Jeep really loves touting its off-road heritage, along with the capability of its current stable of SUVs. To that end, FCA invited Chicago-area automotive media out to play in the mud at an off-road park in central Illinois.
The very same off-road park in which I stuffed a Ford Raptor into the mud, multiple times.
Even though this was not a traditional first drive, and Iâ€™d driven both the new Wrangler and new Cherokee off-road â€“ one in Arizona, the other in California â€“ I wanted a little more time with both away from the pavement. Especially since the never-ending winter of 2018 provided rain and snow in the days leading up to the drive.
That meant thereâ€™d be mud, and lots of it.
Full disclosure: FCA paid for the park to be closed to the public on this day, and provided us with snacks and a fantastic BBQ lunch. They also offered hats (I did not take one) and provided spotters and guides. My Raptor piece may have also alerted FCA employees to the existence of the off-road park.
The Cliffs Insane Terrain Off-Road Park has a silly name, and having been there twice now, I still havenâ€™t seen any true cliffs. Set aside the possibly misleading name, though, and the trails are gnarly enough â€“ I discovered that with the Ford. The place also offers zip lining for those so inclined.
Illinois probably isnâ€™t the first place one thinks of when it comes to off-roading â€“ most people picture the state as a sea of cornfields, with subdivisions and skyscrapers stuffed into the northeast corner. But thatâ€™s not entirely true â€“ thereâ€™s plenty of woodsy, and even hilly, areas in pockets of the state. The area near Galena, for one. All the national forests way downstate, for another.
Some of these wooded and/or hilly areas are near rivers. Starved Rock State Park should be top of mind to anyone who grew up north of I-80, and not far from Starved Rock (a place that contains actual cliffs), is the town of Marseilles, which sits just north-northeast of the same Illinois River that cruises past the state park. The off-road park is just east of town, along Route 6. Itâ€™s hard to see, thanks to trees and railroad tracks, but the river is within eyeshot of the parking lot at Cliffs.
The off-road trails at the park make their way up and down hills that become especially challenging when mud-slicked. I know this from experience, remember.
Arriving late after taking care of some TTAC duties, I missed the first go-round, but I was told that just about every Wrangler got stuck in the muck on the first loop. Chalk this up to factory tires, inexperienced drivers, or a trail that was too tough for even a Wrangler â€“ I donâ€™t know, I wasnâ€™t there yet. By the time I arrived, FCA had adjusted the route.
Sahara and Rubicon trims of the new JL Wrangler were on hand, and I hopped into a Sahara with the 3.6-liter V6 and eight-speed automatic first. Thanks to the mud, this would be a different experience than crawling over dry desert rocks in Arizona, and I was curious to see how the Wrangler handled different conditions.
As usual, all OEMs stack the deck a little when it comes to off-roading, more to avoid bent sheetmetal than to put their vehicles in a situation they canâ€™t handle (to an extent, those two things go hand in hand, of course). So, I wasnâ€™t sure how much Iâ€™d learn versus how much fun Iâ€™d be having â€“ OEM-sponsored or not, off-roading is always fun. Iâ€™ve yet to have a miserable time doing it, and even the Raptor adventure had moments that made me grin.
Itâ€™s not shocking that I can report than my first loop in the Sahara was mostly drama-free. I got â€œstuckâ€� once, but not so bad that I needed outside assistance â€“ a few back-and-forth maneuvers and a lot of throttle got me out of it. There was some slipping and sliding here and there, due to the mud, but it was more fun than unnerving.
Far more illuminating was my time in the Rubicon model with the same 3.6-liter V6 but a six-speed manual handling the shifting duties. So was my turn in a Cherokee Trailhawk with the 2.0-liter turbo four and the hated nine-speed automatic.
First up, the Rubicon. I couldnâ€™t tell if the more off-road oriented trim was much better on the same trail as the Sahara, but I could tell that the six-speed manual transmission required a little more attention that I expected. I had thought Iâ€™d just toss it first and forget it, but the Wrangler has enough low-end torque that second and sometimes third gear was sufficient for launching â€“ engaging the clutch in first gear meant too much power sent to the wheels, which then spun in the muck.
As for the Cherokee, given that itâ€™s not quite as capable as the Wrangler, it was banished to an â€œeasierâ€� trail. I followed a guide driving a JK around a loop that included a deep, muddy gulch â€“ possibly the same one that gave me a scare during my last time at the park. The Cherokee got up and down OK, with enough power that I had little trouble getting to the top and back. Handling was the opposite of the Wrangler when stuff got slick â€“ it plowed off the trail while the Wrangler fishtailed.
Still, I was able to return it to base with no dents and only one moment of frustration â€“ the plowing meant I had to reverse two or three times in order to properly set up a turn.
As noted, Jeep (or any other automaker) isnâ€™t going to let journalists, some of whom have no off-road experience, get too deep into trouble with their vehicles. But the trails chosen were challenging. The launches in Tucson and Southern California exposed us to desert trails that werenâ€™t easy, and both of these loops also required a bit of work.
So, yeah, the Wrangler can handle a lot of whatâ€™s thrown at it. So, too, can the Cherokee â€“ at least off-road (I didnâ€™t drive it on-road this time, but I stand by the disappointment I experienced in January).
Iâ€™m not going to tell you to buy a Wrangler (or Cherokee) to off-road it; thatâ€™s FCAâ€™s job, not mine. Nor can I objectively say the Wrangler is the best off-road SUV on the market â€“ I havenâ€™t taken a 4Runner or most Land Rovers into the rough stuff. Not to mention that are different size and price considerations to take into account.
All I can I tell you is that off-roading is damn fun, no matter what youâ€™re driving, as long the vehicle is built to handle it. The Wrangler and Cherokee are. If you like your weekends dirty, you can do well with many off-road vehicles, meaning you needn’t plunk down money on a Jeep. If you do, though, youâ€™ll be alright.
[Images Â© 2018 Tim Healey/TTAC]