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May 2011 Drivelines: Off-Road News

Posted in Features on May 1, 2011
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Auto Show News
It may have been chilly in Motown for the North American International Auto Show in January, but the mood inside Cobo Hall was upbeat as automakers hoped to ride the current economic upswing with some enticing new products. Most of the news was on the electric/hybrid/small-car front, but here are the highlights from the truck side of the world.

Celebrating 70 Years of Jeep
Many events are planned this year to commemorate Jeep's 70th birthday. Jeep itself is jumping on the bandwagon with 70th Anniversary Edition models of each vehicle in its lineup. Seen here are the Anniversary Wrangler and Grand Cherokee, both fitted with special wheels, badging, and trim. All Jeep 70th Anniversary Edition models arrive in showrooms in the first quarter of 2011, and all will be available in a unique Bronze Star exterior paint.

Compass: The Mini Grand
The resemblance between Jeep's new Compass and the Grand Cherokee is no accident. According to Jeep President and CEO Mike Manley, Jeep wanted "the premium design cues of our award-winning new Grand Cherokee" on a compact SUV platform that delivers 28 mpg and some new off-road capability. The Compass earned a Trail Rated badge when equipped with the Freedom Drive II off-road package, which includes a continuously variable transaxle that stays in low gear when the off-road mode is activated, 17-inch all-terrain tires and aluminum wheels, a 1-inch-raised ride height, a fullsize spare tire, skidplates, and tow hooks. Jeep says this package is "recommended for moderate off-road situations that include steep grades, occasional wheel lift, and rock or log climbing."

The Compass is powered by a 2.0L I-4 rated at 158 hp and 141 lb-ft of torque, or a 2.4L four-banger that produces 172 hp and 165 lb-ft. Both can be ordered with a five-speed manual transaxle or continuously variable transmission. The three Compass trim levels-base Compass, Latitude, and Limited-are available with the Freedom Drive II off-road package, and the vehicles are available at Jeep dealers now.

Future GMC?
Industry analysts looked at GMC's All Terrain HD concept truck and wondered if it foreshadowed new models in the truck's lineup. Lisa Hutchinson, GMC product marketing director, seemed to confirm that in a press release when she said, "Although it is strictly a concept, it is a pretty realistic one."

You could consider this GMC's heavy-duty version of Ford's Raptor or Dodge's Power Wagon. It's based on a Sierra HD powered by a Duramax diesel, but it has been configured with a shorter overall length, a wider track, more ground clearance, custom front A-arms, remote-reservoir Fox shocks, an electronic front stabilizer bar disconnect, and 35-inch BFGoodrich KM2 Mud Terrain tires mounted on 20-inch aluminum wheels.

Trade journal Automotive News reports that the Sierra is due for a redesign in 2014 or 2015; could this be that truck?

Future Ford?
Ford was even more forthcoming than GMC about the thinking behind its Vertrek concept, indicating that it "shows the direction the company will take" in developing a future compact SUV. Ford's intent is to design a product that will appeal to buyers not just in North America but also in Europe and China, and the Vertrek is a response to the demands of compact SUV owners around the globe: "Strong design, great driving quality, smart technology, and the capability that helps get them to places they love to be," said Jim Farley, Ford's group vice president of global marketing, sales, and service.

The Vertrek is powered by a 1.6L EcoBoost gas engine fitted with Ford's new Auto Start-Stop system, which boosts fuel economy and reduces emissions. A six-speed transmission also helps reduce fuel use. Ford indicated that Vertrek could also be fitted with a compact diesel powertrain, most likely for markets outside the U.S. Darn.

This Just In
•Where's Willard Scott? Jeep isn't the only company celebrating a centennial this year. Chevrolet was founded in November 1911 by racer Louis Chevrolet and General Motors founder William C. "Billy" Durant. The Bow Tie folks promise "a year of anniversary activities" to celebrate.

•Welcome back, Grand Wagoneer. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne told reporters at the North American International Auto Show to expect "an upper-scale Grand Wagoneer" by early 2013. The seven-seat SUV will be built on the same platform as the Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango, but it will be priced higher than the premium models of either SUV.

•How's that, Commander? During Marchionne's announcement of the new Grand Wagoneer, a reporter asked him how it would differ from the Commander, which was discontinued last year. "That car was unfit for human consumption," he replied, as quoted in Automotive News. "We sold some. But I don't know why people bought them."

•Grassroots racing grows. Lucas Oil and Glen Helen Raceway in Southern California have expanded their regional off-road racing series partnership in an effort to expand grassroots short-course off-road racing. The Lucas Oil team will develop uniform rules and safety standards for new racing classes, including Full and Mini Stock Trucks and Mini Open Trucks, creating opportunities for off-road racers at all levels to compete safely in short-course racing. Go to for more info.

Earth Watch
•Race KoH, help the land. For the second year in a row, Rock Zombies 4x4 Club member Travis Carpenter of the 4405 Land Use team is running in the King of the Hammers to raise funds for land use efforts. The team is asking people to make pledges to the BlueRibbon Coalition based on how many miles Carpenter travels in the race, or you can make a flat-rate pledge. Visit to make your pledge.

•Congress defends our access. In January, Congressmen Wally Herger, Tom McClintock, Kevin McCarthy, and Dan Lungren cosponsored a bill to clarify the implementation and enforcement of Travel Management in California. This bill will restrict funds for the Forest Service's Travel Management Rule (TMR) until the agency has performed the project-level review under the rule. The bill also addresses the very contentious issue of the Forest Service banning OHV use on dirt-covered and roughly graded logging roads in rural sections of the state.

Dakar Highs & Lows
Celebration and frustration were among the emotions felt by American off-road racers who competed in the new South American version of the Dakar rally. Mark Miller and copilot Ralph Pitchford finished Sixth in the T1 Auto Class driving a VW Touareg, while California-based motorcycle racers Quinn Cody and Jonah Street completed the rally in Ninth and 12th place, respectively.

Our friend and fellow auto journalist Sue Mead was the first American female driver of record at Dakar, copiloting a largely stock Ford Raptor with longtime race and rally driver Darren Skilton. Not only did Mead and Skilton finish the grueling 14-day, 9,000-kilometer (about 5,900-mile) rally, but they brought the Raptor across the finish line in First Place in the Open Production Class. According to reports coming back from the race, the Raptor completed the journey with few mechanical issues beyond a broken shock mount and some overheating while running for several hours through deep, soft sand.

Robby Gordon and Team Hummer weren't so lucky. Gordon was disqualified after Stage 4 (of the rally's 13) for failing to start a special segment on time due to delays caused by a seized wheel bearing. Several days later the second Hummer on the team suffered a rollover in Stage 8 and then a broken transmission early in Stage 9, putting it out of competition.

You can read all about Team Hummer's adventure and watch in-car videos from the race on the blog

Best Of America Tour
Agroup called the EcoTrek Foundation has launched a tour called Best of America that will feature American-made vehicles fueled by cellulosic ethanol and equipped with American-made aftermarket products. The tour will travel to historic sites and events across the U.S. in an effort to raise awareness of renewable fuels and materials and the preservation of natural resources. We heard about this through Line-X, which provided spray-in bed and wheelwell protection for an F-250 pickup going on the tour.

Tom Holm, founder of EcoTrek, said his goal for the tour was to "emphasize our ability to be gentler to the environment while bolstering America's economy, national security, and independence from foreign oil."

The ethanol used to power the pickup is a biofuel made in America from diverted waste materials and landfill. According to EcoTrek, the production of cellulosic ethanol could create tens of thousands of jobs, increase unsubsidized revenue to farmers, and lower demand for foreign fuels. You can track the tour's progress at

•Apr. 2: Getting Started Off-Road 4x4 Skills Clinic, Hungry Valley SVRA, Gorman, CA, by Badlands Off-Road Adventures. Info: 310.374.8047,

•Apr. 2: Lucas Oil Regional Off-Road racing series, Glen Helen Raceway, San Bernardino, CA. Info:

•Apr. 2-3: JeepSkool, NE Ohio. Info:

•Apr. 3: Advanced Beginner Off-Road Driving Clinic, El Paso Mountains, Mojave, CA, by Badlands Off-Road Adventures. Info: 310.374.8047,

Apr. 8-9: 7th annual Wisconsin OHV Association off-highway vehicle enthusiast's workshops, Mole Lake, WI. Info:

•Apr. 9-10: IOK Four Wheelers spring swap meet, Cleves, OH. Info:

•Apr. 13-16: Tennessee Mountains Jeep Jamboree, Oak Ridge, TN. Info:

•Apr. 14: North Rim Grand Canyon trail ride, Parashant, NM, by Badlands Off-Road Adventures. Info: 310.374.8047,

•Apr. 14-16: Cajun Jeep Jamboree, St. Francisville, LA. Info:

•Apr. 16-24: Easter Jeep Safari, Moab, UT, by the Red Rock 4-Wheelers. Info:

•Apr. 18: Easter Safari for first-timers, Moab, UT, by Badlands Off-Road Adventures. Info: 310.374.8047,

•Apr. 29-May 1: Bilek Racing Silver State 300 desert race, near Las Vegas, NV, by Best in the Desert. Info: 702.457.5775,

•Apr. 29-May 1: Ultra4 Tour, in conjunction with Silver State 300, near Las Vegas, NV. Info: 702.457.5775,

•Apr. 30-May 1: Big Dog Offroad Ice Breaker Trail Ride, The Cove, Gore, VA. Info: 410.440.3670

Changes for Liberty
We had an opportunity to sample Jeep's lineup for 2011 at a special media drive in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where we first encountered the redesigned Compass and updated versions of the Liberty, seen here. Like the '11 Wrangler, the Liberty has some interior improvements-a new steering wheel and wheel-mounted audio controls-as well as some new colors.

In mid 2010 a Renegade model was added to the line, which features new skidplates and Hill-Start and Hill-Descent controls. The '11 Liberty Jet (right) is an upscale model with 20-inch wheels, chrome trim, and blacked-out headlights.

Leduc Wins Challenge Cup
Kyle LeDuc, pilot of the Toyo Tires-equipped Rockstar/Makita Pro 4 Class Ford F-150, had a lot to celebrate when the 2010 season of the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series came to a close in Arizona. He kept his head about him during a chaotic running of the Rockstar Energy Challenge Cup-which pits the Pro 2 trucks against the Pro 4s in the final race of the season-and squeezed through the carnage to win the race and a $30,000 payout.

LeDuc also came in second in the Pro 4 series championship, finishing behind a dominant Rick Huseman. Huseman and his Traxxas/Monster Energy Toyota Tundra won 10 of the series' 14 events, earning him his second championship in a row.

New Hot Rod RZR
Polaris has raised the bar on side-by-side performance with the introduction of the RZR XP 900, which the maker is calling "the only extreme performance side-by-side on the market." Powered by an 88hp fuel-injected twin, the XP 900 also features a new three-link trailing-arm IRS that offers 14 inches of travel out back. There's 131/2 inches of travel up front, 13 inches of ground clearance under the new RZR, adjustable Fox shocks at all four corners, and four-wheel disc brakes. The RZR XP 900 is available now with an MSRP that starts at $15,999.

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