The quest for the ultimate all-round car: Happy on or off-road, stylish and comfortable
As are many who shoot and fish and are partial to a nice motor, I’m forever on the lookout for, but have never quite found, the perfect all-round car. The ‘saved’ page of my Autotrader app is testament to my restless search for a Grand Unified Theory of motoring.
There, you’ll find a hotchpotch virtual garage of sports cars, sports utility vehicles (SUVs), estates, pick-ups and hatchbacks. I fancy, at different times, a Lotus Elise or Jaguar XKR, an Alfa Stelvio or Porsche Macan, a Toyota Hilux or Bentley Continental GT. Round and round I go in delicious indecision.
Unlike the late Stephen Hawking and his colleagues at the Large Hadron Collider, I am nowhere near resolving my conundrum: combining these divergent horseless carriages into a horseless carriage for all seasons and reasons. Scientists may be on the cusp of uniting Newtonian and quantum physics in a theory of everything, but the search for the all-round motorcar — transport for the fieldsporting man or woman, who wishes to romp jauntily one day and yomp muddily the next — is a tougher proposition.
So went the drift of the chat with my pal Nick Zoll, as we yomped the chalky hills of his north Norfolk shoot, checking up on the stock of grey partridge (not bad, considering the weather) and testing the capabilities of a new special-edition Isuzu D-Max pick-up truck, the Huntsman. A limited-edition twin-cab, it’s been decked out as the quintessential shooting vehicle and named accordingly.
We were not convinced. It could cross the terrain all right. Certainly, there was nowhere on his shoot it wouldn’t go with disdainful ease. Indeed, there are few places on earth a D-Max won’t travel with disdainful ease: a vertical cliff-face, perhaps, or across the sea. Grouse moors should be no problem at all.
No, it wasn’t its cross-country abilities, so much as the style and comfort — or lack thereof. Twin-cab pick-ups are a fastgrowing sector of the marketplace. They are tax friendly compared with an SUV and increasingly equipped to compete for those sales, too. The Huntsman comes with such luxury items as electrically adjustable heated seats, climate control and Apple and Android connectivity. Mr Zoll remembered from his time running a fishing lodge in Patagonia that his Isuzus were sought after by guides on account of their comfort and easy drivability — they were preferred over the venerable Hilux.
However, a comfy-cushion cold war in the world of pick-ups has left the D-Max at the Spartan end of things, even next to the latest Hilux, let alone the convincingly car-like VW Amarok or Mercedes pick-ups. The engine felt crudely agricultural and, as a two-litre four-pot, was not a patch, thought Mr Zoll, on the three-litre units of old. The ride was so hard we wanted a ton of sand in the back. Yet there wasn’t any room for a ton of sand because — in its favour, as a true sporting motor — the Huntsman is equipped with lockable gun drawers in the load-bay.
I’m never entirely happy taking a gun into a pub, nor leaving it in the car as I nip into a shop for a pasty. A lockable gun drawer in the boot, therefore, is a fine idea. Except the Isuzu engineers must have had more than a single shotgun in mind. The entire floor of the load-bay is taken up with the gun-cupboard fitment, making it less useful for all the other things one wants a pick-up to do and begging the question of who needs so much ordnance. As it’s also available in a range of ‘stealthy’ hues, the Huntsman, we concluded, is rather more Alabama than Hampshire, more Taliban than Purdey.
So what would the perfect vehicle for all seasons be — SUV? Estate? A posher pick-up? And is there such a thing out there?
The obvious answer to the last question, I hear you clamour, is a Range Rover or Land Rover Discovery, as evidenced by the cavalcades of dark-hued iterations of these wagons on every farm and estate from September to January. We can’t argue with the numbers or the credentials. I drove the newest Discovery to France and back one November a year or two back and it would be hard to fault its performance — but for the ever-so-slightly overworked engine — as a go-anywhere car with room for passengers, dogs, gunslips and ammunition. The Range Rover is only more so, with knobs on: there’s nothing this side of a Bentley that’s quite so comfortable.
Of course, there’s a Bentley, too: the Bentayga, the sine qua non of imperious SUVs for those for whom a Range Rover doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Mr Zoll had driven one on a shooting trip to Spain and was effusive about its capabilities off-road and on.
Newly available as a Field Sports edition developed by Mulliner and Purdey, this version — complete with muddy-dog-resistant covers, lockable ammunition boxes and a gun case — is, perhaps, the ultimate shooting wagon, at least for those with a spare £200,000. The word is, however, that the ‘normal’ Bentayga is the better bet and a comparative bargain at only £130,500. No wonder I haven’t bought one.
Liquid capital aside, I’m not convinced by presidential SUVs as the cars for all seasons. That’s because at least one of my other seasons involves cornering in a spirited (safely and restrainedly spirited) fashion. I also prefer not looking as if I’ve just won an election. The modest attire of an estate car seems to fit most bills, especially if the motor handles tidily and can lift its skirts once in a while.
Aston Martin was on to the idea, if not the execution, of this all-rounder with the DB6 ‘shooting brake’ of 1970. It’s in the name, of course: since Edwardian times, the sporting man has yearned for a perfect machine to propel him quickly to fun on the moor. It’s also in the name ‘estate’: the places these types of cars were heading to as they left London on a Friday. Sadly, Aston’s version of perfection looked like a partially melted hearse and was never really tried again, until 2017, when a limited run of 99 shrink-wrapped Batmobiles sold out in seconds.
Thus it still falls to Audi and Mercedes to make the more affordable and available modern equivalents of the genuine shooting brake, complete with all-wheel drive and the ability to rise up on air suspension to navigate a rutted road or soggy field.
I’ve driven both — the Audi A6 Allroad launched this September and the Mercedes All-Terrain, first sold in 2017, and given a 2019 refresh — and they vie equally for first place. The Mercedes propelled me easily and gracefully to the dizzy heights of a Yorkshire moor and the Audi comfortably doubled as a workhorse, with an element — as I began a river-restoration project in a remote corner of Norfolk — of all the off-roading I ever need. Both are comfortable, svelte and swift, equally at home in the smartest driveway or the Tesco car park. All-Terrain or Allroad: all the car you’ll ever need, in my book.
Five more great sporting all-rounders
Honourable mention must go to the Skoda Kodiaq: the 4×4 SUV no one will think about, but which is a truly great car. Mind-bendingly spacious on the inside, compact and stylish from the outside. An all-rounder for the lateral thinker. From £27,660.
Rolls Royce Cullinan
In case the Bentley Bentayga is not quite enough motor for you, Rolls Royce makes an SUV, too: the Cullinan, billed as the ultimate SUV of all time and space. Nothing will get you to the top of a mountain in more opulent comfort. Or empty your wallet quite so thoroughly. From £264,000.
If you must buy a pick-up (and why not, because, nowadays, they’re more car-like than ever) you will not go far wrong with a Toyota Hilux. I drove the latest version all over New Zealand for three weeks and put a load of them in my Autotrader wish-list garage when I got home — enough said. £20,423.33.
Volkswagen Passat Alltrack
Volkswagen’s more humble allroad rival is the Passat Alltrack. VW has been building the Passat since about 1066 mostly because — like the Golf — it’s a very, very good car. The Alltrack is a beefed-up, all-wheel drive version and, if it’s good enough for Damon Hill, it’s good enough for me. From £39,185.
I can’t resist mentioning Subaru, although I feel the company has lost its way a bit with its new wheezy engines. The Outback is still a very capable car and ubiquitous in the more inhospitable parts Down Under, because it will go anywhere and won’t break down. Which is kind of useful. From £28,825.