2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi
2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi. Click image to enlarge

Even with gasoline prices reaching all-time records, Canadian consumers are still purchasing light trucks and sport-utility vehicles at an astounding rate. Is the versatility of these vehicles the major attraction for these buyers, or is it just an image thing? I recently had the opportunity to test three very different vehicles – Jeep Grand Cherokee HEMI, Honda Ridgeline, Porsche Cayenne ‘S’- in light off-road conditions where you would expect them to be competent by design, but not outstanding. Boy was I surprised!

2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi – The Legend

Jeep is a legendary nameplate when it comes to off-road prowess. The Grand Cherokee is the brand’s crown jewel and has been totally re-designed for 2005. The big news is that you can outfit it with the 5.7-litre HEMI V8.

2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi
Click image to enlarge

My pretty test vehicle was a fully-loaded ‘Limited’ model, equally ready to transport my passengers and I to dinner in luxury, or to power me to victory in a stoplight drag race. Once the road ends and the Grand Cherokee’s big all-season tires start churning through the mud, things got very interesting. With 330-hp (@5,000 rpm) and 375lb-ft (@4,000rpm) of torque the Hemi offers enough grunt to power the Grand Cherokee through sandy berms and deep ruts, while its independent front suspension helps keep the wheels in contact with the road and the driver in control. On the way home the Multi-Displacement System will operate the engine as a four-cylinder, making it more fuel efficient than you would expect given its healthy numbers.

2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi

2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi

2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Hemi
Click image to enlarge

All Grand Cherokees benefit from an all-new 5-speed automatic transmission, with gear ratios perfectly suited for delivering plenty of torque to the wheels. Its Quadra-Drive II four-wheel drive system provides a 2-speed transfer case, electronically-controlled locking front, centre and rear differentials, as well as stability control. Advanced 4-channel ABS brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution work in concert with the Quadra-Drive to help rein you in and keep the vehicle’s momentum under control. In short, this well-proven system will keep you moving forward, as long as the vehicle doesn’t get high-sided, and at least some of the wheels have something to grab. More adventurous individuals can turn the stability and traction systems off if they want to play a little more with the wonderful power curve offered by the Hemi.

I took the Grand Cherokee through a circuit that included a long climb up a steep, rock-strewn grade, followed by a similar decent. The new design gives the Grand Cherokee excellent approach and departure angles (34.1/27.1 degrees), which allowed the vehicle to scramble up and down almost anything I could throw at it, although ground clearance is still rather limited at a mere 216mm (8.5″). The latter will only pose a problem if you happen upon a significant boulder field or are clambering over short peaked hills. Jeep offers a full compliment of skid-plates as optional equipment if you plan to make use of this versatile SUV’s off-road prowess.

I made a shallow creek crossing before exploring a sandy beach and finally a mud plain filled with deep troughs and ruts. At no time did the Jeep Grand Cherokee feel out of its element or ready to quit. The brakes held up well to the added stresses of off-road use, and I failed to notice any fade over the course of the afternoon. This is one luxury rig that is faithful to its roots.

Base Price: $48,695
As Tested Price: $56,465

Fuel economy (L/100km): City 17 (17mpg); Hwy 11.4 (25mpg)
Towing Capacity: 3,266kg (7,200lb)
Cargo Volume: 991L (35.0cu.ft); 1,909L (67.4) when seats folded.

2005 Honda Ridgeline – The Innovator

Honda’s new Ridgeline is the company’s first foray into light truck production. The cutting edge styling and tidy dimensions also make it a hit in the showroom, as the truck seems to fit city environments better than its full-size rivals.

All Ridgelines come standard with Honda’s well-proven VTM-4 (Variable Torque Management Four-Wheel Drive) all-wheel-drive system, which has been developed in both the Honda Pilot and Acura MDX.

2005 Honda Ridgeline

2005 Honda Ridgeline

2005 Honda Ridgeline

2005 Honda Ridgeline
Click image to enlarge

The Ridgeline’s frame is also derived from that shared by these two cousins, although it has been reinforced with steel cross-members to create a high-strength closed-box ladder frame. Unlike other large pick-up designs, Honda has created a unibody design for the Ridgeline that unites the cargo bed with the passenger compartment and gives the vehicle unheard of structural rigidity for this category, said to be as much as twenty times greater than standard pick-up designs. This means that handling is crisp and predictable like that in a modern sedan, and the squeaks and rattles normally associated with pick-up designs are noticeably absent.

This proved the case off-road as well. The Ridgeline’s independent suspension smoothed the bumps in the road and absorbed the shock of potholes and ruts like a true champion.

The standard four-wheel disc brakes (complete with the first four-channel ABS system available in a pickup) are aided by Brake Assist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, as well as advanced traction and stability controls. Honda is setting the bar high in this department.

The futuristic design gives the Ridgeline approach and departure angles (24.5/22.0 degrees) that are quite good for a stock pick-up, and even on OEM tires and wheels it handled my test climb and mud plain antics without hesitation or drama. Ground clearance is 208 mm (8.2″), but this is on par with most of its competitors.

I took the Ridgeline along a similar route to the Grand Cherokee although no creek crossing was attempted, as its all-wheel-drive system is not as advanced as that in the Jeep. In Fact, it is more suited to tackle sloppy road conditions and inclement weather than fording streams and navigating tight mountain passes. However, the 5-speed automatic (the only transmission offered) is backed up by grade logic control and a heavy-duty transmission cooler, so climbing under load or whilst towing is on the Ridgeline’s resume.

The only thing holding the Ridgeline back from being truly outstanding may be its engine. The 3.5-litre SOHC V6 operates with all the smoothness and refinement expected from a Honda unit and is rated at 255 horsepower (@ 5,750 rpm) and 252 lb-ft of torque (@ 4,500 rpm). However, I could see the need for a little more torque if the vehicle had a full complement of passengers, gear and a trailer in tow. All said Honda’s first effort is a stellar one, and well worth a look.

Base Price: $34,800 (LX); $39,200 (EX-L); $43,900 (EX-L Navi)
As Tested Price: $36,325
Fuel economy (L/100km): City 14.4 (19.6mpg); Hwy 10.1 (28mpg)
Towing Capacity: 2,268kg (5,000lb)
Cargo Volume: 1,172L (41.4cu.ft.) when seats folded.

2005 Porsche Cayenne ‘S’ – The Rocket

Porsche AG is best known for creating some of the world’s most advanced sports and GT cars, but with the introduction of the Cayenne SUV in 2003, the company entered uncharted territory. My test unit was the middle offering of a three-model line-up, that being the Cayenne ‘S’. Its delivered price was a tick above the $100,000 barrier after taxes, so it is a pretty safe bet that a lot of Cayenne owners will never explore the off-road talents of the German company’s high-performance SUVs. Luckily for these people, they excel on the pavement as well.

2005 Porsche Cayenne S

2005 Porsche Cayenne S

2005 Porsche Cayenne S
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All Cayenne models benefit from some of the most advanced off-road technology ever offered in a production vehicle. The permanent all-wheel drive system operates in the background in seamless harmony with a host of integrated off-road and stability systems. Advanced technologies including Porsche Traction Management, Porsche Stability Management and advanced, four-wheel vented disc brakes (with multi-channel ABS) keep this versatile rocket grounded, which is a real task when you realize that it can sprint upwards of 240 km/h with relative ease. Under the hood the 4.5-litre naturally aspirated V8 engine develops 340 hp (@ 6,000rpm) and 310 lb-ft of torque (@2,500 and 5,500 rpm). Porsche claims this power plant will propel the Cayenne S from 0 to 100 km per hour in a scant 6.8 seconds. I believe it!

Once the asphalt ends all that power needs to be transmitted to the wheels in a more controlled manner, so at the touch of a button the driver can shift the transfer gearbox into “low-range” mode and you are ready for whatever nature throws at you. When things get extra treacherous the electronically variable and lockable rear differential redistributes torque to stabilize the vehicle upon detecting slippage at either of the rear wheels. When low-range gearing is selected, the differential can also be locked using a centre-console control to provide both rear wheels with up to 100% of the engine’s power. Awesome.

My tester came with the optional Advanced Off-road Technology Package (AOTP) which adds a host of heavy-duty protective coverings and systems to keep the side-sills, fuel tank, rear axle, brake lines and engine bay from harm. It also allows the driver to hydraulically disengage the front and rear anti-roll bars to reduce the stiffness of the suspension and increase wheel travel. Very trick indeed.

The Cayenne S can be equipped with an advanced air-suspension which allows the operator to increase the ground clearance from 217 mm (8.5-in) to an admirable 273 mm (10.7-in) and the approach and departure angles (29.1/25.7 degrees become 32.4 / 28.3 at full extension) in the event that taller (or deeper) obstacles need to be overcome.

All this technology gives the Cayenne a real advantage in the all-terrain wars but can also make its users over-confident. Case-in-point:

2005 Porsche Cayenne S
Click image to enlarge

I managed to find west-coast mud slick enough that the stock Dunlop Grandtrek tires filled with mud and completely lost traction, causing the Cayenne to slide deep into the mud pit I was trying to circumvent. The vehicle still had clearance underneath as I was in the fully-extended special-terrain mode, but without proper boots, Porsche’s all-terrain mad-science could not extricate me from my soupy confines. Luckily my test unit was equipped with Porsche’s optional tow package, and a passing mud-truck gently winched me out.

The same route travelled with the Grand Cherokee was handled with ease by the Cayenne, albeit with a little more finesse and the advantage of the trick air-suspension. All the Cayenne’s gadgetry lets you dial the vehicle in to meet varying situations, but it also takes some of the fun out of the tactical tribulations that come with navigating a rugged trail. The ride home however is the real prize, as the Cayenne ‘S’ carves corners like its Carrera siblings and exhibits handling skills unmatched in the SUV arena.

Base Price: $78,800
As Tested Price: $102,050
Fuel economy (L/100km): City 17.1 (17mpg); Hwy 11.7 (24mpg)
Towing Capacity: 3,500kg (7,716lb)
Cargo Volume: 541L (19.1-cu.ft.); 1,770L (62.5-cu.ft.)when seats folded.


By selecting an off-road specific tire for any of these talented machines you would be better able to test the outer limits of their all-terrain capabilities, but as they will no doubt spend the majority of their time on paved roads, this would hamper road handling and generate road-noise.

All three vehicles have been designed with different purposes and very different customers in mind. However, all prove that the modern SUV is better equipped than ever for all-terrain duties as electronic aids (like traction and stability controls and ABS brakes) ensure that even the neophyte off-road adventurer is working with a safety net.

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