BURNT FLATS, Calif. —The steep and rutted path out of Devil's Hole, a sink on the barren eastern slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains overlooking California's Mojave Desert, consists mainly of packed sand and loose gravel. As expected, it sets up a slippery surface not really conducive to secure traction by motorized vehicles.
We could probably climb out on foot, perhaps using hands on occasion to claw through sand to improve grip on severe grades, but we'd risk a dangerous tumble, not to mention encounters with desert critters like the rattlesnakes spied earlier on this four-wheeling foray.
So it seems prudent to remain in the vehicle at hand, risking plastic bumpers, tires and gears instead of our fragile flesh. Besides, the point of this trek — which traces a long loop down to a sandy desert floor from a lofty perch in the alpine forests at Lake Arrowhead — is to experiment with the traction capabilities of small sport-utility vehicles.
Trying it in a Tracker
The revamped Chevrolet Tracker happens to be our vehicle of the moment and the set of wheels needed to climb out of Devil's Hole.
This specific Tracker, a prototype of the two-door convertible SUV, joins the previous four-door wagon variant in Chevrolet’s expanded line for 1999. It comes stock with a two-speed transfer case for the four-wheel-drive system, along with newly installed shift-on-the-fly convenience, thanks to new set of automatic locking front hubs.
The Tracker soft-top’s base engine — a single-cam four-cylinder — only generates 97 horsepower. To help compensate for this modest power output, the Tracker’s engine employs aluminum block and cylinder heads, thus paring excess weight. With less freight to ferry, the powerplant produces more than adequate amounts of torque in low range and manages to keep all four tires rolling steadily through the desert debris. The hardtop has a stronger engine, but it's optional for soft-top. The twin-cam 2.0-liter four runs to 127 hp.