Only a 4x4 is tough enough for a reader who has to tackle both rough Yorkshire terrain and the autoroutes of France

Andrew Bennett is a 58-year-old semi-retired schools inspector living in a small village in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales. Occasional snow and ice, increasingly frequent flooding, 25 per cent hills and country lanes make a 4x4 more of a necessity than a luxury. Andrew needs a comfortable, well-equipped car for himself and his wife, with reasonable space, which will also get them to their flat in Provence. He currently has a Golf 4 Motion, whose ground clearance is no better – in fact, marginally worse – than a standard hatchback.

Here's proof that a motorist really does need four-wheel drive. It is possible to do without, and many country-dwellers I know managed with an MOT-borderline Austin Maxi when all the incomers were arriving in Range Rovers. But to get around safely, tackle the sort of obstacles and do the sort of distances that Andrew proposes, he certainly needs four-wheel drive.

First of all, it is worth remembering that although most vehicles now have a permanent four-wheel system, rarely are all four wheels driven (but see "A car for the head", below). That's because power is fed only to the wheels that actually need it at the time. So when the going gets truly tough and the electronic systems sense that a wheel is losing grip, then it gets enough drive to get the vehicle out of trouble. So four-wheel drive can be very good indeed and most of the time it really isn't killing the planet.

Andrew raises a great point about ground clearance because it is useless having all that ability if the floor of the vehicle gets snagged on the ground or some other obstacle, so this has to be a priority. That means we won't be choosing another Golf.

A car for the head

Interestingly, though, Volkswagen has just announced its entry into this marketplace. The Tiguan is actually based on the Golf and has the same four-wheel-drive system as the 4Motion, which Andrew already finds more than adequate. The Tiguan's 4Motion system, like the four-wheel-drive hardware of most of its rivals, isn't split 50/50 all the time. Where the Tiguan differs is that it is full-time four-wheel drive, so its off-road ability is impressive, but on the road it is pretty good too. There are two high-power engines, which are low in fuel consumption: the 1.4 TSI petrol and a 2.0 TDI diesel. The interior is of a high quality and virtually identical to the Golf Plus. What is new about it is the infotainment system, which has a more user-friendly touch-screen interface than in other current Volkswagens. Rear seat space is good and the seat splits 60/40 and slides forwards or backwards to play boot space off against rear seat room. The boot has a flat floor and neat touches such as a tow-bar release hidden in the top of the bumper. Prices start at £19,370 and go to £22,500.

A car for the heart

Arguably the best on-road four-wheel-drive vehicle that also has a decent amount of ground clearance is the Honda CR-V. Trouble is, the latest CR-V, which was introduced last year, is not pretty. That may not bother Andrew, but both this car and the Tiguan are tuned for comfy on-road performance rather than mud-plugging off-road. On the basis that Andrew may not want to spend £20,000 on a new Tiguan, I would argue that the previous-generation Honda would be more than adequate and better value. With the CR-V, the four-wheel drive works only when needed; otherwise it is a front-wheel-drive vehicle.

The CR-V 2.2 diesel is strong and delivers around 42mpg; the more refined 2.0 petrol manages 31mpg. Inside is the usual commanding driving position with comfy seats and the biggest cabin compared with any rival 4x4 of its size in its time. The boot is big enough even before you start folding the seats. Importantly, the rear seats slide to give more or less boot or rear leg room. For £12,000 it is possible to find a 2005 model at a Honda dealer with 17,000 miles and a decent warranty.

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