For an activity that takes place in nature, off-roading does not have a particularly green image. Most electric cars weren’t designed to venture into the wilderness that their zero-emission powertrains ostensibly protect, leaving that territory to the guzzlers. The most famous name in all-terrain vehicles aims to change that.
Like most other automakers, Jeep faces pressure to cut fuel economy and satisfy investors at a time when new electric vehicle makers like Tesla and Rivian have become stock market darlings. Jeep is therefore looking to electrify its lineup while maintaining its off-road heritage. All-electric SUVs are in development, but Jeep is starting with plug-in hybrids, which have gasoline engines but can still go a significant distance on electric.
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 convinced the Grand Cherokee 4xe is the real deal that it’s invited Digital Trends to Mecca from the off-roader that is Moab, Utah, to testing it on the trails.
Jeep’s home away from home
Dotted with legacy uranium mining trails and adjoining Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, Moab is an off-road playground. Jeep executives call it the brand’s home, and it certainly does during the annual Easter Jeep Safari.
Started in 1967 by the Moab Chamber of Commerce and currently hosted by the Red Rock 4-Wheelers four-wheel drive club, Easter Jeep Safari began as a one-day ride. It has since grown into a nine-day event that attracts off-road enthusiasts from across the country. Jeep uses the event for promotional purposes, showing off a handful of concept vehicles each year and inviting the media to test drive its latest production models.
Jeep dropped us on a roughly two-mile trail near Courthouse Rock that featured a mix of smooth rock and sand, not to mention beautiful desert scenery. And we made this trip without even using a drop of gasoline.
The Grand Cherokee goes plug-in hybrid
Jeep has added the Grand Cherokee 4xe plug-in hybrid model to the lineup as part of a recent redesign of the popular SUV. While it has a fairly large 17 kilowatt-hour battery that earns the full $7,500 federal electric vehicle tax credit and provides 25 miles of electric range, the 4xe is a Jeep first and a second plug-in hybrid.
The powertrain, consisting of a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission with power assist, is mated to a traditional mechanical four-wheel-drive system. Thus, the 4xe has a low-range transfer case like a standard Grand Cherokee, as well as an electronic limited-slip differential. This allows power to be diverted to any wheels that have traction, as well as for the use of low gearing that allows the 4xe to crawl over loose surfaces without breaking traction.
The plug-in hybrid system also does not affect the packaging. With the available air suspension pumped up to maximum ride height, the most hardcore model of the Grand Cherokee 4xe Trailhawk has 10.9 inches of ground clearance, 35.7 inches of approach angle, 22.3-inch rollover and a 30-inch departure angle, according to the spec sheet. Gas-powered Grand Cherokee models improve some of those numbers slightly, but still help ensure the 4xe doesn’t get snagged on obstacles.
For this ride, however, Jeep provided us with a Grand Cherokee 4xe Overland rather than the full Trailhawk. A more common model, the Overland has different front and rear fascias that affect approach and departure angles, but it still has the mechanical four-wheel drive, air suspension, all-terrain tires and skid plates. steel guard from Jeep to protect the transmission and the battery. .
Hit the track
With the Overland already raised to its full off-road height, we climbed into the driver’s seat and immediately shifted into electric mode, silencing the gas engine. We then pointed the Jeep to a rock shelf, climbed up with the help of a spotter, and dropped into a convoy behind two other Grand Cherokees and a guide in a Jeep Gladiator pickup truck. We didn’t have to think about the powertrain.
In electric mode, the 4xe gave us no surprises, allowing us to focus on choosing the right trajectory so as not to get stuck, and to stay on the trail to avoid trampling the plants or the ground. We had no problem keeping the 4xe in electric mode either. Although the gasoline engine starts automatically under sustained revs, we didn’t come across a situation where it became necessary. This happened in a previous drive where extra throttle was needed to maintain momentum on steep hills, however. Otherwise, the only limiting factor is battery charge, and we had plenty of that on this player.
This all made for a fairly normal, drama-free off-road experience. But electric power wasn’t just about the drivability of internal combustion. It also offered additional benefits.
sound of silence
As much as we like a good exhaust note, the off-roader is simply better with a quiet electric motor. Without the distraction of engine noises, it was easier to appreciate the scenery we were passing through. It was almost like a hike, but with air conditioning.
As with every discussion of electric motors, Jeep executives were quick to point out the benefits of instantly available torque. While internal combustion engines need to rev up to produce maximum torque, with an electric motor it’s available at the slightest movement of your big toe. It’s the secret to the endearing acceleration of the organs in a Tesla Model S or Lucid Air, but in an all-terrain vehicle, it allows for a smoother application of power at lower speeds.
We felt the importance of this when toggling between all-electric mode and E-Save, which turns on the petrol engine to preserve battery charge. It was much easier to control acceleration with the electric motor than with the gasoline engine, which had peak power that threw the Grand Cherokee off balance. This not only made the ride bumpier when the weight was shifted, but also increased the possibility of wheel spin, which could have left us stuck.
We’ll take the steady stream of torque and quiet power of an electric motor every day. The electric off-roader is the best off-roader.
Possibilities and problems
Not every owner wants to keep their stock SUV, and Jeep is trying to address that as well. One of the 2022 Easter Jeep Safari concepts was a Grand Cherokee 4xe Trailhawk with bigger 33-inch tires that made it easier to climb than the stock version. While the wheel arches and fenders have been modified for clearance, 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 like other Jeep owners.
Jeep plans to unveil its first all-electric production model in 2023 and will roll out more electric vehicles for global markets through 2025. These electric models will likely require a different approach than simply bolting electric motors onto existing architectures, as with the 4xe socket. in all-electric Wrangler Magneto hybrids and concepts, which never made it to production.
The Grand Cherokee 4xe and its Wrangler 4xe sibling may bring drivers to the gas-powered trailhead and enable electric off-roading, but for future EVs Jeep will likely need to improve efficiency to deliver a usable amount of power. real autonomy. . It is unclear exactly how this will happen.
Other companies have already started building electric off-roaders. The Rivian R1T pickup offers 314 miles of range and, as we discovered on a first ride, serious capability. It shows what can be done with a dedicated EV platform. Alternatively, GMC stuffed an oversized battery into the Hummer EV to achieve a claimed range of 329 miles, but that resulted in a roughly 9,000-pound monster that will only be built in fairly small numbers.
Another factor is the load. Jeep has partnered with Electrify America for solar-powered charging stations at trailheads. Solar powered means these stations don’t need to be connected to the grid so they can easily be placed in remote locations and provide clean electricity. However, this network has not yet been built. While Jeep said last year it was opening a site in Moab, it used a portable charger to charge vehicles for that trip.
When Digital Trends asked Jeep CEO Christian Meunier about other plans to build charging infrastructure, he only said that Jeep remained “committed” to supporting charging without giving further details. Given the underdeveloped state of the national charging network, even in busy urban corridors, there is still a lot of work to be done to get Jeep drivers off the beaten path with electricity.
So while it’s exciting to see an off-road stalwart like Jeep embrace electrification, and the Grand Cherokee 4xe offers a tantalizing taste of electric off-roading, it’s likely to be a long time before experiences like the ours do not become commonplace.