Why is ground clearance important in an SUV?

Anyone who’s ever driven a vehicle with low ground clearance will know that there’s only one sound worse than fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard: the teeth-clenching graunching of a car’s belly scraping across concrete (or any other type of rough surface that has no business coming into such close contact with your car). 

Unless you’re planning on actually driving over other cars - always a temptation during peak-hour traffic - there’s no need to seek out a car with monster-truck ground clearance, but if you’re in the market for a new SUV - whether it’s a comfortable family car or an off-road SUV - it’s definitely something you’ll want to take into consideration.  

Although in recent years SUVs have become more popular with urban consumers who think “off-roading” means driving in a gravel car park, there are still those drivers who are interested in taking full advantage of their vehicle’s all-wheel-drive capabilities.  

Comfortable and capable  

Once upon a time, that might have meant making do with a tough-as-nails 4WD that was as pleasant to live with as a pair of hiking boots filled with thumbtacks, but these days all sorts of comfortable SUVs double as off-road family cars.  

When referencing “ground clearance” in relation to AWD SUVs, we’re talking about the measured distance between the ground and the lowest point of the vehicle’s undercarriage (often the rear differential, which Americans refer to as the “pumpkin”, due to its shape) at the vehicle’s kerb weight.  

Obviously you’re going to want this to be a reasonable height if you’re rock crawling or powering through mud or sand, although there is a trade-off; greater height may be more practical for off-roading, but it will also make the vehicle’s centre of gravity higher, causing it to become less aerodynamic.  

The vehicle’s suspension capabilities are also important - you’ll want those wheels staying strictly earthbound while you are powering through undulating terrain.  

There are also approach, departure and ramp-over angles to be aware of. An approach angle is the maximum ramp angle a vehicle can travel up from a flat surface without rubbing its nose; the departure angle is simply the same thing in regards to the rear of the car. The ramp-over is the maximum ramp angle your SUV can travel over without the ramp apex touching the underneath of the vehicle. 

How much is enough? 

Like Subaru’s range of XV, Forester and Outback AWD SUVs, you’ll want minimum 213mm ground clearance to be both comfortable and capable. Considering the average car has around 170mm of ground clearance, the increased clearance offered by Subaru’s SUVs is about all the average driver will ever need, with only the most ardent off-roaders requiring extra clearance.  

Regardless of how high you go, one thing is for certain: unless you’re driving over concrete barriers, those eye-watering belly scrapes should, pleasingly, become a distant memory.  



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21 May 2021