Chances are you’ve heard of this newfangled propulsion technology that involves electric motors making its way into new vehicles. Electric vehicles are here, and predate the internal combustion engine in four-wheeled vehicles actually. And yes, they’re coming for your gas-guzzling off-roader with locking Dana 44 rear-end. The future of the off-road electric vehicle is bright!
Ten years ago the only person you knew who drove an electric vehicle (EV) was your yerba mate sipping cousin in Eugene with a pygmy goat ranch. Times have changed for the better, however. There are now a handful of full-electric and hybrid 4WD and AWD cars ready to take you to overlanding heaven. The technology is developing so rapidly that there are more acronyms and trademarked drive systems than there are cacti in Joshua Tree.
Let’s dive into the off-road electric vehicle world and see what our future holds.
Electric motors are known for their instant torque. This low-speed power is a boon for any off-roading enthusiast. Just as important as the instant power is the controlled application of torque that EVs can offer. EVs are well suited for precision rock-crawling, or just tackling technical terrain on your off-road adventures.
Regenerative braking systems can make technical descents much more controlled, as well as recoup lost energy. Both pure EVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) leverage these technologies.
Off-Road Plug-In Hybrids
The majority of AWD or 4WD PHEVs still use a mechanical linkage to drive all four wheels of the vehicle. Subaru’s Impreza and Land Rover PHEVs work this way. This is the simplest scenario wherein the existing front-engine powertrain has been replaced with a hybrid electric-motor/gas-engine combo. The benefits of this system are better MPGs, longer range than pure EVs, and better low-end torque.
Volvo and Mitsubishi PHEVs use electric drive systems a bit more creatively. A standard hybrid transaxle sits at the front of the vehicle, but an additional motor drives the rear wheels, with no mechanical linkage. In this way, the rear axle motor can be controlled independently. This is the equivalent to having a center-lock differential. Another bonus: the two motors are tuned differently; one provides more grunt for low-speed crawling and the other gives a boost at higher speeds.
The smallest AWD PHEV contender comes from MINI with their Clubman All-4. This outlier uses a motor only on the rear axle. We’re still waiting for the day we can make any car AWD by swapping in an electric motorized rear axle, but the aftermarket isn’t there just yet.
“Off-Road” Electric SUVs
Automakers are absurdly late to the SUV party when it comes to all-electric drivetrains. There are exactly three fully electric models you can buy today. All are extremely well suited to dropping your kids at soccer practice in La Jolla. All kidding aside, these are luxury vehicles first and utility vehicles second.
Tesla’s Model X was first to market but doesn’t have the chops for off-road use. If you want respectable ground clearance you’ll put yourself in a Jaguar i-Pace, or better still Audi’s e-tron. Just make sure you don’t scuff the premium 21-inch wheels while your heinie luxuriates in the massaging and cooled leather seating.
The SUV market is still hot across the board, no matter the size or powertrain. Electricity is the future and six or more electrified SUV contenders will enter the market in the coming year. These include the Fisker Ocean, BMW i4, Mustang Mach-E, Tesla Model Y, Mercedes EQZ, and Volvo XC40 Recharge.
Off-Road Electric Trucks are Coming Soon
If you’re holding out for something that will be more at home off-road in Moab than crawling your local mall parking lot, fear not. There are no fewer than nine off-road electric trucks scheduled to hit the market in the next two years.
Only two classic OEMs have stepped up with off-road electric vehicles: Ford with the F-150 EV and GMC with the new Electric Hummer. Both Detroit behemoths are coy about details, and COVID-19 pandemic delays are likely to keep us in suspense a while longer.
The Tesla Cybertruck made the biggest splash on the off-road electric vehicle front recently. With a starting price of under $40,000, tens-of-thousands of people have already put down deposits on this 2022 American electric pickup. The top-spec tri-motor version of the Cybertruck is particularly impressive. It’s insane 14,000 lb towing capacity crushes any petrol-powered competition with electric torque dominance. Let’s not forget that this 4WD full-size electric truck can also sprint to 60 MPH in under 3-seconds!
The electric pickup segment is still the wild west – six announcements came from new gunslingers Atlis, Lordstown, Fisker (rumored Alaska pickup), Nikola, Bollinger, and Rivian. Each brand has a different vision for the American pickup truck’s electrified future. The Lordstown Endurance will be the first production EV with in-hub motors, greatly simplifying the drivetrain. The CAD designers at Bollinger forgot how to use the “curve” feature and somehow still made a beautiful box with wheels while integrating a ton of features that would only be possible with a full-electric drivetrain.
Our Tank Turn Future
Rivian is already winning our hearts with a real-life demo showing off just how sweet the electric future is going to be. Their R1T will use four independent motors – no differentials – and they can vector torque immediately to any corner. The coolest application of this is the “Tank Turn.” This is where they are able to skid steer a zero-radius turn, by controlling the direction and amount of power to each wheel independently. The same tech can be applied to take tight hairpins sharper and faster than conventional vehicles. Not to mention the crazy rock crawl maneuvers possible, which are normally relegated to dedicated trail rigs. Rivian also spec an impressive wading depth of up to 3-feet for the R1T – and it stops there only because the truck starts to float.
Off-Road Vehicle Future Summary
Yes the computers are coming for your sensible mechanical soul. Don’t fear the off-road electric vehicle future, as it is going to be nothing but exciting and full of zero-radius tank turn donut fun. You might even help to save the planet while plastering some of it all over your mudflaps.
What off-road electric vehicle are you most excited about taking on an adventure soon?