The Off-Road Boom: Why New & Old Enthusiasts Alike Are Discovering the Joy of 4x4s
Whether you are an active participant in the hobby or just an observer of general automotive trends, you’ve probably noticed the off-roading boom that’s been happening over the last several years.
Need some evidence of this? It’s not hard to find. You could look at the explosion in aftermarket parts and upgrades aimed at those who drive everything from humble little Toyota RAV4s to Jeep Gladiator Rubicons.
You could look at the current vehicle offerings, where there have never been more options for those looking to take their vehicle off the beaten path.
It's a market that includes inexpensive but capable CUVs like the Subaru Crosstrek Wilderness and some of the priciest, most powerful off-roaders ever to leave an assembly line, in the form of the Ford's Raptor R or the Ram TRX.
There’s the overlanding craze, where kitted out Toyota 4Runners and and other 4x4s have become a form of ruggedized RV, loaded with gear and accommodations for long weekends in the wilds.
More Than Just a Trend
But what exactly is driving this boom in popularity? It’s not like 4x4s or the off-roading hobby are a new invention. Adventurous enthusiasts have been hitting trails and building up their vehicles for decades. It's only recently that popularity has reached a fever pitch.
I think one of the big answers lies in the changing face of the automotive enthusiast, and just as importantly the changing tastes of those enthusiasts as they age.
Like so many gearheads, I was obsessed with speed and performance when I was younger. I wanted the fastest car I could afford, a two-door car was cooler than a four-door car, and as far as ride height went, the lower the better. In a lot of ways that’s still how I see things.
But when you get older, get married and have kids it’s hard to enjoy vehicles in the same way you used to.
Many of the funnest street cars are inherently compromised. These days when I want to drive my C5 Corvette or Datsun 510, I can take my older son with me — but there’s no room for my wife or toddler-aged daughter to tag along.
And when it comes to our daily drivers, we are less tolerant of the cramped, stiff-riding, loud vehicles we used to drive happily. When you’ve got a family, four-doors and a sizable cargo area are the minimum requirements. Not to mention the whole safety thing...
Practical by Nature
I still enjoy my "hobby" performance cars a lot, particularly heading out to a track day with my friends. But that's an expensive and time-consuming endeavor at a time when free weekends are already at a premium.
Taking the cars out onto the local backroads is also fun, but you have to be very mindful of the risks and consequences. And with modern performance cars, it's hard and often impossible to actually enjoy their capabilities on public roads.
With 4x4s and off-roading, I've discovered they often just fit into your life better, and the hobby itself requires less compromise and less commitment to enjoy. And the ability to share the enjoyment with your family is priceless.
Think of it this way. A new Mustang might be a fun, awesome car, but that purchase can be hard to justify when you've got a couple kids to haul around. But what about a new four-door Bronco?
While serious adventurers might fantasize about all the survival and trail gear they can pack into their 4Runner or crew cab pickup — these vehicles also happen to make great family haulers and daily drivers. Even if you are hauling strollers and Costco loads most of the time.
With the occasional exception of poor fuel economy, most road-legal 4x4s are incredibly comfortable and easy to live with. And for someone who spent a lot of their life dodging potholes and going sideways over speedbumps in lowered cars, having meaty all-terrain tires, great suspension travel and ample ground clearance feels like cheat mode.
(Less) Need for Speed
If you're like me, you've probably found that when you get older you care a lot less about satisfying your need for speed — especially on the street.
And in the 4x4 world, an un-modified, even “underpowered” engine is entirely acceptable. The money you’d typically spend trying to boost horsepower can be used for other things.
What about getting out and enjoying your vehicle as it was meant to be? Again, off-roading opens up an entirely new world of possibilities when compared to traditional performance cars.
Yes, many 4x4 owners enjoy the challenge of intense off-roading, tackling expert trails and pushing the capabilities of their rig to the limit. But the casual, more accessible side of the hobby can be just as fun.
Auto Enthusiasm at Your Own Pace
Sometimes just heading out of the city, into nature and onto even the most basic off-road trails can be a cathartic experience. And you don’t even need triple-locked diffs, monster truck tires or an exo-skeleton roll cage to enjoy them.
Depending on where you live, trails and state parks can be found in abundance, including many explicitly devoted to off-road vehicles. And they usually cater to all types of rigs and driver skill levels, too.
I live in the state California, where emissions laws and other regulations make it notoriously difficult on car enthusiasts, yet the state is blessed with some of the best public lands and off-roading spots in the nation, from vast deserts to towering forests and even ocean-side dunes.
In fact, I still have trouble believing that off-roaders are legally and safely allowed to enjoy their vehicles this way.
This is all to say that I’m not surprised that off-reading has become so popular lately. And as someone who’s only recently dipped my toes into the world, I can easily see why so many have been won over by the hobby.
Many weekend racers and sports car owners already had a truck or SUV as a practical daily driver, and now that daily driver has become a gateway to an entirely different side of automotive enthusiasm.
Will I ever ditch my road and track-going performance cars completely? Unlikely. But I can speak with first-hand experience about the appeal of off-roading being undeniable. In fact, my biggest problem with the hobby is that I didn’t discover how great it was it earlier.
More From Driving Line
- Speaking of family off-roading, here are some tips for hitting the trail with your dogs in tow.