Worlds are colliding. The ground is shaking.
In the past, the spheres of all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive have been separate and very unequal. While capable enough in slippery conditions on regular roads, all-wheel drive has struggled for cred when the going gets really rough. Flimsy axles, part-time operation, and a conspicuous lack of both locking differentials and low range all have conspired to keep AWD vehicles off the hardest tracks. The short travel independent suspension traditionally fitted to most AWD cars lifted the barrier to off-road entry even higher.
Solid axles and big pumpkins were (and in some ways still are) the only way to fly if you wanted to reach the end of the most remote roads—and get back home in one piece. However, a new class of all-wheel-drive pickups and SUVs has entered the market in recent years, and manufacturers have aimed some of these models squarely at the off-road and adventure travel segment. With trick AWD systems, beefier suspensions, more robust drivelines, and taller tires can these soft-roaders really turn a wheel in the four-wheel-drive world?
If the Ford Maverick Tremor is any indication, the answer for many overlanders will be unequivocally yes. At $32,000, the Maverick Tremor is an accessible, engaging, and surprisingly capable entry-level overland truck that can double as your daily driver.
Size creep, both in terms of price and physical dimensions, has been hard at work in the truck market for some time now. What were once known as “compact” pickups (think Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, and Chevy Colorado) are now all solidly stuck in the mid-size segment. Take Ford’s Ranger, for example—the 2024 model has essentially the exact same weight and proportions as the full-size F-150 from just five years ago.
This model bloat has left some room at the smaller end of the scale, but automakers haven’t exactly rushed in to fill the void. In the current iteration of the compact segment, only two pickups are battling it out for buyers: the Hyundai Santa Cruz and the Ford Maverick. Both trucks have unibody construction and available all-wheel drive. The Maverick adds an optional parallel hybrid drivetrain with a CVT to the mix (front-wheel drive only), and AWD Mavericks get Ford’s in-house 8-speed automatic and one body style—four doors with a 54-inch bed.
Shaking Things Up
The Maverick XLT we tested at our home offices in Arizona arrived with the off-road-oriented Tremor package, which, aside from the FX4 trim, is the version adventure-travel enthusiasts should set their sights on. Available only on the mid-grade XLT and top-dog Lariat AWD models, the Tremor spec comes with an impressive and affordable ($2,995) range of upgrades that, with the exception of a sprinkling of gold decals and paint accents, are fully useful and functional with no filler. These include:
- Taller springs (1 inch) for additional ground clearance
- Revised shock damping and suspension rates
- Trail Control drive mode (a version of off-road cruise control)
- Improved approach angle with Tremor-specific front bumper, which includes two GVW-rated recovery points
- Twin-clutch, rear-drive unit with torque-vectoring and a clutch-activated “locking” feature
- Upgraded CV axles and prop shaft
- Upgraded transmission cooler
- Steel skid plates
- Larger 29.5-inch diameter Falken Wildpeak AT3W all-terrain tires on 17-inch wheels
The Tremor shares its core mechanical specifications with other AWD Mavericks, including the 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbo-charged, four-cylinder engine that produces 250 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and a meaty 277 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. The 8-speed automatic does not have a manual mode, so accessing the relatively high and narrow powerband of the EcoBoost can feel like a challenge. More on this later.
Besides a handful of Tremor badges, Ford carries over most of the interior appointments familiar to the rest of the Maverick lineup, which is to say, bordering on spartan. However, with the exception of some hard plastics and tactile telltales (like the prominent molding cut-line on the steering wheel), most of the interior feels durable and high quality, especially the seat and door card fabrics (Lariat models get leather trim). Happily, controls for nearly all the truck’s functions are either buttons or knobs—only two small screens confront the driver, and they are crisp and easily legible in direct sunlight, only conveying essential information.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available for the entertainment system, and wireless charging and dual-zone climate control are about the extent of the Maverick’s tech suite. This refreshing modesty in the gadget department helps keep both complexity and the price low, as well as reinforcing the feeling that this is a car for drivers.
Behind the Wheel and Wheelin’
A relatively light curb weight (3,800 pounds), unibody construction, and multi-link strut suspension mean Ford’s smallest pickup has excellent tarmac driving dynamics. This car-like behavior is not surprising, given the Maverick’s C2 platform underpinnings, which also serve as the foundation for the Focus (RIP), Escape, and Bronco Sport. The chassis engineers were hard at work since, despite the all-terrain tires, the Tremor has remarkably precise steering feel, with direct turn-in and minimal body roll. A six-second 0-60 mph sprint and a transmission that’s eager to kick down means keeping up with traffic on the daily commute is not a concern. We saw mpg creep into the high 20s even with tester Scott Brady’s notoriously heavy right foot, though the Tremor’s EPA fuel efficiency ratings are the worst among all the Mavericks (combined/city/highway: 21/20/24 mpg).
On our off-road testing loop in the mountains of central Arizona, we encountered typical mixed conditions for late winter, including sheet ice, snow, wet stones, running water, and mud. The Tremor displayed an exuberance on this terrain beyond what the chassis might suggest. The seating position is excellent, as is outward visibility, especially over the front fenders, where the wheels are pushed far to the corners. Coupled with the relatively thin A-pillars, this makes placing a tire exactly where you want it on rough ground easy.
The Tremor’s 30.7 degrees of approach angle (thanks to its unique front bumper), 22.2 degrees of breakover, and a 19.9-degree departure angle, along with the steel skid plate, also contribute to confidence on the trail. This is tempered somewhat by a traction control system that cannot fully be defeated and a lack of articulation. Nevertheless, the torque-vectoring “Intelligent All-Wheel Drive,” in concert with the virtual “locking” center and rear differentials, was effective at keeping the Falkens biting. The driver can feel the system at work through the seat of their pants, which is excellent feedback for tackling more demanding obstacles, like cross-axle terrain.
A Gladiator Rubicon, the Maverick is not, and despite an admirably low 4.69:1 first gear ratio, it’s no substitute for a true low-range transfer case, and it goes without saying that 37s will never fit under the wheel wells. The peaky horsepower (max power at 5,500 rpm) and torque curves mean the Tremor needs to carry momentum to dispatch some trail features, which is a liability given its adequate, but not spectacular, 9.4 inches of ground clearance and potential shock to the CV-axle drivelines. Time will tell if those components will have the durability to hold up to repeated hard use.
The Rift Zone—AWD vs 4WD
Rock crawling is not the Maverick Tremor’s mission, and we enjoyed the challenge of getting the little pickup up and down parts of the national forest trails on our loop that make heavier-duty but overbuilt 4x4s barely blink. Getting out of the truck, walking the line, and discussing traction points and vehicle placement all boost skills and reinforce good habits for off-road travel. The Tremor doesn’t necessarily signal continental drift-level improvements for AWD off-roaders, but its capabilities are impressive and more than usable for the vast majority of overlanders.
The Maverick shows great potential as an entry-level overlander. We like its efficiency, practicality, and comfort as a day-to-day vehicle, and its low pricepoint gets the buyer an excellent range of functional equipment and upgrades with the Tremor package. It’s a simple vehicle that’s not overwhelmed with technology. Storage abounds in the thoughtfully laid-out interior, and while the bed is relatively small, it does feature handy options like a 110-volt outlet. Plan your build like a backpacker: add a lightweight shell, like a Go Fast Campers Ford Maverick Camper, an auxiliary power station, and a partner to share in your adventures, and the world is at your doorstep.
Where the Maverick Tremor can come up short for long-term travel is in payload and towing. At 1,200 pounds, the Tremor’s payload is 300 pounds less than other Mavericks, and it is restricted to 2,000 pounds of towing, ruling out many off-road trailers. Ford offers an uprated Maverick tow package that boosts towing capacity to 4,000 pounds, but it’s curiously not available on Tremor models. Those metrics are important for many truck buyers and may have some cross-shopping traditional body-on-frame pickups, like the Maverick’s stablemate, the Ranger.
Where they maybe should be looking, however, is the Subaru store. The Crosstrek Wilderness has comparable ground clearance (9.3 inches) and breakover angle (21.1 degrees) to the Tremor and a significantly better departure angle at 33 degrees. It also features its own fancy torque-vectoring AWD system and a much lower final drive ratio (4.111 compared to the Maverick’s 3.63) for better crawling, not to mention nearly 1,500 pounds of payload and 3,500 pounds of towing capacity. Throw in EPA-rated 33 mpg on the highway, and for the same price as the Maverick Tremor, it comes down to the pickup bed.
$32,000 | ford.com
Images: Scott Brady, Ford
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