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Mudfest 2013: Jeeves, bring around the Range Rover, we’re going muddin’

We all know the knock against modern SUVs: “they never leave the pavement.” But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see if today’s modern all-wheel-drive people-movers have any off-road moxie, even if the cliche is pretty much true.

At Mudfest 2013, 23 SUVs were lined up and put into the hands of jaded automotive journalists who then attempted to pound them into submission at the Dirtfish off-road driving school near picturesque Snoqualmie Falls, Washington.

Which contender could best flatten out the torture course? Only one way to find out.

The festivities lasted two days, with the first day dedicated to evaluating the vehicles’ performance on a technical skidpad course and a short loop of paved public roadways that coiled around the Dirtfish facility, which is headquartered in the spacious remains of an old lumber mill. A few short stretches of gravel road were also in the mix on Day One, but nothing that would amount to a major challenge. 

Tire-spinning, brake squealing shenanigans ensued on the skidpad and roadways on Day One of course, but everyone in attendance was really looking forward to Day Two, when the machines were challenged on a legitimate off-road course that included mud, gravel, pot-hole pocked trails and other hazards most SUVs will likely never see in their lives of carting around families, groceries and furry friends. As it sat, most all of the contenders acquitted themselves decently on Day Two while one vehicle suffered an apparent silicon seizure of some sort and was towed to the Parking Spot of Shame, it’s alarm suddenly blaring at odd intervals. Cletus, git my ought-six…

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However, three machines in attendance, a burly Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, a newly introduced supercharged Range Rover and the latest iteration of the iconic box-on-wheels known as the Mercedes-Benz G550 “G-Wagon,” were the only rigs eligible to go on a special “hard course” where no mere SUV dare tread. This taste of true off-road navigation sent the three stalwarts into deep water bars, up and over rock-strewn inclines, through boot-removing mud bogs and across steeply-cambered inclines. In other words, real, rugged “actual” off-road driving, the kind you do at walking speed lest an axle get severed.

While the boxy Benz has been around forever and is a known quantity, the real tension was between the spiffy new supercharged Range Rover, ringing in at a few pounds over $111,000, and the MMA-ish Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, loaded to the gills with every dirt-dispensing tool in the book for “only” $43,000 and change.

Which contender could best flatten out the torture course? Only one way to find out.

Getting dirty, Range Rover style

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Slipping into the leather driver seat of the 510 horsepower Supercharged Range Rover on the first day, I felt guilty for leaving any specks of mud from my shoes/clothes on the sumptuous cream-colored leather-and-wood swathed interior. But I got over it pretty quickly once I stepped on the gas and the massive  SUV shot forward, making muscular (but of course, very refined) mechanical music as it navigated the skid pad course. With the adjustable air suspension set for street trolling, the Range Rover still rocked back and forth during hard left-right transitions, but that’s to be expected as I and the rest of the scribes on hand were pushing the pace. 

Out on the open road, the opulent Range Rover gives you the sense that you could just keep on driving for days at a time in total comfort, the plush ride soaking up any road imperfections, the monster motor surmounting any obstacle. And the Meridian stereo sounded pretty decent as well. The only thing that seemed to be missing were champagne taps for the passengers. Maybe next year.

But on the second day, it was time for the massive Rover to pull off it’s Transformer imitation and after pushing a button here and turning a dial there to optimize the Terrain Response 2 Auto system (and with some pointers from Kevin Hans of Range Rover), the British version of the Suburban was ready to challenge the Hard Course.

I was surprised as the Range Rover scraped, shuddered and shook at times when the going got really tough.

As someone with limited 4×4 dirt-driving experience (I usually ride dirt bikes in this sort of scenario), it was impressive to watch on the central touchscreen how the Range Rover first pumped up its air suspension for more ground clearance and then was able to literally pick up and put down wheels as the big rig crept along, slogging through the deep water, traversing the mud bog, articulating through giant offset chuckholes and tilting crazily on the off-camber part of the challenging course.

But I’ll have to admit, even though I’m a bit new to this 4X4 thing, I was surprised as the Range Rover scraped, shuddered and shook at times when the going got really tough. Sure, it made it through unscathed (I think), but I felt more like I had survived the course rather than conquered it.

How many Supercharged Range Rovers with ever be tested like this? Few. Very few. That’s why Range Rover also makes the Defender. It’s nice to know the new Rover has the capabilities it does (especially for the price), but it was pretty clear this big boy is meant more for climbing roadways in the Hollywood Hills than rock-strewn hillsides far from civilization.

For more photos check out our Mudfest 2013: Supercharged Range Rover photo gallery. 

Jeep Wrangler: Tart or tough guy?

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While the Range Rover had the luxury end of the Mudfest spectrum corralled, I was also expecting big things from a vehicle that is pretty much synonymous with off-road hijinks: A Jeep Wrangler. But this was no ordinary Wrangler, it was a $43,000 Unlimited Rubicon sporting 10-year anniversary badges, lots of leather and all the farkles in Jeep’s off-road playbook. Did it still have the guts for the off-road game under all the fancy clothes?

While the Jeep wasn’t the tech-and-luxo showpiece the Range Rover was, it wasn’t some red-headed stepchild in comparison either. With its signature red leather seats, navigation, bluetooth, a fancy stereo, touchscreen and heated… everything, it was a comfortable perch from which to view a muddy world. Was it as roomy as the Range Rover? No. As fast? Not quite. But punching up the throaty 3.6-liter V6 and rolling back the soft top, I felt more involved in the drive, more aware of what the Jeep was doing.

The Jeep was ready to attack after pushing a few buttons and some old-school lever pulling to activate the Rock-Trak 4×4 system

On the road course, the Jeep’s dirt-oriented Owl tires thrummed and complained as we swung it through tight corners and gassed it down short straights, but the slightly wild nature of the street drive was more engaging than the more-settled composure of the Range Rover and the Jeep’s open top just made it more fun. The Wrangler never felt out of control thanks to it’s weight, traction control and general sure-footedness, despite the fact the tires were far from ideal street rubber.

Out on the Hard Course, the Jeep was ready to attack after a few button pushes to disconnect the sway bars and some old-school lever pulling to activate the Rock-Trak 4×4 system, which dropped the transmission ratio to 4:1 from street mode, allowing more throttle play without big jumps in motion. Once underway in this mode, it felt like the big Wrangler could go just about anywhere.

Underneath, Dana-44 heavy-duty axles kept the wheels turning and skid plates protecting the gas tank and other vitals did their job as the Jeep occasionally scraped on the toughest bits but it never felt flustered or outmatched by the course in the way the Range Rover occasionally did. 

For more photos check out our Mudfest 2013: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon photo gallery.

For my money…

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After a fair amount of seat time in both rigs, I’m going with with the Jeep, but not because it’s Made in ‘Merica or because it costs half as much as the British icon. The Range Rover certainly had advantages: the powerful and torquey engine, the crown jewel interior and more tech goodies than a NASA Mars rover certainly made for a sweet whip. But off the road, it seemed like it was working extra hard to keep moving forward while the Jeep was definitely in its element.

But it really came down to driving fun. Sure, the Range Rover was luxurious and capable, but it also felt a bit isolating and bloated. The Jeep, while smaller and rougher around edges, just seemed to beg to be taken on an adventure, top down, music blaring, loaded with gear and the kids giggling in the back seats as it charges care-free up a pitted forest road for a week of camping at a nearly inaccessible alpine lake.

And that’s the vehicle I was really searching for all along at Mudfest.

Photos by Armin Ausejo

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