Desert Paradise

May 1, 2011
Filed under Trailer Reviews

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The desert is a place people either love or hate. While few can deny the beauty of a lush forest, rolling plains or a mountain peak, the opinions of the western desert tend to be more polarized. Some view it as a desolate wasteland — windblown, barren, unforgiving. Others see it as a place of solitude, reflection and solemn beauty.

I consider myself among the latter. As a California native, my earliest memories of camping were Easter weekend trips to Death Valley — one of the most uninhabitable places in North America. Summer temperatures routinely reach well above 120˚ F, and a record high of 134˚ F, making Death Valley officially the second hottest place on Earth (Libya ranks first at 136˚ F). But even with its extremes, I’ve always appreciated its seemingly limitless expanse and mysterious qualities.

It had been many years since I had visited the California desert, let alone RVed in it. So when the opportunity arose to test the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee paired with the interesting Pacific Coachworks Tango 257 BH KSO travel trailer, the desert just seemed like the perfect place to go. For one thing, campgrounds are almost vacant during off-season months, even though the climate remains mild. For another, it would be an appropriate place to test the Jeep’s off-road mettle against steep inclines and sandy riverbeds. And finally, our chosen campground would put us within minutes of Randsburg, a living ghost town in the Mojave Desert that is as thought provoking as it is isolated.

For this review, I would call upon my longtime friend, Matt, to assist with the testing and to provide his own feedback. A serious car guy bent for adventure with an undying reverence of the Old West, he would be the ideal companion on this weekend trip. Besides that, it had been way too long since we both had a chance to go RVing.

The Tow Vehicle

Jeep’s new Grand Cherokee is a stunner in every aspect. Its sculpted, aerodynamic body is right on par with luxury utes like the BMW X5 and Lexus RX, and its overall features and capability exceed any other luxury SUV in its price point.

test drive jeep tango cockpit jeep interiorOffered in six trim levels in two- or four-wheel drive, our test unit was the upscale Overland model, which is eclipsed only by the Overland Summit in terms of features and exclusivity. The interior has a rich, inviting feel with nicely supportive heated/ventilated leather seats, real wood trim and bright accents. It has all of the features buyers have come to expect in the luxury segment, such as dual-zone climate control, keyless Enter-N-Go, touch-screen navigation, ParkView rear backup camera and ParkSense rear-parking assist. But it is the way in which these on-road features are married with a world-class off-road capability that really impressed us.

Whether driving solo or towing, the Jeep’s cabin is among the quietest we’ve experienced, especially considering our tester was equipped with the 360-hp 5.7-liter Hemi engine, and 20-inch painted wheels with low-profile all-season tires. Part of the credit goes to Jeep’s new Quadra-Lift air suspension, which features five ride height settings (Normal Ride Height, Off-Road 1, Off-Road 2, Park Mode and Aero Mode). Where most vehicles with off-road intentions tend to sacrifice some ride comfort, the Grand Cherokee floated over ruined pavement in Normal Ride Height mode. Such a soft ride usually means boat-like handling in the corners, but even when pushed hard, the Grand Cherokee’s new independent front and rear suspension kept the chassis composed.

test drive jeep tango interior backseatOn the highway, the Jeep’s Adaptive Cruise Control, which also bundles Forward Collision Warning, Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Path Detection, made the 21⁄2-hour drive to the desert almost effortless. Adaptive Cruise Control incorporates radar in the front fascia of the vehicle, which measures the distance between your vehicle and the one you’re following, and adjusts speed accordingly. If the vehicle in front of you slows suddenly, the system will even apply the brakes automatically. Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Path Detection, meanwhile, amount to electronic nannies that let you know when a vehicle is in your blind spot or crossing behind you. Frankly, I’d prefer to turn my head than succumb to the chiming of yet another “safety” system, but it’s always nice to have an extra “eye” in place — and others may appreciate it, especially if suffering from a stiff neck or back.

All of these niceties made us wonder how something so cushy and coddling could possibly deliver the goods when the pavement ended, but Jeep engineers have managed to uphold the company’s off-road credibility admirably with a suite of terrain-management features. Aside from the aforementioned Quadra-Lift air suspension that can raise ride height 2.6 inches in Off Road 2 mode for a total of 10.7 inches of ground clearance, the Overland model is also equipped with the Quadra Trac II four-wheel-drive system with Selec-Terrain. A control dial on the center console allows the user to select from Sand/Mud, Sport, Auto, Snow and Rock modes. According to Jeep, the Selec-Terrain feature coordinates up to 12 different powertrain, braking and suspension systems, including throttle, transmission shift, transfer case, traction and electronic stability for optimum traction in a variety of conditions.

In the Mojave Desert’s Red Rock Canyon, we put the Grand Cherokee to the test in sand washes and steep inclines and found that it handled these as easily as a ribbon of highway. In Sand/ Mud mode, it was as if the Jeep was riding over squishy carpet, with absolutely no sense that it was about to lose traction or get stuck. And the new chassis, which boasts 146 percent more torsional stiffness than its predecessor, issued nary a rattle, squeak or groan.

Towing was likewise a drama-free affair; the 360-hp offered up by the 5.7-liter Hemi engine was more than enough to keep the combo moving at 55 mph up a 6-percent grade. The transmission’s tow/haul mode matched gears efficiently, and four-wheel disc brakes provided a strong, predictable feel. Another welcome feature was the optional Trailer Tow Group IV, which includes heavy-duty engine cooling, a 220-amp alternator and Class IV receiver, plus seven- and four-pin wiring harnesses.

Since the Tango’s trailer weight is near the maximum tow rating of the Grand Cherokee, we traveled with empty tanks to allow for more cargo-carrying ability. So, if you tend to travel with your trailer’s freshwater tank full, you’ll want to look for a lighter trailer to tow behind the Overland. Still, about the only time we knew the Tango was back there was through the windy desert, when side winds could cause some mild tail wagging — but nothing out of the ordinary. And as we pulled into the darkened campground, the Grand Cherokee’s HID headlamps did an exemplary job of illuminating our surroundings.

Our complaints with the Overland are few and small. The biggest one is the cheap, clunking sound of the power door locks, which were louder than the ones in my ’06 Dodge 2500 pickup. We also feel the doors should sound more solid when slammed shut, but this is a subjective detail. One not so subjective is this Jeep’s EPA fuel economy, which is a mere 15.7 mpg solo — surprising, considering its swoopy silhouette and the engine’s variable valve timing and fuel-saving cylinder deactivation feature. It is a powerful V-8, and so you must pay the fuel price for its performance.

Still, if this Jeep can remain as reliable in 100,000 miles as it is comfortable and capable today, Chrysler has a real winner in its stable.

The Trailer

On one hand, you could say that Pacific Coachworks couldn’t have debuted at a worse time; on the other, its timing was perfect. Launched in 2006, the RV upstart was only just hitting its stride when the economy began to tank — and the RV market along with it. But as the tide began to turn, the company found itself in an advantageous position, as consumers sought lighter-weight alternatives that offered more bang for the buck.

test drive jeep tango kitchen dinetteThe concept of a lightweight trailer is nothing new, so the folks at Pacific Coachworks realized they’d have to be creative to capture the imagination of potential buyers. One way they did this was with the Tango kitchen slideout (KSO) models. Available in six travel-trailer and three fifth-wheel floorplans, these models all share one thing in common: an outdoor kitchen slideout. Not just a grill or a stove, the whole shootin’ match — with two burners, sink, refrigerator, microwave, cabinets, drawers and a television — in one unit that slides out from the sidewall at the rear. Considering the popularity of outdoor kitchens in residences, and the RV pastime of cooking outdoors, it’s amazing this isn’t more common. Our test 257 BH KSO is also one of five floorplans with a rear bunkhouse. It has a double bed below, and a single up top, which is sure to find favor with the young ones in your family.

The standard model features a queen bed up front, but ours was equipped with the optional convertible queen bed/sofa ($525) that functions as a sofa with a small bed behind it during the day. At night, the couch folds flat to make a queen-size bed. This is a clever arrangement because it creates more usable space in the living area, and the space behind the couch is a great place for little ones to nap, or to stow gear/bedding during the day.

test drive jeep tango kitchen workspaceOur test unit was also equipped with the Luxury Package ($2,380) that really lends a high-end feel to the trailer with a solid-surface kitchen countertop, under-mount sink, large 8-cubic-foot refrigerator (instead of the standard 6-cubic-footer) and other details. The countertop on its own is roomy enough for meal prep, but with the sink covers in place, it’s downright expansive. We like the fact that the galley is equipped with both a standard and microwave oven as well as a handy pullout trash can, and the raised-panel cabinetry offered adequate storage. Vinyl flooring that looks like wood laminate lends warmth to the interior and wears much better than the real thing.

At meal time, we had no problem fitting into the roomy dinette, but we found the placement of the optional 22-inch TV ($419) a little awkward; the only place you could really watch it was from the convertible queen, and if you didn’t opt for that, the only place you could watch comfortably would be in bed, and then the TV would be a little small for viewing. However, we did like the standard AM/FM/DVD system, and in our tester, it was part of the optional Advantage Package ($2,399), so it was also equipped with 30-watt marine-style speakers on the outside. In addition, the Advantage Package includes large-capacity drawers under the sofa, storage access under the dinette seats, courtesy lights inside all of the exterior storage compartments, a 30-foot detachable marine-style power cord, a black-tank flush system and a deluxe electric roll-up awning.

test drive jeep tango exterior slideoutWhen we deployed the outdoor kitchen slideout for the first time, we were in for a couple of surprises. One, our trailer was equipped with the optional KSO Big-Screen Package ($1,113) with a 46-inch wall-mount LCD television in place of the microwave. That was pretty cool; however, when we deployed the electric awning, we found that the rear awning arm blocked the screen view, which was our other surprise. Pacific Coachworks speculates that this shouldn’t be a problem, and feels most people will watch the TV at night, when an awning isn’t necessary. Just the same, we’d recommend going with the standard 26-inch flat screen to ensure proper viewing.

Overall, our Tango tester demonstrated good fit and finish with useful features, such as a large pass-through storage compartment up front and a cavernous (though not very tall) rear storage unit. We would also recommend the optional power A-frame jack ($168), which is also equipped with a light.

Pacific Coachworks may be a comparatively new kid on the RV block, but the company offers an impressive product line with features its customers want. That’s a true recipe for success.

Jeep, a Division of the Chrysler Corporation, (877) 426-5337, www.jeep.com.
Pacific Coachworks, (951) 686-7294, www.pacificcoachworks.com.

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