Play in and play out as a jury for the “Cel mai 4×4” competition in Romania image

Being an automotive journalist certainly has its perks – we get to know all the latest news about the auto industry ahead of anyone else – and we also get to “play” with most cars and SUVs.

And with the latter segment being the top dog around the world, there’s little wonder there are numerous dedicated events – such as the “Cel mai 4×4” (“best 4×4”) in Romania, the country that has given us one of the top SUVs in the subcompact segment and is also home to one of our offices. While this was our first participation as members of the jury for the off-roader and SUVs competition, it’s actually with big tradition in the country – having reached its 17th consecutive edition. And it’s one event that could easily compete with others organized by major automakers – from the little details through the on-road and off-road courses. Since this was a competition that required the presence of automotive journalists, the atmosphere was also relaxed – we all know what to do and what not to do in order to keep everything safe and fun. And the latter part was easily ensured by the variety of the models that participated – we had everything from budget SUVs like the Dacia Duster and Suzuki SX4 to iconic off-roaders like the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon or the Land Rover Discovery to pickup trucks.

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Since we’re dealing with so many types of vehicles, they were all divided into more than one category – there were prizes awarded for the SUV area (where the most participants were, naturally), for the luxury SUVs, for off-roaders and for the pickup trucks. In case you didn’t know, the country that was put on Europe’s automotive map by Dacia and Ford’s investment at Craiova (not to mention Mercedes’ gearbox factory or the suppliers that are present here) has been described by Top Gear (the old one, with those bonkers guys) as having one of the best roads in the world – the Transfagarsan. While we didn’t play on the on-road course there, the country has lots of other interesting and scenic routes thanks to its geography that has it all – from the plains, to mountain roads to the seaside. Our route was deep in the Carpathian Mountains, the on-road course riddled with short bursts of go flat out areas followed by hairpins and ending up at a very picturesque barrage. No one fell in but we did get a taste of how these small or large SUVs and crossovers fared on the roads that about 90 percent of the owners will never leave. Of course, the SUV category would have easily won the competition on its own if this was the main coarse – but in all honesty, this was the appetizer for the second day, when all vehicles were subjected to the off-road course.

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We’re used to this kind of stuff – but we nevertheless love every occasion to test SUVs and off-roaders outside the tarmac – once this was their main area of expertise. While things change – hopefully for the best – we urge anyone to try at least once the experience of off-roading. We only urge you to do that in organized conditions – even easier courses can become treacherous if you’re alone in the wilderness with no cell coverage. Thus – even if you’re using the family SUV for mild off-roading, our recommendation is to at least leave your planned route to someone you trust that will alert the authorities in case of an emergency. The best way to experience it though is when more than one vehicles are involved – this way you can lend assistance on the spot, and of course the experience is better when more people are involved. No problems for the competition – both the SUV and off-roading course (separate, naturally) were pre-visited and planned in advance (which is the best-case scenario). Here the SUVs had to tackle the usual scenario – leave the tarmac for an unpaved, sometimes riddled with holes road – this is something people will do on occasion with the family crossover, as escapes in the nature with these vehicles are not only possible, but also recommended. The competitors here were a mixed class case – we had the Suzuki SX4, Dacia Duster, Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Nissan X-Trail, Peugeot 3008 and the Renault Kadjar. The winner for the category was the Japanese samurai – Suzuki SX4 – which is a good fit for the Romanian market, still an emerging economy. The local hero – the Duster in the Explorer limited series – was also close, but its age is starting to show. Meanwhile, I was particularly impressed with the Peugeot 3008 – even though it lacked all-wheel drive it was still a close match to its AWD competitors in the “dirt” (don’t subject it to grass though…) and was outstanding in terms of comfort on and off-road as well as NVH (noise, vehicle, harshness). The brothers proved that cross-sharing of platforms can deliver close results – the Kadjar and X-Trail were almost matched, with a slight advantage for the French model which is younger, and the same can be said about the Tucson and Sportage.

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Meanwhile, the off-roaders had their own course, and that one involved it all, climbs and descends, on rocks, grass and even muddy areas. Embarking on such a journey will make you understand why some people like off-roading more than high speed track racing – you get high doses of adrenaline in a serene environment and technical prowess is not dependent on the speed with which you tackle corners – you can go as slow as 5 mph (8 kph) and still get loads of thrills. We also have an advice here – in this case practice makes perfect, so don’t go for full off-roading until you have enough experience with soft-roading because it would be like exchanging you family MPV for a proper supercar, chances are you’ll first end up in a ditch or wrapped around a pole. But with the proper level of experience the off-road track can become a great adventure – and even if you lack the necessary skills you can always run shotgun. The off-road course made all vehicles in the class prove their worth – the participants were the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Land Rover Discovery, as well as the Isuzu D-Max and Volkswagen Amarok pickup trucks. Case in point, the overall off-road competition was easily won by the icon – the Wrangler Rubicon can trail virtually everywhere with just the low gears – no need to fiddle with the rest of the mechanical aids until the going gets seriously tough. Impressive enough was the Renegade Trailhawk – though it’s not going to take you very far because of the electronic gear redactor or the lower ride height. The Land Rover Discovery and the Jeep Grand Cherokee can pretty much handle anything you throw at them – save for a very narrow course where their dimensions will put them at a disadvantage. The luxury category was championed by the Grand Cherokee, though I would have personally (and attributed the points) selected the new Disco – which is choke full of tech goodies and feels like a new generation off-roader. While the pickup trucks are mostly for work, Volkswagen’s Amarok has shown there’s a niche to be handled here as well – and Mercedes is among the first to react with the upcoming X-Class. No wonder the Amarok won, given its effortless comfort and 4Motion capabilities. Until next year we recommend you experience the joys of off-roading in a safe and controlled environment.