Desert Determination: Finding Your Off-Road Rhythm

“My mom is the most selfless, helpful person I know,” Amber Turner, an avid off-roader turned welder and Ultra4 racer recently said about her mother.

“My whole childhood she would tag along on my dad’s dirt-biking adventures so my siblings and I could experience camping and motorsports.”

Turner’s mother, Dolly, dreamt about the Rebelle Rally for years before the mother-daughter duo committed to it as team number 168. Turner’s mother even bought an Isuzu VehiCROSS four years ago with the intention of running the rally with it. Fast forward to 2022 and the team was part of 53 other female pairs to compete in the desert-focused off-road competition. Bucking technology and GPS gadgets, each team was allowed only a compass, maps, a roadbook, and prayers for a successful finish eight days and 1,600 bumpy miles later. Teams trekked from the north end of Lake Tahoe to the Mexican border, finishing the all-women’s rally in the sand dunes of Glamis.

“Overall, the [Isuzu VehiCROSS] is a relatively unconventional vehicle for what we used it for, but that’s kind of my M.O.,” Turner explained, “so I’m glad that we got to bring something new to the competition.”

Rally Beginnings

Although Emily Winslow and I have competed in the rally before, it was her first time off-roading in a 4x4, let alone navigating for one. Winslow, a seasoned crossover navigator and 2019 X-Cross podium finisher who rallied her personal Subaru Crosstrek twice before, tested her skills with me while I drove a 2023 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe plug-in hybrid for the event (supplied to us by Jeep). This year we were Team Nor’Wester, vehicle number 111.

Before this year, I was part of an individual team and drove a heavily customized 2012 Toyota Tacoma in 2018. In 2021, I partnered with VW of America and Winslow, piloting the first-ever all-electric crossover, an all-wheel-drive ID.4 numbered 211, across the rally’s finish line.

“I like to navigate, which means I enjoy rallying. I haven't done one without the other, they’re very much linked for me,” Winslow said. “The map doesn’t lie, and numbers don’t lie. I can find my way using math and logic.”

This year gave us multiple rewards, as well as a few unexpected challenges. Not only were we driving the antithesis of a Volkswagen crossover, but we also didn’t have the chance to take it off-road before the 1,600-mile rally began. How would we use our previous experiences to our advantage? Would we learn hard lessons along the way or champion our way through tough obstacles? Time will tell as crucial seconds counted down to this year’s start time.

Finding a Rhythm in the Desert Takes Time

“Everything is new, and you don't even know the questions let alone the answers,” said Kristin VanderHey Shaw, an automotive journalist and first-time Rebelle Rally competitor.

“This was my first off-roading competition and it seemed that my teammate Jill [Ciminillo] and I were on a steep learning curve. We finally figured out how to play to our strengths,” VanderHey Shaw stated, “and that helped us tremendously. I'm a big picture person and can find our location in context, and Jill is a detail specialist who can pinpoint our location to a tenth of a kilometer.”

VanderHey Shaw and Ciminillo partnered with Hyundai Motor Company, also a first-timer in the event series.

“The terrain was breathtaking, and at times incredibly difficult to tackle in a crossover,” VanderHey Shaw said.

The hardest hurdle they faced was arriving in Glamis and navigating sand dunes for the first time together.

“We didn't know it at the time, but the course director forgot to place one key flag we were searching for,” VanderHey Shaw explained, “and when we couldn't find the point, we drove away defeated and dejected.”

However, the rookie crossover team, number 215, pushed through adversity and awoke each morning, determined to have better days.

“Having a great partner is huge,” she said, “and driving a capable car is second.”

Rally Explanations

From Broncos to BMW and Land Rovers to Lexus, there was a wide range of 4x4 and all-wheel-drive adventure rigs at the event. Traditional internal-combustion gasoline and diesel vehicles ran alongside a small number of electrified runners: A 2022 Rivian R1T truck and R1S SUV, two 2022 Toyota Tundra non-plug-in hybrids (a TRD PRO and a Limited with an Off-Road Package), and three stock 2023 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe plug-in hybrids (including ours in the bright yellow High Velocity color).

Product company and auto manufacturer entries soared this year. Pre-tech activities ensured each vehicle played by the rules and had basic safety equipment on board. On-board navigation systems were taped off and cell phones/laptops were taken away and sealed until the rally was finished.

Most teams chose to run an aftermarket Terra Trip or ICO non-GPS enabled rally odometer computer, however, both computers we tried to use with our electrified Jeep didn’t work correctly. So, we had to run without one. We used a plain-Jane trip odometer to pinpoint estimated locations of up to 158 hidden checkpoints in the Nevada and California desert – a difficult task as it measured only tenths of a kilometer, not hundredths. Yep, you read that right – and lots of the checkpoints were invisible.

My 4x4 Foray

I have the tendency to drive distinct vehicle types for this competition, so I need to be quick on my feet and adaptive. Commanding an electrified Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe is different than an underpowered V6-equipped Tacoma. The up-front grunt of the PHEV quickly left memories of the waning ‘Yota engine in the dust, as the PHEV Jeep packed 375 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque.

We quickly realized the 4xe’s all-electric range wasn’t meant for long stretches, therefore, its 22 miles of near-silent operation was solely used when low-range was engaged. This allowed me to hear how the vehicle traversed through tricky terrain versus hearing its noisy engine while navigating through it.

The 4xe’s 17.2-gallon fuel tank is the smallest size-wise when comparing it to the rest of the Rubicon models. At its best, it gets 49 MPGe using gas/electric power, while all-gas usage comes in at 20 miles per gallon. Given these numbers, the Jeep 4xe still managed a total range of 370 miles. This came into play when long desert days gave way to many miles and lingering shadows. While others panicked over low-fuel warning lights compared to distances away from the refueling tanker, our team never once had an issue. We charged and refueled easily and consistently.

As expected, the plug-in 4xe easily climbed up and over trail challenges and soft sand dunes. Its 10.8 inches of ground clearance was a breath of fresh air compared to the previous year when our all-electric VW ID.4 had less than 6.7 inches of space between the skid plate and the dirt beneath us.

In short, our High Velocity tester proved itself a worthy rally companion, sans a few fuses that rattled loose during the competition. Its BFGoodrich KO2 all-terrain tires never missed a beat and kept us planted even when the ground beneath us became loose. Jeep once again took top honors at this year’s competition, with fellow Jeep team Nena Barlow and Teralin Petereit solidifying their place in history for the second year in a row.

Although we suffered without a rally odometer computer throughout the competition, we finished within the first 20 of the 46 total 4x4 teams. Winslow and I have rallied ICE engines, an all-electric vehicle, and a plug-in hybrid – a combination no team has done before. Additionally, we’re now part of a small group of women to have competed in both 4x4 and crossover classes. 

Three Teams, One Outcome

No matter what type of team you’re running, just getting out there and competing in the eight-day off-road traditional navigational rally is an accomplishment in and of itself. Pushing beyond your comfort zone and trying something new isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. But, with the right mindset and the willingness to fail yet learn along the way, can prove fruitful in the long run. You’ve got 1,600 miles of chances. Now own them and get out there. 

[Images: Mercedes Lilienthal, Richard Giordano, Paolo Baraldi, Nicole Dreon, and Regine Trias]

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Mercedes Lilienthal
Mercedes Lilienthal

Mercedes Lilienthal is an Oregon-based automotive journalist who contributes to The New York Times and several automotive outlets like Forbes Wheels, Autoblog, Car and Driver, and more. Additionally, she is the Editor-At-Large of TREAD Magazine. Mercedes creates content involving vehicular adventure travel, the automotive industry, and inspiring women within it. She and her husband own three customized right-hand-drive turbo-diesel 4x4 Mitsubishis: a Delica Space Gear van and two Gen 2 Pajero SUVs. They also own a modified 2022 Subaru Crosstrek daily driver.

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2 of 3 comments
  • Paul Alexander Paul Alexander on Nov 29, 2022

    Love to read what wealthy people with a ton of free time are up to.

    "Now own them and get out there." For sure! This sport is just like basketball or soccer, very low barrier to entry. Simply need to find about $50,000-$75,000 for the Ultra4, plus the costs of my support team.

  • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Nov 29, 2022

    Sounds like fun. Cool to rely on a map, compass, and odometer. That's becoming a lost art.

  • Probert A few mega packs would probably have served as decent backup.
  • Lou_BC Lead sleds. Now-a-days GM would just use Bondo.
  • Jrhurren This is a great series. Thanks Corey
  • Tane94 Not as stylish as the Soul which it is replacing but a practical shape and bonus points for EV only.
  • Ronin What is the magical white swan event in the foreseeable future that will suddenly reverse the trend?Success tends to follow success, and likewise failure. The perception, other than among true believers, is that e-cars are a lost cause. Neither government fiat, nor government bribery, nor even the promise of superior virtue among one's peers have been enough to push past the early adapter curve. Either the bust-out is right now for e-cars, or it doesn't happen. Marketing 101.Even subtle language-manipulation, such as deeming those possessing common sense as suffering from some sort of vague anxiety (eg, "range anxiety") has not been enough to induce people to care.Twenty years from now funny AI-generated comedians will make fun of the '20s, and their obsession with theose silly half-forgotten EVs. They will point out that, yes, EVs actually ran on electricity generated by such organic fuels as coal and natural gas after all, and then they will perform synthesized laughter at us.