Electric is Better Than Gas Off-Road: Yes, It’s Time to Admit It

If you asked me to design my ideal off-roader prior to MotorTrend‘s 2022 rivian r1t Trans-America Trail overlanding expedition, I would have called for a powerful, torquey V-8, real four-wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case, locking differentials, and a trick adaptive suspension. You know, something like the 2021 Ram 1500 TRX we took along as our support rig for our Trans-America Trail journey. But after off-roading our long-term-test Ram back-to-back with the new rivian r1t electric pickup truck, I doubt I will be able to find the same enjoyment that I once did in off-roading a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle. Surprised as I am to write this, electric motors are just plain better off-road hardware than the internal combustion engine (ICE).

It may seem like comparing apples and Big Macs, but the 2022 rivian r1t and Ram TRX are well-matched for comparison. As of this writing—and likely because we’ve yet to strap our test gear to an R1T—the Ram 1500 TRX is the quickest pickup we’ve ever tested. Its 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 is the most powerful gasoline engine available in a production pickup truck, producing 702 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque. It’s paired with an eight-speed automatic and a robust four-wheel-drive setup.

The rivian r1t, on the other hand, is powered by four electric motors—one inboard motor for each wheel—that combine to produce 835 hp and 908 lb-ft of torque. With electric motors making peak torque at 0 rpm (versus at 4,800 rpm for the Ram’s technically-not-a-Hellcat V-8), each motor drives each wheel directly through what’s effectively a one-speed automatic. This negates the need for a typical four-wheel-drive system.

Indeed, the R1T’s motors don’t need the step-down gearing a typical four-wheel-drive system provides. The effect that a two-speed transfer case delivers is an inherent advantage of an electric motor. Or, to think about it another way, the transmissions and transfer cases so many of us have grown up with exist solely to make up for the baked-in disadvantages of an internal combustion engine. One of those disadvantages is the fact they generally need to spin at higher rpms (and thus do more work) to make the peak horsepower and torque necessary for performance driving, whether it be on-road or off.

In a traditional off-road vehicle powered by an ICE like our Ram TRX, this means the driver often does more work than just driving and steering. For example, on one of the more technical sections of the Trans-America Trail, as I piloted the Ram, I found myself flicking switches and changing settings, searching constantly for the right combination and thus an overall feeling I was comfortable with. First, it was drive modes (which, to be fair, happens in the R1T and many other off-roaders), then transmission gears as I sought to keep the engine in its sweet spot. Next, it was differential locks, and then eventually four-low. Though fun in its own right to surf through settings left and right like a Formula 1 driver, it’s a lot to manage in a high-risk scenario.

The 2022 rivian r1t—and I suspect most electric off-roaders in the pipeline from competing manufacturers—are comparatively much easier to get a handle on. Sure, there are a variety of off-road settings and suspension heights baked into the rivian r1t, but its standard road-focused “All-Purpose” mode is generally just that. It allows you to jump seamlessly from dirt to gravel, from mud to sand, and even into water crossings without having to worry as much about power delivery or traction. Changing into the Off-Road modes in the R1T damps accelerator response, adjusts the suspension, and loosens the reins on stability control to varying degrees, making the electric truck even more capable.

More than anything, power delivery is the big differentiator between electric off-roaders and internal combustion ones. EVs, like the rivian r1t, deliver power and torque in one smooth gob, like a soft-serve ice-cream machine, whereas engines like the Ram’s are more akin to stomping on a ketchup packet: You get all the power, whether you want it or not.

EVs also move forward differently, too. With the Rivian you’re always riding the accelerator lightly to get up and over things. Rarely, if ever, do you touch the brake pedal, thanks to high levels of energy regeneration. (Rivian offers four regen levels; we generally liked the default “High” setting and “Max” the most).

With off-roaders like the Ram, though, it’s the opposite. Like all ICE vehicles, it creeps forward without any driver input, meaning you effectively ride the brake the entire time. You only add throttle when the engine’s idle power isn’t enough to motor up or over an obstacle. This in practice makes it far easier to place an EV smoothly and precisely on the proper driving line than it is to do with an ICE vehicle.

Now a few weeks removed from the 2022 rivian r1t and the Trans-America Trail, I’ve spent some quality time in off-roaders like the 2021 Land Rover Defender 110 (a mild-hybrid), 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe (a plug-in hybrid), and 2021 Ford Bronco (good ol’ gas). I still enjoy them all for different reasons, but the fact is they’d all likely be even more capable off the beaten path if they weren’t held back by old-school powertrains.

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