Getting there is half the fun. Here are some new vehicles on the market that can cover the rough road to get you and your gear to the trailhead or launch.
While there are a lot of trailheads that can be driven to in a compact car or sedan, to access the trails less traveled—for that remote and solitary experience—it helps to have a vehicle with a bit more ground clearance as well as the room to haul the gear and toys needed.
I was invited to a test drive event hosted by the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press association to check out some of the latest vehicles either to hit or are about to hit the market. The event was held at the High Plains Raceway near Deer Trail, Colorado just east of Denver. It included an on-road event on the track which I skipped and an off-road portion to test out the capabilities of the off-road specific vehicles.
I drove four different vehicles and each of them certainly have their pros and cons. Here’s what I found:
2018 Land Rover Discovery HSE Luxury Td6
Just the 20-minute drive from the Raceway to the off-road course showed how well the new Land Rover Discovery took to paved roads. Land Rover has come a long way from the clunky but very effective off road machine. Land Rover has worked hard to maintain that off road ability but have also brought some incredible refinement to the interior.
The new Discovery continues to make use of Land Rover’s adjustable air suspension system to bring the vehicle low to the ground for road driving, which helps support the 26 mpg highway rating and then can raise the frame up to 11.14 inches of clearance for hitting gnarly dirt roads. The 19.7 inches of wheel articulation helps tremendously for dealing with rocky roads as well.
If you think the exterior cameras on vehicles like this for seeing how close the wheels are to the curb or lines of a parking spot are a little ridiculous, then you haven’t used them the way Land Rover likes to. It turns out they are extremely handy for cresting over sharp inclines to be able to see where the wheels are going considering at that point all you can see out the windshield is blue sky. Turn on those external cameras looking at the wheels and you no longer have to stick you head out the window or even stop and get out to scope out the unknown terrain below.
I also had a chance to take the Discovery camping last winter at Golden Gate State Park. It was a unique situation for an event when the campground normally isn’t open. Because of this the loop roads to the sites were plowed, but not the turnouts for each site. This posed a standard plow berm between the loop road and the pull out. Beyond the plow berm the snow was relatively shallow so it looked like a good place to pull in and get out of the way. The problem was that berm. It seemed like a good way to test the snow handling of the Discovery. I’ll admit, to avoid dinging up the bumper of this loaner, I took to the berm with a snow shovel to knock it down some. No surprise, the Discovery plowed through the modified berm without a problem. What I wasn’t expecting was all the collision warning alarms to be blaring at me each time I approached the snow pile.
Base Price: $65,950
As Driven: $80,150
2018 Mercedes GLA 250 4MATIC
The outmatched vehicle at the off road course was the Mercedes GLA 250. To be fair, Mercedes does have very capable off road vehicles like others in the G-class, but since the GLA 250 was just released, it was the one they wanted to show at this event.
It’s certainly a luxury vehicle with all the refinement expected from Mercedes but it doesn’t have the ground clearance or the approach and departure angle tolerance of the others in this roundup. So as long as you’re not looking to hit too gnarly of trails with it, the GLA 250 will serve very well in town and out on mild to moderately chunky dirt roads. I’d like to get this vehicle out on a longer road trip that included some dirt road driving to access a dispersed camping spot.
The key features are still impressive and useful:
Passenger capacity 5
Trunk capacity 43.6 cu ft
Transmission type 7G-DCT 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Engine 2.0L inline-4 turbo
Power 208 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Acceleration, 0-60 mph 7.1 sec
City fuel economy 23 mpg
Highway fuel economy 31 mpg
Base Price: $35,400
As Driven: $50,000
2017 Ram 2500 Power Wagon Crew Cab 4×4
This was the only truck I got to try out and it’s a beast. The 14.3 inches of ground clearance is obvious just from looking at it but it’s impossible to miss it when literally needing to climb into the cab. For me, at 5’11” I had to carry my momentum onto tippy toes plus have a good hold of the handles to pull myself in without looking like I was struggling. I’m sure it gets easier and more fluid for owners who get lots of practice.
While the Land Rover and Mercedes have the practicality of being an everyday around town and excellent to decent (respectively) trail access vehicle, this Ram Truck is designed for heavy duty work be it towing 10,000 pound trailers or hauling big loads in it’s own bed. And is able to crawl over large rocks and up and down steep descents along the way. Making all of this happen is a 6.4-liter V8 putting out 410 hp and 429 lb-ft of torque. To get over those big rocks it has 33 inch tires and a disconnecting sway bar that gives it an incredible 26 inches of wheel articulation. The Power Wagon can hit the steeps with 33.6-degree approach angle, 26.2-degree departure angle and 23.5-degree breakover angle as well as a descent control mode. Not surprisingly gas mileage is abysmal. As a heavy duty vehicle weighing more than 8,500 pounds, it is not required to be tested by the EPA. Nevertheless, it’s been reported by other testers that it runs around 16 mpg highway.
One feature that I wasn’t expecting to put to use while test driving around the off-road track was the 12,000 pound Warn winch that comes standard with every Power Wagon. One of the other trucks (also a Ram) took a corner a little tight and high centered itself on a hill crest. We pulled the winch out and gave that other truck a little tug. Afterwards, we found out that truck hadn’t fully extended it’s air suspension system which may have cleared it on its own. Still, always fun to put the winch to use.
It’s probably not unique to this truck, but one nice feature was the bed camera as seen from the top of the back of the cab.
I’ve certainly been on a number of trips where we have piled a load high with straps in hopes it all stays together and would have loved to have this feature for a little more peace of mind instead of trying to see what’s going on by contorting myself while looking around using the external rear view mirror (because the internal one was blocked by the load anyway).
Base Price: $51,695
As Driven: $62,905
2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock 4×4
The last vehicle I got in was also an off-road specialty vehicle but without the built in cargo space of the Ram Power Wagon and therefore without the gas mileage penalty. Rated at 17 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock is much more approachable and can be used around town for light duty (read, hauling kids, pets and running errands around town) without being too egregious. That also makes it more practical to drive it to the trails so it can crawl over massive boulders with 10 inches of ground clearance and like the Power Wagon it has a disconnectable forward sway bar which increases the wheel articulation by 33 per cent. Not surprisingly, the Rubicon does exceptionally well with rolling terrain and it beats out the Power Wagon in approach (42.2°) and departure (32.5°) angles. The breakover angle is 21.2°.
Under the hood the Rubicon Hard Rock sports a 3.6L Pentastar V6 Engine with Five-Speed Automatic Transmission pushing out 285 Horsepower and 260 lb-ft of Torque. It’s rated to pull up to 3,500 pounds which is plenty for a medium sized camper trailer.
Then there’s the pure fun factor of Jeeps and that’s the ability to strip off all the external parts like the top and doors no matter if you’re crawling your way to a sweet trailhead for a few days of hiking or just cruising around town on a clear summer day.
Base Price: $33,645
As Driven: $43,325