For the S.U.V. set, a plunge into the mud

More four-wheel-drive owners appear interested in leveraging their vehicles' capabilities – and testing their own.

The Range Rover's hood blots out the rising trail, leaving only sky. Trees stand at our sides – close enough to imperil the mirrors. Creeping ahead, we crest, and the truck's nose falls. Through swirling dust I see the drop – about 45 degrees – a rocky, mounded path that suggests Osama bin Laden's driveway.

"No brake," says my co-driver, Scott Kinnear, raising an arm that I now notice is in a cast. "Just let it go." In low range, the Rover locks into Hill-Descent Control, walking us down like a bighorn sheep. "We're not anywhere near the limits of the car," says Mr. Kinnear, a pro driver hired by the automaker.

It's an effective pitch at a public driving event meant to illustrate that a luxury SUV – this Sport HSE is about $60,000 – is wasting its time just trekking to the mall. In recent years, of course, precisely that sort of use has prevailed, making the SUV an emblem of overkill and waste. But now – even if plenty of headlight-covering brush guards might never touch brush – more four-wheel-drive owners appear interested in leveraging their vehicles' capabilities and testing their own. While most SUV and truck buyers seek out the vehicles for peace of mind or to project a macho persona, drivers who view four-wheeling as an occasional necessity – and as sport – are more common now.

"We're seeing people we wouldn't have considered customers for our industry becoming more aware of the products out there to enhance the styling and functionality of cars, trucks, and SUVs," says Peter MacGillivray, vice president at the Specialty Equipment Market Association.

A SEMA survey of aftermarket-parts manufacturers and retailers last summer put off-roading at the top of a list of hot trends, edging out muscle cars (a male-boomer favorite) and drifting (the controlled-oversteer driving popular with the young tuner set).

For Jenn Sterling, that means heading out of Marin County, Calif., in a Toyota Tacoma for all-weather off-roading with her husband and 9-year-old son.

"My first serious off-road trip was in Big Bear in southern California," say Ms. Sterling. "I had no idea what to expect." What she found: hills, mud holes, ruts, and giant rocks they had to navigate at a crawl. "It's scary, and exhilarating." They recently hit the trails around Lake Tahoe, far beyond hiking range.

Hard-core hobbyist publications are following the shift. Some still focus on rock-crawling goliaths with wheels the size of New Beetles. But a recent issue of "Off-Road" magazine ran a feature on a small Ford Ranger pickup with a minimum of modifications – most of them basic bolt-ons – as an everyman off-road rig.

Camp Jeep, the granddaddy of "experiential" four-wheeling events, drew some 2,900 vehicles to Virginia this summer, says Jodi Tinson, a spokeswoman – up from 1,100 or so last year.

Showrooms tell a story, too. Sales of Jeep's Wrangler Unlimited – a four-door version of its classic 4X4 – have surged. Toyota's FJ Cruiser – descendant of the cult favorite FJ – has attracted new members to the lift-kit set. Volkwagen's SUV, the Touareg, lists a "fording depth" among its specifications for would-be creek-crossers (it's 19.7 inches). Suzuki's highly modified Dune, a prototype off-roader bristling with extreme aftermarket gear, "speaks to the platform's potential," says David Bolt, a Suzuki spokesman.

Other observers see the pitching of new off-road-capable 4x4s as a desperate bid by automakers to hold the interest of die-hard truck fans amid a consumer move away from the biggest truck-based SUVs that began a couple of years ago.

"What we're getting back to might be a bit more like the 1970s and early 1980s, before the [Ford] Explorer and the little [Chevrolet] Blazer created this huge boom in SUVs as passenger car," says Jon Coifman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one group that decries gratuitous four-wheeling. That would leave most of the real heavyweights to those relatively few drivers who actually need them.

But, broadly, the 4x4 core has thickened. Even Volvo now advertises its XC70 wagon (also with hill-descent control) in television spots that show it being used to pick up mountain climbers on a rock-strewn slope before returning to pavement. That's a refined take on those ads that put rugged trucks on pedestals – literally, atop the Southwest's rock spires.

"Manufacturers have always tried to tap into the Walter Mitty in all of us," says Bill Burke, who runs 4-Wheeling America, a training and expedition outfit in Fruita, Colo. "That's fine, but most folks are happy with a [Toyota] RAV-4 or a Subaru." Such car-based crossovers have been hot sellers in recent years.

Mr. Burke, reached on his cellphone in a Utah canyon, clearly favors capable over cushy, and reliance on sound mechanics over sophisticated electronics. He praises brick-like, pedigreed Land Rover Defenders, old Broncos, and Jeep Rubicons ("phenomenal," he says, even in stock form). And he's skeptical about some of his sport's newer entrants. "A lot of people are building 'pretty' trucks [that will] never see a mud puddle," Burke says. "On the other hand, some are looking for ways to get out into the mountains or the woods for an escape, and they're using their sport utes to that end."

Many expedition leaders like Burke promote responsible practices in off-roading – staying within designated areas, working on trail restoration. There's plenty of pushback from environmentalists, who note that even a small percentage of errant off-roaders can inflict long-term damage. The US Forest Service has struggled to enforce restrictions on use of public lands by off-roaders.

"It certainly couldn't hurt if people start using equipment for the purpose it was meant for," says SEMA's MacIllivray. But there is, he says, a sense of "you are what you drive."

One image American drivers like to project: brawny self-reliance. That means there will always be some pretenders. Range Rovers sell well in pan-flat Miami, says my co-driver, Kinnear, coaching me to use left-foot braking for control as we traverse another hard-mounded section of the course. "I've seen [Land Rover] Discoverys four, five, and six years old that have never been in low range," he says, gripping an armrest. After years of disuse, he says, "the lever doesn't even move."

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