As nice as the cars on display at PIMS 2014 were, they were just static displays. Extremely interactive yes, but primarily immobile nonetheless. To remedy this, a few manufacturers had set up shop in the small gravel lot in the front of the Philippine Word Trade Center to offer test drives. Most would let you take the car out on a short loop around the area, and one manufacturer in particular was offering a generous dose of adventure to go along with your test drive.
Jeep, with their “Rock and Road” promotion, had properly ruined – at least for the property maintenance staff – a portion of the compound’s lawn, creating pits, mounds and a deceptively-small miniature hill. This was all in the name of letting people learn for themselves what Jeep’s “Trail-Rated” moniker really meant. The very quick course – most lessons being “experience”, but still – on off-road driving was also a nice bonus.
Jeep has a long history of making tough, utilitarian vehicles with accomplished off-road capabilities, all starting with the military-contract Willys MB 4×4 light utility vehicle and culminating in the current JK Wrangler. Along the way, Jeep have created several landmark vehicles like the Wagoneer, which was a luxury SUV before such things were in fashion.
Today, the name “Jeep” is among the most popular marques for off-road adventurers. “Wrangler” stands on the correct side of iconic, being easily modifiable, and staying true to the course of the original Willys MB.
Made available for short drives around the course were several Wranglers, a plush Grand Cherokee, and the new, radically-styled Cherokee. Aside from the elaborate course that Jeep had set up, their test drive experience was set far apart from the others because it was the only one that really offered prospective buyers a glimpse of the actual capabilities of the vehicles. Add in the fact that this kind of driving was alien to most of the people who signed up, and it was Rock and Road that was the clear winner for audience engagement.
It was also something of an endurance test for the vehicles. This was the fourth day of the show, and these cars were being run up and down the course all day long. Factor in the sweltering heat, the different driving styles, and the occasional intimidated driver sliding back down the small hill, and it truly is impressive that these cars just soldiered on.
After choosing which Jeep you wanted to wheel around the course, you had two choices as to how to go about it. You could take the helm and wheel the vehicle of choice yourself, with an instructor guiding you along, or you could let the instructor do the driving. The second option is obviously much safer for an inexperienced driver, but where’s the fun in that?
Dressed in black and splattered with mud, the Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited properly looked the part as it rolled up to us. The instructor waved us in, and it was our turn to drive. I have never been seriously off-roading before, so this was going to be a completely new experience to me.
After a short discussion on what we’d be doing for the run, we set off. The course was designed in a figure-eight of sorts, with one section of the course overlapping itself just before reaching the end point. Starting off easy, the first obstacle is the “rock garden”. Basically a bunch of big stones embedded in the ground, it was meant to exhibit body control. We rolled through it like it was nothing; gravel “roads” in far-flung provinces aren’t as bad as this, but the experience wasn’t all that different.
The second obstacle was the main highlight of the course. The miniature hill may have only been worth about six feet of ascent, you still had to contend with what felt like a million degrees of inclination. In truth it was probably closer to twenty degrees, but it’s extremely unlikely your typical city driver would approach anything even a quarter of that. You could probably use the ramp up Shangri-La Mall’s old parking building a few times to practice, but that still wouldn’t be close to this. The instructor had us pause just before the climb, to make sure that we were lined up correctly; spotters along the course helped confirm this. His instruction could basically be distilled into: hold it steady and boot it.
“Booting it” requires a surprising amount of commitment. To allow the driver to finely regulate the power going to the wheels – useful in rock-crawling situations – the throttle pedal moves through quite a lot of distance. Coming off a typical passenger car, you’ll have to re-adjust your foot calibration, because what might seem like egregious amounts of throttle in other cars will only result in about 30% throttle in the Wrangler. To make the climb, you’ll have to put both your foot and your entire leg into it.
With extremely liberal application of the throttle, we were sitting at the top of the hill. Sitting in the tent waiting for our chosen cars to be available, we saw a considerable number of people either stop just short of the top, or slide back down, all four wheels spinning in vain on the slippery mud. This is understandable, because it’s very hard to keep your foot in it when all you can see out your windshield is sky. While the instructors did a good job of keeping the participants calm, your self-preservation instincts do have this nasty habit of kicking in and screaming at your foot to lift.
Once at the top, the instructor pushed a little button, engaging the hill descent assist system. In basic terms, it’s a system that automatically regulates your speed going downhill. If you’ve heard of hill-holding, this is its gym-buffed sibling. If you’re wondering about all the lights on the instrument panel, it’s all the Wrangler’s off-road engineering being put to use, from locking differentials to anti-roll bar disconnects. In the picture above, the hill descent control is the little green light just to the left of the speedometer. You’ll probably also notice the “PRND” graphic under the tachometer; yes, all the models on offer were automatic, but again, throwing inexperienced drives on a course like this with a three-pedal manual might possibly result in copious amounts of the acrid smell of clutch torture. In addition, this increases the risk of someone losing control on the climb.
Anyway, the instructor turned the hill descent system on, and asked to do another very difficult thing: let the car roll down the hill by itself, and keep the pedals free of feet. The descent was at the same angle as the ascent, which meant that once the vehicle – and you, by extension – was fully committed to the descent, the view out the windshield would rapidly be filled with soft earth. You couldn’t even see the path down as you began the descent, which also meant that willing yourself to trust the hill descent system became a Herculean task.
Inevitably, I failed at it, instinctively stomping on the brake pedal about halfway down. What comfort I sought from the brake pedal failed to materialise when I stepped on it; the pedal was vibrating violently, as the system automatically modulated the pressure. It actually felt as if the pedal was actively – and angrily – trying to push my foot away. We reached the bottom of the hill, and the pedal sank back down normally to the end of its travel, no longer shaking with fury at my failure to trust the hill descent system.
After a series of deep ruts designed to test ground clearance, the next obstacle was a series of alternating left-right mounds to test axle articulation. Coming from the hill, these ruts and mounds were a nice little break before the final obstacle.
That being said, there was still a bit of trepidation to be had as you felt the vehicle rock side to side. There was no risk of rollover of course, but the feeling of being tossed about left and right was still upsetting. You would think that our terrible roads might prepare you for such a shaking, but it doesn’t.
The final obstacle was a pit of water. While the pit was still quite deep, it wasn’t really as dangerous as the opaque water made it out to be. If you were willing to wade down into the pool, the water would barely even come up to the door sills, at least in the Wrangler. You also had the option of skirting around the pit, like this.
This would result, of course, in the vehicle listing over to one side quite dramatically. Impressive lean angles were observed from the people who chose to crawl around the pool, but none of them even came close to tipping over. With that, you skirted back around the rock garden and stopped at the registration and waiting tent.
Our photographer chose to drive the Grand Cherokee, which was at the other end of the – quite short – scale of Jeep ruggedness. The Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited is the most off-road ready model in the offering, while the Grand Cherokee is the most comfort-oriented, which showed in the difference of the driving experience.
Pedal travel didn’t seem extraordinarily long, and the brake pedal did not vibrate violently with the hill descent system. In the interest of comfort, the Grand Cherokee’s controls were more damped and closer to those on most cars.
While the Grand Cherokee would routinely get some impressive wheel-up moments in the axle articulation section, it did not feel quite as dramatic from inside. You weren’t even conscious that one corner of the vehicle was stuck up in the air. From the outside this was a clear demonstration of the chassis rigidity and four-wheel drive system, as you would see the other three wheels continue to move while the aerial one kept still.
The Wranglers, meanwhile would display ridiculous amounts of compliance, the wheels almost compressing into the fenders…
…before falling away to the floor. With a sway bar disconnect, the Wranglers displayed contortionist levels of axle articulation, made even more impressive when you consider that all this capability is made available from the factory. This is by no means to say that the Grand Cherokee was much less capable; while the Grand Cherokee is geared more for on-road comfort, it still gave up little to the limber Wrangler.
The Grand Cherokee did, however, seem to be missing the lower front valence. Whether this was intentionally removed, or was torn off isn’t clear, but it does point to the compromises Jeep made for more on-road comfort.
Jeep struck an impressive balance between making a challenging course and keeping it low-level for off-roading amateurs – like us – and keeping it safe for everybody. In addition, it’s a nice effort on Jeep’s part to make such an experience available.
Most people who buy these vehicles will probably not be regularly putting wheels on mud or rough terrain, but this is a fantastic way to introduce people to the real capabilities of their vehicles. By safely exposing people to the capabilities of these cars, Jeep are helping people appreciate them better, creating more engaged potential customers and enthusiasts, and perhaps opening people up to a new venue of motoring-for-pleasure.
As for our photographer, he certainly enjoyed his time at the helm of the Grand Cherokee.
– Words by Kristoff Franco, pictures by Eugene Calimag