Few brands have specialized only in sport utility vehicles since their start. In fact, just two immediately come to mind: Jeep and Land Rover. The latter has steadily moved upscale with its product lineup and now offers many models near or past the six-figure mark, but the former still proudly stands as the 'everyman' SUV brand. Even the most-expensive Jeep, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 comes nowhere near $100,000 -- a fully-optioned one runs around $65,000 -- and most Jeeps can be had for less than $30,000 if you're easy on the options list.
To highlight its two best-selling models and their capability, Jeep invited a handful of journalists to southwestern Colorado to put their products to the test on rugged trails amid the dramatic scenery of the Rocky Mountains. Our first night was spent in the town of Durango. Like many towns in the American west, Durango is an interesting confluence of traditional and contemporary. Among the plentiful cowboy hats and pickups there is a nearly equal number of mountain bikes, organic eateries, and Subaru Outbacks.
Off the Trails, On the Rails
The first part of the journey took place not on off-road trails, but on board an antique coal-fired steam engine train. Although quaint and nostalgic, riding it gives you a good idea why diesel locomotives became the industry standard starting in the 1930s. We were specifically warned to wear protective eyewear when leaning out the side of the cars for photography because it was likely that we'd get a faceful of ash from the coal furnace exhaust.
The line we were on runs from Durango to Silverton and is of the few remaining narrow-gauge lines in the U.S. Dating back to 1882, the line runs alongside the Animas River for most of the route and offers views you won't see by car.
Give Me Comfort
Once we arrived in Silverton, the true 'Jeep Experience' began. I ran into one of the few other Americans on the trip, Autoweek's Mark Vaughn. Seeing the gray skies overhead and the rumbling of thunder, Mark and I quickly decided on the comfortably enclosed Grand Cherokee Limited while others were taking the tops off Wranglers. We watched in amusement as our fellow travelers quickly scrambled to re-attach the roofs on the Wranglers as the rain started to get more intense. We did not regret our decision, either from a comfort or capability standpoint, as the deceptively refined-looking Grand proved its mettle on the trail. Our only shared critique was a want for slightly more-aggressive rubber, as we had some tire slippage where the more aggressively treaded Wranglers climbed upward with less drama.
As it turned out, Jeep was a step ahead of us, having brought the 'Trailhawk' Grand Cherokee concept to the event. The Trailhawk, among other things, is fitted with beefier tires than the standard-issue all-season rubber on our Limited. Although they didn't give a specific date, they did say a model inspired by the Trailhawk would be headed to Jeep showrooms soon. There were also hints that it would be available with all powertrain options, including, presumably, the upcoming EcoDiesel.
Having just been to Moab, Utah about a month earlier, and having experienced 90 degree temperatures there, I naively assumed that weather in nearby southwestern Colorado would be similar. Had I done my research, I would have discovered the average altitude for most of our trip would be about double or triple that of Moab. Going on my poorly-informed assumption, I packed almost all shorts and T-shirts, a decision I soon regretted. Thankfully, through the hospitality of one of the other journalists, I was able to avoid too much undue discomfort.
The next morning, we headed out of our camp to go to some of the highest-elevation trails of the trip. My driving partner once again was Vaughn and, in the interest of journalistic objectivity and thoroughness, we thought it only fair that we ride in a Wrangler for the second day. Having been coddled by the refinement and comfort of the Grand Cherokee the day before, we were both expecting a decidedly cruder and more agricultural experience with the Wrangler.
To the surprise of both of us, the Wrangler was quite refined and stayed surprisingly squeak- and rattle-free on the trail. Even its aggressive-looking BFGoodrich tires were surprisingly quiet on the on-road portions of the route. My only wish is that Vaughn would have activated the Rubicon's anti-roll bar disconnect on the rocky first half of our ride, as there was quite a bit of side-to-side head tossing on the first leg. The second part of the drive down from the peak of Red Mountain III was less turbulent, partly because I had discovered the button to activate that feature and partly because as the remainder of the trail was less rugged.
In a stark contrast to the previous night's accommodations, we were put up for our last night at the posh Hotel Madeline in Telluride, though most of the group was most excited about a hot shower. There were few takers for the outdoor shower at our chilly and damp camp the night before.
A Glimpse of the Future?
The highlight of that afternoon was an up-close look -- and a too-brief drive -- of some of Jeep's latest concept vehicles. We were allowed behind the wheel of all but the unique Mighty FC concept. Head of Jeep Design Mark Allen chauffeured awaiting scribes on a brief ride in the high-riding concept, which entailed placing one foot in the center of the front wheel hub, the other on top of the tire, and grabbing the B-pillar with your left hand. By the time I was able to get into the vehicle, technical issues had prevented the Mighty FC from shifting out of first gear, so I was treated to the slow-speed version of the demo. It was still a unique experience. I felt like I was riding in a cabover commercial truck or Volkswagen van, but about three feet higher off the ground.
My personal favorite was the Wrangler Traildozer, a short-wheelbase Wrangler with its nose stuffed with 6.4 liters and 470 hp of Hemi fury. With a short loop of less than half a mile, there were no off-road antics nor much of an opportunity for pedal-to-the-metal wide open sprints, but the combination along with a six-speed manual provided an entertaining experience. It was evocative of an early Ford Bronco V-8, albeit one with about three times the horsepower. With the vehicle consisting of mostly off-the-shelf parts, this one seems like a no brainer to me. Then again, I don't have to deal with the likes of the EPA, DOT, and CARB.
Thanks to record sales, 2012 is shaping up to be Jeep's best year in its history. As the brand's two best-selling models, the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee are largely responsible for that success. By necessity, Jeep is diversifying away from being 'just' the Wrangler brand, but even its humbler, more street-oriented models are capable of at least some level of off-road driving. Even the entry-level Compass, which once was conspicuously bare of the 'Trail Rated' badge, earned it back thanks to some mid-cycle updates. With solid support from CEO Sergio Marchionne and some new models just around the corner, Jeep is firmly positioned to maintain its status as the most capable and attainable brand of SUVs in the world.