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Adventure Vehicles, Part 3

SUV and truck shopping with Larry.

 

As I related in the last two columns, I began driving Ol' White, my 1985 Ford F150 4WD pickup, in Pennsylvania and then New Mexico, having adventure after adventure. But there have come other vehicles since moving to Silver City; there was the Toyota wagon and the Suzuki XL7 as well as my current truck, a Ford Explorer Sport Trac.

Around the year 2002, I was engaged in a heated, ongoing discussion with a friend of my wife and myself. The friend was ardently against off-roading, especially using ATVs. Finally I took her on an off-road adventure to look for an ancient Indian ruin, and to get there we had to use neglected two-tracks.

Once at the site, I challenged her to find the way back, using the tracks that we had made going in. She couldn't do it, because the machine hadn't left much sign of travel. She had a change of heart right then and there and admitted that she was wrong.

She then suggested that I should start a business guiding the elderly, like herself, on backwoods adventures, and also the flatlanders from out of state. I thought that was a wonderful suggestion and so I began to implement a plan to do so.

 

I came upon a six-wheel-drive water/dirt machine UTV that seated four adults and purchased it. That same year we found a Suzuki XL7 4WD SUV that would fit my needs also and bought it. With those purchased, I decided to form a sightseeing firm to make the vision come true.

Having learned from the Toyota wagon fiasco (see last month's issue) about unibody construction not being the best for off-highway usage, I researched everything 4WD, finally settling on the Suzuki, which had a true ladder-type frame underneath the body. It also sported a two-speed transfer case to permit slow going in rough places. Sadly, in 2011, even Suzuki went the way of unibody on their SUVs.

My first adventure with the Zuki wasn't even off-highway. We were bringing the truck back from California, having just bought it, and I was coming over the Little Burros, and right at the summit, a buck deer jumped off the highest cliff on the right side and I smacked it plumb full. I now know the meaning of being numb!

That horned critter caused damage to the tune of $4,200! I was still able to drive the truck and got it home where it sat until it was repaired.

But back to my business venture. I then knew the ranger for the Silver City district and went to him with my plans. He shot the idea right down then and there, declaring he didn't much like ATVs or the idea of using them to guide on the National Forest. My plan was dead in the water, and I now owned two somewhat expensive "toys" plus Ol' White.

 

I quickly discovered that the Zuki's "yuppie" all-season tires weren't much good when the rough got going. Two-trackin' was all but out unless it was dry conditions, and forget about gooey caliche or deep snow. Those tires kept the Zuki from going where "others feared to tread." That is another lesson to learn: If you're going to go off-highway, get some aggressive tires made for such. I did as soon as those original tires got worn halfway down.

Because of those tires and the smaller size of the truck compared to Ol' White, I have never been stuck in over 12 years now.

There is one major flaw to the Zuki, and from what I can gather, it is the same flaw with all newer vehicles, and that is its ABS braking system. If one is on any type of slippery surface, the brakes lock up and the vehicle tends to slide instead of stop — not good on slick rock or ice or even snow! So far I have been able to react quickly and no mishaps have occurred. The lesson here is to immediately get off the brake pedal when they lock up!

The Zuki has an automatic transmission and I soon learned to appreciate it off-highway — no more manual gear shifting. By 2007, I was disenchanted with the four-speed manual tranny on Ol' White; hey, I got old!!!

 

So in 2007 I began to research and pray about another truck, and I did so for a year. Finally I narrowed it down to a Toyota Tacoma 4WD pickup and the Ford Sport Trac; both have ladder frames and two-speed transfer cases and short, five-foot beds and can haul half a ton. I looked hard at the Honda truck version, but it didn't have the transfer case and it sported the dreaded unibody!

My first leaning was towards the Toyota, but having known people with that model, they were all very happy except for their gas mileage; it was abysmal. But the truck is bullet proof, quite reliable in all aspects.

However, I liked the looks of the Sport Trac above the Toyota and for that year, I stopped strangers driving the truck and asked how they liked it and about the gas mileage. They all had great opinions of it and I also noticed that I couldn't find many used ones on car lots, indicating that owners kept them.

Research and talking to owners indicated that the Sport Trac got slightly better gas mileage than Ol' White, so I decided to go for one, if I could find the one that suited me. It took almost four months.

Finally I found one, a year old, with low mileage, in Albuquerque, and it had everything that I desired including a V-8 engine. Why the V-8? Well, I allowed that if the V-6 with the same body got such and such mileage, then the V-8 should get better with less effort and more power. I was right! It gets two to four mpg better than comparable six cylinders and it has a six-speed transmission to boot.

That V-8 also pulls my camper and ATV trailer with much less effort, and that matters to me when going up a long hill.

I quickly mounted over-sized, more aggressive tires on "Truck" to give me great traction and higher ground clearance — another lesson for you to consider. The downside is that it has that danged ABS braking system, and I have gotten into some rather hair-raising slides with it. No damage so far, though.

I have been stuck once in the six years that I've roamed off-road with Truck. It was early morning on a muddy mesa and dawn was still an hour away. I skirted a particularly menacing long and deep-looking mud patch and suddenly my truck just stopped!

I backed up and forward until I finally broke free; then I got out. I discovered that I had high-centered on an unseen large stump with my right-side running board, and had bent it all to heck. Drat blabbit.

There was nothing I could do at the time, so I kept on truckin'. At home I told the Missus; she didn't react much, so I went out and took both running boards off and haven't looked back. The only downside is when the same Missus has to enter said truck and has to step up really high with some murmuring.

Another time the blasted ABS locked solid on a dry highway and I had to nurse Truck home. By the time I got there, all four wheels were smoking like Hades. That little misadventure happened just three months out of warranty!

In closing, the best advice I can give you, if you want to go off-roading on two-tracks to get to a hiking or camping location, is to buy the best aggressive tires you can afford, and carry a shovel and a jack. But the most important are those tires; they will keep you from getting stuck 80% of the time.

Keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may The Forever God bless you too!

 

 

When not ramblin' outdoors, Larry Lightner parks in Silver City.

 

 

 



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