The most formidable, fearsome and freakish off-road vehicles of 2017
Twenty-seventeen was a big year for off-road vehicles. It saw the redesign of one of the world's premier 4x4 icons, the spread of high-torque electric powertrain technology to the trail, all-new racing machines, and a few toys that could lure even the most stubborn homebody into the backcountry. We've already looked at the off-road camper vans and expedition vehicles, the go-anywhere camping trailers and the 4x4 concepts, so here it's all about fun, capable off-roaders built to speed and crawl over all forms of terrain.
Mini/X-raid John Cooper Works Buggy
For those who don't follow off-road racing, the words "Mini" and "off-road" may not seem like they naturally belong in the same sentence. But BMW's tiniest badge has proved a force to be reckoned with at the Dakar, where it enjoyed a winning streak between 2012 and 2015. Then, Peugeot came in with its ever-evolving 2008/3008 DKRs and did some reckoning – glory days over for Mini.
Tired of playing the role of Dakar afterthought, Mini has ripped out a page from Peugeot's book and put together the new John Cooper Works Buggy. The round headlights and prominent badge on the hood say "Mini," but everything else screams "carefully sculpted, precision off-roading machine." Like Peugeot, Mini takes advantage of Dakar rule advantages for 2WD vehicles in making the Buggy a rear wheel-drive. Power comes from a turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel inline-six with 340 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque. Mini hopes to serve Peugeot a helping of South American dust at the 2018 Dakar Rally, which will unfold next month. We'll see if that happens.
Nissan Leaf AT-EV
The Nissan Leaf lands pretty high on the list of vehicles that seem unsuitable for any off-roading more serious than grass event parking. Or at least it did before Plug In Adventures (PIA) turned it into the Leaf AT-EV, a Leaf Acenta with 30-kWh battery put through a full off-road work-up that includes underbody protection, mud flaps, a roof rack and LED off-road lighting.
Pretty cool, right? Cooler yet, the Leaf AT-EV took on the torturous Mongol Rally, from the UK to Ulan Ude, Russia, a feat that no electric car had previously completed. After starting at the Goodwood Motor Circuit on July 16, PIA's husband-wife team Chris and Julie Ramsey drove the 8,000-some miles (12,875 km) across 13 countries, making it to the finish line on September 9.
Plug In Adventure's journey included a total of 111 charging stops, easy enough in Western Europe but much more difficult farther east. They relied on the hospitality of bars, cafes, hotels, garages, car dealerships, fire stations and even an electrician who plugged directly into an electricity pylon in the Siberian wilderness. After all that, the AT-EV team earned a serious celebration – quite an adventure!
Polaris RZR Dynamix
The side-by-side wars between companies like Polaris, Can-Am and Yamaha have been heating up in recent years, with technology advancing rapidly as a result. This year, Polaris took a bit of a rest on the turbocharged power battle, turning its attention to a much improved suspension system.
The 2018 RZR XP Turbo Dynamix Edition features the new Dynamix Active Suspension developed with Fox. From the comfort of his or her seat, the driver can flick a switch between "comfort," "sport" and "firm," and rely on the system to automatically monitor conditions and inputs hundreds of times per second before making adjustments at each shock to deliver precisely tailored cushioning, whether to absorb big hits without bottoming out or keep things stable on fast straight-lines. Power comes from a 168-hp turbocharged ProStar four-stroke twin-cylinder.
At $26,000 to start, you might need to opt for a RZR Dynamix over a new car – but you won't have nearly as much fun in the car.
Christini II-Track AWD Snow Bike system
Motorized snow bikes – it's a concept even a newborn baby knows is fun just by looking at one. Happily, these winterized dirt bikes have been getting some more attention in recent times, and that should only mean new and awesome snow biking hardware.
The Christini II-Track is one piece of snow bike hardware we took a look at this year, and it's sort of snow biking's answer to all-wheel drive. The typical snow bike logically uses the bike's chain to drive a rear track, with a simple ski up front. But, based on a two-wheel-drive Christini bike, the II-Track design routes power to both the rear track and a separate front track, adding traction, climbing power and braking force. The front track is centered in a split ski, helping the bike maintain proper float up front.
Bollinger B1 electric 4x4
Though major badges like Land Rover have experimented with electric 4x4s, it looks like it'll be an all-new name that brings one to market, and it'll do it from the ground up. Back in July, New York-based Bollinger presented the B1, a 360-hp electric utility vehicle that can get up to 200 miles (322 km) a charge and sprint from 0-60 mph (96.5 km/h) in just 4.5 seconds, according to company estimates. Off-road credentials include a dual-motor layout with 472 lb-ft of torque, geared axle hubs, independent hydro-pneumatic suspension, front and rear differential locks, and detachable anti-roll bars. And the blocky beast certainly looks the part.
Beyond being an electric 4x4, the B1 is a slick, smartly packaged truck good for work and play. Those looking for ultra-soft leather and wood veneers won't be shopping Bollinger, as the ultra-basic interior keeps things focused on the barest of essentials. The raw metal doors, dash and floor wear minimal trim, and the center console compartment is a literal toolbox. A pass-through design keeps the flat floor open straight through from front to back, allowing you to transport long items you wouldn't even try shoehorning into other SUVs. The rear roof panel, glasshouse and seats can be quickly removed to turn the flat rear floor into an actual pickup bed.
Jeep Wrangler JL
New Atlas' Aaron Turpen likened the arrival of an all-new Jeep Wrangler to the appearance of Halley's Comet, and you could definitely feel the energy and anticipation in the air at the LA Auto Show debut a few weeks ago. The new Wrangler didn't shatter any styling conventions, looking largely like the old Wrangler with some reset dimensions and an extra little tilt to its upper grille, but a new-generation Wrangler is certainly one of the biggest off-road debuts of the year no matter what it looks like.
Below the gently massaged, classic skin, JL highlights include a new two-speed transfer case with full-time 4WD and 2.72:1 low-range gear ratio, next-gen Dana axles, improved articulation and suspension travel, and better crawl ratios. Tech and convenience features include a fourth-generation Uconnect infotainment system, push-button starter and retractable Sky One-Touch power top. Buyers will get to choose between an all-new 270-hp 2.0-liter turbo four with eTorque technology, a 260-hp 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 and an upgraded version of the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 with 285 hp, and six-speed manual and eight-speed auto options fill out the available transmissions list.
The most interesting new Wrangler variants are yet to come, as the JL family will eventually expand to include hybrid and pickup models.
EV4 Off-Road Quad
A lightweight, compact electric quad with an aircraft-grade aluminum tilting frame? Sounds like a must-ride. Though it's not the most powerful off-roader out there, the EV4 Off-Road Quad from Polish aircraft designer and electric-bike tinkerer Jacek Skopinski still seems like it could be an absolute blast. The new vehicle debuts as an off-road-ready evolution of Skopinski's aluminum-framed electric city cycle designs. The tilting suspension system lets it corner with ease and eat up all manners of obstacles the fat 145/70R6 tires encounter.
With a 22 mph (35 km/h) top speed, the EV4 won't be giving high-powered quads a run for their money any time soon, but it's really designed for lower heart rate activities like commuting, local business delivery and general recreation. Power comes from a pair of 1,000-watt motors wired up to a 36-V lithium-ion battery, and hydraulic disc brakes bring it to stop. The 143-lb (65-kg, with battery) vehicle will get about 31 to 37 miles (50 to 60 km) of range before needing a recharge.
Mercedes-Maybach G 650 Landaulet
Mercedes officially brought back the landaulet this year ... in the most unlikely of ways. Instead of a classy black S 600 Pullman with convertible rear roof, the new-generation Mercedes-Maybach landaulet evolves from the G 500 4x4 Squared, the extra-tall, ultra-rugged G-Class special edition designed to dive into 3-foot-deep (1-m-deep) waters and clear rocks nearly a foot and a half (46 cm) tall. Starting with that rock-solid construction, Mercedes added an electric folding soft-top over the rear, creating a proper landaulet with rear passenger compartment separated from the hard-roofed front by a retractable partition. A 630-hp AMG twin-turbo V12 does the work of moving the very important persons in back where they need or want to go.
So the question naturally becomes: In what possible scenario would you be chauffeuring well-to-dos in a huge, off-road-engineered monster like this one? The average Joe or Jo probably won't ever have much use, but perhaps it could be popular for shuttling wealthy big game hunters around in style, taking oil barons for a visit to the field, or chauffeuring dictators out to a remote area they intend to build their newest compound on. But since only 99 were built, most of them will probably just sit in a huge garage with other members of the owners' auto collections. The very last one sold for a cool €1.2 million (US$1.4 million) at a charity auction.
As odd and ostentatious a vehicle as the G 650 Landaulet is, it's definitely one of 2017's most interesting and memorable off-roaders.
See more of these off-road vehicles getting filthy in our full photo gallery.