Off-roaders may have fallen out of favour with car buyers a few years ago due to their poor fuel economy and high purchase costs, but they are definitely back in vogue now, with ever more new models arriving on the scene – even though a huge majority of buyers never benefit from these vehicles’ off-road ability.

Families that may have previously bought people carriers are now switching to large and more expensive 4x4s for their greater road presence and high driving position. But are these often gas guzzling off-roaders really the best choice for families who value space, practicality and value above all else?

We’ve driven the biggest seven-seater 4×4 on the market to find out how well it serves a typical family and to compare how well a much cheaper and easier-to-drive people carrier stacks up.

Full-fat seven-seater off-roader: Audi Q7 – from £46,655

4x4s don’t come much bigger than the Audi Q7, so if you're after a car which commands some serious road presence, the Q7 could be just what you're looking for. This beast measures up at way over 5m long, 2m wide and tips the scales at 2.3-tonnes. While this means that you should have an enormously spacious interior and advantageous driving position, the sheer size makes visibility poor and means manouevring around town and negotiating narrower roads is a stressful experience. All the four-wheel drive gubbins underneath the skin also steals space from the cabin, while denting fuel economy and acceleration.

While it boasts a muscular engine, the Q7 isn’t particularly speedy as a result of its bulk, and fuel bills will set you back more than many people carriers, with official fuel economy of just 39.2mpg and annual car tax bills of £265. Access to the rearmost seats is also challenging, while anyone over around five foot six tall will feel cramped, even with the middle row of seats slid all the way forward. However, the cabin does keep to the Audi standard, with a very high quality interior.

The Q7 may be old in car terms, with a new model just around the corner, but it's premium image will still set you back from £46,655 – around £12,000 more than many top-of-the-range people carriers that offer more interior space, greater practicality and the prospect of much lower fuel consumption. 

Expensive to buy but cheap to run: BMW X5 – from £42,945

The BMW X5 sDrive 25d may cost less than the Audi in entry-level trim, but this machine is decently economical, recording 50.4mpg – slightly better than many of the similarly-sized people carriers, including the Volkswagen Sharan and Ford Galaxy.

This two-wheel drive so-called ‘4×4’ costs just £145 to tax, though it can sprint to 62mph in a speedy 8.2 seconds, and it is easier to drive around town than the bulky-feeling Q7. With prices starting at £42,945 the X5 is out of reach for many families, however, with even top-spec people carriers costing £8,000 to £10,000 less.

Affordable off-roader with seven seats: Nissan X-Trail – £31,795

The Nissan X-Trail is one of the smaller off-roaders with the option of seven seats. As a result, an automatic seven-seater model can be bought from just £26,345. The space on offer is reasonable, but due to its format as a high-riding off-roader, interior space is a little limited compared to similarly-sized people carriers such as the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso.

With two-wheel drive, the X-Trail won’t get far off-road and it is a little tardy on the road thanks to its automatic gearbox, requiring 11.4 seconds to get to 62mph, but it returns impressive claimed economy of 55.4mpg, while car tax is low at £130 per year. The X-Trail isn’t the most competent car on the road, however, being neither as comfortable or as agile as the best people carriers.

Other medium-sized off-roaders with seven seats include the Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe, which cost around £35,000 to £37,000 in top-of-the-range trim. Both of these are only available in four-wheel drive form, meaning fuel economy of around 42mpg and annual car tax bills of just over £200. While the Sorento majors on value, the Santa Fe offers a dose more style.

Top-spec large people carrier: Volkswagen Sharan – £34,790

Buyers who want a comfortable and well-equipped seven-seater, but aren’t fussed about driving a boxy off-roader, can save around £10,000 by choosing a people carrier like the Sharan or its cheaper sibling, the Seat Alhambra. Even with the most powerful diesel motor and an automatic gearbox you will still get change from £35,000 for the VW and £34,000 for the Seat.

Thanks to its large and cleverly-designed interior the Sharan is an easier car to live with than many larger 4x4s, offering reasonable economy of 47.9mpg while accelerating to 62mph in under 10 seconds – more than adequate for most drivers.

Don’t need four-wheel drive? A people carrier should be better value

While off-roaders are popular because of their rugged style and spacious interiors, many people carriers offer a more sensible option for families. With more usable interiors with easier access, lower fuel consumption in many cases easier manouevrability, those after a practical but affordable family car would be wise to look at several people carriers before making a decision.

The upcoming Land Rover Discovery Sport, however, could offer a good blend of 4×4 style and all-terrain ability, while providing a practical enough interior. With prices starting at £32,395 this new model should fly off the shelves considering the success of its pricier big brother, the Land Rover Discovery.

Pictures: Manufacturers