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Off-Roading Brings A Different Kind of Automotive Joy - The Truth About Cars

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 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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