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.
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.
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.
You've undoubtedly noticed that I've been mixing terms throughout this story, and it is, in fact, becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between four-wheel and all-wheel drive. Traditionally, the term 4WD has applied to the bigger, heavier-duty systems you'll find on pickups and other trucks designed for doing serious work, like hauling loads or going off-road. All-wheel-drive systems tend to pull lighter loads and are most commonly found on the new crossover SUVs and passenger cars. For practical purposes, the biggest difference is that most 4WD systems must be switched on and off and usually can't be run on dry pavement. AWD remains active full time, which is actually an advantage in changing weather conditions.
Gridlock in Moab
Still plenty head for terrain where serious 4WD is necessary. More than 30 different trails—with such names as Poison Spider Mesa, Wipe-Out Hill and Hellroaring Rim—trace the contours of this formidable countryside. Yet it can get downright crowded at times. "We don't need gridlock in Moab," laments Bob Burns. One of Land Rover's most experienced instructors, he's sitting beside me in the copilot's seat of a jet-black Range Rover. Our caravan slowly skirts a pack of Jeeps stalled at the base of a steep set of sandstone stairs, while one of their crew struggles to straighten out a badly bent exhaust pipe.
At first glance, the climb up seems an insurmountable obstacle, each stone step reaching nearly to my knee. Burns jumps out and carefully guides me. Inching forward at a slight angle, my tires grab and bite. The nose of the big SUV angles upward and suddenly, I'm looking straight up toward the clouds blowing fast above. Thump, step one, thump, step two. "There's no need for speed here," cautions Burns. Quite the opposite. Patience is the ultimate virtue in off-roading. Don't expect to go anywhere fast. If we stick to plan, we should finish this long day clocking no more than eight miles.
Subtlety is another attribute that will well serve the experienced off-roader. The most delicate steering-wheel adjustment can make a big difference—whether that means making a turn without splitting your tire's sidewall or clearing a boulder rather than winding up high-centered—sitting atop of it with all four wheels spinning.
It also helps that the Range Rover excels in several critical factors that come into play when you're a serious trail rider:
Ground clearance: Whether measured in inches or millimeters, this number tells you how high you ride off the ground and what type of obstacles you can simply ignore.
Approach angle: Measured in degrees, this effectively defines how steep an angle—or how high an obstacle—you can clear with the front of your vehicle.
Departure angle: This defines how steep an angle you can clear coming down off an obstacle, like a boulder.
Those attributes are basic physics, but other things come into play. The most sophisticated 4WD systems feature at least one locking differential. These prevent slippage between front and rear axles, or left and right wheels. It's like a cat using its claws.
The newest Land Rover products boast a variety of additional, electronically controlled features, such as the Terrain Response System, which allows you to optimize traction for a variety of distinctly different conditions, such as snow, mud, sand or rock crawling. By choosing the latter setting to stare down a line of boulders, I have "remapped" my Range Rover's throttle so it takes a lot more pedal movement to rev the engine, perfect for this sort of subtle driving. The transmission also shifts to low range, while the car's air suspension climbs to its maximum height.
Meanwhile, the SUV switches on hill descent control. Call this the leap-of-faith mode. As we reach the end of a relatively smooth plateau, my stomach and other body parts tighten, for I've just realized the only way back down is a sandy outcrop that's even steeper than the slippery rock ledge that got me up on Hell's Revenge in the first place. I gulp and give it some gas, then lift my foot off the throttle. But instead of plunging downward, the SUV gently rolls ahead at a stable 2.5 mph. Hill Descent Control automatically applies the ABS brake system to maintain a steady, safe speed, much more smoothly than even the most experienced driver could achieve.
AWD for everyone?
However you define it, the technology has been around, in some form, for longer than you might expect. In a small, rundown museum in the town of Clintonville, Wisconsin, you'll find a primitive truck—half motorized vehicle, half covered wagon, that was built for General "Blackjack" Pershing as he chased the Mexican bandit-cum-national hero Pancho Villa across the Southwest, just before the United States got sucked into the First World War. His truck was built by the FWD Corp., once the largest maker of four-wheel-drive trucks in the world.
It was the Second World War that brought four-wheel drive—and Jeep—into the popular lexicon. Seemingly unstoppable, the little utility vehicle found a warm spot in the heart of the fighting man, a sentiment best driven home by a classic front-line cartoon by Bill Mauldin, of a Jeep that had been stopped. It showed a soldier sadly using a revolver to put his steed out of its misery—in this case, a Jeep with a broken wheel. Returning GIs brought back plenty of surplus Jeeps, which were perfect for camping and hunting forays.
By the mid-1980s, such manufacturers as Jeep, Ford and Toyota saw opportunities to expand the sport-utility vehicle's appeal. Two decades later, the SUV was the most popular vehicle on the road, the vast majority of them equipped with some sort of AWD or 4WD system.
Consumers liked not only the extra traction, but the large formats of some SUVs, which carried more cargo and passengers and allowed the driver to survey the road from a higher vantage point. It didn't hurt that in a car versus SUV confrontation, the latter was likely to come out less scathed.
Manufacturers also found that the category gave them a convenient hiding place in which to market less fuel-efficient vehicles. SUVs have fallen into the same category as light trucks, for which the federal government demands less stringent miles-per-gallon standards. The situation is likely to change soon, however, as Congress has recently approved new fuel-economy legislation, which would apply average fleet-wide efficiency standards to carmakers by 2020.
The market has been evolving again, in part because of record fuel prices, but also because of improvements in automotive technology. Last year, for the first time, car-based crossovers, such as the Toyota RAV4, outsold such conventional utes as the Japanese maker's big Land Cruiser. CUVs generally offer a more comfortable ride, better handling and improved fuel economy—and while they won't manage Hell's Revenge, they're likely to laugh at everyday obstacles.
Even conventional passenger cars are getting into the all-wheel-drive act. "It's amazing, in the evolution of the automobile, how much impact the SUV has had," says automotive consultant Dan Gorrell. "It has shown people they can have both fun and function. Now some of that functionality is starting to show up in sedans." Twenty years ago, the technology was a rarity, found only in the rare sedan, coupe or sports car, and primarily only those offered by niche makers, such as Audi, on the high end, and Subaru, in the mainstream segments. Today, with sales growing at record rates, virtually every brand—from Aston Martin to Volvo—offers some form of AWD, at least as an option. "It's become a cornerstone technology for us," declares John Mendel, Acura's senior American executive.
The Japanese marque's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive provides a glimpse of where AWD is heading as manufacturers shift interest from off- to on-road technology. The electronically controlled SH-AWD is tightly integrated into the stability control systems found on such Acura models as the RL, RDX and MDX. Blast through a corner and the car's onboard computer will automatically increase torque to the wheels on the outside of the turn, effectively helping to steer the best line. This vectoring concept seems poised to catch on, with AWD pioneer Audi planning to launch a version of its own in 2008.
The number of U.S. buyers who put AWD or 4WD on their list of desired options has grown from less than 6 percent in 1990 to more than 24 percent today, according to CNW Marketing. Not everyone can afford it, but as competition grows, makers are offering the technology—often in simpler form—at an increasingly affordable price. High-line systems, such as the original Mercedes-Benz 4Matic, once carried premiums of $5,000 or more. Today, AWD can be added to some vehicles for as little as $1,000—and many analysts expect it to become standard on more and more products.
Down from Hell
We may have traveled fewer than 10 miles, but by the end of the day, I am ready to head home, pour some wine, fill up the tub and spend a long evening soaking away the dust and sweat. Serious off-roading is a surprisingly grueling sport. It may never command the sort of following you find with tennis or yoga or rollerblading, but such destinations as Moab are seeing a steady increase in traffic, year after year. And Land Rover has experienced a rush in demand for its off-road schools and Adventure programs. The automaker rotates those through a variety of locales, and upcoming events will likely be staged not only in the United States, but in South America and Africa.
Exotic, yes, but dangerous? Well, as Burns insists, "About the biggest risk you'll have on one of these trips is getting hit by a meteorite." With the right equipment and the right spotter, even Moab can be tamed. Your local highway? Well, that's another matter entirely, and something far less predictable. Forget meteors. There are blizzards and rainstorms to contend with, drunk drivers and unmarked corners. No wonder motorists need all the help they can get, which is why all-wheel-drive technology is quickly becoming the norm, rather than the exception.
Paul A. Eisenstein is a contributing editor to Cigar Aficionado.