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Can These Old Luxury Performance SUVs Climb a Ski Mountain?

My inaugural hooptie 4×4 mountain climb was certainly my most ambitious undertaking to date. Not only did my pair of luxury performance SUVs travel more than 600 miles from Wichita, Kansas, to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, I also towed my $300 Jeep Cherokee with 361,000 miles along for the ride. During my last trip to Colorado, I left my all-wheel-drive 1991 Dodge Caravan with my sister, who lives up there. This meant the entirety of my hooptie 4×4 fleet was together in the mountains — and ready to hit the trails.

As you would expect, all of them broke in one fashion or another. My previous duct tape fix on the Cayenne Turbo’s vacuum system needed regular attention, and it really didn’t like towing over 6,000 pounds up the mountain passes. My 2000 Mercedes ML55 AMG had a few underside pieces fall off, and developed an exhaust rattle. This was likely an after effect from being stolen and briefly used as a bulldozer last month. These were pretty minor problems when compared to what was dished out by my aged Chrysler products.

With the Cayenne Turbo starting to run hot from hauling its heavy load up the mountains, I unloaded the Jeep it was towing as a precaution. Thankfully, I had four friends tag along with me — all of whom are fellow car enthusiasts — and all of whom were eager to drive a hooptie. My ridiculously high-mileage Cherokee did a fantastic job for the last leg of the trip, climbing into the mountains, but just as we arrived at our destination, it began puking coolant everywhere. Thankfully, it only appeared to be a faulty radiator cap, which we replaced the next morning.

The Caravan started easily after its 45-day slumber — but as we made our way to the base of the ski mountain for our first 4×4 climb, the brake pedal went to the floor. Something failed catastrophically with the front left brake caliper, which led to a brief fire that melted the plastic hubcap. This knocked my “Mighty-van” out of the day’s festivities.

During the off-season, Breckenridge ski resort allows vehicles to drive up their slopes. Much like skiing in the winter, you can follow the beginner trails up to the top, or choose more challenging terrain. I had planned on taking the trails to over 13,000 feet in elevation — but I was surprised to see lots of snow still covering the mountain.

With my three remaining 4x4s, we decided to see how high my fleet could go before the snow made it impassable. I started the trail in the Cayenne Turbo, which has a very nice off-road computer setting, along with an adjustable air ride suspension that offers up to 10 inches of ground clearance. I treated the early section as a rally stage, going way too fast for the terrain, and I slammed the suspension hard a few times. While the Cayenne never complained, the thought of popping an air strut made me very nervous.

About half-way up, I switched to my Mercedes ML55, and I felt much more confident. The fantastic all-wheel-drive system made it feel invincible, and the feedback from the suspension and steering was much better on the trail. Through all of this, my $300 Jeep Cherokee was bringing up the rear; the most capable vehicle of the bunch never needed to switch on its 4×4 system. Then it puked its guts again.

After some hard driving, we stopped again at another summit. A few seconds after the Jeep was shut off, we heard a loud pop, followed by a plume of smoke. This time, the upper radiator hose had failed. We had no choice but to abandon it. Fifty percent of my 4×4 fleet was now dead on the mountain.

I switched back to the Cayenne for the final climb, and was finally stopped by a six-foot snow drift. We celebrated the victory with a June snowball fight, then made our way back down to tend to the wounded.

What surprised me the most from this experience was my total indifference to the huge amount of mechanical failures happening over a 48-hour period. I’ve become so battle hardened to my hooptie fleet, that I easily shrugged everything off. My mechanic, the car wizard, will certainly be busy for the next few weeks.

A positive note from this experience was finding a great home for my ML55. One of my friends who tagged along for this trip, Matt McIvor, got the ultimate test drive with my AMG, and he’s adding it to his own impressive hooptie fleet. Like me, he’s also new to the automotive journalist world, and he plans on giving regular ML55 updates on his blog, Posh Cars.

I’ve decided to part with my 1991 Dodge Caravan, too. After having it towed back to my sister’s house, I arranged to ship it back home — where it’ll be fixed and immediately sold to the first crazy person who wants it. I’ve run out of ideas for it — and there’s no more room in the inn.

My $300 Jeep actually lived to fight another day on this trip, and was back on the trails the next day with a very worthy adversary. No, it’s not a yellow Defender, but something else that’s quite capable off-road. Stay tuned for that story next week! Find a 2004 Porsche Cayenne for sale or Find a 2000 Mercedes-Benz ML 55 AMG for sale

Tyler Hoover went broke after 10 years in the car business and now sells hamburgers to support his fleet of needy cars. He lives in Wichita, Kansas.

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  1. As a condo owner in Breck, here is a little-known secret: the resort doesn’t own the mountains.  They are National Forest Service maintained and open to the public, hence there aren’t any ‘No Trespassing’ signs on the ski runs.

  2. Something failed catastrophically with the front left brake caliper” is precisely what one does NOT want to have happen while driving in the mountains. Or anywhere, really.

  3. The ML is a very capable offroad vehicle with the right tires. I’ve only been offroad in mine twice and never needed to activate low range.

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