OK, confession time: In my many years of being a car fan, I've never been off-roading. As an automotive journalist, however, I figured that had to change. And it did recently when I earned my four-wheeling chops at a Trail Day held by the Motor Press Guild, a professional organization for journalists and PR reps in the auto industry.
The Trail Day event took place at Calamigos Ranch in beautiful Malibu.A number of automakers including Nissan, Ford, Honda, Land Rover, Toyota, and others, were invited to provide their most capable off-road vehicles for journalists to sample. The vehicles that showed up ranged in capability from thepurpose-builtJeep Wrangler Rubicon to the normally pavement-bound Kia Sportage crossover, with just about everything in between.
First, I climbed into the Nissan Frontier Pro-4X, which turned out to be the perfect choice for getting to know the trails. Calamigos Ranch's narrow mountain paths were riddled with potholes and ruts, and the brush lining the roads was thick, bristly, and ready to scratch any surface with which it came into contact. The Frontier's unobstructed sightlines helped me learn the lay of the land -- something that would prove useful later on. Once we got to the top of a steep hill, the instructor engaged Nissan's Downhill Assist Control feature. This allowed me to gradually descend without having to modulate the brakes. The suspension soaked up the bumps well enough, and the steering transmitted enough feedback for me to point the wheels where they naturally wanted to go. One thing I wished for was a little more resistance in the steering, as it felt overboosted at times.
Now that I had run the course once, I stepped up to the 2012 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. With its elevated ride height and longer hood compared withthe midsize Frontier's, the Raptor was more of a handful on the ranch's narrow roads. As if the difference in width between the two trucks weren't enough for me to contend with, the Raptor's extra few lateral inches from the flared fender kept me checking my mirrors often. Despite the added width, clearance wasn't much of an issue for the Raptor on these trails. The Fox-Racingsourced shocks, along with the rest of the SVT-tuned suspension, performed well, allowing for a surprisingly smooth ride. Grip in low-range mode was outstanding, thanks to the Torsen limited-slip front differential.
The Raptor's high-riding nature combined with a long hood made ascending a steep hill a bit nerve-wracking, since you can't tell whether there's a plateau or a plummeting vertical drop-off ahead of you when you reach the crest. But all Raptor models received afront-view camera as standard in 2012, taking that "leap of faith" aspect out of the equation. With the grille-mounted camera working, you can see exactly what the road ahead has in store on the center stack's 8-inch display.
Throughout the day, I got seat time with other vehicles like the Volkswagen Touareg, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, Land Rover Range Rover, and Lexus LX 570. Each impressed with its off-road performance, but none was more surprising than the Acura MDX. Though it was restricted to the easier trails, the MDX was no lightweight when it came to playing in the dirt. The crossover's Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system provided plenty of grip for these roads, and the suspension -- despite the relatively low ground clearance -handled anything the trails could throw at it.For the most part, the ride was pleasant and uneventful, with rocks and deeper ruts occasionally upsetting things.
By the end of the day, I had racked up a substantial number of miles driven off the pavement and with help from various instructors, learned most of the basics in a very short time span. Though it took nearly three decades, I've finally gotten my baptism of dust and silt, and can happily tell fellow car guys that I've been off-road.
Written by Alex Nishimoto