And then there were two. When Land Rover caught wind the Mini Countryman drove by the entrance of the “Hard” off-road course and exploded, they refused to let their LR4 on the trail any longer, unofficially disqualifying them from the off-road division battle. Only the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota FJ Cruiser Trail Edition were left to mud wrestle for the gold.
On the way back to the garage the ambiguous mouth to the hard course appeared in the muddy window of my Kia Sportage. There were no signs or little orange road cones to mark it, only a slight opening in dense brush that resembled both a place in a children’s book where a monster might live and several uninhabited areas around my high school where we would ride along with Andy while he trashed a $300 car purchased from an Albertson’s parking lot.
Jeep’s Grand Cherokee rolled up to the entrance, stopped for about twenty seconds, and disappeared into the foliage. There was a sense of bravery about it that evoked emotions of patriotism and images of George Washington punching Hitler in the throat.
I sped back to the garage and found the Toyota FJ dripping with brown water and fresh mud, waiting dutifully for another driver.
TOYOTA FJ CRUISER TRAIL EDITION
From the second I opened the door to the FJ Trail Edition, it was glaringly apparent Toyota used the vehicle as a platform to shove a massive capitalized U between the ‘S’ and ‘V’ of Sport Utility Vehicle .
The seats were made of tough water-resistant material. The floors and rear deck were coated with a rubber-type material. The dashboard barely had a gauge in it beyond a couple knobs and buttons.
Instead of a handy little switch to engage the four-wheel drive, a stick shift jutted defiantly up from the floor like it’s supposed to in a truck, as if to say, “Hang a plastic grocery bag around me to collect trail mix wrappers, curse me with flashes of white-hot rage when I refuse to shift at inopportune times.”
Real trucks used to be built this way, and men loved it.
A turn of the key brought the 260hp/271lb-ft of torque 4.0L V-6 to life. It purred the unpretentious sound of a diligently humble engine, designed to do little more than provide respectable power and run without major incident into the next century – Another telltale mark of a salt of the earth 4x4.
The next came when the trail-ready suspension rattled us down a quarter-mile stretch of pavement to reach the hard course. If there had been a case of beer in the back we would have exploded faster than Michael J Fox wearing a backpack full of Nitro Glycerin.
At the entrance to the hard course I shifted the four-wheel drive into gear and we proceeded to march through the trail without as much as a hint of becoming stuck. The trail had indeed deteriorated into a goopy series of menacing ruts and bogs that reached the bottom of the FJ’s doors in places, but it didn’t take anything more than a steady foot on the gas pedal for the Electronically Controlled Locking Rear Differential and Active Traction Control (A-TRAC) to do all the work for me.
And that was it. We plopped off the Exit Bridge and back onto the pavement behind the garage. I was flattered pink by the FJ, so much so I couldn’t help but feel a bit patronized.
JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE
I waited anxiously at the garage for its return, wanting to discover for myself if Jeep’s recent advertising push to establish the newly redesigned Grand Cherokee as a serious off-roader would hold water, or if they would also have me believe George Washington’s white stallion was named “Hemi”.
A quick glance at the Grand Cherokee’s press kit left me feeling clammy and cheated; Chrysler’s new flagship “4x4” was chalked to the gills with a disturbing laundry list of ON-road luxuries:
-Unibody platform sharing the same underpinnings as the Mercedes-Benz ML, complimented by torsional stiffness 146 percent stiffer than current model for improved durability and reduced noise, vibration and harshness
-World-class interior featuring real wood and leather, heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, four-way power lumbar controls, rain-sensitive wipers, ParkView rear back-up camera and power tilt/telescoping steering column with memory
-Standard Electronic Stability Control (ESC) including Electronic Roll Mitigation
-Sexy exterior remodeling
WTF? If I throttled my hot-rodded ’79 Cherokee coming out of a tight corner in my college days I’d have been put on suicide watch. When I tried it on the road course in the 2011 Grand Cherokee earlier on in the day the beastly grunt of the-5.7-Liter (360hp/390lb-ft torque) Hemi felt controlled, calculated, making me feel as though I’d won an episode of Jeopardy as the only contestant allowed to Google the questions.
Impressive? Meh; the Grand Cherokee was competing in the off-road division. Luckily Jeep sent an honest contender to represent their newly-redesigned flagship SUV, equipped with their top of the line:
OFF-ROAD ADVENTURE II PACKAGE
-Quadra-Trac II 4WD System, featuring five distinct drive modes:
1. Sand/Mud: Traction control and Quadra-Lift operate with sensitive response to wheel spin, and torque
2. Sport: Provides enhanced on-road capability
3. Auto: Automatically adapts to any on- or off-road situation
4. Snow: Vehicle traction and Quadra-Lift adjust automatically over snow-covered roads
5. Rock: Quadra-Lift suspension raises to maximum height (11.1 inches) and the transfer case, differentials, and throttle coordinate to provide low-speed control
-Electronic Limited-Slip Rear Differential
-Skid Plate Group
-Hill Descent Control
At the entrance of the hard course I flipped a handy knob to the “Mud” setting and the suspension pumped up to give us another 4.5 inches of ground clearance. We plopped off the exit-bridge and back onto the pavement behind the garage.
It was easy.
And that was it. The Jeep Grand Cherokee won the off-road division of 2011 Mudfest as well as the event’s top honors as “SUV of the year”. If you read between the lines, the latter award celebrates the vehicle that best encompasses every division of the competition:
Luxury, Affordable, Off-Road and Family - in essence, every quality that still defines the modern “SUV”.
Congratulations to Jeep, and all of the 2011 Mudfest winners:
-Best Affordable SUV: Kia Sportage
-Best Family SUV: Ford Explorer
-Best Luxury SUV: Volvo XC90
-Best Off-Road SUV: Jeep Grand Cherokee
-2011 SUV of the Year: Jeep Grand Cherokee
Picture: Driving Sports (www.drivingsports.com)