Friday, June 8, 2012

Off-Roading Shows Off Vehicle Features

Photo courtesy: Brad Nelson
If you have an all-wheel or four-wheel-drive SUV or truck, you may have never used some of the features designed for off-road, steep hill and rugged terrain driving. I spent my birthday this week behind the wheel of SUVs and trucks crawling along the uneven, rock-filled, dusty dirt roads of the hills of Malibu and celebrated the use of on-board vehicle systems, like Hill Descent Control (HDC), that took away the stress and risks of dangerously steep downhill manoeuvrings. Engaging four-wheel drive low gear for the steep climbs, tight turns and unexpected slipping and sliding was par for the course in these carefully selected, capable vehicles.

The Toyota 4Runner Trail edition (below) and Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland (above) were two vehicles with the extremely useful Hill Descent Control that I drove on the more challenging red course at Calamigos Ranch. The temptation is to step on the brake pedal, but you must resist, because that will override the HDC system. The vehicle does it all while HDC is operating - it controls acceleration and braking as needed with the ABS brake system controlling the speed.

The Honda Pilot Touring edition performed very well on the less-rough but still tough blue course by absorbing much of the bumpy terrain while in 1st or 2nd gear. The Chevrolet Avalanche which looks like it's made for off-road, has a long wheelbase meaning it required some backing-up to make it around the tight hairpins but otherwise was flawless.

Photo courtesy: Myles Regan
The key to successfully negotiating uneven slippery dirt roads is to drive slowly and align your wheels into the potholes and water-eroded crevices because the vehicle will slip into them anyway. Also if severe heights, sheer drops and deep canyons are your issues, stay focused on the road ahead, even when the road seems to disappear as you reach the top of a steep incline. Be confident that the event organizers weren't planning to send you off a cliff, if not just to preserve the manufacturer-provided vehicle. One precaution stressed in the drivers' meeting dealt with rocks - drive over them so you're hitting the toughest part of the tire as trying to skirt them could mean a puncture in the vulnerable sidewall.

In summary, this off-road exercise showed what manufacturers have done technologically to take the risks out of driving on challenging terrain and reemphasized that being cautious at low speeds makes it much more safer to handle unpredictable, demanding conditions. Being familiar with and knowing how to operate all the features in your vehicle prepares you and makes you ready to have them at your fingertips when needed thus making you a better and safer driver.

It was a whale of a good time (pun intended) as my experienced off-road journalist passenger, Greg Whale who joined me on a few of the excursions, kept us on course. Also, my thanks to Chrysler's Scott Brown who made extra sure that I navigated his Jeep with precision utilizing all the gadgets.

Note: There were 19 vehicles available to review, including a 4WD Kia Sportage, on two off-road courses of varying difficulty and due to time constraints, not all could be driven.