A few years ago I drove from Bolivia to Tierra del Fuego in a stock Land Rover, a trip that involved a fair amount of futzing around with a backpacking tent and sleeping on the inhospitable ground. At a ferry crossing near the Carrera Austral I met two retired British army officers who were circumnavigating South America in a Land Rover Defender 110. This thing was the hot set-up: a camp stove integrated into the tailgate, a small foldout sink, a galley that pulled out on sliders and, best of all, a roof-mounted tent. After a long night of feasting and partying near Colhaique, Chile, these two simply unfolded the tent, climbed up the ladder and fell asleep, leaving me to unravel the mysteries of shock poles in the dark.
Keep your surreys with the fringe on top. I wanted an off-roader with a tent penthouse.
And now, as possibly the only soul in the 87,000-acre Henry W. Coe State Park (about 25 miles southeast of San Jose, Calif.), I’m glad I have one. Because, well, I’m not really alone. There are mountain lions out here. And I am unusually tasty, if I do say so myself.
The Off Duty 50
Meet the Xplore Adventure Series 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, a turnkey stump-jumper put together by Venchurs Inc., which is described in the press kit as a “Michigan-based parts distribution and fulfillment company.” Apparently Venchurs is branching out from the exciting world of logistics, and who could blame it? For a price Venchurs will put more gung-ho in your new Jeep Wrangler, Grand Cherokee or Toyota FJ Cruiser. Ordered and delivered through new-car dealerships, Xplore vehicles come in three levels of intrepidity, called “stages.” The vehicle I’m currently roosting above is a Stage 3, with a long list of rock-crawling equipment, including: bumpers and rock rails from ARB, the Australian specialty company; a Warn Winch; a Mopar 2.5-inch lift kit with Bilstein shocks; and 35-inch BF Goodrich KM2 off-road tires wrapped around some killer black-anodized Method wheels.
Photos: ‘Camping Bliss’
And an ARB-brand tent. A wonderful, comfortable, high-above-mountain-lion-level tent.
This is not, I should say, a vehicle for hardest-core off-road enthusiasts, an independent, DIY crowd for whom much of the joy and camaraderie of backcountry driving is the months and years of ordering parts out of aftermarket catalogs, bolting them on and obsessing about the minutiae of air-locking differentials. It’s also not unusual for enthusiasts to stuff a hunk of motor—something in the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 range, may I suggest?—under the latching hood for even more wall-climbing torque. The grittiest trail hoppers will actually put welders on their vehicles for in-field repairs and rack-mounted Jerry cans of fuel and water for those extended trips, postapocalypse.
I seriously doubt our Xplore Wrangler’s set of fancy motorized power steps, which fold out when you open the door, would survive a trip up the Rubicon Trail.
Xplore Adventure Series 2011 Jeep Wrangler
- Powertrain: 3.8-liter overhead valve V6; four-speed automatic transmission; two-speed transfer case; part-time four-wheel drive.
- Horsepower/torque: 202 hp at 5,200 rpm/237 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm
- Length/weight: 173.4 inches/4,300 pounds (est.)
- Wheelbase: 116.0 inches
- EPA fuel economy: 15/19 mpg, city/highway
- Cargo capacity: 46.4 cubic feet (behind second-row seats)
With its embroidered floor mats and suede seats, the Xplore Wrangler (about $60,000) is aimed more at the well-heeled dilettante in a hurry, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The world is full of interesting things to do and too little time to do them. After all, no one insists you build your own sailboat to be a real sailor. And the fact is, you could spend months kitting out a Wrangler and not do as good a job as Venchurs has done. You wouldn’t get the utterly cool matte-green paint job, either.
The Xplore Wrangler certainly feels authentic on the highway, with quadraphonic tire roar blasting from the BFGs’ deep treads and a serious lack of top speed, thanks to the vehicle’s aerodynamics. Indeed, the roof-mounted tent has approximately the same effect on highway speed as dragging a grand piano. For 2012 Jeep has replaced its hoary 3.8-liter overhead valve V6 with a 3.6-liter, 285-horsepower V6 (up 83 hp) as well as a five-speed automatic transmission, replacing the outdated four-speed auto box. The extra ponies and gear ratio will be welcome.
But once I wheel the truck onto Coe State Park’s seemingly endless dirt roads, the Xplore Wrangler finds its footing. As off-roaders know, even a bone-stock Jeep Wrangler will go up, through and over just about anything you’re likely to encounter and leave prissy Euro trucks like the Porsche Cayenne for dead on the trail. This thing has some 4×4 chops, for sure.
The roof-mounted tent takes some getting used to. Getting the heavy vinyl covering off the tent is itself a bit of a chore. The aluminum ladder, by which one levers the tent from the folded position, tends to bind up (this thing is brand new). If I didn’t have a Leatherman tool with me to pry the ladder’s latches apart I would never get tent stowed again. I would also note that the thick foam rubber mattress tends to get wedged between the tent’s floor panels so that, while folding it back up, I have to shove the mattress in up to my elbow. I have visions of cutting my trapped arm off with the aforementioned Leatherman, “127 Hours” style. Here, kitty, kitty.
And then, camping bliss. I pull the Jeep onto a high, grass-amber hill just as sunset begins to purple the park’s ridgelines. The tent deploys more cooperatively the second time, and within a minute or so I have set up camp. With my feet hanging out of the tent and reconstituted beef stew in my cup, I watch the stars come out. The coyotes yelp and the mountain lions, if they’re out there, stalk off, disappointed.