A Look At The Off-Road Trip That Resulted In Our $700 Chevy Tracker Dead On A Trailer And Our $1700 VW Touareg Stranded In An Abandoned Detroit Neighborhood

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It was to be my final off-road trip in Michigan before departing for LA, and I was excited because I’d be putting my $700 Chevrolet Tracker to the test. Four-wheel drive, body-on-frame, low range transfer-case, short overhangs, small overall exterior dimensions — these ingredients promised decent off-road capability, but how good could something this cheap really be? I invited my colleague Mercedes Streeter, who arrived in her own bargain-machine, a bone-stock $1,700 Volkswagen Touareg with a collapsed suspension. Surely that couldn’t be that great off-road, either, right? Well, both vehicles wound up dead at the end of the weekend; here’s a look at the off-road obstacles that killed them.

My plan this past weekend was to drive my 1966 Ford Mustang to California, and then start looking for an apartment and preparing The Autopian’s LA Auto Show booth. But I got a message from my friend Adam, a fellow engineer and Jeep XJ enthusiast. “Want to come to holly oaks [off-road park]?” he asked. My response was the only one I know when it comes to off-road invites: “Hell yeah.” I told Adam I’d have to leave early so I could drive to California. A bit of a spoiler alert before you read the rest of this article: I’m still in Michigan — in part, because my Tracker and Mercedes’ VW Touareg both broke down as a result of my second pre-sale off-road trip (someone had agreed to buy the Tracker just the day prior). Why I thought I’d re-do the practice that resulted in an article titled “My 1948 Jeep’s Engine Is Ruined Because I Am A Dumbass” is beyond me, but it does prove that I know how to write a damn accurate headline.

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Adam’s XJ, his friend Callum’s XJ, and his friend Doug’s stock Ford Ranger awaited us at Holly Oaks ORV Park’s parking lot, and so did a Jeep KK Liberty, a first-gen Toyota Sequoia, a four-door Jeep JK, a bonkers safari’d Pontiac Firebird, and a white JL Wrangler. It was a much bigger crew than I’d anticipated given how little effort I’d put into spreading the word. You Autopians rule.

We all aired down our tires, I squeezed the blood pressure bulb that I’d installed as replacement for my broken four-wheel drive actuator, and we all mounted the mandatory visibility flags. Mercedes ziptied hers — which itself was two Lowes-sourced fiberglass flagpoles duct taped together for extra length, with a flag made of orange duct tape at the top — to her Touareg’s front license plate; she was quite proud of her handiwork:

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After driving in circles around a dirt track and getting our suspensions nice and loose, our group of ten machines began conducting a series of hillclimbs and descents.

The Touareg’s Traction Control Was Legit

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My biggest worry in the beginning was the Touareg. Mercedes is a skilled driver, but her machine lacks ground clearance, and its overhangs aren’t exactly small. Here, allow me to let Mercedes introduce her vehicle a bit:

In recent months, I've been using [the $1,700 Touareg] as my Gambler 500 rig. It's sort of perfect for the job. Unlike many Touareg V8s and unlike my V10 TDI, this VR6 doesn't have an air suspension. Instead, it's riding on coils, but there's something wrong. Either the springs are really worn out, or one of the previous owners cut them. Either way, I have what feels like half of the ride height that I should. One of the previous owners did add some 20-inch Porsche Cayenne wheels and it looks really sweet. Add in horribly worn out shocks, and my Touareg is a terrible choice for off-roading, which means that it's perfect for off-roading.
My trusty but rusty Volkswagen survived two Gambler 500 rallies, one in Missouri and another in southern Indiana. Despite its lack of...well, everything, I've come out the other side with little damage. One of my street tires got punctured during a rocky climb in Missouri. And in Indiana, I used one of the fashionable running boards as a rock slider to help me get down a rock wall. It worked! Now, the running board has a bit of a bend to it.
Despite how rough a Gambler could get, neither of those endurance rallies were as hardcore as Michigan's Holly Oaks ORV Park.

Despite the SUV’s limitations, on Holly Oaks’ steep, rutted, sandy slopes, the Piech-era VW SUV actually kicked butt! Its fully independent suspension lacked articulation, so one wheel on each axle frequently lifted up into the air, but instead of the tractionless wheel just spinning and the axle providing no forward propulsion as would be the case on a vehicle with a simple open-differential (like my Tracker), the VW’s traction control system quickly transferred more power to the other wheel (the one with more traction) on the axle. The big SUV blasted up the dug-out inclines like an absolute boss. I was amazed. Here it is from Mercedes’ perspective:

I put it into gear, then slapped the transmission into manual mode, locking it into second gear. Climbing up the hill was surprisingly uneventful. I frequently lifted a wheel or two off of the ground, and each time, the SUV's limited-slip differentials and traction control acted quickly. Normally, an open diff means that power ends up sent to the wheels in the air, not the wheels on the ground. But my 17-year-old SUV used a mix of its limited-slip and traction control to keep moving. Whenever a wheel was put into the air, which happened often, the vehicle stopped it and made sure power was sent to the wheels with traction. I never lost momentum, and the Touareg climbed the hill like a heavy, low billy goat.
Coming back down was easy as well. The downgrade was so steep that you couldn't see anything but the ground below. I thought I had my wheel straight here, but I didn't. So, the Touareg sort of dragged itself half of the way down with the front wheels pointed right. Once I straightened them, the low range did help keep the speed down without punching the brakes that much.

My Tracker required a bit more momentum to get up the grades. Even though its coil-sprung solid rear axle means its suspension offers significantly more articulation than the Touareg’s, the independent front suspension meant flex was much lower than that of the solid-front-axled Jeeps in our group. When the Tracker lifted a wheel on an axle, that wheel just spun while the wheel with traction sat there doing absolutely nothing to move the machine forward.

The clip above shows the Touareg climbing up a steep, sandy, uneven trail, then slowly descending down the other side. As you can see, the thing does remarkably well thanks to that traction control system. You know what else did remarkably well at the off-road park? The stock Ford Ranger. The thing is big, and it’s got a big arse (the rear bumper on this one is a bit tweaked), but it’s got power and decent ground clearance, decent tires, plus an excellent traction control system. Most importantly, it had Doug at the helm. Watch it, one of the modded XJs, and the heavily-modified JL Wrangler attempt an impossibly sandy, dug-out incline:

Valiant efforts!

We All Got Stuck

After those first few hillclimbs, there was a moment when it seemed like everyone simultaneously got stock. Here was me in a tiny mudpit that was a lot sloppier than I’d expected:

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Autopian reader Darien didn’t have an off-roader ready that day, so he just joined me in the Tracker. When it felt that the little rebadged Suzuki was getting stuck, I asked Darien to hop out. “Hey, I’m not able to reverse. The mud doesn’t look too bad ahead, so maybe I’ll just accelerate through it — you mind checking it real quick?” Within moments I heard a “Oh shit!” as I watched the earth swallow a grown man’s leg and nearly send him flat on his ass. “Don’t go this way!” he implored.

Luckily, the Toyota Sequoia was an absolute beast. This would be its first of many recoveries throughout the day.

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Then here’s Adam’s XJ dug into some dirt just a few minutes later:

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Here’s Autopian reader Sam doing the ol’ “Uh, guys?” look after digging his Firebird into a hillside:

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And here’s Mercedes’ Touareg in a mud pit:

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I will admit that I may have implied to Mercedes that others had already driven through this successfully, but the truth was that she was the guinea pig, and it turns out that her Touareg’s traction control system — as great as it is — wasn’t going to overcome the vehicle’s achilles heel of insufficient ground clearance. The thing was beached. But again, the Sequoia came to the rescue:

The Chevy Tracker Was An Absolute Monster

I knew from the start that the Chevy Tracker’s biggest limitation would be its ground clearance — not just all the stuff hanging underneath like the frame rails and muffler, but also the bottoms of the front and rear bumpers. The bumpers aren’t the lowest parts of the vehicle, but they’re arguably the parts that you want highest off the ground since they hit an obstacle before and after (respectively) you get a tire up onto it to raise the vehicle up. So I had to be strategic in how I approached large mounds or hills or even ruts.

The beginning of the video above required some thoughtful driving to keep the SUV’s nose off the dirt, and this downhill below features some deep ruts that caused The Chevy’s entire belly to scrub all over the ground. It was hard for me not to cringe::

Despite a bit of scraping in rutted parts of the trails, and despite having to be careful keeping the bumpers off the ground, the Tracker was awesome. Its underbody is quite well protected, with the important mechanical components tucked between the frame rails, and many of them — including the fuel tank and engine — protected from damage thanks to thick steel (a skid plate for the tank, a subframe for the motor). My tracker’s suspension articulation was good enough to keep the ride on most of the trails fairly decent:

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I’d like to note that, shortly after shooting the photo above, I turned around to find this:

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This is Adam, an intelligent engineer stuck on a slope that’s much steeper than it looks in the photo. He somehow wound up pointing his lifted XJ Cherokee perpendicular to the slope — a huge no-no in the off-road world, as it puts the vehicle at risk of rolling. In two-wheel drive since there is something wrong with the front diff or transfer case, Adam’s Jeep sat there for a long time as Adam nervously tried to figure out how to get unstuck. If he drove backwards, both of his left wheels would fall into ruts, and that could jolt the car, inducing a roll. If he drove forwards, he might just spin the rear tires, and the tail end might slide sideways; that’s okay if the nose doesn’t also want to come down the slope, but nobody knew if it would since the right front tire was atop a very loose rock.

This was a precarious and potentially-dangerous situation; not thrilled about The Autopian potentially being associated with a death on its very first off-road meetup, I suggested that everyone step away, and that Adam drive forward. His friends flagged down a side-by-side driver with a winch, which yanked the front of the XJ up the grade. Adam turned uphill and gave it a bit of gas, and the Jeep’s nose once again pointed uphill. Our death minimization strategy had worked:

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With crisis averted, I led the group to the far side of the off-road park, and promptly got stuck:

The little mound I was trying to climb was clearly sized for side-by-sides and not full-size vehicles, but the Tracker is tiny, so even though it did high-center on its low-mounted frame, all it took was a push from some strong men, and it crested the mound upon which it was perched, then climbed the steep grade ahead like a billygoat.

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At the top of the hill were lots of moguls, which flexed out the Tracker’s suspension and lifted tires every now and then. But with smart driving (i.e. accelerating at just the right times to keep the vehicle moving, but not too fast), the Tracker confidently handled this little trail:

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So did the lifted KK Liberty, Ranger, and the two lifted XJs:

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We dropped down a steep decline before heading to a mud pit:

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The mudpit “play area” was vast, and it gave me flashbacks to the time I hydrolocked my Jeep XJ and sent two piston rods through my oil pan, and to the time I filled my Willys engine with water that later froze in the crankcase (seriously, the article title is “I’m Trying To Save My World War II Jeep Engine After Filling It With A Huge Ice Block.”). The latter poignant memory was especially relevant, since — as was the case with this Tracker — the Willys had already been spoken for by a new owner; it was essentially sold, but I decided to take it on one final off-road adventure before parting ways. The frozen engine eventually thawed, and I noticed an engine knock, which required me to yank the engine, get some machining work done — needless to say, the “pre-sale off-road trip” isn’t generally advisable.

Naturally, I pointed the Tracker straight for the deepest part of the mud pit, and stomped the accelerator pedal. “I might have to erase the ‘3’ or a ‘zero’ from this price on my windshield!” I yelled with excitement as the little Suzuki’s nose dropped down into the muck:

I didn’t really know how deep the pit was. Adam had told me he’d gone through it and that it wasn’t too bad, but I didn’t see tire marks — his claim seemed suspicious. And yet, despite this, and despite my previous water-related traumas, I wasn’t worried because I knew one thing about the Chevy Tracker: Its air induction system is excellent.

Had I been driving a stock Jeep XJ, I likely would have spit another pair of rods through the pan or block, since the XJ’s air intake is just behind the headlights. But the Tracker actually takes in air through the top of its passenger-side fender, which isn’t an area where a bow wave forms. I kept my foot in it without a worry in the world, and the Tracker’s junkyard Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tires clawed their way through beautifully. God I love this little Tracker.

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The mud tires on Sam’s Firebird slung that mud into the stratosphere as everyone watched in amazement. What an incredible machine.

Before we all headed out to a much-too-expensive bar in which we all awkwardly ordered appetizers, the group hit the rock-crawl part of the park. The Chevy walked up the steps like a boss, and Mercedes took her Touareg up the steep, uneven “Mount Magna” obstacle. It was incredible, and I wish I had video:

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Here’s are Mercedes’s final thoughts on her Touareg:

We finished out the day near Magna's simulation of Moab. By now I shouldn't have been surprised, but the Touareg climbed up to the top like it was driving through a parking lot. And remember, I'm on street tires, here!
Overall, the Touareg impressed David, and perhaps impressed me even more. It has the perfect mix of the right off-road hardware and just enough software to back that hardware up. These Touaregs have a descent control, too. But it happens in the background, where you might not even notice it working. Kudos to Piech-era Volkswagen for making an SUV that looks like a crossover an off-road beast. And mine isn't even the best you could get. The V8 and the V10 TDI had the option for a rear locker, and their air suspensions can basically raise the body so high that you're basically on stilts. So if my broken VR6 was this good, imagine how good a better one can be.

It’s clear that, by the end of the day, we were both in love with our machines. This would not last long.

Stranded

We drove back to the parking lot to air our tires back up and remove our flags. After half an hour of this and some chatting, the group headed to the aforementioned overpriced bar, though I strangely needed a push-start, as the Chevy’s Suzuki J10A 2.0-liter motor wouldn’t crank. “Odd…” I thought as I popped the clutch in reverse while Adam and a few others pushed me backwards. The motor fired up, but my one-mile drive to the bar was not ideal; the gauges went haywire, the engine idle speed was all over the place, and all the lights flickered when I activated the turn signals. I had seen this before when my crankshaft damper had failed, causing my alternator to spin too slowly to charge the vehicle.

I’d swamped my alternator. But how? Surely not that much mud had gotten under my h—oh….:

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Well damn.

We considered limping the Tracker to a car wash and trying to spray all the muck out of the alternator, but the electrical machine is unfortunately low-mounted (which is part of the issue), so it wasn’t easy to clean. I had to be towed. Luckily, Adam had brought a trailer for his XJ; unfortunately, this meant I had the privilege of driving this shitbox on the highway:

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We backed the XJ off the trailer, and I drove the Suzuki up (after another roll-start). Then I drove a vehicle with literally 45 degrees of steering play on a major highway:

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Staying in the lane took some getting used to as you can see in the image below, but eventually I got the hang of it, and I actually enjoyed the under-geared XJ. Its heater worked, after all, and the ride quality was actually quite nice. (I’ve run out of compliments).

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We drove to my house, Adam dumped my Tracker onto a nearby road, and Doug towed it with his Ranger into my yard with a nylon tow strap:

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The good news was that I’d bought two alternators while trying to determine the cause of my low-voltage issue a number of months ago. Since the root issue was actually the crankshaft damper, I figured the alternators I’d replaced were probably okay. So, after a few minutes searching, I found in the grass my front yard’s equivalent of a rock, and had it tested at the local O’Reilly Auto Parts store:

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The guy testing it didn’t want to be there, so he seemingly half-assed the job. Later in the night, after Mercedes had headed out, I installed the alternator and saw that it was charging at 16 volts. Something was up with its internal regulator. Damn.

That’s when I got this text from Mercedes:

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Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a belt at any of the local car parts stores that were still open, so I drove to the west side of Detroit, to find Mercedes and her Touareg stranded in an abandoned neighborhood:

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I’d called a tow truck, but before he arrived, Mercedes and I managed to slice the strip of her belt that had frayed off (I used her front license plate to cut it, since we had no shears), and then reinstall the now four-fifth-width belt back onto the accessory drive. Instead of driving home on that belt, which was likely to just slide off like it had earlier, Mercedes drove to a hotel for the night. But not before downing some grease burgers and chili-cheese fries at metro Detroit’s fabled “Hunter House”:

We needed the pick-me-up, because both of our cars had both defeated the off-road trails, and been defeated by them. The Tracker and Touareg were both on the fritz.

The good news is that the following morning, when all the car parts stores opened, we snagged a new belt from Autozone, and I managed to find my third Suzuki alternator in the back seat of my Mustang. Mercedes and I installed our parts, and both of our vehicles were once again functioning at 100 percent (okay, 90 percent).

Here’s the story from Mercedes’ viewpoint:

At first, I thought I survived Holly Oaks unscathed. David's Tracker died in the parking lot. Apparently, his eBay alternator failed out on the trails and the battery finally gave up. We were able to limp it to a bar outside of the park, only for it to die again. However, the Touareg? It was running just as smoothly as it went in! My only problem was that the steering wheel felt just a touch looser than before. But it was operating just fine and even made it back to the Tracy compound without issue. That changed when it came time to go home.
After fooling around with David's Tracker, I pointed the Touareg towards Chicago and began heading out of Detroit. I stopped for gas before leaving Detroit, and made it just 0.3 miles from the gas station before disaster struck. First, my steering wheel got really hard, and a few seconds later the battery light came on. I knew exactly what happened as I muscled the Touareg into a neighborhood and parked in front of an abandoned lot.

Popping the hood, I expected my serpentine belt to be gone. Instead, it was jammed in the tensioner.
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It hit me that I totally forgot about the belt being sort of bad. In August 2021, my mobile mechanic warned me that my belt was at the tail end of its life, and I should eventually replace it. Well, it's been over a year since he told me that. From what I can tell, one of the ribs broke off of the belt, got caught on something, then pulled the belt off. Getting it out of the tensioner was a royal pain, and it was also jammed in the pulley for the power steering. This belt definitely tried doing some damage on its way out.
Thankfully, this happened within minutes of David's house, so he called a tow truck and hopped in his Jeep J10 to save me. I was able to pull the belt out of the pulleys, and discovered that it was still largely in one piece. It was very weak, but it was still a belt. Being the expert bodge man that he is, David trimmed off the broken piece of ribbing and cord using the Touareg's front license plate, and we had the vehicle running again before AAA showed up. We thanked and tipped the driver for showing up, then limped the Touareg back to his place.
She goes on:

The next day, we installed a fresh belt and I set off for home. My drive was uneventful, save for some vibration from mud-coated wheels. Oh, and the ever so slight looseness in my steering really got to me. But I made it home without a problem, where I performed a quick inspection. I expected worn tie rods to be the cause of my newfound loose steering, but those look ok. Apparently there is a steering column linkage under the dashboard that can get loose, causing slop, so I'll check that when it gets a little warmer outside.
While trying to figure out the looseness, I discovered a leak covering much of the left front underbody. The steering rack boots were very dry, so that wasn't it. On a hunch, I popped off the cap to the power steering reservoir. Sure enough, it was below the full mark. So I may be looking at a hose leak. One of the rubber reservoir hoses connects right next to the power steering pump's pulley, which is one place where the belt was stuck. I'm expecting (hoping?) that's my leak.
Mercedes’ Touareg will be fine, and her plans for it include a lift and some knobby tires. That will make the thing a legitimate beast. As for my Tracker? There is a small dent in the rocker panel from when I got stuck on that mound that a bunch of dudes pushed me off, but otherwise the body is unscathed. Mercedes and I hit the local car wash and made it look like this:

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I guess I won’t be removing a “3” or a “0” from that asking price, after all, because the lovely little $700 Tracker drives as well as it looks. What an absolute tank.

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40 Responses

  1. Loved this story. Note that just before he drove the Tracker into the huge mud pit, David did a pretty close paraphrase of that infamous redneck rallying cry: “HEY YA’LL, WATCH THIS!”

    I was sure the Tracker was going to die in that mud pit.

  2. Let me get this straight. You agreed to sell the Tracker the day before you took it out and broke it? What is wrong with you? Don’t you have between five and eleventy million other Jeeps? All of which you should sell btw, not just some of them.

    Who agrees to sell a vehicle and then takes said vehicle to an off-road park the next day when they have a FLEET OF CRAPPY JEEPS? I have read your work for years, but I feel like by reading your articles going further, I’m enabling this lunacy somehow. You really, REALLY need to get a grip on things man. Stop sabotaging your sell off. Sell everything but the Mustang and move on with your life. They sell Jeeps in California you know, even ones with less rust. Stop sabotaging your life and let it all go and move on. After seeing the video in the article, a haircut wouldn’t hurt either btw.

    1. To be fair, he did warn us in his “I’m moving to California. Which cars should I move with me?” article on Tuesday(?) that he couldn’t resist fully experiencing the tracker and the result of his hard work before it left him.

      And several wise people told him this was dumb. He admitted it was dumb. He now has another “I’m David Tracy, and you love to read about my adventures!” article. I thought this article would be too sad, but it was entertaining, yet again. Keep that train wreck going, David! Just don’t kill or maim yourself or others!

  3. I killed an alternator in a Range Rover in a similar way. I was driving a borrowed 2011 Range Rover Supercharged along with some of the folks from an LA-area Land Rover dealer in a dealer-sponsored off-road event at Hungry Valley ORV park. The park has a deep mud/water hole in the practice area which several other LRs had made it through – including a Range Rover Evoque! So, the guys from the service department convinced me to try it. The Range Rover just walked through it, street tires and all. What I didn’t know is that the water/mud slurry killed the low-mounted alternator. Later, during the trail drive, I knew I had a problem when the charging failure warning popped up…

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