V&R Stories: I Understand Now

The phrase you've seen many times: "It's a Jeep thing, you don't understand?" Understand what?

Yes, I've driven Jeeps – to mixed thoughts. Still, Americans and others around the world love them. That, I had trouble comprehending.

The attraction to them is simple: They are one of the original off-roaders. They won a major world war on several fronts. Their formula opened up a world of access to the motor vehicle. Willys-Overland, the Rover Company, and Toyota expanded the war-fought formula for a lightweight four-wheel drive transport through jungles, deserts, mountainsides, and farms around the globe. However, it is the cult of Jeep that truly is an undeniably American saga that opened up acres of off-road adventures to feed our wanderlust.

That, I understand. Yet, there is more. A whole lot more I need to experience for myself to truly grasp whether my stomach can take the pounding a Jeep takes on the worst conditions possible.

Since my posts have devolved into love notes about SUVs and crossovers, I figured I better get an education about what it’s all about before I jump behind the wheel of another one.

The opportunity came when Jeep's "Rocks and Road Tour" arrived across the street from the Mall of America in Bloomington in October of 2010. I figured it was time for a bit of a learning experience as to see firsthand what Jeep is really all about now that Fiat is driving its parent company out of its lowest point in history. I also wanted to understand why anyone would buy a Jeep Wrangler and never use it to traverse the most challenging parts of this country's topography.

I’ve had experience in extreme driving conditions. There was a road I took after a major rainstorm east of Oakland that I thought was OK to get to class in Concord by. An unreported mudslide did not close the road – so I took my trusty 1991 Acura Integra RS through the slide on the road safely. If I didn’t know how to drive through it without fear, I would’ve ended up on the bottom of the canyon.

Yet, I never had to take a vehicle on a 30-percent grade sideways or up a very steep mountainous trail incline. Muddy roads, gravel tracks, grassy hillsides…I did those. I doubt if a majority of us have ever experienced the Rubicon Trail or anything as extreme terrain-wise in a motor vehicle, either.

The Jeep tour area wasn't just about driving. It is a lesson about the specific lifestyle Jeep owners and consumers live. They love the outdoors and want to play in it. They love the rugged side of life and want to exhibit it. Still, some like a spot of luxury to go on their school run to drop the kids off and head to work. However, they know by driving a Jeep, they can get through anything for the sake of their precious cargo.

Jeep Rocks and Road Tour 2

You run into heritage with a 1950 Jeep on display. You run into the possibilities of Jeep ownership with customized models, concept vehicles and displays for Mopar accessories and Sirius satellite radio. Kids get their own space with motorized little Jeeps to run around in.

There are also games of skill to try out. For starters, there is a wall-climbing apparatus for the outdoor enthusiast in us. I skipped that one. You can try to take down the soft top on a 2010 Jeep Wrangler Islander. With the exception of a nagging front roof release, I was able to accomplish this under two minutes. That's better than James May putting on the tent-like roof of a Porsche Boxster Spyder on an old episode of Top Gear.

Then, there was the Teeter-Totter. The object is to take a 2010 Jeep Compass and balance it on a wood-and-steel ramp. It's not as easy as one might think. The object is to have both ends of the ramp off the ground and keep it there for five seconds. Needless to say – I failed.

I had enough games – it was time to drive! My first stop was the On-Road course where you take a Jeep through a series of twists and turns to check for various functions of the ride/handling package of each vehicle. My first run through the course was in a 2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. I must say that I actually liked this vehicle!

Jeep Rocks and Road Tour 6

Why did I like the second-most brutish Jeep in the lineup? Well, quite simply, it was civilized. Civilized does not mean soft, however. It meant well mannered on the corners and in the ride quality. It was a solid driver. Granted, it's enlarged steering wheel did provide a challenge, but the steering action was very reactive – and that’s a good thing. It appeared to have some over-assist, but it is variable depending on the speed and sharpness of your turn. Not to mention, the Rubicon provides a very nice cabin for me to enjoy an honest Jeep experience.

I followed up my run in the Wrangler Unlimited with one in the 2010 Jeep Liberty Renegade. Years ago, I drove an older version of the Liberty with poor results. It felt unstable due to having too high of a center of gravity for me to manage. The rain it sloshed through didn’t help its cause, either. Since then, the Liberty went through some serious rhinoplasty and driving dynamics changes. It was gone in a couple of years afterwards – replaced by the Cherokee.

Coming from the Wrangler Unlimited, the Liberty felt soft. It acted soft in almost every way on the On-Road course. Though I will admit that I liked some of the improvements in the newer Liberty.

Jeep Rocks and Road Tour 11

Then came the biggest challenge of all: The Off-Road course. The night before, it rained more than enough to make the dirt track very muddy. It created an interesting scenario for the Jeeps on the course that they canceled self-drives by participants so the Guides can drive through the course instead. They also canceled the "hill." It is a tall structure with a 35-degree approach grade ending with another 35-degree decent grade. Because of the caked mud on the tires of the Wrangler Rubicons (one regular and a few Unlimiteds) and the Liberty Renegade, traction became an issue for the "hill." Caked tires can't grip onto the metal track on the hill.

This was a huge relief in some respects.

My first ride was a really cool guide in an Unlimited. She talked me through the course and showed me the capabilities of the Wrangler Unlimited through some 30-degree banked curves, an alternate rutted piece of mud and a couple of low elevation tracks. The mud made these obstacles more interesting – and more fun.

This is where the educational portion of this excursion began. The thing about Jeeps is that you don't need to have all the electronic nannies in the world to go off-roading. Hill Descent aids are commonplace on soft-roaders – including the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. In a Wrangler, you don’t need it. It has the axles needed to handle the power transfer and the gear ratios to make it all work. Not to mention the four-door Unlimited models have enough weight distribution and length to thwart the worst curves without fear of losing the vehicle.

There is one button one needs to switch on to make all of this work: The electronic front sway bar disconnect. By doing so while the transfer case is set in four-wheel-drive low-range, the wheels would be able to drop and compress for more articulation. That means more traction on more extreme surfaces and angles. I felt this working and loved how the Wrangler Unlimited excelled in every challenge made by the overnight rain.

My first guide suggested I get in the regular, shorter Wrangler Rubicon to get an understanding a Jeep's true capabilities. She was right. My guide in the two-door Wrangler showed me the essence of what a Jeep is all about. On the sideway banks, the Guide showed me a little secret that kept the Wrangler from tipping over. Simply, on the exit of such a banked area, the rear will slide out, allowing the front axle to complete the exit. This comes in handy in very tight situations where the shorter Wrangler excels in. Disabling the front sway bar helps, too! This is what made the original CJ Jeeps and earlier Wranglers legends in off-roading.

By the way, that "hill" and the course still exists. They use it for the Camp Jeep interactive drive course at select auto shows around the USA.

Jeep Rocks and Road Tour 16

For years, Jeeps haven't always had the best reputation in terms of quality and reliability. A drive in the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee was a sign that things are indeed getting better for America's off-road originators. I also see the effort being made on the venerable Wrangler, as Fiat wanted to use these familiar steeds as the brand's focus as they integrate the Italian company's platforms into future products. They already have in the guise of the Cherokee, the newest Compass and the Renegade. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles have banked on Jeep more than ever, based on the industry-wide consumer-driven trend to go with SUV over a sedan.

Getting a taste of the mud, though sitting shotgun to view its abilities, also gave me a reality check on the SUV/crossover market. Honestly, if you think that your everyday shopping trolley can survive a washed out road en route to the cabin up north or that a piece of desert will prevent you from getting to that trail marker with your mountain bike in tow, you may want to rethink your SUV/crossover purchase. Get a vehicle that can do more than just take the kids to school and load up after a day at IKEA. Ask about what it is capable of doing in the extremes of your lifestyle.

Understanding these factors in driving a Jeep helps to appreciate the brand even more. It shows in my subsequent work of reviewing every Jeep model since that "Rocks and Road Tour" encounter at the Mall of America some seven years ago. I even took some of my Jeep review subjects for a bit of off-roading…nothing hardcore, mind you.

Who knew it would actually launch this career?

All photos by Randy Stern

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