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Jeep Thrills, But Only With 4WD - The Big Picture

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 10/16/2014 Angus MacKenzie

We're at 13,000 feet and the air is thin and hard and crystal clear. The cerulean dome above us touches down on an impossibly wrinkled horizon everywhere we look. It's a week or so after Labor Day and patches of last winter's snow still snuggle in the quiet, shadowy corners of the mountains. There are no trees, and very little soil. Tires crunch over shattered rock.

This is the top of the Great Divide. To the west, the rivers ultimately empty into the Pacific Ocean; to the east, the mighty Mississippi. There's gold up here. Silver, too. The trails we're following were scratched through the epic landscape almost 150 years ago to get the precious metals out from the mines perched precariously among the mountains, and bring supplies in to the miners who sweated and cursed and drank and died on the roof of America.

© Provided by MotorTrend You can watch a 30-minute video of the original Great Divide Expedition run here. But it did occur to me as the stone-cold standard, straight-off-the-showroom-floor Range Rover Supercharged effortlessly climbed Imogene Pass, en route to Telluride, Colorado, that a $100,000 leather-lined luxury car with shiny 21-inch alloy wheels and low-profile tires should not be able to go places that would stop a Jeep. Any Jeep.

Jeep truly is an iconic brand. Yeah, it sounds clichéd, but 70 years ago the Jeep's go anywhere, do anything capability helped win a world war and, in the decades since, it has introduced generations to the unique pleasures of off-road motoring. If a Jeep couldn't get you where you wanted to go, you probably needed a horse. Or you walked.

That was before SUVs became suburban fashion accessories, however. Your mom drove a station wagon when you were a kid, and your milquetoast neighbor was the minivan guy. But behind the wheel of something that looked like it could take you anywhere you damn well pleased anytime you damn well wanted, you were drinking buddies with General Patton and the Marlboro Man. And you could still carry home groceries from the supermarket. Or pick up the kids from soccer practice.

© Provided by MotorTrend Ride's a little rough. Those chunky tires are noisy. Gas mileage could be better. Low-range? Uh, dunno. Never touch that lever… The SUV as suburban fashion accessory quickly became more about form than function. Just check this year's SUOTY contenders: If you attempted anything more challenging than a smooth gravel track or a snow-covered driveway, most would struggle. Some don't even get all-wheel drive on their base models. Including, sad to say, Jeep.

I know, I know -- there have been two-wheel-drive Jeeps for decades, dating back to the DJ-3A first used by U.S. mailmen the mid-'50s, and the Surrey Galas built for resort use from 1959 to 1964. But these commercial versions never masqueraded as anything other than ultra-cheap bijou trucks or glorified golf buggies. Today's Jeeps, by contrast, all shamelessly trade on the go anywhere, do anything iconography of the brand, even if some of them have barely more off-road ability than a Toyota Prius.

© Provided by MotorTrend I thought about this as the front-drive, chrome-wheeled Jeep Cherokee cried uncle on a silt-covered hill during SUOTY testing, a hill the four-cylinder Subaru Outback had waltzed up without breaking a sweat earlier that day. And I thought about it again as I got out of the big Range Rover at the top of Imogene Pass and looked out across the Rockies, a crumpled quilt of grays and reds and greens and blues in every direction.

Very few Range Rovers are ever taken off-road. That's not the point. The point is that everyone knows a Range Rover is engineered so it can go off-road, just like everyone knows a Porsche 911 is engineered so it can go 180 mph. Not all Jeeps need to be Trail Rated. But every Jeep should have four-wheel drive, even the most basic kind, because a two-wheel-drive Jeep is just another suburban fashion accessory. Not an icon.

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