Is It An Off-Road Adventure Or Just A Walk In The Park?



I remember having to get out and lock hubs and shift into neutral to engage low range.

Coming off press previews of the 2013 Land Rover Range Rover and the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee that involved some heavy-duty off-road rock climbing, I'm simply amazed at the capabilities that these vehicles possess. But even more impressive (or troubling depending on your perspective) is the relative ease with which you can operate these vehicles in seemingly impossible terrain.

Not that I'm a hardcore off-roader, but I've been in my share of 4x4's over the years and remember having to get out and lock hubs, shift into neutral to engage low range and learning that the accelerator and brake pedals can be your best friends or worst enemies in either moving along or getting hopelessly stuck.

Thanks to the wonders of electronics, advanced transfer cases and electric limited slip differentials, instead of manipulating levers or locking hubs, one merely has to punch a button or turn a knob to engage the right strategy to deal with whatever conditions encountered on the trail.


Matt DeLorenzo is the former editor-in-chief of Road & Track and has covered the auto industry for 35 years, including stints at Automotive News and AutoWeek. He has authored books including VW's New Beetle, Chrysler's Modern Concept Cars, and Corvette Dynasty.



The 2014 Grand Cherokee is the off-road equivalent of smart cruise control for road cars.

In January, I had the opportunity to take the Range Rover through an off-road vehicle park in southern Utah to try out the revamped vehicle's hill descent system. No matter how steep the grade, once the system is engaged it's feet off the pedals. You merely steer and let the vehicle manage the gas and braking. It smartly avoids wheel lockup, which is the last thing you need when crawling downhill. Also, it didn't hurt that Land Rover brought along some great trail guides who took the guesswork out of where to point the vehicle.

Not to be outdone, Jeep has equipped its redesigned 2014 Grand Cherokee with an automatic hill descent and ascent mode. It's the off-road equivalent of smart cruise control for road cars. With this mode engaged, you use the paddle shifts to select your speed (in kilometers per hour) up to 8 kph. The vehicle modulates the throttle and automatically drives up and down hills at the preset speed. Again, Jeep had some great trail guides pointing the right way to place the wheels on our off-road excursion outside of Austin, TX. Thanks to the use of a programmable screen in the center of the dash, you could watch the steering direction of the wheels on one screen or toggle to a different view to see the angle of the axles, including whether or not a particular wheel was on the ground or not.

They are a far cry from the utilitarian nature of the original Jeeps and Land Rovers.

The hill descent/ascent mode, along with the other settings for mud, snow, sand and rocks, operate seamlessly. In this regard, like stability control in road cars, these systems offer a tremendous safety net in difficult off-road situations. The ability for the electronics to assess grip levels, do the right math and deliver the right amount – or in some cases, all the torque – to one wheel, simply boggles the mind.

And to the casual off-roader, it's simply amazing the severity of the terrain you can traverse in these large, five-passenger vehicles that also serve as luxury on-road rides. It's a far cry from the utilitarian nature of the original Jeeps and Land Rovers.

Yet, there is something about the experience that I find a bit unsettling that goes back to my earlier encounters with SUVs, when you had to lock the hubs, and engage low and use the brake and the gas pedals and worry about the vehicle sliding sideways down a hill and off a cliff. I think there is a sense of accomplishment in mastering a machine rather than letting that machine do all the work for you. There is a huge difference in being in total control of the vehicle or just merely being along for the ride.

I guess I'd rather just do it myself.

Granted, the technology opens up off-roading to a larger audience that otherwise wouldn't dare to take their vehicles off unpaved two-tracks. Still, there is something missing when your interaction is limited to pushing buttons or pulling paddles. It is somewhat like the difference between going on a ride in an amusement park, which can be thrilling in its own way, and actually doing something where you're in control, which really is about a genuine sense of accomplishment. In this world where autonomous control or automatic control of vehicles is becoming more commonplace, I guess I'd rather just do it myself.


Matt DeLorenzo is the former editor-in-chief of Road & Track and has covered the auto industry for 35 years, including stints at Automotive News and AutoWeek. He has authored books including VW's New Beetle, Chrysler's Modern Concept Cars, and Corvette Dynasty.




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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 29 Comments
      Dixon Ticonderoga
      • 1 Year Ago
      Only seems like a problem if the systems are automatic and undefeatable. The only serious off roading I've ever done has been on motorcycles. If these systems can teach me the proper "feel" of a truck traversing rocks and/or save my tail if I get over my head then I'm not complaining.
      Beardinals
      • 1 Year Ago
      Hurts a lot more to make a mistake when your ride costs $50k though.
      Hoale
      • 1 Year Ago
      I would bet that at 90% of grand cherokee buyers don't ever use 4 low and 50% of them don't even know what it is for.
        telm12345
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Hoale
        Wait, 4 low is not just for decoration to show my friends while I drive them to Cheesecake Factory?Ummm... does it mean it will lower the suspension on all 4 wheels right? * SARCASM * So sad how true....
      Mr E
      • 1 Year Ago
      I can see what you mean, and it's something sports cars have had to deal with regarding manual transmissions, traction/launch control, etc. To me, I think all these new gee-whiz features are great for when you just need to get somewhere, or to help you out of a pickle, or even just when you're feeling ham-fisted. If you're an enthusiast though, and are out for a thrill ride, then hopefully they have an "off" switch.
      d
      • 1 Year Ago
      one issue i have is that off-road by nature, is braving the elements. Rocks move, streams become rivers, things just happen and relying heavily on a computer can take a person who is unfamiliar with the terrain far deeper into the wilderness with little to no preparation when something comes up. The "always be prepared" mantra of boy scouts and off-roaders alike means many carry spare parts, recovery gear, tools, emergency supplies, etc. Not saying that new adventurers wouldnt likewise do the same, but if the off-roader is used to pushing buttons only they might get a sense of invincibility and when they lose an axle or catch a rock on their transfer case, they end up unprepared for a fix off-road or even getting help. These would be the same kind of people onroad, who blindly follow their sat-nav off a cliff thinking, hey, I can trust the computer completely with my life.
      Rob
      • 1 Year Ago
      I look at it kind of the same way I do traction control on motorcycles, it can be either a crutch or an aid, depending on the rider and the conditions. For new riders it really is a fantastic technology that can help pull you out of a bind if you overextend yourself on the road or discover how inattentive other people on the road are. Unfortunately the cost of this is a disconnect between machine and operator, and if the systems cannot be fully defeated for track/trail days, it severely reduces the desirability of such a vehicle, not to mention hindering the learning of proper throttle application/braking/weight transfer skills that really do make you a better rider.
      • 1 Year Ago
      [blocked]
        gearhead18
        • 1 Year Ago
        I beg your pardon? Strength and reliability. My truck is only a '93 and it's such equipped.
          gearhead18
          • 1 Year Ago
          @gearhead18
          It wasn't like that from the factory, but the automatic hubs failed and left me stuck. The Warns that click into place never will.
          CBings
          • 1 Year Ago
          @gearhead18
          '93 was 20 years ago. Millions of people have been born and died since then.
      NeoReaper
      • 1 Year Ago
      your opinion on these systems are no different that an enthusiast's opinion on a manual vs a dual clutch automatic. you just have to find a new way to feel accomplishment. if your life's accomplishment revolves around climbing a cliff in a car or heel toeing while nailing that apex, i think you might want to re-evaluate your life and what you consider an accomplishment.
        telm12345
        • 1 Year Ago
        @NeoReaper
        Obviously you've never climbed a cliff in a car... it is VERY MUCH an accomplishment.
      Clipper44
      • 1 Year Ago
      Are you still bitter that cars aren't manually cranked anymore?
      dinobot666
      • 1 Year Ago
      Your uncle Pete is going to be so mad that you're writing about a Chrysler product without spewing a few hateful words towards Chrysler and Sergio Marchionne.
      Domari Nolo
      • 1 Year Ago
      Looks like Enchanted Rock in the background.
        NeoReaper
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Domari Nolo
        actually that was a sunset shot i took while stuck in traffic on the belt parkway in brooklyn.
          Army Casualty
          • 1 Year Ago
          @NeoReaper
          Someone's dumb here.
          NeoReaper
          • 1 Year Ago
          @NeoReaper
          @Army Casualty im just trying to point out that technology exists for a reason. if you really feel that technology shouldnt be moving forward than why even use a car/truck... why have a stove, you should make your own fire for the sense of accomplishment shouldnt you? or is that just TOO difficult to do daily... these are the problems with ppl against technology that makes life easier. you criticize it because you dont want to accept that a skill that you learned is no longer needed. you should feel a sense of accomplishment for your knowledge, whether or not you actually need to use it, is not the point...
      Riven
      • 1 Year Ago
      Increasingly shoddily built, terrible blind spots, and a shrinking cab. Jeep hasn't been a Jeep since before the AMG merge. Even the sleek package of the 2014 model will not get me anywhere near a dealership to buy one. I would kill for a decent remake of the XJ.
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