I just went off-roading in the middle of the night, in the rain, with the $90,000 Ford Bronco Raptor that I’ve been blaspheming across the Jeep Holy Land that is Moab, Utah. In keeping with the Buddy Rule™, I brought my friend Jay along; he drove a dirt-cheap, modestly lifted Jeep Cherokee XJ on 31-inch tires. The Bronco Raptor has 37-inch monster-tires and locking diffs, and would therefore be way, way more fun to off-road, right? Actually, wrong.
I’ll come right out and say: The Bronco Raptor is more capable than a $500 Jeep Cherokee XJ, even with modifications like a 3.5-inch lift and 31-inch tires. But that doesn’t mean it’s the machine one necessarily wants to take on the trails. What makes a vehicle capable off-road is a fairly straightforward formula involving geometry, gearing, engine output, suspension articulation, underbody protection, reliability, visibility, traction, four-wheel drive system effectiveness, and weight. But what makes a vehicle fun off-road is more complicated.
And trust me, the Jeep Cherokee XJ was the more fun vehicle last night. By far.
My friend Jay and I were driving Fins & Things, a moderate-difficulty trail for a lightly lifted Jeep XJ and a simple trail for the likes of the Ford Bronco Raptor. Anxious to get some “wheeling” under our belts, we chose to do the trail at night, in the rain. Visibility was awful, the wind was piercingly cold, and the rocks were getting slippery. Also, it was my very first night in Moab, and my friend Jay’s first night-run ever, so even though Fins & Things isn’t a hard trail, it was definitely more of a challenge last night.
I didn’t bother airing down the Bronco Raptor’s 37s, though Jay took his XJ’s 31s down to about 15 PSI to improve grip and off-road ride-quality. As I pointed the Bronco’s nose ahead and stared down at the screen for the front-facing camera (which is surprisingly decent at night) to help guide me since I couldn’t see below that Bronco’s tall hood, the 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6 under the hood hummed and occasionally growled, quietly.
The motor didn’t need to work hard, as it sent its torque through the 10-speed automatic’s 4.714:1 first gear reduction, then through the transfer case’s 3.064:1 gear reduction, before finally multiplying that torque again by 4.7 in the axles. That’s a lot of torque multiplication — twice that of the XJ (though given the vehicle’s weight and especially its tire size, it needs it more).
I simply pointed the Bronco where I wanted it to go, and it went there, confidently. On one occasion I had to actuate the rear locker while on a steep, slippery ascent that I didn’t feel like accelerating up. Jay in the XJ behind me made do with wheelspin and momentum; his climb required skill and a bit of bravery, while mine required my right hand moving from my heated steering wheel to the top of the dash to push a squishy “locker” button.
I was bored. Jay was having the time of his life.
With no rear sway bar and the front one disconnected, the XJ’s Dana 30 front axle and Chrysler 8.25 rear axle both flowed over the terrain, beautifully. A few clunks rang out here and there, seemingly from the front springs, but otherwise there was no drama whatsoever. I took a few lines in the Bronco that I thought would leave the XJ at least making a bit of noise as its belly banged on the rocks due to lack of ground clearance, but no; the XJ was fantastic.
In fact, the only vehicle that nearly got high-centered was the Bronco Raptor due to its low-hanging (optional) running boards.
This is where I take a moment to gush about the Jeep Cherokee XJ. Despite its unibody construction that many view as a liability for truly hard-core off-roading (I don’t agree, and think stiffeners can take care of most of the cracking concerns), the 1984 to 2001 Jeep Cherokee truly is a masterpiece of off-road design. Look at how high off the ground those rocker panels are; that’s one of the key ingredients that make the machine just so capable, as off-roading involves placing the front tires onto the tallest obstacles in order to avoid underbody damage. This puts those obstacles right in line with the rocker panels once the tires have rolled over the rock or log or whatever was in the way.
Take a look at the base Ford Bronco (above), which comes with 30-inch tires from the factory; look at all that “stuff” down low between the axles. The frame is low, the drivetrain is low, and the rockers are low. There’s a reason it has only a 20.0 degree breakover angle, whereas a base Jeep XJ has a 21 degree breakover angle despite stock tires that are two inches smaller in diameter. Wheelbase obviously plays a role, here, but the point is that the XJ’s geometry is excellent, and is the primary reason why it’s one of the best off-road platforms of all time. And it showed out on the trail, as the Jeep — thanks also to some great driving — handled everything we threw at it without so much as a single hang-up.
The XJ also benefits from having no low-hanging parts far ahead of the front axle. There are some steering parts up close, but that’s about all that’s ahead of the axle and below the front bumper; the Bronco has a lot more stuff up there, hence that giant silver skid plate below those tow hooks.
I’m not saying the mildly-modified XJ is better off-road than the Bronco Raptor (which is much better in almost all conditions), I’m just saying that the platform allows for a small lift and modestly-sized tires to turn the vehicle into an excellent off-road machine. And that such a lightly-built, cheap vehicle is among the most fun off-roaders money can buy.
After all, pushing the limits of your vehicle and of your own skill is what makes off-roading so fun. And while there are some absurdly-difficult trails here in Moab that would absolutely push both the vehicle and me, the reality is that most off-road trails around the country would be a cakewalk for the Bronco Raptor. It’s simply in a different class than anything that isn’t a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. Look at the photo above of the ridiculous suspension articulation in the rear; the front doesn’t articulate as much due to independent suspension, but overall, the flex is still phenomenal for a stock machine. I shot a video of the Bronco Raptor a few months back, and pretty much concluded that it’s a masterpiece — a vehicle that excels in every off-road terrain that doesn’t involve tight quarters (the thing is a bit large — in fact, I had to cancel my plans to drive a trail called Elephant Hill, since it involves driving through a narrow passage that even Jeep JL’s struggle with):
I’m excited to have the Bronco for the next few days, as it’ll make for comfortable, low-stress off-roading. Given how stressed I am these days, I actually welcome that. But when I have a little less on my plate, and am ready to return to the uncomfortable-DT days of old that involve being covered in oil and buying far too many junkers, I’ll have a huge grin on my face piloting those junkers over harsh terrain.
Because there’s nothing like getting a vehicle you put your blood and tears into over an impossible obstacle. The pride that you feel in that vehicle, and the joy in your heart from knowing that your skill was a key part in accomplishing what seemed just a moment ago like a sure-thing axle-breaker — these are some of the most rewarding emotions in all of motoring.
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