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When The Going Gets Tough, Can Modern SUVs Hack It?

From the archives: RECOIL Magazine Issue 16, January/February 2015

Conventional Wisdom Says that Your Bug-Out Vehicle Needs to be Locked, Lifted, and Rolling on 33s. Conventional Wisdom is Wrong.

Photography by: Kenda Lenseigne

The evolution of the sport utility vehicle (SUV) reads like the decline of the Roman Empire. Once agile, capable, and aggressive — now flaccid, pampered, and fat. Let's face it, while we'd all love a dedicated bug-out vehicle, for most of us that ain't going to happen. Life gets in the way, and compromises must be reached to accommodate the needs of significant others, offspring, and employers. So how do we get maximum utility from our daily driver? Will a competent, low-profile everyday vehicle also serve as a viable means to transport our nearest and dearest out of harm's way, should everything go sideways? As with most of life's pressing questions, the answer is a definite, “Yes, but…”

toyota-suv-rear-view

The SUV Evolves

On the way to market ascendency during the middle part of its reign, SUV design teams bowed to the whims of their largest constituent. Sally soccer mom just loved the feeling of “security” that a high driving position and a couple of tons of Detroit iron offered, but didn't much care for the truck-like ride. Four-wheel drive sounded just peachy, but very few transfer cases were ever shifted out of 2H. Hence the vehicle wound up schlepping a few hundred pounds of extra ballast to and from the kids' ball games. So solid axles were then ditched in favor of independent suspension, a ladder chassis swapped for unibody construction, and the whole package became softer and more car-like. After getting bored with the idiocy they'd inflicted on the basic premise of the SUV, the fickle target demographic came to hate on the former object of their desire and discovered all sorts of reasons not to like them, citing crappy fuel economy and a high center of gravity.

After all these schizophrenic demands, can the resulting vehicle ever hope to perform in its original role off-road? We decided to find out. Any design that seeks to perform on both dirt and tarmac must, by definition, be a compromise. Some models push the needle further toward the dirt end of the spectrum, while others find their audience demands better pavement performance.

Toyota's 4Runner started out as a compact pickup with seats added to its bed and a fiberglass cap on top — about as basic and utilitarian as it gets. Now in its fifth generation, it's gained such luxuries as climate-controlled leather seats, and in so doing, gained around 400 pounds of middle-aged flab in the process. We took one in its top-of-the-line Limited spec on a multi-day off-road trip through some of the gnarliest dirt trails we could find in order to see just how a modern SUV would hold up while carrying two passengers, camping gear, a week's worth of supplies, recovery kit, and — of course — guns and ammo. Accompanying us with his expedition rig was Clark White (see RECOIL Issue 15), who fully expected to make extensive use of his high-lift jack, winch, and tow straps.

toyota-suv-driving-through-the-desert

Into the Wild

After topping off fuel tanks, our little convoy rolled off the blacktop and onto the dirt. Temperatures nudged triple digits, while dust filled the air and volcanic rock was ground to powder by the 4Runner's street-oriented rubber, which despite lacking an aggressive tread pattern, never once left us clawing for purchase. While we'd have preferred some beefier meats, Toyota's A-TRAC electronic traction control package did an admirable job of metering torque to all four corners, whether the surface was loose, steep, wet, or dry. It achieves this by using the vehicle's ABS system to apply braking pressure to any wheel it senses is slipping — thus preventing the open differentials from sending more power in that direction and spinning up while the remaining wheels just sit there.

Compared to Clark's spartan FJ60, the smaller vehicle's creature comforts were an unabashed luxury — while a Bach sonata wafted from the Bluetooth-enabled premium sound system, the 4Runner coddled its driver with refrigerated air directed at one's sweaty nether regions. Trying to get any useful information from the GPS, however, was another story. Our position was marked on an otherwise unbroken sea of blue, with no other details forthcoming — so if you plan on using it to navigate across country to escape the ravening hordes, you may want to make sure a good old-fashioned map is part of your go-bag contents.

Determined to prove that all this newfangled technology was bound to leave us stranded, we tried to make it malfunction by seeing just how big of a bow wave could be generated on a couple of water crossings. Although the vehicle emerged considerably cleaner, there was no noticeable change to its performance. It wasn't until we pushed hard through soft sand that the limitations of the 4Runner's styling accents were found — its air dam proved to be an inefficient snow plow and started flapping around after the third big hit. After adding insult to injury by putting a ding in the tailgate, we decided to head home to consider lessons learned from the trip.

toyota-suv-driving-through-the-desert-up-a-hill

Mall Crawler as Bug-Out Truck

If your contingency plans hinge on using your SUV to escape from an impending apocalyptic event, there are a few things you should consider.

1. Expected terrain. If your prospective escape route takes you through mud-clogged back roads or an urban jungle, you'll want to set up your rig a little differently than we did. Adapt your wagon to the prevailing conditions.

2. Overhangs and ground clearance are king. Our Limited version suffered due to its plastic front body panels, which hampered its off-road ability, while its lower-spec SR5 brother has no such handicap. Given the option of a two-wheel-drive vehicle, with good approach angles and ground clearance with a set of decent tires, versus a low-slung 4×4 — we'd take the 2WD version every time.

3. Traction control systems. They really do make a difference and compensate for the lack of locking differentials.

4. Reliability is everything. If our vehicles had crapped out on this test run, we'd either be sitting by the side of the trail for days waiting for a passing utility truck, or else hoofing it to someplace in range of a cell tower. In a more serious situation, neither of the above would apply, so it's vital that your vehicle is fit for its intended role.


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