The simple joys of driving a car off-r oad are more accessible than you imagine. With the right techniques, this could become y our new hobby.
One in three cars sold globally is some sort of SUV. They are the kind of cars that, to some extent, are capable of going off-road. However, the last ten years have witnessed a new breed of car called the Soft Roader or Crossover which is based on a hatchback, looks like it might be capable off-road, but isn’t. These are hugely popular as well.
Now, a lot of people own proper off-road cars such as Jeeps, Range Rovers and Land Cruisers but never take them off-road.
In this piece, we’re going to show you that off-road driving is really easy, enjoyable, accessible and the fact that you don’t need locking differentials and low-range gearboxes to enjoy an SUV off-road.
Enter the BMW X1 XDrive20d M Sport. This is the car you’re least likely to buy if you have any intentions of driving off-road. It’s a proper Soft Roader that’s based on a MINI Countryman. It’s mostly front-wheel-drive with power sent to the back wheels when it senses that the fronts are losing grip. For crossing the desert or a jungle, this isn’t the car we’d recommend.
Now, this X1, like all the other Soft Roaders, was designed to work in normal conditions, i.e., cities, highways, mountain roads and all the other places you would use any other type of car. It has all the creature comforts you’d expect of a car that costs almost 40 lakhs (ex-showroom) like a panoramic sunroof, two-zone climate control BMW’s iDrive, electric seats, et al. It has packed the rafters with safety kit as well that includes several airbags, ABS with EBD Traction Control, ESP and various other systems to stop you from crashing.
Under the bonnet, you’ll find BMW’s familiar 2.0 turbodiesel engine with direct injection that puts out 188bhp and 400Nm of torque. This is coupled to ZF’s 8-speed automatic gearbox with a Sport mode which makes it shift gears faster.
Its tiny footprint means that it’s very convenient to drive in the city. You never feel overwhelmed by the size or think twice before trying to squeeze into a gap. And on the highway, it feels calm, settled and sharp to your inputs with a very small margin for error. You’d think that this would make it tiring but it doesn’t. You find yourself just being more progressive than usual with smaller and slower inputs. And the X1 rewards this with precise changes of direction and reveals its progressive nature.
So far then, none of this actually screams off-road monster. The only semi off-roaderish feature is the Hill Descent Control. With this, you can preset a speed that you want the car to be limited to while going downhill and it will apply the brakes accordingly to keep it at that speed.
This got us worried as we made our way to Goa from Mumbai. We kept thinking that we might not be able to take it off-road at all; that it may not have the capability. And that’s when it hit us – as I write this, Goa is in the peak of its off-season, so there are only a handful of tourists. That means we could have the beaches to ourselves! And beaches, for cars like the X1 and for beginner off-road drivers, are excellent. We got lucky because the beach we found was not only empty, but it had just rained so the sand was firm. That meant less changes of the car bogging down.
So what follows is a series of tips and tricks for off-road driving that you can try in your SUV at your nearest beach. NOTE: Please take permission from the local authorities first.
Most SUVs have an automatic gearbox which means that the software decides how much acceleration to give based on the position of your foot on the accelerator. This means that your inputs should be smooth and steady. The best thing you can do is to push the accelerator about 10-15 per cent and keep your foot there and let it work out how much power to give you. This will make sure your progress is smooth and controlled.
Always hold the steering at a quarter to three position with your thumbs outside the wheel. This ensures you don’t injure your thumbs in case the wheel bucks and gives you maximum control. When you steer, do so smoothly under acceleration or braking as this helps change direction better.
Your braking needs to gentle or the car will dig itself into the sand and get stuck. It is imperative that you plan your braking and do so gently because panic braking tends to be abrupt and can unsettle the car.
Looking where you’re going
This may sound simple enough but it helps to trace the route you want to take through the sand before you take it. Make sure there aren’t too many large obstacles in the way and follow the route at a steady pace. If you are going to deviate, repeat the process; trace another route.
Oh no! I’ve got stuck
You’ll get stuck on a beach if you spin the tyres and dig a hole under them. Not to worry. Sometimes, the easiest thing to do is to reverse the car out. This works most of the time. Turn your steering wheel enough so it comes in contact with the sand and gently ease yourself out of the hole.
If that doesn’t work, you should find a rock, a piece of
how your car is behaving underneath you. Get to grips with what kind of inputs are giving you what kind of results.
The beach is a great place to start your new off-road driving hobby. All you need is a car that has some sort of four or all wheel drive and a few hours to spare on a Sunday morning. Happy off-roading!
Words: SIDHARTH SHAROTRI