After hammering the canyons and making short work of the Antelope Valley, we rolled into California City ready for some mischief. For those unfamiliar, California City is a community master-planned back in the late 50s. If you look it up on Google Maps, you’ll see a grid of roads that suggests miles of suburban sprawl. Switch to satellite view and you’ll see there’s nothing at the corner of Oldsmobile and Buick Blvds. Then again, one man’s failed city is another’s ready-made rally course… We made one hell of a gas stop, and did our best not to give in to temptation and treat the town’s main drag like, well, a drag strip. Once outside the population center and onto the semi-paved grid, it was on. Straight away, it was obvious the 550hp Hurst Camaro Jeff had brought along was no match for the AWD bruisers. We weren’t really there to test it, but remember kiddos: all the horsepower in the world can’t help you if you can’t put it to the ground. (Wisely) unwilling to harness the power of kinetic friction and sandblast the rear wheel wells, Jeff spent most of the day moving the Camaro from one out-of-the-way parking spot to the next.
Tim: Still behind the wheel of the FX50, it shocked me with its performance for a second time. I was fully expecting it to be crying for mercy at the first sign of a bumpy, dirty road. After all, no one really takes these crossovers offroad, right? Maybe they should. The same precise steering and well-controlled suspension that worked in the canyons made 90-something-mph runs down undulating dirt roads a pucker-free affair.
It would’ve been informative to use a looser sandy patch to test the “snow” setting for the traction control. Instead I turned off ESP and did donuts until the dash lit up with warning lights.
Rob: The farther off the pavement we got in the Jeep, the more it felt like a dog with its tail between its legs. The extended valance on the front of the SRT8 may keep the under-car air clean and the Jeep well planted at highway speeds but it wreaks havoc on any attempt to traverse even the most modest of potholes. Trail Rated® it’s not, nor does it front any pretensions as such. That being said, the ancient paved sections of the abandoned suburban wasteland we were hooning provided excellent venues for impromptu acceleration runs and gravel-spewing, sideways sliding stops.
But the pavement soon gives out to rain rutted, rattlesnake roads that taxed the Jeep’s limited suspension travel and made me glad that the manufacturer had seen fit to bolt on a hefty set of skid plates underneath. That emboldened me to join Tim in donuts for breakfast, but mine started out looking like lazy eclairs. I finally remembered to switch off the traction control and was able to manage some healthy rooster tails, much to the displeasure of the camera crew and Jeff who would eventually have to wash the near-by Camaro.
Tim: It’s still worth noting that the Jeep remained the straight-line drag champ, even on the dirt. Rather embarrassing for me in seemingly more deft FX when Rob completely dusted me off the line and never stopped pulling away.
We went to what should’ve been a charming little neighborhood and set up a mini rally course to get a decent feel for how a typical owner’s 17 year old kid would use these vehicles. It had a smooth corner, a mildly bumpy sweeper, a tight corner, and a very bumpy tight left hander before a big straight.
Surely the luxo-ute would beg for mercy now that the real flogging began. Wrong. Simply put, it went where I pointed it. The more gas I gave it, the faster it went. The suspension made full use of its available travel without slamming into the bumpstops. Chances are minimal that young Henry would put it on its roof.
Now used to the Infiniti’s competence in as a rally fighter (come to think of it, it does look like the Rally Fighter®), my first experiences with the Jeep left me unimpressed. It exhibited the wallowy, under-damped, under-sprung behavior I was expecting out of the luxury crossover FX. Combining bumps, dirt, corners and speed proved a bit too much for the clearly street-tuned Jeep.
Then it dawned on me: it’s a Mopar, you don’t solve problems by driving better, you solve them with throttle. My post-epiphany laps proved much more successful, albeit a bit hair-raising. The experience is a bit like piloting a powerboat: one must have to have the stones to use power as the quickest way to correct course. Equally entertaining and terrifying, the combination of overstressed suspension and liberal applications of power eventually triggered my “whoa, time out” reflex after a particularly harrowing trip through the super-bouncy corner.
Rob: Ugh, the Jeep SRT8 and the post-apocalyptic rally course did not get along. Even using go pedal to make course corrections typically ended up in giving the bump stops a workout and making me have to search the floorboards for my fillings. Papa no like. The Infiniti, as Tim says, handled the rain ruts, dips and sandy turns with aplomb, and after a couple of laps in both I came to appreciate the long suspension travel and tightly bolstered seats of the FX. I did miss the punch in the gut power delivery of the SRT8, but I didn’t miss having to wedge myself against the door to keep from sliding all over the place in its faux-bolstered seat.
Jeff was also able to sample both of the SUVs on our short circuit, making him look a little less forlorn at not getting to play for having brought a cat to a dog fight, albeit a big cat. I took the opportunity to watch the rigs circling the course, and came away amazed at how similar each look from the outside, knowing how much more the Jeep’s driver has to do to keep that kind of speed up, and to keep from being jarred out a window.
I would have taken the opportunity to time them, but was afraid that the unrelenting 40-mph high-desert wind would sand-blast my iPhone into oblivion, so I took refuge in the Camaro instead and watched the antics through its gun-slit windscreen.
When we wrapped up our rally course conniptions, and were heading back toward the maintained roads of California City, Jeff gingerly piloted the Hurst Camaro back through the scrub, avoiding the massive potholes and sump-cracking rocks as best he could. I took a slightly different path, circling around a large muddy smear in the middle of the road, amazed that the pebbly scrag I was maneuvering over was showing up as a street on the GPS. Tim, not wanting to miss an opportunity to test the Infiniti’s slip control plowed right through the mud, giving the FX a nice camo effect.
Once at the road, the SRT8’s GPS inexplicably demanded that I turn left to head back to the gas station I had set in its memory as our destination. Being contrarian, I turned right instead, and I never figured out why it did that. Despite that anomaly, the Jeep seemed relieved to be back on the tarmac, as did the Hurst Camaro. By then the sun was fully up, and so were the ATV addicts, making the road no longer the desolate stretch it was on our trip in. Not wanting to attract the attention of the local constabulary we kept all three of our March Hares on the down-low and headed for a car wash to reconnoiter and revel in the morning’s hoonery.
Tomorrow: we take a long drive home and go to our rooms to think about what we’ve done.