By on June 17, 2019

When the invite from Fiat Chrysler came in, I hemmed and hawed. The event in question was an off-road drive of the 2020 Jeep Gladiator, along with other off-road-oriented Jeep and Dodge rigs, taking place at an off-road park in west-central Indiana. This was a regional event — media invitees all came from Chicago, Detroit, and Indianapolis.

If I hadn’t already driven the Gladiator in March, I’d have gone without a second thought. That’s why I hesitated – I’d driven the truck on the launch, and I’ll learn more from a second-look that takes place over a week-long loan (I have one scheduled) than I would from a few more hours of rock-crawling. Was it worth the time out of office?

I considered sending a freelancer/contributor – I’d be curious what someone else thought of the truck. Eventually, I decided to go because I hadn’t yet driven the Ram Power Wagon. I also later learned that the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk with the new 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine would available for a spin through the woods.

I’m not going to review the vehicles I hadn’t driven – or anything from the event, really — because a full review would need to involve on-road driving. And because Fiat Chrysler isn’t dumb enough to put vehicles on the trail that can’t handle it. Besides, is it really shocking that a Wrangler Rubicon can ford a stream and won’t break while clambering over some rocks?

Instead, I’ve come to preach the gospel of off-roading as an activity. You don’t need a Fiat Chrysler product – they may have sponsored this event, but there are plenty of capable off-road vehicles being built by various automakers (including the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro I drove down to Hoosier town). Not to mention ATVs, side-by-sides, et cetera.

Simply put, if you have the chance to spend a day boulder-bashing, do it.

(Full disclosure: Fiat Chrysler supplied lodging for one night, meals, snacks, and offered gloves and a T-shirt, plus paid for a day’s usage of The Badlands off-road park in Indiana. Also, if the cop who stopped me for speeding on Hwy 41 is reading this, thanks for letting me go with a warning.)

Despite growing up a car guy, I never got much into extracurricular activities such as track driving, drag racing, or autocrossing. This was mostly a function of time and money – I didn’t have enough of either. Which meant I never owned a vehicle that was able to do any of these things.

I did own a Ford Bronco II with four-wheel drive as a teen, and a friend of mine did try to get me to go off-roading once. Problem was, the Bronco gave me lots of problems, so I demurred, although being a teenager and wanting to avoid being branded a wuss, I never said no. I just sorta dodged the invite. Not that it mattered – it’s not like the suburbs of Chicago offer up much in the way of places for off-roading.

So it wasn’t until I started writing about cars for a living that I was truly exposed to all the fun things once can do with a vehicle on private property in a closed and controlled setting. I immediately found track driving to be my favorite thing to do, because speed. I am not the best or fastest journalist out there, but I have fun.

I don’t enjoy autocrossing as much, despite the fact that consequences for failure are much less unforgiving than track driving. I’m just not as smooth as I’d like to be, so that keeps me from being faster. Drag racing is a blast but I’ve only done it twice, and only against the clock, not other people.

It took me a little longer to really see the appeal in off-roading. I’ve enjoyed ever since the first time I did it, but it’s the polar opposite of track driving in many ways. You’re driving slow, usually under 10 mph. You’re relying on others to spot you, something that you don’t do on track (unless you have a right-seat rider or a pit crew). It’s about patience — not only can driving too fast get you in trouble, but making a decision hastily can do the same.

That’s why I am coming around to enjoying off-roading, despite some serious misadventures. It requires a different skill set than other types of performance driving, and every time I have a chance to do it, it’s a fun challenge to learn how to think differently about motoring.

Yes, it’s true that all four activities I’ve listed here involve skill sets that are different from one another. Track driving requires you to learn lines and apexes, to practice car control, to be smooth with inputs, to learn where the limit is and to know when you’re approaching it (and how to keep from crossing it), and how to drive out of trouble should the worst occur. Among other skills.

Drag racing is mostly about reaction time and hand-eye coordination at launch, while autocrossing is about being smooth and (sometimes) knowing how to slide a bit without scrubbing speed. Like with track driving, car control is key, along with smooth inputs.

Off-roading involves some of those skills. Smooth throttle and braking applications are needed, especially if you don’t have electronic doodads like hill-descent control available. You need to place the front wheels precisely with the steering, and you need situational awareness of what’s around you and your rig.

But only off-road can you stop, hop out, and think through your next move. You don’t have that luxury at speed on a track – you best have done your mental planning during the driver’s brief, or your last coffee break in the pits. You might have a spotter or guide on hand who can hop out and tell you which way to steer, which is tremendously helpful.

While all forms of performance driving involve problem solving to some degree — autocrossers will think about the parts of the course where they lost time and ponder how they can be faster there; track rats will mull over lines and apexes and whether they can brake late before entering certain corners — off-roading puts it front and center. And gives you time to work on it.

In other words, paved high-speed driving sometimes depends on your reactions, while off-roading depends on your foresight.

Another benefit is the scenery. Sure, plenty of tracks out there offer scenic views. But you can’t focus on how pretty those trees are at 100 mph. Crawling along at 5 mph on a muddy trail allows you to take in the wonders of nature. No wonder Jeep continues to make vehicles that can go topless and doorless while also allowing the front windshield to fold down.

There are, of course, drawbacks. Unless you never get out of the truck, you’re gonna get dirty. Mosquitoes and other unpleasant insects hang out in the woods. If you’re really out in the middle of nowhere, you could get lost or stuck, and it’s not always easy to get ahold of help. It’s certainly possible to get hurt, as well.

So you’ll need to be prepared, and you’ll need a capable vehicle that is also appropriately prepared. But do that, and do it right, and you’re in for a good time in the woods.

Just watch out for that poison ivy.


[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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15 Comments on “Off-Roading Brings A Different Kind of Automotive Joy...”

  • avatar

    So no 2500 Power Wagon was there? Pics show a 1500 Rebel(?)

    In any event, I do agree with the overall premise of the article….off-roading does bring joy, although I prefer the higher speed stuff.

  • avatar
    Middle-Aged (Ex-Miata) Man

    I like this article, but also have to wonder if Fiasler would consider “I’m not going to review the vehicles I hadn’t driven – or anything from the event, really” to be a sound return on its investment in hosting you…

    • 0 avatar

      FCA will know if it was money well spent when he does review one of their products while recalling what swell folks they are.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      Not every vehicle gets reviewed. I still got background on new product, and Chrysler still gets to try to lay their usual PR points on us. I also got to ask a lot of questions that will be useful background

      • 0 avatar

        They got some photos published and the product discussed in a positive way.

        If I were a PR person, I’d consider that a measured success — and well worth the expense.

  • avatar
    formula m

    Off-roading is truly my favorite motor sport. Its nice to have a truck/suv that is capable and after many lessons I learned the best off-roader is not your daily-driver. No matter what you drive!!
    Mud/water/sand does not make for a pleasant ride home on the highway after. Skid plates hold all that stuff and water gets in your axles and differentials. Also have had to leave my 4Runner in the swamp overnight and come back and get it Monday after work. (not a great way to start your first day at a new job)
    I still use my RAM off-road on milder trails/fields but after buying a Honda 4×4 ATV 10yrs ago it has saved me from doing too much damage to my daily drivers.
    My new Arctic Cat has fuel injection, independent suspension, front and rear locking diffs and is pretty unstoppable.

    • 0 avatar

      “water gets in your axles and differentials”
      That is why one needs to add tubing to the vent points on axles/diffs etc. and route them as high as possible on your vehicle. One way valves added to the vent system also reduces the risk of replacing gear oil with mud :)

      Most vehicles can’t handle water fiording much deeper than the bottom of your axle hub (At least that is what most owner’s manuals recommend)

      Rubicons, Power Wagons and Raptors are the only rigs with 30 inch fiording depths.

  • avatar

    Most of this offroading is laughable because it is just a vanity project. Look at the photo above – the Jeep could have driven around a puddle of water, but he went across it. Ooooh, that was mad skillz. Shut the engine off, stop polluting, and walk your fat ass through the forest. But who is gonna carry the grill and beer cooler, you ask?

  • avatar

    I’ve seen several gladiators in the wild now, the base models just look odd, the higher trims are more coherent. A lift kit would fix the lower models tremendously but then you have to deal with the weak sauce V6 working even harder. Hurry up and put a real engine in this FCA.

  • avatar

    You can have the white knuckle rock crawling, I’ll take the muddy, rutty, barely there trails any day for the most fun off-roading. There’s a lot to be said for you and you $40K off-roader coming back in one piece

  • avatar

    “But only off-road can you stop, hop out, and think through your next move.”

    Uh huh ~ that’s what I thought in 1967 as I meandered through the woods in rural New Hampshire in a pristine 1952 Willys M38A1 .

    Fast forward a few decades and after my son beat his wife’s late model Jeep nearly to death, he bought a 1964 Willys station wagon body mounted on a 197? Chevy K20 chassis with a 454 V8 in it, the speed he flies it over rocks and boulders is amazing .

    He’ll kill it soon enough but will have a blast every moment .


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