By on April 20, 2018

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 I’d driven both the new Wrangler and new Cherokee off-road – one in Arizona, the other in California – 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 there’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 haven’t seen any true cliffs. Set aside the possibly misleading name, though, and the trails are gnarly enough – I discovered that with the Ford. The place also offers zip lining for those so inclined.

Illinois probably isn’t the first place one thinks of when it comes to off-roading – most people picture the state as a sea of cornfields, with subdivisions and skyscrapers stuffed into the northeast corner. But that’s not entirely true – there’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. It’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 – I don’t know, I wasn’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 can’t handle (to an extent, those two things go hand in hand, of course). So, I wasn’t sure how much I’d learn versus how much fun I’d be having – OEM-sponsored or not, off-roading is always fun. I’ve yet to have a miserable time doing it, and even the Raptor adventure had moments that made me grin.

It’s not shocking that I can report than my first loop in the Sahara was mostly drama-free. I got “stuck” once, but not so bad that I needed outside assistance – 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 couldn’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 I’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 – 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 it’s not quite as capable as the Wrangler, it was banished to an “easier” trail. I followed a guide driving a JK around a loop that included a deep, muddy gulch – 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 – 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 – 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) isn’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 weren’t easy, and both of these loops also required a bit of work.

So, yeah, the Wrangler can handle a lot of what’s thrown at it. So, too, can the Cherokee – at least off-road (I didn’t drive it on-road this time, but I stand by the disappointment I experienced in January).

I’m not going to tell you to buy a Wrangler (or Cherokee) to off-road it; that’s FCA’s job, not mine. Nor can I objectively say the Wrangler is the best off-road SUV on the market – I haven’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 you’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, you’ll be alright.

[Images © 2018 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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11 Comments on “2018 Jeep Wrangler Capable Off-Road; In Other News, Water Wet...”

  • avatar

    “hated 9 speed”

    I actually just had a fantastic experience with a 3.6L+9spd in a rental Pacifica with 42k hard fought rental miles under its belt. Never caught in the wrong gear, quick to downshift when called upon, basically imperceptible shifts at part throttle. I’ll give the rest of the Pacifica a big plug as well. Wow what a great highway cruiser! Supremely comfortable and adjustable seats (4 way lumbar and heated leather in mine), surprisingly effective side bolstering. It felt a bit lower than other vans I’ve driven, a bit more car like in how it drove and handled. I’ve recently had Pentastar+6spds in a Grand Caravan and a Journey, the Pacifica is just much more modern and unleashes that motor even more. Really great handling without any of the Caravan’s rear torsion beam wonkiness and mostly good ride except for really deep irregularities. Road noise was a bit of an issue, part of that might have been the pretty worn down tires. Most impressive: Averaged a reported 29mpg while cruising at 78mph for ours on end with a few full throttle runs leaving reduced speed construction zones. Biggest minus: some very disconcerting creaking/popping from the rear doors, which as I understand it is easily corrected with some grease on the door seals and latches/strikers, not uncommon across all minivans with sliding doors.

    I’m definitely not much of a Chrysler guy (at all) but the Odyssey and Sienna really must drive like a million bucks to top my experience with the Pacifica. It legitimately had me browsing for lightly used Pacificas.

    Sorry, wholly unrelated to the article at hand but I just needed to gush and give Chrysler some credit for a job well done.

    • 0 avatar

      Looking around and found Bark’s review of a rental, my impressions line up exactly except for my road noise complaint:
      (free plug for baruth bros website)

      There’s a reason I kept hammering the throttle in this thing, it’s just so addicting, sounds great too.

    • 0 avatar

      Definitely the 9-speed, once it has adjusted itself from factory default settings, is a remarkably good tranny. I don’t have anything like 42K miles on mine but even with the little 2.5 Tigershark it’s a solid choice.

  • avatar

    Honest to goodness silver on that wrangler is just what I like to see. Also a good example of silver done right: The current corvette.

    • 0 avatar

      “Honest to goodness silver” does not belong on a Wrangler. They should be loud and brash, making them easier to spot if they somehow go dirty-side-up (and they will, eventually, if you try to take on something it, or you, CAN’T handle.)

  • avatar

    I bet the giant-tires crew isn’t too happy about having turn signals and DRLs in the fenders.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    Great yarn.

    Question. From reading your story it appears you don’t use a manual off road often. If you did you know what gear to use easily, even if you were kust introduced to the vehicle.

    I don’t mind 4×4 parks. There’s a great one near Brisbane called “Landcruiser Mountain”. Its large’ish, if I recall 20km x 10km with enough trails for several weekends.

    Keep these stories coming.

    When (and if) the US gets the Raptor Ranger put it up against the F150 Raptor. It would make a great article.

  • avatar

    Rousch Creek Park in Pennsylvania. A little bit of almost everything there. Mud. Rocks. Hills and even sand.

    Oh, and just try taking on the creek itself…

  • avatar

    Check this. Someone has Russian “Jeep” in California. And it doesn’t do badly off road

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