Richard Truett
Richard Truett
Technology and Engineering reporter

Why an electric powertrain is all wrong for off-road vehicles

The original Land Rover Defender.
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Two of the world's toughest, most rugged all-terrain vehicles, the Jeep Wrangler and the next Land Rover Defender, are slated to get electrified powertrains.

Big mistake.

If there is one type of vehicle that could be excused from the mad rush to install an electric motor and battery pack, it's the real off-road vehicle whose drivers actually use them as intended.

At the L.A. auto show last week, Jeep CEO Mike Manley confirmed a plug-in hybrid version of the redesigned Wrangler will be available in two years.

This year, Jaguar Land Rover said all its vehicles launched from 2020 will be available with an electrified drivetrain.

The problem with gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles is that much of the time, such as cruising at highway speeds, the gasoline engine is doing most of the work to move the vehicle. It's dragging around the dead weight from the motor, battery pack and power electronics.

A plug-in powertrain makes little sense for an off-road vehicle, too, because chances are high the electric range will be used up before the vehicle reaches the trail. I can understand the allure of an electric off-road vehicle, though:

An electric powertrain will allow hunters to crawl stealthily through deep brush nearly noiselessly.

Having electric propulsion in reserve could enable a vehicle that has run out of gasoline the extra range it needs to get occupants out of danger.

An electric motor in the front or rear axle could lighten and simplify the four-wheel-drive system by eliminating the transfer case and other heavy parts.

But all that would come at a cost in addition to a higher sticker price. A hybrid powertrain adds hundreds of pounds of weight to a vehicle. A battery pack takes up storage room, reducing utility in a vehicle where it is crucial to be able to take tents, sleeping bags and other camping gear with you.

Automakers that derive a huge chunk of their sales from off-road vehicles are especially under pressure to lift average fuel economy and reduce emissions.

The Wrangler and Defender will also get small turbo-diesel engines, likely with stop-start technology. Fuel economy ratings could be very close to that of the hybrid model, at a similar cost, but with none of the added weight or lost utility. The diesel, with its massive torque, makes perfect sense for a rugged, off-road vehicle.

I won't be surprised to see few takers for the hybrid versions.

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