One of my favorite places in the entire world to go off-road and get my tires dirty is a forgotten dot called Painted Gorge Canyon, and it’s not even included on most maps. As the crow flies, the canyon is mere minutes from Anza Borrego State Park, about 80 miles east of San Diego, CA. But the drive from the park to the mouth of the canyon takes a good chunk of time if you stay on the road. That’s because the road weaves and winds its way through dry creek beds, over hills of fossil shells, and past an endless sea of terrifying cactus.
The road will get you most of the way to the mouth of the canyon, but eventually, you must turn off-road into tire-swallowing sandy creeks and jagged shale rocks that gleefully rip at your vehicle. In the plains that stretch east, visitors to the canyon assemble. This is where you find RVs with toy-hauling trailers, dirt bikes, dune buggies, sand rails, and all manner of other weird and wild off-road vehicles. You’ll also find a good smattering of factory-stock Jeep Wranglers, Toyota 4Runners, and maybe a Suzuki Samurai or two. Painted Gorge is a great place to see with your own eyes the differences between off-road vehicles and “off-road-oriented” SUVs.
The term “Sport Utility Vehicle” probably originated sometime during the 1970s to describe vehicles having off-road capabilities. Four-wheel-drive cars and trucks were uncommon prior to World War 2 but saw an increase in popularity as GI’s returned from the European and Pacific Theaters with fond memories of military Jeeps.
Automobile and truck manufacturers took notice, and a wide array of vehicles now called SUVs came into existence, including iconic off-roaders like the Jeep CJ-series, Toyota FJ-series, International Scouts, and the Ford Bronco.
The modern sport utility vehicle is most often a passenger vehicle with some off-road capabilities. Examples like the Ford Explorer and the Chevrolet Blazer typify the design. However, it’s crucial to keep in mind that manufacturers build modern SUVs more around comfort and style rather than pure off-road performance.
Nonetheless, the SUV category is the best-selling vehicle type in the United States today — even though most owners will never ride them off the beaten paths.
Early sports utility vehicles were often station wagon-bodied vehicles with four-wheel-drive capability. The first crossover was probably the AMC Eagle 4×4 station wagon that brought full-time four-wheel-drive to the grocery-toting masses in 1979. Subaru is also widely regarded today as building some of the best crossover SUVs on the planet. As with larger SUVs, the crossover is primarily a passenger vehicle that also has the ability to traverse rough terrain thanks to increased in-ground clearance and full-time four-wheel-drive.
The most apparent difference between Sport-Utility Vehicles and dedicated Off-Road Vehicles is the replacement or removal of significant portions of the original vehicle. Furthermore, most ORV’s are not legal for use on the street due to the extensive modifications.
ORV builders will usually enhance factory vehicles by reinforcing frame portions and adding roll bars, replacing factory suspensions with long-travel units, removing doors, windows, and glass, and of course, installing massive, oversized tires. These modifications enable the vehicle to climb, crawl, and power through the most challenging terrain on earth.
One thing that makes Painted Gorge a special place is the varying degree of terrain visitors encounter. The area was once part of the ancient seabed that covered most of what is Western US today. The sea is long gone, along with pretty much all water sources, and now it’s an offroader’s paradise.
Sand dunes rise like waves along the plain, and a major source of naturally occurring gypsum gives the desert an eye-shattering brightness. Higher up in the canyon, ancient deposits of iron and other minerals are responsible for the canyon’s name. Hues of red, yellow, purple, blue, and orange smear across cliffs and canyon walls. Those ancient sea currents -and millions of years of flash flooding- left carved channels that rise and fall like drunken gopher holes. Shale as sharp as a razorblade crumbles around granite boulders in narrow ravines. If you are lucky, you may even find an oasis hidden away beyond the jumbled stones. The canyon climbs from just above sea level to near 3,000 feet, which doesn’t seem like much until you drive it.
Dozens of dirt roads cut back into the canyon. Some of these roads were made in the 1800s, others are as recent as the early 2000s. Some are easy — you can drive a two-wheel-drive passenger car about one-third of the way up without any trouble. Others sit precariously along ravines, the edges of the road periodically tumbling into the canyon below. This little place allows drivers to rock crawl, hill climb, and play in the sand. It’s fun for those who want to go fast, and it’s even better for those who want to go slow.
Higher up the canyon, where the view gets breathtaking, the terrain turns ugly quite fast. A factory SUV with a confident driver can make it all the way to the top, most of the time. But, up here, it’s either succeed or fail. There is no turning around and going back until you get to the top.
Drivers must balance their vehicle, carefully picking a path between boulders the size of houses while precariously dangling inches from a plunge that’ll get you almost all the way to the bottom in seconds. One wrong move spells death. Those adventurous enough to climb all the way to the top are rewarded with a 360-degree view of the Anza Borrego badlands. Palm Desert is north, Mexico is south, the mountains rise in the west. East is desolation, but on a crystal clear day, you can see the gleam of the Colorado River far out on the horizon.
Suspension and Body Lifts
The first and most obvious change owners interested in getting really off-road make is increasing ground clearance. There are a couple ways to get more clearance — with the most straightforwardness being to raise the suspension of the vehicle.
Suspension lifts are often done in conjunction with body lifts. A body lift does not increase the clearance under the vehicle but adds extra room for oversize tires, which is the second most common method of increasing clearance.
Taller tires can add inches to ground clearance, giving compact SUVs like the aforementioned Samurai enough extra room to clear jagged rocks. At a certain point in a build, off-road-specific tires provide better grip, but these expensive upgrades are terrible on the street. Off-road tires are incredibly loud at high speed and wear quickly on asphalt. ORV owners street-driving their vehicles often have a second set of tires just for on-road driving.
A roll cage is basically a series of welded steel tubes either inside or outside a vehicle. Its main job is to provide a safety measure to occupants when the vehicle tips over. A serious ORV will eventually end up on its side or upside down at one point. It just happens. A well-designed roll cage can be the difference between death. Simple as that.
Many Off-Road Vehicles builders today construct cages that are both inside the passenger compartment and outside the vehicle. Cages built this way provide skid plates and protection from overhanging rocks, trees, and other obstacles.
The desire to push the boundaries of what is possible inevitably leads to builds that prioritize necessary rock-climbing features at the expense of comfort. When a vehicle is built for off-road use only, things like glass windshields, turn signals, brake lights, and most interior surfaces are tossed out.
But, of course, without these items, the vehicle can’t be driven on the street legally. Wide-open exhausts with no catalytic converters or mufflers are common on ORVs. Custom engines that are not smog-compliant are a great way to get more power but will result in a heck of a fine if the driver is caught on the street.
Many states and localities also have restrictions on how high a lift can be put on a street vehicle. It’s the same for maximum tire size and most modifications to the engine void street legality.
Probably the most popular factory-built SUV to get modified by enthusiasts is the Jeep Wrangler. Out of the horrors of World War 2, the little Jeep has built a solid reputation for toughness and versatility. Jeep even sells Wranglers named after one of the most challenging off-road parks in the world — the Rubicon. But, “trail-rated” has its limits.
However, Jeeps are easy to modify, and thanks to aftermarket tuning firms, there are tons of off-road parts and accessories readily available on the market.
One of the best, pure factory off-road capable vehicles ever built is the Land Rover Range Rover. Though most of them spend the majority of their lives prowling parking lots and toting kids to school, almost any Land Rover can easily be taken off-road and will go just about anywhere anyone would want.
The Ford Bronco — and not just the Jeep-competing first-gen models — are all quite capable, but later model trucks are much more focused on comfort than performance. With that being said, a suspension lift, oversized tires, and a decent roll bar is all that drivers need to get their Bronco off-road-ready.
Similar to the Bronco, the Chevrolet Blazer is another popular vehicle to modify for off-road activities. Unfortunately, the most modern iteration of the legend is little more than a station wagon with off-road aspirations.
In the late 1960s, Toyota brought its J-series to the US. The FJ was built as a military vehicle before being sold to consumers. The durable and capable SUV makes for a fantastic ORV without many modifications. Even the now-discontinued modern FJ Cruiser has the pedigree to be a serious ORV with some careful planning.
Of course, tons of other SUVs can be turned into mean off-road machines. If you’d like to know more about that, check out our 10 Best Off-Road SUV article!