After a night in Flagstaff, we continued northeast into the Painted Desert, where signs along US89 warned of possible ice on the road. Ironically, most early SUVs would have offered no advantage under those conditions-patches of ice on an otherwise clear highway. Most had part-time four-wheel-drive systems that were designed for loose terrain off-road or very slippery conditions on-road. For all its emphasis on off-road capability, one of the most noteworthy aspects of the original Grand Cherokee was that it offered a full-time four-wheel-drive system (Quadra-Trac) that could be used on-road. In the years since, Jeep has offered a bewildering array of 4WD systems, and that's still the case today. The Laredo's Quadra-Trac I has no low range and no terrain selector. Four-wheel-drive Limiteds and Overlands get Quadra-Trac II, with low range and the terrain dial.
Quadra-Drive II (standard on the Overland V-8, optional on other V-8s) adds a limited-slip rear axle.
For its part, the Explorer has switched to a FWD/AWD system, which is fine for slippery highways. Back in the 'burbs, though, we noticed that because its default torque flow is to the front wheels, you can get a tug at the steering wheel when pulling out quickly onto a busy highway before the system shifts power to the rear.
When we finally got to Monument Valley in southeastern Utah, we felt as if we'd truly entered SUV country -- not because you need an SUV out here, but because the towering red buttes provide the kind of heroic western backdrop that fits so perfectly behind these vehicles. We stopped at the Mexican Hat rock formation and both trucks-even the Explorer-got to scramble around a bit on the rocky two-track.
We'd driven more than 1000 miles according to the trip computers, which also reported a 20.0-mpg average fuel consumption for the Jeep and 18.8 mpg for the Ford. The trip was nearly all highway, so the Explorer's figure was disappointing (it's EPA rated at 25 mpg on the highway and 17 mpg in the city, versus the Jeep's 22/16 highway/city mpg rating). The Explorer's figure, though, is likely predicated on cruising in sixth gear, whereas the Jeep's transmission has only five speeds. On this trip, there were numerous uphill grades, so the Explorer spent a lot of time in lower gears, and its gas mileage suffered accordingly. Perhaps because it has no ultra-low-rpm cruising gear favored by the EPA tests, the Jeep got closer to its advertised mileage in real life. On flatter terrain, the Explorer might have reaped more benefit from its tall sixth gear.