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Jeep Wrangler.Handout

Newton nailed it. Sure, he was talking physics when he determined that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but his Third Law is also a solid predictor of human behaviour.

Among other things, it may explain why, as drivers contemplate a bleak future of self-driving electric cars in nose-to-tail convoys on dedicated highways, controlled through the ether by a digital Big Brother, there’s an apparent resurgence of interest in driving where there are no roads at all.

Or at least, in looking like you could. If you wanted to. Even though you probably don’t.

At the recent Chicago auto show, Nissan and Ram revealed suspension-lift kits for their respective full-size pickups. And Toyota showed boonie-bashing TRD derivatives of the Tacoma and Tundra pickups and the 4Runner SUV.

As well, Chevrolet already has its “desert racer” off-road pickup, the ZR2 and Ford its F-150 Raptor. Ford is also bringing back the Bronco. Meanwhile, the Jeep Wrangler, the progenitor of all hard-core off-road SUVs, has tripled its sales in Canada since its 2018 redesign.

Does this mean the hills and gullies of Canada are now crawling with 4x4 hobbyists walking the off-road talk (or, depending on your viewpoint, disturbing wildlife habitats and crushing fragile flora)? Maybe not so much. “A lot of it is about the look,” says Tiago Castro, Nissan USA director, trucks and commercial vehicles. “The off-roading is occasional, but the look is what customers are really looking for.”

Jeep Cherokee.Handout

As with most auto makers, Nissan already has an off-road version of its full-size pickup – in fact, the Pro-4X is the most popular Titan model, Castro said. But the dealer-installed two-inch lift kit, which can be applied to any Crew Cab Titan 4x4, goes well beyond the Pro-4X.

Anything as big as a crew-cab full-size pickup is hardly ideal for extreme off-roading, but the additional capability is real – even if few buyers will ever use it.

“The overwhelming majority of these shoppers are looking for a statement vehicle,” says John Bardwell, Subject Matter Expert with consulting firm Bond Brand Loyalty. “I have had more acquaintances who revel over their vehicle’s ability to soak up potholes on the Gardiner [Expressway] and speed bumps in Leaside than navigate a trail in Coboconk.”

At the high end (think: Mercedes G-Wagen), Bardwell sees a parallel with “the surge in sporting capability of certain Swiss ‘tool watches 10 years ago. A $13,000 Rolex Sea-Dweller is waterproof to a depth of 4,000 feet, yet most of them spend their lifetimes in boardrooms and night clubs.”

Most Canadians’ definition of “off-road” is really more like off-pavement – parking in a grass field at the local pick-your-own farm, or traversing cottage trails where the added traction and ground clearance of a CUV may provide extra peace of mind, but hardly demand the capability of dedicated high-riding off-roaders with knobby-tires, underbody protection, dual-range transfer cases and locking differentials.

In the case of the iconic Wrangler, Jeep says more than half of their owners take their vehicles “off pavement.” No doubt the seriously capable Wrangler is indeed more likely to be off-roaded than most 4x4s. But still, given the fuzziness of the definition, it’s tough to quantify how many owners really do “walk the talk.”

Some of those who do, do it for work – farmers and foresters, for example, or people who need to access power lines or pipelines in remote back-country locations.

Land Rover Discovery.Handout

And then there are the off-road or 4WD recreationists. They are a tiny minority, for sure, but there are enough of them to justify the existence of provincial umbrella organizations that represent the local 4WD clubs in their respective provinces (see sidebar). These organizations promote off-road recreation, but also encourage social and environmental responsibility, running supervised events that also fundraise for charity.

But even one of the biggest of those events is limited to 125 participants. Meanwhile, most rugged off-roaders strut their stuff on city streets where Bardwell likens their vehicles to high-tech, luxurious muscle-car replacements.

But also, he agrees, this resurgence of rugged off-roaders could be motivated in part by “an emotional rebellion against automotive political correctness.”

Going even further, he adds, “No doubt, given the right data sources, you would find some measurable parallels to certain political tendencies that we are seeing across Western democracies.”

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