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Rebelle Rally Continues to Up the Ante as Proving Ground for EVs

When Rebelle Rally Founder Emily Miller states that the vehicle parked in your driveway is more capable than you think, she means it. From Porsche to Rolls Royce, Jeep, and Ford—old and new—this event proves that even the most unassuming grocery runner can transform into an off-pavement warrior fit for a long-distance rally. And this doesn’t exclude those parked at an electric vehicle (EV) charging station or juicing up in garages across the globe. The rally offers a glimpse into the future of EV technology, capability, and innovation, revealing what might happen when these vehicles are liberated from a commute or a short road trip to the remote wilderness of the American Southwest.

A recent addition in 2020, the Electrified Designation invited EVs and PHEVs to prove their chops on the course, competing with those in the 4×4 and X-Cross classes. Last year, the first fully electric vehicle, the pre-production Rivian R1T pickup truck, made its debut, while Rachael Ridenour and Kristie Levy of Team Record the Journey earned a podium finish in a 2020 Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Competitors and OEMs upped the ante this year with seven entries: three Jeep 4xe PHEVs, two Kia Sorento PHEVs, and two EVs—the 2022 Rivian R1T and the 2021 Volkswagen ID.4. These vehicles were charged on the rally via hydrogen power supplied by Renewable Innovations’ Mobile Energy Command.

Many Electrified teams earned top spots on the podium this year, proving that the EVs not only survived but thrived. In the 4×4 Class, both Nena Barlow and Teralin Petereit of Team 4xEventures and mother-daughter team Christine and Emily Benzie piloted Jeep 4xes, earning first and second place, respectively. Emme Hall and Rebecca Donaghe of Team Killer Watt returned in a 2022 Rivian R1T and remained competitive throughout, winning stage six of the rally.

Mother-daughter team Christine and Emily Benzie piloted a Jeep 4xe, earning second place. Photo by Richard Giordano

To compete in the X-Cross Class, vehicles must have two-wheel or all-wheel-drive (without a two-speed transfer case or low range gears). Teams piloting two pre-production 2022 Kia Sorento PHEVs dominated the top spots, with Verena Mei and Tana White of Team Giggle Watts claiming second place and Sabrina Howells and Alyssa Roenigk of Team Watt Girl Summer clinching third.

Verena Mei and Tana White of Team Giggle Watts. Photo by Regine Trias

Rebelle Rally competitors must consider many factors that we also do as overlanders, including range, payload, space, power, and the fun one—torque. This dust-strewn, eight-day, 1,400-mile off-pavement marathon can teach us a lot about the future of long-distance vehicle travel, especially when it comes to ever-evolving EV technology. So, I spoke to those with first-hand experience driving these vehicles: the Rebelles.

2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe

The 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe (pronounced “four-by-ee”) PHEV is a plug-in hybrid powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-charged gasoline motor. Bragging rights include 375 horsepower, 470 pound-feet of torque, and a total driving range of 370 miles. On the electric side, a 14.0-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery lies under the rear seats. The 4xe offers Electric, eSave, and Hybrid modes and an EPA-estimated electric range of 49 mpg.

Rookies Shandiina Peters and Racquel Black also drove a 4xe in the 2021 Rebelle Rally. Photo by Caleb Wallace

“Overall, it was a great machine,” Nena Barlow, 14WDTA Master Trainer and 2021 4×4 champ, told me. She has oodles of experience both in the driving and training department and a long history with the Wrangler in particular. Many questioned her decision to compete with the stock 4xe instead of the Wrangler 392. “When we look at the statistics, the torque and horsepower are ridiculous. It’s wonderful. The only Wrangler that has more horsepower is the 392. But the trade-off with the 392, when I drive it, is the single-digit fuel economy.” With the 4xe, Barlow and navigator Teralin Petereit averaged around 15 mpg throughout the rally. “Those are in conditions where I would have expected one of our other Wranglers that are all gas, would average maybe 11 or 12.”

Photo by Richard Giordano

Good fuel economy is beneficial for obvious reasons, but especially so on the Rebelle Rally. Event rules forbid additional fuel cans and dictate that teams may only receive fuel at designated locations; penalties can be incurred for fueling at gas stations or receiving fuel from rally staff. Choosing a vehicle with 300 miles of on-pavement range is highly encouraged.

Barlow knows well that number of miles per day and route conditions vary. “You’re going 35 mph on a dirt road, and then you’re doing a little rock crawling, and then maybe you’re hitting 50 to 60 mph on fast roads,” she says. Plugging in offered what Barlow calls “bonus range”—basically, the team could charge when convenient. “It’s nice that Jeep designed it that way. We could drive all year without plugging in to charge, but if we want to, it regenerates what it needs for electrical juice, so you have access to all that battery power.”

Photo by Tim Calver

The Jeep Wrangler 4xe’s curb weight clocks in at 5,000 pounds. Although the 4xe is heavier than your average Rubicon, Barlow says it didn’t affect her driving. “I’m usually the first one to jump in and throw a lift kit and bigger tires on a Jeep, but we ran it with the complete factory suspension. We had no issues with the suspension after 1,400 miles, and we worked it hard. It ran very light on its feet.” Her only critique? “I’m used to having storage under the backseat, and of course, you’re giving that up for the battery.”

Barlow could be in luck. According to motor1.com, Global President of Jeep Brand Christian Meunier has confirmed that “all Jeep models will carry an electrified option in the next few years.” Featuring a longer wheelbase, a Gladiator 4xe could potentially offer more storage space.

2022 Kia Sorento PHEV

Currently unavailable in the US, two pre-production 2022 Kia Sorento PHEVs were shipped from South Korea and prepped specifically for this year’s Rebelle Rally. This plug-in hybrid is powered by a 1.6-liter turbo-charged 4-cylinder engine and a 66.9-kilowatt-hour motor. The maximum curb weight is 4,537 pounds, and with 261 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, I imagine this SUV is a fun one to drive. The electric range is estimated at 32 miles, while drivers should enjoy a combined range of 460 miles.

Driver and ESPN senior writer Alyssa Roenigk completed this year’s rally in the 2022 Kia Sorento PHEV with navigator Sabrina Howells. Like many of the teams driving EVs, she felt like they were stepping into the unknown. “Last year, we competed for Kia in the Telluride, and I was able to read reviews and talk to journalists who had taken it to some rugged off-road places. We were able to talk to engineers at the company. With this car, it really had not been driven off-road much, and no one knew how it would perform.”

Alyssa Roenigk and Sabrina Howells clinched third place in a 2022 Kia Sorento PHEV. Photo by Regine Trias

Roenigk told me that both Kia teams realized early on that the cars required a full charge to maximize performance. When the electric charge became depleted, Roenigk says, they maintained good gas mileage but didn’t perform well during obstacles involving climbs and sand. “Once we realized this was something we had to do,” she says, “I was blown away at how capable this little plug-in hybrid electric vehicle was, especially considering we had the lowest clearance of any car in the rally. With the skid plate, we had 6 inches of clearance.”

After removing the back seats, the interior was spacious enough for Roenigk and Howells to carry their spare tire, a set of MaxTrax, a jack, three hubs (ratchet-strapped to anchor points that were welded to the floor pan of the car), tools, liquids, food, and the rest of their belongings inside the vehicle. This came in handy during a raging sandstorm during stage three of the rally. “It’s comfortable, you know. We slept in it. Our teammates [Verena Mei and Tana White] ended up sleeping in it a second night at the Marathon Stage because they thought it was so comfortable.”

Photo by Richard Giordano

2022 Rivian R1T

I covered Emme Hall and Rebecca Donaghe’s experience with the pre-production 2021 Rivian R1T pickup truck for Overland Journal earlier this year, so it has been fascinating to witness its transformation over the past months. In her review for CNET.com, Hall stated that the 2021 R1T, equipped with a 135-kilowatt-hour battery, averaged roughly 167 miles per charge. This was with an additional 600 pounds of off-road gear, an enforced speed limit of 50 mph, and no climate control (during the 2020 rally, Hall and Donaghe switched it off to optimize battery function).

Photo by Richard Giordano

Hall and Donaghe returned with Rivian this year, competing in an eye-catching Compass Yellow smiley face-adorned 2022 Rivian R1T. While there wasn’t a change to the 135-kilowatt-hour battery pack, the miles per full charge clocked in at an average of 227.6 miles. Potential customers will be happy to hear that Rivian will release a larger battery pack next year, offering 400 miles of range. In terms of power, the R1T boasts over 800 horsepower, and with more than 900 pound-feet of torque, I imagine it must be an absolute gas to drive.

The final days of the Rebelle Rally see teams tackling the Imperial Sand Dunes of Southern California (also known as Glamis). Checkpoints are strewn across the off-highway vehicle recreation area with varying degrees of difficulty. Last year, Hall and Donaghe remained at the outer reaches of the dunes, but this year, they entered the belly of the beast with the R1T.

Photo by Regine Trias

The Rivian’s regenerative braking feature was a bit of an adjustment for Hall in the larger dunes. “When you’re driving in a regular vehicle, and you crest a dune, you just lift and float across the top. But in [the R1T], you lift, and it’s like, I’m stopping! You have to stay in it for a split second longer than you want to, which is scary, and you have to carry more speed than you would in a Jeep or a Tacoma. I could use more practice with it for sure.”

An added bit of luxury was the inclusion of an ARB refrigerator in the spacious rear seat, which Hall says only depleted about a mile per day of range. “Every day I would have a cold Diet Dr. Pepper and Rebecca would have a cold Muscle Milk. It’s nice to have that little treat during the day.” The 2022 R1T isn’t a pre-production model, so the team enjoyed a full dash screen with an efficiency guide, heated and cooled seats, and air conditioning and heating.

Photo by Richard Giordano

For a more detailed run-down of the 2022 Rivian R1T, read Hall’s complete review on CNET.com.

2021 Volkswagen ID.4 AWD Pro

After competing with a manual 2012 Tacoma in 2018, automotive journalist Mercedes Lilienthal says that driving an all-electric 2021 Volkswagen ID.4 AWD Pro in this year’s rally was a completely different experience. “The steering and driving dynamics were very intuitive, and it was super nimble compared to a truck with a longer footprint. Plus, with it being a full EV, there’s no noise. You’re very well connected with nature because you hear the rocks crunching underneath you, and you hear the dirt, or the sand, slipping away from your tires.” With two motors on each axle, this EV produces 259 horsepower with 339 pound-feet of torque and 249 miles of range.

For navigator Emily Winslow, the Volkswagen felt a bit more familiar. “I’ve always run X-Cross class and have a 2017 Subaru Crosstrek. [The ID.4] felt similarly sized and worked really well on similar terrain. The U-turn radius is ridiculous; it’s the best I’ve ever seen in a car.”

Photo by Regine Trias

Lilienthal and Winslow partnered with Volkswagen to complete the EV’s inaugural entry in the Rebelle Rally. With some insight provided by Rhys Millen Racing and Tanner Foust Racing, who finished the NORRA Mexican 1000 earlier this year in an ID.4 1st-Edition RWD, modifications to the ID.4 included new suspension components, control arms, fabricated skid plates, and battery protection.

The vehicle offers two drive modes, including D (Drive) Mode and B (Brake) Mode. “You have to be very careful with the throttle,” Lilienthal explains. “There were electronic graphs you had to look at versus a tachometer and speedometer. Everything was digital. We had to be very careful to equalize or have it in regenerating mode versus using kilowatts.” That’s where B Mode came in handy. Applying very light and precise throttle response, Lilienthal explains, nearly made the vehicle operate as if it were in 4L. This was important in rocky terrain, tight areas, and off-camber situations where she required maximum control.

As navigator, Winslow was constantly estimating range and her calculations dictated whether Lilienthal needed to focus on slowing the vehicle and which checkpoints the team could go for. “As Emily and I kept going further along in the rally,” Lilienthal explains, “She would hone me as a driver saying, ‘You’re using two kilometers of range to every kilometer,’ keeping me on point so that I could adjust my ability as a driver with how much range we had left to get to the charge truck.”

Photo by Richard Giordano

Range was crucial as event rules dictated EV, and PHEV teams were allowed one midday charge. For Winslow, this was frustrating because the ID.4’s range didn’t allow them to choose more difficult checkpoints. However, over time, small gains became major wins. “We realized this was such an experiential opportunity,” Lilienthal said. “It was a different game for us. The game was to have enough range, get to basecamp, and whatever checkpoints we could get along the way. This is a commuter car, and it hasn’t really been tested for such opportunities off the beaten path. We had a unique opportunity to test it in that way.”

For more, read Lilienthal’s complete review of the Volkswagen ID.4 on forbes.com.

Photo by Richard Giordano

Want to learn more about this year’s Rebelle Rally? Join Scott Brady, Matt Scott, and myself, as we discuss vehicles, tactics and winning teams on Episode 65 of the Overland Journal Podcast.

Our No Compromise Clause: We carefully screen all contributors to make sure they are independent and impartial. We never have and never will accept advertorial, and we do not allow advertising to influence our product or destination.

Ashley Giordano completed a 48,800-kilometer overland journey from Canada to Argentina with her husband, Richard, in their well-loved but antiquated Toyota pickup. On the zig-zag route south, she hiked craggy peaks in the Andes, discovered diverse cultures in 15 different countries, and filled her tummy with spicy ceviche, Baja fish tacos, and Argentinian Malbec. As Senior Editor at Overland Journal, you can usually find Ashley buried in a pile of travel books, poring over maps, or writing about the unsung women of overlanding history. @desktoglory_ash