We drove an RMZ-4 Equator around several trails at Knibbe Ranch, about 55 miles north of San Antonio. The ranch, consisting of 2,000 acres of Texas hill country, is mostly covered with scrub oak and juniper, punctuated with wide, shallow, rocky-bottomed rivers cutting through layers of limestone.

An eroded hunting trail was marked for us to follow, and mud holes and other obstacles had been created specifically to demonstrate the approach, departure and traction capabilities of the Equator. The trail required use of 4Lo to ease down steep, loose-rock sections and to crawl across the river. It's the kind of real-world four-wheeling that a 4x4 owner would encounter to reach a deer stand, fishing spot or any other remote outdoor destination. We never got stuck, but one of our fellow journalists did and had to be pulled out of the river with the Caterpillar. There is a vehicle-rescue attachment point on the Equator, located rather low under the front bumper, which may or may not be handy if you get stuck. In a case like that, the optional receiver hitch would be a welcome asset.

At one point we needed to engage the locking rear differential to crawl up a short limestone rock stair step, tires wet with river water. It clicked in and we moved ahead easily with light throttle. We found that the crawl ratio, 33.86 to 1 with the automatic transmission, is low enough to allow for sure grip in steep, low-traction situations. With the four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission, a lower (42.33 to 1) ratio is available to maximize leverage. It seemed clear to us that, given the rear locker and the electronic traction control, traction is plenty good enough for a sensible driver to crawl around, uphill and down, wherever the Equator will fit.

Angles of approach and departure, generally a weakness in pickup trucks, did not seem to be a severe handicap. At one spot, a hill-and-trench obstacle showed us that it was possible to nose in very steeply and still pull up a steep uphill ramp without dragging the hitch. With the RMZ package, the approach angle is 32.6 inches and departure is 23.3 inches. Running ground clearance is 8.6 inches, and 10 inches at the rear axle. These are reasonably good numbers: by comparison, a Dodge Ram 4x4 Crew Cab with standard tires would have 19.2 degrees of approach angle, 24.3 degrees of departure and 7.9 inches of ground clearance at the rear.

The mud traps we encountered were filled with heavy, black mud - the gummy kind that sticks to wheel wells, flings backward in big clumps and adheres to the bottom of your shoes like glue. The sections we drove were short, maybe only 40 to 50 yards, but they were deep enough to get sideways if you gave it too much throttle. This functioned as more of a tire test than anything else.

Our test unit had P265/75R16 BFG Rugged Trail T/A tires, a mud-and-snow tire that was designed to be tough, but was reasonably quiet on most types of pavement. We ran them at recommended pressures. This rubber provided sure traction on most of the offroad course, though it did require some throttle to self-clean as we made our way through the muddy goo. We'd say these tires are fine for almost everything a 4x4 will ever do -- unless you see a lot of deep mud, in which case you'll need something more specialized.

The 4x4 system is actuated by turning a dial with three settings: 2WD, 4H and 4Lo. You have to stop to switch into 4Lo, putting the transmission in the neutral position with the brake depressed. We had no problem switching into 4Lo - the transfer case clicked in and the indicator light illuminated - but once we were back on pavement we found it tricky to get back into 2WD. Even with the transmission in neutral, it took several tries to exit 4Lo.

We also noticed a slight rattle coming from the right front quarter, something like a loose bracket. We'll chalk that up to overzealous offroad testing by the previous group of maniacs, but it's something we noticed.

The Equator has an electronic hill descent assist and a hill start assist package. These electronic upgrades work to control slippage by applying brakes in small increments, from wheel to wheel very quickly, and can be a comfort in situations where long hills are very steep. With the driving we did, we never really needed either one, but if we did a lot of offroad driving in, say, Colorado, we might appreciate having them.

As with any proper 4x4, a full-size spare tire is included.

See also:

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