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Electric Motors Beat ICE Off-Road

We’re getting to the point where electric trucks and true SUVs (on actual truck platforms) are nothing new. We still haven’t seen a single customer-owned Cybertruck after years of anticipation, but Rivian and Ford both have normal electric truck offerings in customer’s hands and there’s a Hummer EV (in both pickup and on the road in limited numbers). There’s also the Lordstown Endurance, but its future is pretty uncertain right now. There’s also the plugin hybrid Jeep Wrangler 4xe.

But, all of these trucks (not including the Wrangler) have something in common: they’re not the kind of truck you usually see in serious off-road situations. They have an electrified transaxle for each pair of wheels (front and rear), or do something even less conventional, such as the hub motors in Lordstown’s offerings.

These vehicles have proven to be fairly capable, so I don’t intend to knock them, but they’re just not a very fair comparison. It’s still possible to argue that these trucks don’t have solid axles and have other efficiency advantages over a serious off-roading or rock crawling rig. Without some more serious modifications, like lowering the differential in an ICE or the whole drive unit in an EV, there’s often a capability gap, too. So, the whole comparison breaks down and leaves everybody arguing apples and oranges.

But, some recent data from a company my family recently started shows us that even on a completely level playing field, an EV eats ICE for lunch, even on some of the most challenging trails Moab has to offer.

How We Built A Truly Level Playing Field

In another article, I told readers about a company my family recently started. I won’t get into all of the details on that, as you can learn more here. Suffice it to say, family with decades of ICE experience decided to get into EVs, and when they saw how great they are, they decided to start a conversion business to keep classic off-roaders going long into the future.

Our first build was a Ford Bronco. For the motor, we used a NetGain HyPer9HV motor, which is fairly similar to the stock V8 classic that Ford Broncos came with (at least in terms of power). But, instead of trying to build a dual-motor transaxle setup, we put the HyPer9 in place of the stock Bronco motor, bolting it to a manual transmission, which puts power into a stock transfer case, and then into the solid front and rear axles. We then put the 37 kWh battery pack above the electric motor, placing its weight onto the motor mounts.

The end result was not just an EV conversion, but one that preserved as much of the ICE as possible. Most original components were reused, and even the weight of the vehicle remained very close to original. Even weight distribution is about the same, with the battery pack replacing the weight of the ICE to within 20 pounds!

In other words, this is a vehicle that’s a very fair apples-to-apples comparison, with everything the same except that the swap uses electric power instead of an ICE powerplant.

Performance & Efficiency

Last week, my brother and parents took the vehicle up to Moab, Utah, to test its mettle during the annual Bronco Safari. This not only gave them the opportunity to show it to potential customers, but see how it compares to the Bronco prior to conversion and against Broncos that still have ICE engines. They drove it on some of the toughest trails the area has to offer, including Hell’s Revenge (which itself includes the legendary Hell’s Gate).

That the vehicle performed well should be no surprise to anybody who has taken an EV off-road. I’ve done a lot of mild stuff with my Bolt EUV (which I call my EAV, or “Electric Adventure Vehicle”), but I had a much more legit off-road experience with the Jeep Wrangler 4xe in 2021.

The advantages of EV tech are hard to ignore. The full-on low-end torque (full torque from zero RPM) gives a lot of performance in off-road driving situations. There’s no need to wind up the ICE engine and either load up the torque converter or feather the clutch to climb. With proper pedal mapping, you can have multiple profiles for different situations to keep that torque from becoming a liability, too. Add in the advantages of regenerative braking, and you have a vehicle that’s generally more capable than it was with an ICE powerplant.

Performance is just one area where the EV setup outshines the ICE. One thing that surprised us was just how efficient the whole vehicle was in one of the world’s most beloved off-road paradises.

With an ICE, you’re lucky to get 10-15 MPG doing off-road driving, especially low-speed technical stuff. Why? Because low speed stop-and-go driving is where ICE engines are at their least efficient. Losses to not only heat, but simply idling while stopping to assess a trail or wait your turn, all tend to add up in such driving, and lead to a lot of spending on fuel.

But, as we know from city driving, low speed stop-and-g0 is where EVs dominate (at least efficiency-wise, because nobody wins a race in city traffic). Low speeds mean less aerodynamic drag, but they also mean lower losses in EV systems like batteries, inverters, and wiring. Stop-and-go driving also means that regenerative braking does a lot more work giving you lost energy back, so all of this adds up to basically the best environment an EV can work in and get great efficiency.

The Bronco, despite the disadvantages of a complex drivetrain (transmission, transfer case, axles) and a vehicle that wasn’t built for efficiency, still got 2.7 miles per kWh on an average of the trails it went on in Moab. To compare this to ICE engines, consider that this is over 90 MPGe! This means that the vehicle is about 9 times more efficient than an ICE engine on this terrain and has a range of just under 100 miles (and much greater ranges are possible for future builds we’re going to do).

So, it’s pretty clear that EVs win at off-roading, even when you put them on the most level playing field possible compared to an ICE vehicle.

All images provided by Rugged EV.

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Written By

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.


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