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Six advanced tech features that make off-road driving easy

Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

Off-road driving used to be hard. Even with four-wheel-drive, off-roaders needed hard-earned skills and a ton of extra equipment to have a prayer of getting through a trail. Any off-road enthusiast can tell stories about abandoning their rig and hiking back to camp to ask for help dragging it out of an impossible spot. Things were even worse for ordinary cars; drivers risked a tow truck call every time they parked on wet grass.

It’s not like that any more. Technology has come far enough that even the soccer mom yoga-wagons parked at the mall have at least as much off-road capability as a scuffed-up Jeep of days gone by.

To prove it, we flew down to Huntsville, Texas to try out a big group of trucks and SUVs at the Texas Motor Press Association’s 2019 Texas Off-Road Invitational Event. The event was held at General Sam’s Offroad Park, which is the most authentic “Hold my beer and watch this” kind of playground that has ever existed. General Sam’s features mud bog pits, a sand bowl, hill descents, scramble climbs, rock walls, and wowie bumps (that’s a technical term we just made up) to see how far your axles can stretch.

The contenders ranged from the economical Toyota RAV4, Honda Passport, Nissan Pathfinder, and Subaru Forester to high-end SUVs like the Lexus GX460 and LX570, Range Rover Evoque, Land Rover Discovery, and Infiniti QX80. There was even a brand new Rolls Royce Cullinan that probably costs more than your house. In between we had everything from the big new Kia Telluride to an elite Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Edition. Pickups were well represented with entries from Chevrolet, GMC, Nissan, Ram, and Toyota. All of them were there to compete for the first-ever trophies from this new event.

As we drove the various vehicles through several off-road courses, a few things became obvious very quickly. The most surprising thing was that even the economy and luxury vehicles had little trouble getting over any kind of obstacle, even with a complete chump (that would be me) behind the wheel. The second observation was how the unique technology in each vehicle enables that amazing off-road capability. We decided to dig into the key tech features on several vehicles to illustrate how it all works.

GPS Assistance in the 2019 Rolls Royce Cullinan

Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

The first-ever SUV from Rolls Royce is impressive, but for $406,225 you have every right to expect an outstanding SUV. Everything is automatic in the Rolls. There’s no fiddling with buttons for hill descent control or ride height adjustment. The Cullinan already knows you’re off-road and it knows to rise up on its springs when you ford a stream. It knows these things because it’s got GPS tied into the car’s brain, so it can tell exactly where you are and what the surrounding terrain is like. The Cullinan will prep the transmission and AWD system for you when it’s time to climb.

We took the Cullinan on a rough trail with moderate mud and water obstacles, using the 360-degree camera and proximity sensors to keep the paint job intact. As expected, the Rolls simply glides over rough terrain, up and down hills, and over exposed rocks and roots. You won’t even spill your Perrier.

Traction Modes in the 2019 Toyota RAV4 Adventure

Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

The least expensive vehicle in the event was the Toyota RAV4 with the Adventure trim package. The Adventure package gets Toyota’s standard all-wheel-drive system with traction control modes for off-road use. The available modes include Mud and Sand, Rocks and Dirt, Snow, and Normal. The RAV4 Adventure also includes Downhill Assist Control that keeps the vehicle under control on steep and slippery slopes, and an extra 0.4 inches of fixed ride height.

Honestly, we were surprised because the RAV4 was capable of going everywhere that the more rugged vehicles went. Just set the dial for rocks, mud, or whatever lies in front of you. One thing to note is that any RAV4 with AWD includes all the traction control modes. Choosing Adventure trim just adds the hill descent control and ride height.

Wade Sensing and All Terrain Progress Control in the 2020 Range Rover Evoque

Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

Digital Trends had already driven the all-new Evoque off-road in Greece a few weeks ago, so we knew most of what this little Range Rover could do. But it wasn’t until Texas that we experienced the maximum wading depth of 23.6 inches, which is just shy of the point where your feet get wet. The Evoque also had the optional Wade Sensing feature, which uses ultrasonic sensors in the outside mirrors to measure the depth of the water you shouldn’t really be driving through. The Evoque displays a picture of the rising water level on the center display so you’ll know exactly when to put on your waders and floaties.

The other tech that makes the Evoque a bit of magic is All Terrain Progress Control. Think of this as low-speed cruise control for off-road work. You just set your desired speed and steer. The Evoque does all the tricky stuff for you. This is in addition to the traction control modes available in Land Rover’s standard Terrain Response 2 system. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to use those. The Evoque will figure it out for you. All you have to do is point the nose and try not to hit things.

Trail Recording with the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon

Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

OK, let’s say that you’re headed off into the wilderness, and you would really like to get back to camp in time for dinner. But your campsite is already somewhere that the GPS navigation system registers as a big blank area on the map. Many GPS systems will let you mark the spot, but that doesn’t help you pick the right trails to get back to where you started. Well, Jeep has got you covered. The Wrangler GPS system includes a feature that tracks your journey so you can exactly retrace your path later. We nicknamed it Hansel and Gretel mode.

Here’s how it works: when you’re ready to set off on your adventure, just tell the GPS to start recording. When you’re ready to turn around, stop recording and the GPS will display the route you took. Even better, you can save these recordings and follow the same route again on another day.

Oh, a couple more things about Rubicon Jeeps. All of them (Wrangler, Wrangler Unlimited, and the new Gladiator pickup) come with front and rear locking differentials and a sway bar disconnect you can operate from the driver’s seat. There’s no grubbing around in the mud any more; it all happens at the touch of a button.

Head-up Inclinometer in the 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 AT4

Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

Several vehicles had the ability to display just how close you are to rolling over, but the 2019 GMC Sierra 1500 with the AT4 off-road package can put it right on the windshield in front of your face. The Off-Road Inclinometer uses the head-up display to show you fore-and-aft tilt, front tire steering angle, and left-and-right tilt. The truth is that when you feel like you’re hanging in your seatbelt and really getting dangerous, you’ve probably got less angle going than an average wheelchair ramp. Not to worry.

Wheel Cameras in the 2020 Kia Telluride

Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

The Kia Telluride won the Texas Motor Press Association’s award for best SUV at the event, in large part because of its technology. For a big seven-passenger family wagon, the Telluride showed amazing off-road chops, following the pickups through every challenge. One of the features that helped the Telluride keep up was the available wheel cameras. You can select a camera view that puts both front tires right on the center display. This is important because the Telluride was off-roading on normal all-season tires. There’s also a view from the front bumper so you can see what’s about to make that ominous thunking sound under the engine.

Bringing it Back onto the Pavement

At the end of the event, the Telluride and the 2019 Ram 1500 Rebel took the top honors for SUV and Truck. Both of them showed excellent off-road capability and a great set of features for the money.

One more good observation about all this tech: Besides making it possible for just about anyone to look like an experienced off-road driver, a lot of this stuff is standard equipment for the 99% of trucks and SUVs that will never be asked to do anything like the crazy stunts that we did down in Texas.

So why should you pay for all this tech you’ll probably never use? Because when traction control and terrain sensing can get you up a slick hillside, dig you out of deep sand, or slog you through 100 yards of mud up to your axles, keeping your family SUV under control and pointed in the right direction on a rainy night is trivial. Besides, if you ever did get into a tough spot, now you know it’s possible to get out.

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Jeff Zurschmeide
Jeff Zurschmeide is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. Jeff covers new cars, motor sports, and technical topics for a…
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