Power Vs. Gearing For Off-Roading
“Cap’n, She Canna Handle the Powerrr!”
The saying goes, “There’s no replacement for displacement.” It’s just American to love a gratuitous amount of horsepower and torque, but off-roading might be one area of motorsports where a well-geared rig with less power and torque could work better than something with silly amounts of horsepower. Why? Well, success off-road comes from finesse, skill, and equipment. Sure, horsepower and torque are part of that package, but skillful application of those forces is critical. Overcoming a lack of traction with more power doesn’t generally makes sense—in fact, sometimes the opposite may be true. A slow-churning tire may make more headway than one that is spinning at 90 mph down toward the center of the earth. And did we mention that power helps even strong components go snap? That snap is the archenemy of all off-roader. Breaking on the trail is part of the fun, but it also costs time and money and usually detracts from the fun.
The other side of the coin is gearing. Gearing gives you a mechanical advantage. By that we mean it multiplies the forces created by any engine to turn the tires over the rocks, through the mud, and in the sand, snow, and dirt. Gearing also takes what power you have and makes it much easier to apply and control. But gearing also slows wheel speed, which can be critical in mud, sand, and muddy rock. So what’s the best in the dirt? We all have an opinion, don’t we?
To say I’m a power junkie is the grossest of understatements. My first vehicle was a 1969 Olds Cutlass with a bored 455, severely ported heads, an offensively rowdy cam, and a dual-quad Offenhauser manifold supporting twin Holley 1850s. That sucker could lay stripes of rubber at will even while moving 60 mph. That said, for off-roading I find gearing infinitely more usable than power. Give me a Magnum Box Doubler setup or a four-speed Atlas and a wheezy four-cylinder and I’ll most likely outwheel my buddies in a 550hp supercharged LS rig. As long as you’re not talking extremely snot-slick conditions, which I unfortunately don’t get a chance to wheel with any great frequency, I find gearing much more useful for the technical rockcrawling and trail driving that I most frequently find myself enjoying.
Trent McGeeNuts & Bolts author
This is a tough one, because one can more or less make up for the other in most situations. If I could only pick one I’d choose gearing, only because of the type of wheeling I do most of the time. Power rules the roost in mud and sand; no amount of gearing is going to make up for a lack of woo-pow in these situations. On the other hand, lots of power without the right gearing will quickly burn up a transmission in slow-speed technical stuff like rockcrawling. I don’t see a lot of mud or sand, so gearing is the better choice for me. But if I lived closer to Glamis or Pismo, I bet that every vehicle I owned would have a healthy V-8. There’s also the fact that lots of power is fun, but it’s also hard on equipment, requiring more expensive and beefier components in order to maintain reliability.
Verne SimonsTech Editor
The love of power is strong with me, but since I am such a consummate penny pincher I seem to generally end up in a rig that has less power. Why is that? Well, usually people are willing to pay for horsepower, and thus that cheap old four-cylinder Jeep or 4x4 truck is less expensive as a starting point for off-road fun. And while the fun factor is definitely higher when you have 600 hp to play with, believe you me: You can have fun off-road in something that would otherwise unethically be described as underpowered. Simply add some gearing.
Now, if I won the Powerball tomorrow and nothing really mattered anymore, I would aim for gearing and engine swaps that yielded gobs more torque—not horsepower, mind you. Sure, gobs of horsepower are great, but a lumpity cam that makes gobs of power at 6,500 rpm is basically useless when idling along at 2 mph down the Rubicon trail. You could gear that healthy drag engine down, but you would burn up plenty of fuel and your buddies (or I) would laugh as they (I) crawled along at idle speed in their properly geared four-cylinder beater that is somehow making just as much if not more torque at idle than your big block.
Horsepower can be a lot of fun in the right environment, like sand, mud, and deep snow. I love big-blocks and turbo engines and seek out vehicles that have these components when starting a new project. I grew up on the Rubicon in the back of a Land Cruiser with a 468-cube big-block Chevy in it. This was at a time before aftermarket transfer case gears or dual transfer cases, so my father built an engine that made a ton of torque. And it overheated often, and occasionally broke parts.
These days we have gearing options that are a key component to prowess in the rocks. No one has ever accused a Toyota 22RE engine of being a powerhouse, but when you multiple the double-digit torque values through the transmission and a couple of transfer cases, they can move mountains. Or at least move over mountains. I like the control that low gearing gives me on the trail. You can climb obstacles without spinning a tire and slipping off your line, and in technical terrain the gearing slows down the movement so there are no surprises. Plus, you don’t have to worry about overheating, running premium fuel, or breaking components downstream. Give me gearing or give me death!