If you think you need a large car for camping when a smaller and more economical and environmentally friendly one is all you want for the rest of the year, then think again.
We have reviewed the following four popular mid-size SUV’s and wagons available in Australia to see how they would perform for those of you who want to camp without the need for any kind of trailer:
These models have been selected because they all have a sizeable boot / trunk, a mid-size engine and reasonable fuel economy. We have also selected the specific models in the range with standard fitted roof rails and have excluded any 7-seat options that cut into the available cargo space.
Our car comparison will help you to choose a medium size car that is just right for your trailer-free camping needs - one that is not too big, but not too small either.
With a tape measure and our car buying checklist in hand, we set off to assess how well these cars measure up for camping trailer-free in terms of payload, rear cargo dimensions, roof height and load limit and costs.
Essentially, in the context of our camping setup for beginners, our brief is to find a mid-size car suitable to safely and comfortably transport four people (assuming two adults and two 10-12 year olds, all of average weight), as well as their gear for camping (of the non-high tech variety), clothing, some compact entertainment items and a couple of bikes. This is of course without the need for any kind of trailer.
We don’t expect the cars under review will be up to the challenge of a six-month lap of the country. They might be, but personally for these longer trips into remote areas we would be looking for a car with more capacity all round.
We would, however, expect them to be suitable for your typical weekend camping getaways, long-stay camping (in one place) and shorter 1-2 week touring holidays, such as during school breaks, that don't involve the need to carry additional items such as emergency fuel and water.
Specifically, we looked at the following models:
As the vehicle will be tasked with carrying everything and everyone to and from the campsite, it will need have an adequate payload capacity. Each car on the market will (or should) have a specified payload, or weight carrying capacity, but don’t be surprised if you can’t find this figure in the vehicle specifications. In fact, of the four vehicles reviewed, only Mitsubishi published this information in their printed specifications. For the other vehicles we asked the manufacturer / dealer directly or otherwise made an estimate based on the information at hand. To calculate the payload yourself refer to the formula in our payload article.
If you aren’t sure what payload you would need in a car, you can use our calculator to estimate the weight of your own car load. To comfortably meet the above brief, we estimate a car with a payload of around 500 kg is what we should aim for.
How the cars performed: The Outlander has the highest payload of 550 kg, followed by the X-Trail (our estimate - 500 kg), the Outback (492 kg, or 461 kg for the premium model) and finally the Octavia (467 kg based on an online resource as information not provided by Skoda).
The Outlander, X-Trail and Outback (non-premium model) would all fit our brief but the Octavia would really only suit those with a lighter load (ie. younger children, three person families, no bikes).
Plenty of mid-size SUV’s on the market have a payload in the range we want for camping, but many fall short in relation to the dimensions of the rear cargo space, or the boot / trunk. As it is easier to load gear inside the car rather than on the roof, our car of choice will have a generous rear cargo area to comfortably hold our camping gear according to our car packing guidelines.
Some car manufacturers measure their cargo volume in litres, but for our purpose this can be misleading as we discuss in our rear cargo capacity article. To determine exactly how much rear cargo space these vehicles actually had, as you will see in the images below, we packed them with our beginners camping setup.
Ideally, we look for cars with a height of at least 78 cm and an effective boot depth of 100 cm (although anything over 95 cm deep is OK as well). To measure the boot depth, we place our 45 cm high icebox, or a similarly shaped cardboard box, against the tailgate and close the tailgate. The depth is the distance at floor level from the rear seats to the rear of the icebox. The width at floor level is usually between 100-110 cm, and while the wider the better, 100 cm with is adequate for our purposes
How the cars performed: As shown in the images below, the Octavia (D:1050 x W:1000 x H:850 mm) the X-Trail (D:950 x W:1020 x H:880 mm) (see note below) and the Outlander (D:991 x W:974 x H:859 mm) all had comparible amounts of cargo space while the Outback (D:970 x W:1070 x H:780 mm) had the least amount of cargo space of the vehicles reviewed.
Note that the X-trail seats were adjusted forward by 10 cm to create a larger cargo space, with the consequence of reduced passenger legroom. This may suit if the driver or passengers don’t need the extra legroom.
Even with a larger internal cargo space, you will need to transport some of your camping and other gear on the roof of your car. This could be in a roof box, a cargo bag secured to a roof tray or basket, or simply strapped directly to the roof racks in a weatherproof bag (as pictured).
Most cars will have a roof load limit of at least 75 kg, which is more than we need to pack the car in the way we suggest. Physically loading gear on the car roof can, however, be problematic for the vertically challenged among us without side steps fitted to the car or unless you have a compact stool.
How the cars performed: All vehicles have a roof load limit of at least 75 kg except the Outback, which reduces to 67.5 kg if using the retractable cross bars integrated into the roof rails.
Height-wise, the Octavia comes in at the lowest height of 1461 mm, but it also has a much lower ground clearance. Next up is the Outback at 1675 mm, then the Outlander at 1710 mm, and finally the tallest is the X-Trail at 1740 mm.
At the end of the day, cost becomes a big consideration for many of us when choosing our car.
How the cars performed: While some models in the range are priced much higher, the vehicles reviewed were all priced at below $41,000. The Octavia started at around $28,000, followed by the Outlander at just over $33,000 and then both the X-Trail and the Outback (non-premium variant) at just under $41,000.
If fuel economy is top of mind, you will also find that the Octavia, with its smaller 1.4 litre engine, has the best fuel economy at 5.4 litres per 100 km. Next up was the Outlander (7.2L / 100 km), then the Outback (7.3L / 100 km) and finally the X-Trail (7.9L / 100 km). All vehicles used petrol.
As for driveability and all of the usual checks and balances, here are some recent expert reviews. Please note these reviews may not be of the exact vehicle model tested in this article.
How the cars performed:
Skoda Octavia 110TSI wagon - Drive.com gave it an overall 8.1/10. See their review HERE.
Subaru Outback 2.5i - Caradvice.com gave it an overall 8.1/10. Note their review was of the premium model whereas our preference is for the non-premium model because of the higher payload. See their review HERE.
Nissan XTrail 2019 range - Drive.com gave it an overall rating of 7.0/10. See their review HERE.
Mitsubishi Outlander - Carsales.com gave it an overall rating of 6.1/10. See their review HERE.
Confused? For those of you who like the numbers in one place, here is a summary of our findings and some other interesting facts.
Drive type / seats
2WD / 5 seats
2WD / 5 seats
2WD / 5 seats
AWD / 5 seats
2.4L / SUV / auto
2.5L / SUV / auto
1.4L / wagon / auto
2.5L / SUV / auto
D:991 x W:974 x H:859
^D:950 x ^W:1020 x ^H:880
^D:1050 x ^W:1000 x ^H:850
^D:960 x ^W:1070 x ^H:780
80 / 1710
#80 / 1740
75 / 1465
67.5 / 1675
Fitted roof rails
Fuel economy (combined)
7.2L / 100 km (petrol)
7.9L / 100 km (petrol)
5.2L / 100 km (petrol)
7.3L / 100 km (petrol)
Priced from ($AUD) at Dec 2018
CO2 emissions (g/km - combined)
The above specifications have been taken from the manufacturers specifications where available. Information from other sources is denoted as follows:
* taken from other online resources
# verbal confirmation from manufacturer or dealer
^ our own measurement or guestimate
~ the Subaru Outback is often referred to as a large SUV. We have included it in this review based of its comparible features to the other vehicles.
Any information is approximate and may be subject to individual vehicle variances. You should independantly confirmed the information on which you will base your decision to purchase or otherwise use the vehicle.
There’s no one outright winner of all categories, and so your preferred mid-size car for camping will be influenced by specific factors important to you. That said, here are our recommendations:
As everyone is different, and the car isn’t used just for camping, you will obviously be interested in what else it has to offer and the other model variants. As you would normally do, perform the other usual car buying checks and balances, go for a test drive, and while you're at it, test pack your camping gear in the rear cargo space for that added reassurance. If the rear seats adjust to provide additional cargo space, check that the driver and passengers will still have adequate leg room.
We also stress the importance of independently checking the information you are relying by referring to the printed car specifications or by way of your own research and measurements. The different models in each vehicle range can be confusing, and in our experience anyway, dealers didn’t always have the correct answers off the top of their head, especially in relation to payload.
And one more thing, if you don’t have the right car for camping trailer free, and aren’t yet in the market for a new one, check out our advice on hiring or renting a car for camping trailer free and also our article on packing a popular car for hire, the "people mover".
That’s about it! If you are interested in a mid-size car for your camping, we hope we have saved you a lot of time, money and leg work. If you come across other mid-size cars that fit our brief let us know.
We’d love to hear from you. The tape measure is always close at hand!