Best 4x4s for off-roading: Nissan Ariya vs Subaru Solterra

Many SUVs look more butch than they really are, but what's the most capable four-wheel-drive model on the rough stuff? Our off-roader megatest reveals the answer...

Nissan Ariya vs Subaru Solterra

Nissan Ariya Evolve e-4orce

List price £58,590
Target Price £55,310

The Ariya isn’t claimed to have any off-road prowess, but its presence will help answer a big question: do you really need off-road tyres and clever traction control to head off the beaten track? After all, this version has four-wheel drive and more ground clearance than many electric rivals. Is that enough?

Subaru Solterra Limited

List price £49,995
Target Price £49,255

Subaru stayed true to its roots by giving its first electric SUV proper off-road capability. Unlike its Toyota bZ4X twin, the Solterra comes only with four-wheel drive, with an X Mode setting for extra traction on tough terrain. Its vital statistics show that it should be able to clamber over sizeable obstacles, too.

New electric vehicles (EVs) are being launched at an astonishing rate, so you might be surprised to learn that currently only one electric SUV is marketed as having proper off-road capability: the Subaru Solterra. If you think you’ve seen it elsewhere, that’s because it’s a near twin to the Toyota bZ4X; the two firms co-operated on their electric SUVs, just as they did when developing the Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ sports cars. 

So, why isn’t the bZ4X here? Well, the Solterra was infused with more off-road DNA, in order to fit in with Subaru’s rally-proven heritage. It’s available only with four-wheel drive, with one electric motor driving the front wheels and another for the rears. It also has a special off-road drive setting, named X-Mode; this controls the motors and brakes to maximise traction on deep mud, snow or even steep, slippery slopes.

Subaru Solterra front off-road

But does all of this make the Solterra truly capable off road, or is it merely marketing bumf dreamed up to keep the Subaru faithful happy? Well, to find out, we’re putting it up against one of its closest rivals on paper: the Nissan Ariya. We chose this model because it can be had with four-wheel drive and has better ground clearance than electric SUV rivals such as the Ford Mustang Mach-E, Genesis GV60 and Kia EV6

Well, we say ‘better ground clearance’, but with just 170mm to play with, versus 210mm in the Solterra, the Ariya’s lower nose trim was quickly snagged on the lip of a shallow ditch – an incident that foreshadowed its initial failure to scale the shallowest 26% gravel incline. With the drive mode set to Snow (the closest thing to an off-road setting the Ariya offers), the traction control simply cut the power as soon as the wheels started to slip, bringing the car to a complete stop on the slope. Only when the Standard drive mode was engaged did it manage to scramble its way up.

Nissan Ariya front off-road

Predictably, the Ariya didn’t fare any better on the 35% climb. After coming to a stop halfway up the hill, it simply refused to budge, its eco-focused Dunlop Sport Maxx 050 tyres failing to find any purchase on the loose surface. And when we attempted to back the Ariya down the hill in a controlled manner, its overly intrusive stability control system made this process extremely difficult; the brakes grabbed in an unpredictable manner, forcing the car off its line. After nearly getting the Ariya lodged sideways on the hill, we decided to call it a day and park it, rather than subject it to the more strenuous tests. 

The situation could not have been more different in the Solterra. With X-Mode engaged, it sailed up the 35% ascent as if it wasn’t even there, with the traction control system gently extracting the very best traction each of the tyres could muster, aided by the subtlety of electric torque control.

Subaru Solterra specs

Subaru Solterra off-road specs

We were so impressed that we decided to have another run at the hill, but this time using what Subaru calls Grip Control (essentially an off-road cruise control). This system keeps the vehicle rolling at a steady speed without the driver touching the accelerator, allowing them to concentrate on picking an appropriate line. It worked brilliantly and is a piece of software that’ll be particularly appreciated by those with less experience of off-roading.

So, if you live down the end of a green lane or in a far-flung part of the UK that regularly gets adverse weather and you’re in the market for an EV, the Solterra is a superb choice.

Nissan Ariya specs

Nissan Ariya off-road specs

Having proven its skills on steep, loose surfaces, it was time to test its mettle on really uneven ground, so we aimed the Solterra at the most gnarly incline on our test route, the Horseshoe. Its sophisticated four-wheel drive system dragged the car up and over the hill, negotiating the hostile bend at its peak with remarkable ease. 

However, we use the word ‘dragged’ with good reason. On both the Horseshoe and the Dragon’s Back trail, we lost count of how many times the Solterra rubbed its smooth belly on the raised ruts. Plus, while negotiating a series of troughs, it shed a piece of trim from the chin of its inappropriately long front bumper. So, while the Solterra certainly matches the off-road prowess of Subaru’s other models, such as the XV, it’s perhaps less at home in such environments than some alternative, higher-riding, petrol-powered SUVs.

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