Best new off-road technology
Off-road tech advancements in vehicles continue apace – seemingly there’s something new invented and manufactured every second – but some traditional 4WD enthusiasts still get all doe-eyed about “the good old days” when off-road vehicles were “real 4WDs” – think low-range gearing via “the stubby stick”, locking hubs, live axles front and back, a separate chassis, and a sheep-wrangling kelpie riding up front with you.
Well, the future is now and whether we like it or not, push-button/dial-selectable 4WD low range (or the equivalent) has long been around and is here to stay, hybrid/electric SUVs are on the streets and autonomous off-roaders are reportedly well on their way. Here are our top picks for best new off-road technology.
1. 2018 Ford Ranger Raptor
But this is not about one major tech step into the future; this is about a combination of factors, incorporating this model’s engine (157kW and 500Nm), 10-speed auto (from the marque’s Mustang), tweaked Terrain Management System (now with Baja mode), and coil springs all-round and Fox Racing Shox-bolstered suspension set-up, which make Ford’s new ute, officially revealed in early February, massive news.
The Raptor is a “race-bred” ute, according to Ford’s big wigs, and beyond any other hyperbole the company’s publicity team spun at the reveal event, that description is what’s crucial in understanding the tech and mind-set shift this ute signals: the Raptor has been designed by a team of hard-core off-road racing enthusiasts, with high-speed and high-performance off-road driving in mind. As mentioned, it has coil springs at the rear – not leaf springs – and a maximum towing capacity of 2500kg (braked) – that’s 1000kg below the segment’s benchmark – so loaded-up towing is not its focus.
The Raptor has Ford’s Terrain Management System, which has six drive modes: two for on-road (Normal and Sport) and four modes for off-road: Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud/Sand, Rock, and the new Raptor-suited Baja mode (“for enthusiastic drivers!”), specially tuned for high-speed off-road performance, paring back vehicle systems, such as traction control, holding gears for longer and downshifting more energetically. The Raptor, one of 2018’s most anticipated new vehicle releases, also has beefier rubber (All-Terrain BF Goodrich 285/70 R17 tyres). The Raptor is tipped to be available here in the second half of this year and represents a seriously considered shift away from utes as workhorses to high-performance recreational vehicles.
2. Range Rover Sport Plug-In Hybrid
Plug-in hybrids are all the rage but cynics continue to question the cost of the vehicles, the distance they can travel between charges and their reliability.
Well, Jaguar Land Rover has well and truly knocked out any persistent doubts about the sheer climbing abilities of electric off-roaders – and the car maker did it with the magic power of what we oldies call motion pictures. The recent video shows the (PHEV) Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle tackling the 11.3km path to Heaven’s Gate on Tianmen Mountain, China. The mountainside route includes 99 hairpin turns and finishes with 999 steps, many sections of which are at a 45-degree angle, the outer limits of what is actually drivable.
The driver, Ho-Pin Tung, Le Mans 24 Hour Winner and Jaguar Formula E Racing driver, completed the challenge in 22 minutes and 41 seconds. He used Dynamic mode of the brand’s Terrain Response 2 system (available on Range Rover and Range Rover Sport models) for the road section, then switched to Mud-Ruts for the 999 steeps to the very top. Dynamic mode “sharpens throttle response, changes gears at high revs, and engages dampeners to help the car feel planted – perfect for sporty on-road driving”, according to JLR. The company says that ‘Mud-Ruts’ optimises the traction control system “to allow controlled tyre slip, which provides the best traction in slippery conditions”.
The plug-in Rangie Sport dips into 404 horsepower courtesy of its 85kW electric motor and 221kW Si4 Ingenium petrol engine. The Dragon Challenge was staged after what JLR reckons was exhaustive testing in the UK using a specially-built, similarly-sloped section of track there.
3. ARB’s Linx system
This Aussie company has been churning out top-quality aftermarket gear for decades. The latest in its long line of innovative products is the Linx vehicle accessory interface. This touchscreen system, aimed at offering the driver convenient dashboard-based control of his 4WD minus the clutter of numerous physical switches or gauges, has six operational modules but more are coming soon and even more are planned.
In layman’s terms, you use the one mobile screen display to monitor and adjust your front and rear traction (via ARB air lockers), air compressor function and tyre pressures, air bag suspension (you can control it in pairs or separately), monitor your batteries (main, second and trailer), as well as set it to control when some functions are switched on or off, manually or automatically when the vehicle is started. Linx also has the ability to control a range of other switched accessories, including aftermarket headlights, camp lights, fog lights.
It also acts as a speedo, taking into account that your factory-fitted version may be ‘out’ a bit due to the fact you now have different tyres on. The display unit is mounted to a magnetic gimbal near the driver, say the A-pillar, the Linx controller, the system’s CPU, is installed under the dash or under the driver seat, and the system can be updated at any time, all you need is a good Wi-Fi spot.
4. Autonomous off-roaders
It’s not quite here yet but development of off-road components into autonomous technology suites has been reported for years and is well on the way to being fine-tuned behind closed doors as you read this.
One of the many car-makers working on the technology, Jaguar Land Rover, with an obvious strong tradition steeped in tough off-roading ability, is running more than 100 vehicles in its research fleet with an eye on how well their autonomous vehicles perform when faced with obstacles of varying natures.
When out bush, JLR’s Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) technologies uses its array of sensors to ‘read’ the surrounds, at ground level and above, and driving conditions – via radar, lidar (light detection and ranging), 3D path-sensing, all-terrain camera system and surface identification – and map it all in order to figure out the best route possible. Feedback from CAV will adjust the vehicle’s speed and suspension settings to suit the terrain being driven at any particular time.