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It's a 4-Wheel World

Whether attacking the Slickrock of Moab at eight miles a day or just cruising the blacktop at highway speeds, Americans have embraced enhanced-traction vehicles in a huge way— and the options are widening all the time.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Armand Assante, Mar/Apr 2008

Even in the best of weather, the entrance to Hell's Revenge is daunting: a long, steep climb up a narrow ledge, sheer drop-offs on either side. On this particular autumn morning, the brisk wind and stinging rain have transformed the smooth rock surface into the ultimate slippery slope.

Even at a slow slog—measured in inches and yards, rather than miles an hour—a minor error could lead to disaster, and so, our windshield wipers slapping time, we squint through the mist, while listening for the exacting commands of our spotter. "To the left," he shouts over the storm's din, echoing each order with hand signals. "Now straighten up. Left again. No, too much. There, you've got it." And suddenly, with a bump and a crunch, we crest the hill, rolling out onto an ancient plateau that hasn't changed much since the dinosaurs left their footprints.

Trekking the trails of Utah's Moab is always an adventure. In this case, a Land Rover Adventure, during a four-day sojourn designed to demonstrate the agility that the British brand shares with a mountain goat. But even as the terrain may be the perfect test for this caravan of Range Rovers, Range Rover Sports and LR-2s that I lead, it throws up challenges that few of its ilk will ever have to face.

A visitor to our shores who turns on the television any particular evening might think we're a nation of off-road junkies. Every other automotive commercial seems to show someone climbing up to the summit of Pike's Peak or jouncing out to a summer cottage located on an otherwise unreachable shore. Americans have certainly embraced the image, if not the reality. SUVs and crossovers that resemble sport-utes account for nearly a third of the overall U.S. market. And that doesn't include the pickups, vans and conventional passenger cars now equipped with traction-enhancing four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive technology. While such vehicles represent a huge chunk of the American auto market, few ever go off-road or face a challenge more daunting than snow-covered pavement. And the range of vehicles that now include some sort of enhanced traction has widened in size, shape and comfort level to encompass formats that would have challenged our concept of the SUV in days gone by. But not all 4WD and AWD systems are created equal. And few have the grabbing power of a Land Rover, at least not without heavy modification.

Through the Gates of Hell
No place is better than Moab to experience what the Land Rover can do. Clawing out an existence here has never been easy, for the land is a tumult of opposing geological forces battered by climactic extremes. There's the massive up-thrust that transformed this ancient seabed into the foothills of the Rockies. Wind and rain scour the barren hills, cratering and polishing them into Moab's well-known slickrock. The Colorado River runs fast here, patiently wearing away cliffs and slicing through fields littered with boulders the size of large houses.

Scratched into a cliff face along the rim of the Colorado River is a procession of stick figures and other petroglyphs, the work of the ancient Anasazi people, who first settled the Four Corners region of the Southwest almost 2,000 years ago and seemingly vanished overnight to be replaced by the Utes. In the mid-1800s, European settlers first challenged the land in their ox-driven wagons, taking the questionable prize in a series of vicious skirmishes only to abandon many of their farms and ranches to the hardscrabble land. But inspired by the discovery of uranium in the wake of the Second World War, a new land rush began, and this time, the men who came to work the land drove Jeeps and bulldozers, not plows and wagons. Every so often, you'll still see the rusted remains of an old car or truck that literally failed to make the grade.

After the uranium boom played out in the early 1960s, the urge to attack this land in specially equipped vehicles turned into recreation. What had been a workhorse suddenly became the key to freedom and adventure when, in the '70s and '80s, the SUV boom began. Seemingly every week, more and more folks rolled into town in their Wagoneers, Defenders and Blazers. They weren't looking for gold or yellowcake, just the chance to assault some of the toughest off-road trails imaginable. And the vehicles they drove weren't strictly off-roaders, but were beginning to morph into the dual-purpose cars that could challenge Moab on weekends and ferry the soccer team around in relative comfort during the rest of the week.

Trail Rated?
Let's face it, we Americans might like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, but no more than one in a thousand SUV owners—and that's being generous—will ever experience trails as serious as those of Moab. When you get down to it, the typical off-road experience is likely to consist of a snow-covered driveway or a poorly graded gravel road.

Industry estimates vary, but according to Art Spinella of CNW Marketing, no more than one in 10 SUV owners ever go off-road. That varies, of course, model by model. But you might be surprised to know that, according to Hummer officials, barely one in 15 owners of the H1—the civilian version of the Army's Humvee—hit the dusty trail. Jeep likes to boast that its products are "Trail Rated," and are used by more off-roaders than any other utes, but even then, fewer than one in seven of the rugged little Wranglers see real action—and a sizable share of those, it seems, can be found in the rental fleets you'll find in Moab and similar sporting locales.

So that raises a serious question: why bother? All-wheel-drive systems are expensive to begin with, and weight has a notable negative impact on fuel economy. But the technology does have its advantages. While nothing can get a grip when the roads are slick enough, in most day-to-day driving conditions, 4WD and AWD can deliver a marked improvement in traction. Anyone who's ever skidded through a snowstorm can see where that might make the difference between life and death. All-wheel-drive systems also can make a marked impact on performance and handling. It's no surprise that some of today's supercars, like the Lamborghini Gallardo and the Bentley GT Speed, have adopted AWD technology. When you're pumping out 500 or more horsepower, it helps to direct it to more than one axle.


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