only superminis and small family vehicles eclipse them in the public’s affections. You can decide if this is progress or not: you’re buying the things… Other milestones? Porsche’s Cayenne v1.0 was iffy, but bankrolled the 911’s continued brilliance. BMW’s first X5 has faded somewhat in the collective memory, and time has been unkind to its Frank Stephenson-designed shape. Back in 1999, though, the X5 was practically revolutionary. Although the Mercedes M-Class was a year earlier to market, BMW’s inaugural SUV was also the first to emphasise the “sport” part of the acronym, and actually delivered a modicum of handling as a result (primarily because it was a jacked-up 5 Series Touring).

  3. I remember driving one off-road for a sequence in a TV programme, and it was way better than I expected. It also benefited from BMW’s magnificent engine range. In some respects, the X5 got sillier as it developed – not least because it birthed the pointless X6 – but the first generation was a commercial groundbreaker. It was also a great car.

    That’s certainly not something you can say for all the SUVs we’ve tested in the past 23 years. TG has always celebrated left-field thinking and innovation, and too many 4x4s have cravenly played to the caprice of the car-buying public. Or the less appealing outposts of modern society: if anyone can explain the point of high-performance SUVs, do get in touch.

    However, we’ll give the last word to a car that pre-dates the magazine, and indeed the whole modern SUV phenomenon. Fiat’s Panda 4x4 first appeared in 1983, with a drivetrain supplied by Austrian manufacturer/ supplier Steyr-Puch. Chances are, you’ll still spot one gambolling up an Italian hillside even now (in issue 239, Tom Ford found one on Mount Etna that had done 235,000 miles on its original engine). Although the latest iteration, the Panda Cross, has corrupted the template with its, gulp, “lifestyle” aspirations, it still manages to be one thing most modern SUVs absolutely aren’t: unpretentious.

  4. Land Rover Defender

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    There’s something earthy about the Land Rover Defender, like it’s part of the very soil of Britain 

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    Ruthlessly fit for purpose, if that purpose is traversing pretty much anything nature can throw at it. A new one is coming… it’ll never be the same

  5. Fiat Panda 4x4

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    This little, £15k hatchback has taken us further than any of the big, expensive SUVs could possibly have hoped 

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    The formula hasn’t changed, because it was perfect in the first place: four-wheel drive, no weight, affordability and none of the stigma attached to actual SUVs

  6. Land Rover Discovery 3

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    It’s an awesomely impressive car, designed and engineered to a degree you would only rarely find on a German car 10 years ago 

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    Looking back, the point where Land Rover’s utilitarian vibe intersected with its plusher, more upmarket aspirations to perfection

  7. BMW X5

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    It’s easy to forget what a game-changer this car was. Mainly because it actually was a car, and handled like one 

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    The styling hasn’t aged well, but drive one and the talent is obvious. Stonking set of engines, too

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