Riding terrain in a plug-in jeep is like hiking with air conditioning

For an activity that takes place in nature, cross-country skiing does not have a particularly green image. Most electric cars were not designed to go out into the wilderness as their zero-emission powertrains seemingly protect, leaving that territory to gas-guzzlers. The most well-known name in off-road vehicles aims to change that.

Like most other car manufacturers, Jeep is facing pressure to reduce fuel consumption and keep investors happy at a time when electric car upstarts such as Tesla and Rivian have become darlings in the stock market. So Jeep wants to electrify its range while retaining its terrain heritage. Fully electric SUVs are under development, but Jeep starts with plug-in hybrids, which have petrol engines but can still drive a significant distance on electric power.

Jeep launched a plug-in hybrid version of its iconic Wrangler last year and is following it up with the 2022 Grand Cherokee 4xe. The automaker is so confident that the Grand Cherokee 4xe is the real deal that it invited Digital Trends to the off-road mecca of Moab, Utah, to test it on the trails.

Jeeps home from home

Moab is an off-road playground, interspersed with paths inherited from uranium mining, bordering the Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Jeep bosses refer to it as the brand’s home away from home, and this is certainly the case during the annual Easter Jeep Safari.

Easter Jeep Safari started in 1967 by the Moab Chamber of Commerce and currently hosted by Red Rock 4-Wheeler’s four-wheel drive club. It has since grown into a nine-day event that attracts terrain enthusiasts from all over the country. Jeep uses the event for advertising purposes, shows a handful of concept cars every year and invites the media to test their latest production models.

Jeep dropped us off on an approximately 20 mile long trail near Courthouse Rock that included a mix of slender rock and sand, not to mention wonderful desert scenery. And we drove this drive without using even a drop of gasoline.

Vehicle Dynamics menu for the 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe plug-in hybrid.

Grand Cherokee goes to plug-in hybrid

Jeep added the Grand Cherokee 4xe plug-in hybrid model to the range as part of a recent redesign of the popular SUV. Although it has a fairly large 17-kilowatt-hour battery pack that provides a full $ 7,500 federal EV tax deduction and allows 25 miles of electric range, the 4xe is a Jeep first and a plug-in hybrid second.

The driveline, which consists of a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission with electric assistance, is connected to a traditional mechanical four-wheel drive system. So the 4xe has a low-range transfer case like a standard Grand Cherokee, as well as an electronic differential with limited slip. This means that the power can be shunted to all wheels that have traction, as well as for the use of low gear that allows 4xe to crawl over loose surfaces without breaking the traction.

The plug-in hybrid system does not affect the packaging either. With the available air suspension pumped up to maximum ride height, the toughest Grand Cherokee 4xe Trailhawk model has 10.9 inches of ground clearance, a 35.7-inch approach angle, 22.3-inch breakover angle and 30-inch departure angle, according to the specification. Petrol Grand Cherokee models slightly improve some of these figures, but still help ensure that the 4xe does not get stuck in obstacles.

For this ride, however, Jeep provided us with a Grand Cherokee 4xe Overland rather than the entire Trailhawk. A more mainstream model, the Overland has various front and rear panels that affect approach and departure angles, but it still has Jeep’s mechanical four-wheel drive, air suspension, off-road tires and steel grinding wheels to protect the driveline and battery pack.

A group of off-road jeeps in Moab, Utah.

Hits the track

With Overland already raised to its full terrain height, we hoisted ourselves up in the driver’s seat and immediately switched to electric mode, which silenced the petrol engine. We then aimed the jeep at a stone ledge, climbed up with the help of a spotter and fell into a convoy behind two other Grand Cherokees and a guide in a Jeep Gladiator pickup. We did not have to think about the driveline.

In electric mode, 4xe did not throw out any surprises, allowing us to concentrate on choosing the right line to avoid getting stuck, and staying on the trail to avoid trampling plants or soil. We had no problem keeping the 4xe in electric mode either. While the gasoline engine automatically starts under heavy gas, we did not encounter a situation where it became necessary. However, it happened on a previous drive where extra gas was needed to maintain speed up steep slopes. Otherwise, the only limiting factor is the battery charge, and we had plenty of that on this device.

All this gave a fairly normal, drama-free terrain experience. But the electric power did not just match the propulsion for combustion. It provided some extra benefits as well.

Three-quarter rear view of 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe plug-in hybrid.

The sound of silence

As much as we love a good exhaust tone, off-road driving is simply better with a quiet electric motor. Without the distraction of engine noise, it was easier to appreciate the landscape we drove through. It was almost like hiking, but with air conditioning.

As with all discussions about electric motors, Jeep executives were quick to point out the benefits of instantly available torque. While internal combustion engines must wind up to produce maximum torque, with an electric motor, it is available at the slightest jerk in the big toe. This is the secret behind the organ-softening acceleration of a Tesla Model S or Lucid Air, but in an off-road vehicle it enables a softer power supply at low speeds.

We experienced the importance of this by switching between all-electric mode and E-Save, which turns on the petrol engine to conserve battery charge. It was much easier to control the acceleration with the electric motor than the gas engine, which had a top power supply that made the Grand Cherokee worried. It not only made an uneven turn when the weight shifted, but also increased the possibility of wheel spin, which could have left us stuck.

We take the steady flow of torque and quiet power delivery from an electric motor any day. Electric off-road driving is the best off-road driving.

2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe Easter Jeep Safari concept.

Opportunities and problems

Not all owners want to keep their SUV stock, and Jeep is also trying to deal with it. One of the 2022 Easter Jeep Safari concepts was a Grand Cherokee 4xe Trailhawk with larger 33-inch tires that made it easier to climb over things than in the standard version. While the wheel arches and fenders were modified for cleaning, Jeep noted that no changes were made to the air suspension system. This is a good indication that 4xe owners will be able to modify their vehicles just like other Jeep owners.

Jeep plans to unveil its first all-electric production model in 2023 and will roll out more electric cars to global markets by 2025. These electric models are likely to require a different approach than just screwing electric motors to existing architectures, such as the 4xe connector. in hybrids and the all-electric Wrangler Magneto concepts, which were never intended for production.

The Grand Cherokee 4xe and its Wrangler 4xe siblings can get drivers on track on petrol power and enable electric off-road driving, but for future electric cars, Jeep will likely need to improve efficiency to deliver a useful amount of real range. Exactly how this will happen is unclear.

Other companies have already started building electric off-road vehicles. The Rivian R1T pickup has a range of 314 miles and, as we found out during a first run, serious capability. It shows what can be done with a dedicated EV platform. Alternatively, GMC stopped an oversized battery pack in the Hummer EV to get an alleged range of 329 miles, but that resulted in a giant of about 9,000 pounds that will only be built in fairly small numbers.

Jeeps 4xe plug-in hybrid brand.
Stephen Edelstein / Digital Trends

Another factor is charge. Jeep has partnered with Electrify America on solar-powered charging stations at track heads. Solar energy means that these stations do not need to be connected to the grid so that they can be easily placed in remote locations and provide clean electricity. However, that network has not been expanded yet. While Jeep said last year that it was opening a location in Moab, it used a portable charger to keep the vehicles charged for this ride.

When Digital Trends asked Jeep’s CEO Christian Meunier about other plans to build a charging infrastructure, he simply said that Jeep remains “committed” to supporting charging without providing further details. Given the underdeveloped state of the national charging network even in well-visited city corridors, much work remains to be done to get jeep drivers off the highways on electric power.

So while it’s exciting to see an off-road pillar like the Jeep embrace electrification, and the Grand Cherokee 4xe offered an enticing taste of electric off-road driving, it’s likely to be a long time before experiences like ours become commonplace.

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