The auto industry can be a curious thing––many manufacturers are nervous about making big changes or trying out new ideas that might result in financial losses. But, once a company does try something innovative or interesting that proves to be a success or has potential interest from customers, then they’re quick to start playing catch-up and provide some competition. For instance, consider the idea of a family-focused SUV that’s designed for going off-road. Is there much desire for such a thing? And if so, is it enough to really sustain a segment in the market for more than a few years?
I’d suggest that the answers are yes and yes. Some would argue that the Land Rover Discovery helped invent the very concept of a family vehicle that was engineered for the trail. It remains a popular option, but it is hardly alone in this segment and is one of many SUVs that are perfect for large families that have a taste for adventure. It’s easy to focus on practical family vehicles and SUVs built for daily living––those things are always going to sell––but I think it’s worth celebrating the fact that there are so many unique and interesting models designed for a market that risk-averse company executives might not believe even exists.
What Is a Family-Focused Off-Road SUV?
I suppose in order to best answer the question I’ve posed––though, to be honest, I already have a bit––it’s important to establish what we’re talking about. There are plenty of off-road SUVs on the market—along with trucks, they’re the most common vehicles you’ll find on the trail—but they’re not all what I’d call family-focused. A lot of off-road vehicles are designed with the trail as the primary consideration, and everything else comes second. This is where you get numerous vehicles that are great for going off-road, but their suspensions and engineering make them pretty unpleasant for your daily commute and routine driving.
When I talk about a family-focused off-road SUV, I mean a vehicle that can absolutely tear up the trail but is also reliable, satisfying to drive throughout the week, and functional for a family. They don’t all have to be massive vehicles, but they do need to be able to work for what the market would generally consider a family: three or more people. No one’s going to call a Corvette family-focused because most families can’t even fit in it. A family-focused off-road SUV needs a spacious interior, comfortable seating, functional design, and a great ride on both the trail and the highway. It needs to be a vehicle you can use to drop off the kids on Wednesday and then splash through a creek on Saturday without missing a beat.
6 Popular Off-Road Family SUVs
Now, to answer the question I posed in the title of this piece: yes, there’s absolutely a market for family-friendly SUVs that can take on challenging off-road trails. I’m not just talking about a comfortable family SUV that will get you to a popular campground; I mean something that can really leave civilization behind. To prove this point, because you shouldn’t just take my word for it, consider how many popular models there are that beautifully fit this category.
#1 – Land Rover Discovery
One of the earliest examples of what I’d consider a family-focused off-road SUV, the Land Rover Discovery first hit the scene in the UK in 1989. It was based on the high-end Range Rover and was introduced as a more affordable option making it perfect for families. At the same time, it used the same chassis, suspension, and four-wheel drive system as the Range Rover, making it perfect for going off-road. We didn’t get the Discovery here in the United States until 1994, but it’s remained a popular option ever since.
#2 – Subaru Outback Wilderness
First introduced for the 1995 model year, the Subaru Outback started its life as an off-road version of the Subaru Legacy station wagon. Eventually, Subaru dropped “Legacy” from the name and began selling this SUV as simply the Subaru Outback. In general, it’s a good option for an adventurous, family-friendly SUV. However, the new Wilderness trim goes even further and is the perfect choice for not only going outdoors but doing some serious off-roading.
#3 – Ford Explorer Timberline
Ford offers a wide range of SUVs, but the Explorer is the perfect example of a family-focused model with its midsize crossover design. First introduced for the 1991 model year, it was available here in the US before the Discovery, even though the Land Rover model was technically released first. The Explorer is an all-around good SUV, but the new Timberline trim is a particularly fine choice for going off-road. Ford offers its off-road-focused Timberline option on several SUV models, including the Explorer and Expedition, which illustrates how many different options drivers want for off-road family vehicles.
#4 – Nissan Pathfinder
First available as a compact SUV starting in 1985, the Pathfinder has grown into a midsize crossover model and is a great example of this type of vehicle. The latest Pathfinder model has really leaned into its off-road capabilities with a new terrain-management system that Nissan calls Intelligent 4×4, which has seven different terrain settings. Along with this impressive off-road capability, the interior has all the amenities you could want, including large displays and seating for up to eight people.
#5 – Jeep Wrangler
I was tempted to not include the Wrangler because it’s generally designed as more of an off-road SUV than one with a family focus, but it’s so popular I couldn’t help myself. The modern Wrangler was introduced in 1986 as the spiritual successor to the classic Jeep CJ. Its iconic design includes a fold-down windshield, numerous convertible roof options, and removable doors. What has helped turn it into an option for families is the introduction of the Unlimited models starting in 2004, which have a longer wheelbase and have had four doors since 2007. Since these four-door models have become the top sellers among Wrangler buyers, I feel this reflects the ongoing demand for family-friendly SUVs to take off-road.
#6 – Ford Bronco
The latest vehicle to join this market, the current Ford Bronco was just released for the 2021 model year, though the name goes back to a popular SUV produced from the 1960s through the 1990s. In its modern incarnation, the Bronco is a direct competitor to the Wrangler and has a four-door option that makes it a great choice for practical use even with a growing family. It also happens to be one of the most impressive machines on the road for hitting the trail, with fantastic suspension, powerful engines, and innovative technology inside and out. The fact that it’s been sold out since essentially the moment it was announced speaks to just how popular this type of vehicle is.
Longevity in the Market and Ongoing Design
I think the massive success of the reinvigorated Ford Bronco is the perfect example of how popular this market is and how much demand there is for family-focused off-road SUVs. There will always be a need for SUVs that are only meant for functional use to get through the week and make sure everyone is safe, along with high-end models dripping with luxury for those who can afford them. But with the kind of SUVs we looked at today, you can see a fantastic combination of bold style, off-road engineering, and functional design that come together to create something useful for a wide range of families. And it’s clear that demand for such models isn’t going to diminish any time soon.