2021’s Rebelle Rally Shows That EVs & PHEVs Can Compete, Even In The Harshest Environments

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2021’s Rebelle Rally did something no previous year’s contest did: it proved that electrified vehicles (including full EVs) are able to hold their own against gas-powered vehicles, even far away from the interstates. Not only did an electrified vehicle win, but full EVs (not a hybrid of any kind) made a strong showing.

Why The Rebelle Rally Is A Good Benchmark

Big EV fans on social media won’t tell you that sometimes owning an EV just sucks. It’s not because EVs themselves are bad or insufficient (in most cases), but because the world is still pretty early in the process of supporting EVs. Most charging infrastructure is on the interstates or other major state highways in the United States. If you want to go away from the main highways, it gets a lot more challenging to find places to charge, and often this means you need to settle for Level 2 or Level 1 charging.

I’ve run headlong into this kind of adventure myself, taking a Nissan LEAF far away from available DC fast charging stations and up terrain that made its battery pack overheat. While it was possible to make the journey into some of the most rural areas of Arizona and New Mexico, it was a huge pain in the butt and very slow going. Most people with any reasonable amount of sanity just don’t take those kind of trips.

My Nissan LEAF was a tiny black speck in the middle of this drone photo I took south of Petrified Forest National Park.

While I was able to get my LEAF pretty far from the paved roads (it’s a tiny black dot in the photo above), taking an EV out into the boondocks and staying out there for days at a time can be extremely challenging or impossible, depending on the route.

The Rebelle Rally takes this to the next level. You’re literally going on the most remote roads in the Mojave Desert. Not only is charging infrastructure hard to come by, but you’re also in places where roadside service and manufacturer or dealer service centers just won’t go. The terrain and risk of getting stuck are just too much for any normal service arrangement to be available for you.

If an EV can survive and finish the race in this environment, it’s proven that it can survive about the toughest challenge available short of the Dakar Rally.

Jeep’s Wrangler PHEVs Won The Event’s 4×4 Class

While CleanTechnica has been getting away from covering PHEVs, it’s worth noting that they won the event, and not just among electrified vehicles. While not a pure EV, the vehicle shows us that future all-electric Jeeps are going to be amazing off road.

2021 Rebelle Rally Team 129, with driver-navigators Nena Barlow and Teralin Petereit finished first overall in a 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe. Another team in the same vehicle won second place and others finished the event (not all vehicles finish). Photo provided by Jeep/Stellantis.

While the Wrangler PHEV isn’t the most efficient vehicle I’ve ever tested, it was clearly designed to be a no-compromise off-road vehicle and not one that gets the best efficiency numbers. Unless you’re regularly doing trips under 20 miles and/or have a decent Level 2 charger at home, it’s not a very environmentally friendly vehicle. If you need a vehicle that can handle almost anything the Mojave (or, in my case, the Chihuahuan Desert) can throw at it, the Jeep Wrangler is still one of the top choices.

As I pointed out in this video, the PHEV wrangler held several important off-roading advantages over the regular gas-powered Wranglers. First, not using a torque converter or clutch in EV mode allowed the vehicle to give very precise amounts of power at low speeds. This meant it could go over obstacles a lot easier. Descents were also better due to regenerative braking, especially in 4-Low. Finally, the battery pack’s placement made the Jeep more balanced and stable at higher speeds.

It’s no surprise that they beat everything on the course, taking not only the top spot, but multiple places in the top five.

Kia also entered two Sorento PHEVs in the event, and they took second and third place in the X-Cross class. The X-Cross class is for crossover vehicles, wagons, and other vehicles that aren’t true 4×4 vehicles.

Full EVs Also Made A Good Showing

While EVs have been available for years with enough range for the Rebelle Rally, you’d likely seriously damage or destroy a Model X or Model Y on the course. Off-road full EVs are starting to pop up in the market and place well in the event.

It’s worth noting that the event partners with Renewable Innovations to provide charging at base camps along the rally’s route, so EVs don’t need to travel the full 1500 miles without getting a charge. They still need to be able to go 250 miles or so to make the next charger, though. While the charging may appear to be unfair on the surface, keep in mind that the event provides fuel trucks for the gas vehicles at base camp, too. Everybody is on an even playing field, regardless of power source.

The fifth place in the 4×4 class was taken by Emme Hall and Rebecca Donaghe in a Rivian R1T. Details and photos aren’t available yet for press consumption, but I did find a video of last year’s run in the same vehicle with the same women operating it:


Volkswagen also entered a modified ID.4 in the event. Driver Mercedes Lilienthal and navigator Emily Winslow successfully finished the event, earning 8th place in the X-Cross class. “It was so fun to experience the Rebelle Rally in an electric vehicle,” said Emily Winslow. “We were challenged in ways that we haven’t experienced previously and I was super impressed with how the ID.4 handled the terrain.”

Photo provided by Volkswagen.

Volkswagen’s press release explained the vehicle’s modifications, including “new suspension components, tubular control arms, fabricated skid plates, battery protection and other items to fully equip the vehicle for the driving expedition.” These modifications seem very similar to what was done to another ID.4 to compete in a 1,000 mile race in Mexico earlier this year.

What We Can Learn From This

While EVs have struggled in the past to do everything a gas vehicle can do, this year’s Rebelle Rally shows us that electrified vehicles, including full EVs, can not only stand toe to toe with them, but win! As more EVs with good off-road capability come to market, expect to see more of this happen. Expect to see EVs dominate the future.

Featured image provided by Volkswagen.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1773 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba