Here's Why The Future Of Off-Roading Is Electric

Electric Vehicles / 7 Comments

They're better suited to 4x4 activities, and better for nature.

I'm probably going to get crucified for this, but I love EVs.

My first experience with an EV was around 15 years ago. An environmentalist friend of mine blew up the V8 in his Jeep Grand Cherokee and decided to convert it to an EV. It was a terrible car, with a top speed of 40 mph and a range of no more than 20 miles.

Even so, he was convinced that electricity was the future. He turned out to be correct, as he later started a business bolting EV powertrains into big game spotting vehicles and small boats. He made a lot of money selling these products in Botswana, where they're used to sneak up on all sorts of wildlife to give international tourists an experience they'll never forget.

Then as the years passed, I got the opportunity to get into more EVs. I drove the original Mini EV concept a decade ago, which conked out after one short drive. And since it came with strict instructions not to open the hood, BMW came and took it away. Still, I am massively excited about the upcoming smaller Mini EV.


The first EV I could see myself owning was the Jaguar I-Pace. I'm not too fond of how it looks, but the luxury interior and instant power won me over. A few months after the I-Pace's launch, we used it as a backup car while track testing a Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. The Jeep was delivered with worn brakes, so the whole day would have been a write-off. But we had an EV crossover, a supercharged 700 hp Grand Cherokee and a drag strip booked for the day.

The Jag leaped off the line quicker, but the Jeep caught up quickly enough. In-gear acceleration was frustrating, however. We played around, driving at 60 mph, counting down from three, and then flooring the cars. Do you know how annoying it is not being able to catch a glorified fridge in one of the most powerful SUVs ever made? In the time it took the Jeep to drop a few cogs, the Jag simply leaped ahead.

2017-2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT Front Angle View Jeep
2017-2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT Side View Jeep

That instant torque got me thinking about how great a proper EV off-roader would be. Compared to an old-school gas off-roader, the upsides are plentiful. The first and most apparent is the instant surge of torque. Let's take the Rivian R1T as an example. You get 900 lb-ft of torque in an instant. That removes the need for a transfer case AND a low range.

I know few people out there swear by low range (a gear reduction meant to make it easier to drive off road), and I have to admit that I'm a big fan myself. I've never trusted hill descent control or whatever variation of the name manufacturers come up with. I prefer using first gear in low range for crawling down obstacles purely because I'm in control.

2022 Rivian R1T Truck Rear-Facing View Rivian
2022 Rivian R1T Truck View Out Back Rivian

But allow me to tell you a story of how low range became irrelevant long before mainstream EV off-roaders came along. Around six years ago, I was in the Namib Desert in Southern Africa with a selection of 20 compact pickup trucks. The only one you'll be familiar with is the Ford Ranger.

That was right after Volkswagen launched the eight-speed automatic transmission for the Amarok. As off-roaders tend to do, this bunch of desert explorers was making fun of the poor Amarok. VW decided to give it an extremely low first gear to mimic low range, and that's it. Most people thought it would move no further than the length of its own body before it got stuck.

As it turned out, the Amarok gave all of those compact pickups a proper spanking. Want to know why? That eight-speed gearbox, still widely used to this day, was quick as hell. While the other drivers struggled with manual shifts or clunky transfer cases, the Amarok just snapped through the gears without losing momentum. And if you've ever been to the dunes, you'll know momentum is critical.

2022 Rivian R1T Truck Burnout Rivian

So imagine what a single-speed EV would be like in the dunes; constant power with no sloppy gearchanges to screw with the momentum. Secondly, imagine how much you'll save in servicing. EV powertrains only have two moving parts, compared to the hundreds in an internal combustion engine. That's a lot less to worry about, especially when it comes to water getting into places where it doesn't belong.

Sure, water and electricity don't mix, but battery packs are so well insulated that EVs can literally drive underwater. Don't believe me? Check out the video of a Tesla driving underwater. If Tesla, a company known for shoddy build quality, can build a waterproof battery pack, anyone can. I'm not suggesting you go full Bond with a Rivian pickup, but it's nice to know that it can dive a few inches deeper than the average truck.

Third is the sheer amount of technology you can program into an EV drivetrain. The Rivian has an electric motor for each wheel, and various driving modes will change how these motors behave. It removes the need for locking differentials and makes a mechanical four-wheel-drive system look irrelevant. Additionally, removing all of the mechanical couplings gets rid of more things that can go wrong. Rivian's solution is the most advanced 4WD system, for now, as each wheel operates independently.

Finally, there's the part I love the most. Silent off-roading is unlike anything I've ever experienced before. There's no way to crawl silently in a gas 4x4s. Even in low range at idle speeds, it makes enough noise to scare away birds and small animals. You can lower the window in a silent EV and listen to the birds singing, a river running, and the wind whistling through the trees. Is that not the whole point of off-roading? To get away from noisy cities and become one with nature?

2022 Rivian R1T Truck Rear Angle View ©Dylan_Johnston
2022 Rivian R1T Truck Aft View Rivian
2022 Rivian R1T Truck Front View Driving Rivian
2022 Rivian R1T Truck Rear View Driving Rivian

I'm not blind to the flaws, however. EVs are not as environmentally friendly as most owners would have you believe. Mining the materials needed to make lithium-ion batteries is a filthy business. Not to mention the source of the power you use to charge up the car. If it comes from burning coal or natural gas, you can forget about claiming the moral high ground.

I'm not that bothered about range anxiety anymore, and you shouldn't be either. Rivian's claimed range is more than enough for me to get to my favorite camping ground and back. Still, you can't go overlanding in one, which is a pity.

I'm a big fan of EV off-roading. Apart from the range, I don't see a downside. And at the rate range is currently climbing, it doesn't seem like that will be a problem much longer. Rivian is also erecting charging points at famous off-road landmarks, which will make silent off-road exploring even easier. There's never been a better time to get involved.

2022 Rivian R1T Truck Front-End View Rivian
2022 Rivian R1T Truck Forward Vision Rivian
2022 Rivian R1T Truck Rear View Driving Rivian
2022 Rivian R1T Truck Driving Back View Rivian

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2017-2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT Side View

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