Off-Roading

AutomotiveMap's top tips for driving on sand dunes

Imperial Sand Dunes, a few hours east of San Diego, provide some of the best dune driving terrain in the world.

Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

This wasn't a dream. The sounds of Pat Benetar's "We Belong" flowed through the cabin at near-concert levels as the Rolls-Royce Cullinan dove from sand dune to sand dune at speed. The magic carpet ride was keeping the 6,000-pound car's occupants stable but the expert driver behind the wheel was keeping them from sinking in the Imperial Sand Dunes' tough terrain.

Whether you're setting off for your first or fiftieth time in the dunes, here are the top tips for success you'll want to remember.

Remember that the dunes are always changing.

Wind, settling, water, animals, people, and other vehicles impact the dunes on a regular basis. As the wind blows, the sand settles, creatures move about, and steps are taken on them, the surfaces changes. The sun will dry out the sand, making it more easily able to be sunk into.

Where you just went, you might not be able to go again.

Because of the constantly changing dunes and tire pressures on the sand, the sand shifts once you pass and may create a space of no return for your vehicle. It's important to have a good lay of the land before proceeding and keep in mind that you might not be able to go back.

As wind whips the landscape, you'll want to keep newly forming witch's eyes in mind as well.

The sun makes the sand dry out.

When it gets hot, the sand heats up and dries out. This causes the surface to be squishier (dry sand is easier to move than wet sand). Because of this, vehicle wheels can quickly become buried in sand that was passable hours prior.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan Rebelle Rally When the sun is at high noon, the sand begins to loosen up and can easily swallow a tire or two or four.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

What's dark isn't always hard.

When you go to the beach, water wets the sand causing it to darken in color. As sand dries, traditionally it lightens up. This isn't always the case in the dunes where dark sand may purely be an easily breakable crust on top of deep dry sand.

More throttle, less brake.

When driving in sand, you won't want to give the car too much gas or brake. Stopping can mean the difference between sinking down into the sand and skimming the surface. The best speed will keep the car moving at the right pace, on top of the sand, while making stopping easy should you come across an obstacle.

Midday sun is flat sun.

As the sun rises, so does the chance of getting dehydrated. It also means that you're seeing flat light, which can make even larger whoops look like small ripples. Drive cautiously as the light reaches high noon and pay attention as shadows develop later in day, hiding potential obstacles.

Don't forget your tools.

No day at the dunes is complete without at least getting stuck one time. A shovel and Maxtrax are two of your best friends. Wet wipes, goggles, and gear such as the Deadman Earth Anchor are a must as well. Something as simple like an analog compass can help you if you get lost. For deep desert driving, consider making a satellite phone standard equipment.

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New SUV Review

2021 Ford Bronco review: Return of a legend

Several of the Bronco's body panels are removable.

Ford

Ford says its 2021 Bronco is 'Built Wild' like its wild-horse namesake and, as this iconic model returns to the U.S. market after a 25-year hiatus, it's ready to gallop to glory once again. Released from the Ford stables in 1965, the Bronco was America's first-ever "sport ute" and heralded as the first "4WD sports car" with both off-road capability and on-road competency; it was also dubbed the "G.O.A.T." (goes over any terrain). The all-new model is reincarnated as a modern-day midsize SUV with heritage-inspired styling; rugged engineering; and a collection of smart technologies for the backcountry and four-wheeling, as well as for a smoothish ride around town and on the highway. It marries the tough attributes of Ford's F-Series trucks with a fully-boxed steel-ladder frame and advanced 4WD systems to the performance spirit of the Mustang—and, once again, is nicknamed G.O.A.T! Larger than its stablemate, the Bronco Sport competes with vehicles like the Jeep Cherokee, while the Bronco is a direct competitor to the Jeep Wrangler. It goes on sale this summer starting at $29,995

Bronco Trims and Configurations


2021 Ford Bronco Two- and four-door versions of the Bronco are available.Ford


The new Bronco comes in 4WD only, and is available in a two-door version that seats four people or a four-door model with room for five, plus hard-top and soft-top options. There are two engine choices: A turbocharged 2.3-liter I-4 that offers up to 300 horsepower and 325 lb.-ft. of torque (best-in-class) is standard. It pairs with either a 10-speed auto or a 7-speed manual. The optional engine is a 2.7-liter V6 with a twin turbo that produces 330 horsepower and 415 pound-feet of torque, which is also best-in-class. The V6 is available only with the ten-speed automatic transmission.

The manual transmission has six traditional gears, plus a "crawler gear" that has a best-in-class gear ratio of 94.75:1. There are seven Bronco models that include Base, Big Bend, Black Diamond, Outer Banks, Badlands, Wildtrak and a limited First Edition that quickly sold out when order banks opened.

Bronco Features and Styling

The Bronco comes in a staggering number of exclusive color combinations that vary between models. The highly configurable off-roader is designed for both novice and hard-core 4WD experts, with easily removable roof panels, bumper sections and doors that can be stored in the trunk.

Though all-new, the latest Bronco takes its design cues from the proportions, square, boxy looks and flat sides of the original model. Large, open wheel wells are amplified by removeable bolt-on front and rear fenders, while the Bronco's fender flares sport quick-release fasteners to help with customization. Interior appointments vary by model but are designed to appeal to the heart and lifestyle of weekend warriors and 4WD adventurers with durable, with waterproof surfaces, an off-road performance app, and an available 12-inch LCD touchscreen paired with Ford's SYNC4 system touchscreen (an 8-inch is standard), among other communication and audio features. A 12-volt hook-up and USB power connections are at-the-ready to mount cameras, navigation units, phones or other devices.

Bronco First Drive Impressions


2021 Ford Bronco Several color combinations are available with various Bronco trims.Ford


We tried out 5 different models during our test drive that began in the urban environment of Austin, TX and took us to Ford's first Off Roadeo 4WD playground in Marble Falls. Our road-going drive was in a 2-door Outer Banks model with the manual transmission. On the plus side, the manual shifts smoothly, and we had the opportunity to use the crawler gear at a local boat launch. On a steep uphill over loose-surface terrain-we found it suitably impressive.

In general, there was good power, plenty of torque, and competent steering that carved the twisty roads with ease. The Bronco offers surprisingly smooth braking, although we'd like the brakes to be a bit "taller" for more aggressive stopping. Notable is the quietness of the cabin and comfort of the seats. Our only complaints were seatbelts that are not height-adjustable and a couple of ergonomics complaints for our 5'2" driver (although Ford is looking into making changes for both!).

We navigated our way through three off-road courses designed by 4WD experts that included rocky terrain, muddy motoring and dirt two-track with up and downhill climbs. We were impressed with Ford's Terrain Management System with G.O.A.T. (goes over any terrain) modes, which allow up to seven driver-selectable settings (Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery and Sand, plus Baja, Mud/Ruts and Rock Crawl for off-roading). Two 4WD systems include a two-speed electronic shift-on-the-fly transfer case and an optional two-speed electromechanical transfer case with an auto mode for on-demand selection between 2H and 4H. A Dana 44 solid rear axle and Dana independent front differential unit are both available, as electronic locking differentials-provide more grunt. Bead-lock 17-inch wheels compliment aggressive off-road tires.

We also tested the Bronco's Trail Toolbox, which is a suite of off-road technologies that includes Trail Control (cruise control for low-speed trail driving), class-exclusive Trail Turn Assist (tightens off-road turning radiuses through torque vectoring), and Trail One-Pedal Drive (aids in acceleration/braking control for precise and confident low-speed rock crawling).

The Bronco's four-wheel-drive attributes include:

  • Up to 11.5-inches of ground clearance
  • 43.2-degree approach, 26.3-degree breakover and 37.0-degree departure angles
  • Best-in-class water fording of up to 33.5 inches (w/ optional 35-inch tires that are available on every series)
  • Steel underbody armor to protect vulnerable parts and an available front bash plate
  • Heavy-duty modular steel front bumper w/ an integrated accessory winch mount
  • Side rock rails
  • Standard front and rear tow hooks
  • Sway bar disconnect
  • A 360-degree camera system with class-exclusive off-road spotter views for additional visibility in technical off-road terrain
  • Trail sites (a styling cue from the first Broncos) on the front fenders that also serve as tie-downs with a 150-lb. capacity for securing longer items, such as canoes.

The Bronco moves with ease at both slow- and high-speeds as a result of its class-leading front and rear suspension travel with a high-performance off-road stability suspension system (HOSS). Up front is an independent front suspension set-up with a solid rear axle with long-travel coil springs; suspension systems vary by model-for instance, the Sasquatch off-road package (available on all models) and standard on Badlands is long-travel position-sensitive Bilstein dampers, with end-stop control valves that allow more articulation, reduce harshness and bring durability.


2021 Ford Bronco The Bronco can be ordered with either a hard or soft top.Ford


After years of buildup and speculation, the Ford Bronco had to be good, and for the most part it accomplishes that goal. The combination of technology and off-road prowess, combined with a mostly reasonable price tag, should be enough for the Ford to put up serious competition against the Jeep Wrangler and other off-road SUVs.

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The Nissan Pathfinder is just at home on the trial as it is on the road.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken". The message is about making choices and, how the road taken made all the difference. Often in life and on the road, we have to make one choice. Take one road. No turning back. I thought of this poem on my recent test drive in the 2022 Nissan Pathfinder in the hinterlands of Montana, when I could take two different roads—paved and dirt—and that made all the difference!

Nissan has redesigned and retooled its fifth-generation Pathfinder instilling greater latitude for buyers who want to travel both types of roads and expand their adventure footprint. After seven decades of off-road development, 35 years in the business of selling Pathfinders, and with more than 1.8 million sold in the U.S., this Japanese automaker has moved the needle with a ground-up revision of the previous-gen model.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder The 2022 Nissan Pathfinder is a capable off-roader.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The full-sized sport utility is available in four trims (S, SV, SL and Platinum) and two- and four-wheel drive versions; Nissan expects that nearly 60 percent of buyers will choose four-wheel drive. The Pathfinder is in a segment that has grown larger each year as more families want a vehicle for around-town, school and playdate runs and for weekend getaways with traction technology that allows travel in the backcountry and good towing capability. Direct competitors are the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Ford Explorer.

A day-long drive of approximately 150 miles on tarmac and over a variety of dirt roads and tracks provided the opportunity to assess the Pathfinder's updates. A late-spring snowstorm added slickness to all the road surfaces in the region and allowed the Pathfinder to show off its traction capabilities at both slow and higher speeds and with lane change and emergency-braking maneuvers, when towing. I concentrated my evaluation on the augmented hardware and software designed to enhance the crossover's capabilities for backcountry travel and towing.

What I found most notable over every road surface was the comfortable ride and responsive handling that come from a collection of upgrades—and, in particular, as a result of the following: the gearing on the new nine-speed transmission, with paddle shifters for personal and more precise shifting for sport driving and slowing over rough terrain; the new terrain mode system that's engineered for different driving conditions; the four-wheel drive system that moves torque more quickly to avoid wheel slip; the improved suspension system; and new tires with a larger contact patch and more aggressive tread pattern, among other changes.

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Pathfinder's drive modes are designed to inspire confidence. Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The Pathfinder provided sure-footed motoring and comfort over uneven surfaces. Its 7.1 inches of ground clearance easily maneuvered over the small obstacles on the trail and hill descent control took the reigns without hesitation for steeper and longer downhills on traction-compromised surfaces.

I was also impressed with the Pathfinder's towing competence and appreciated the standard trailer sway control onboard all trims. It offered notably strong, mannered acceleration from a standing start and excellent straight-line braking without porpoising for either exercise.

The new 2022 Pathfinder brings off-road and towing attributes that are important to families who are seeking to spend time in the backcountry for days trips and longer and for overlanding in terrain that doesn't require a true off-road vehicle with a low range. It's will appeal to buyers who want don't want to have to choose only one road.

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