Montreal’s road situation is a disgrace. One of the oldest, and most culturally vibrant cities in North America also happens to rely on aging infrastructure built nearly 70 years ago by lowest-bidder, fly-by-night construction firms. These same companies have historically had their hands so deep in municipal and provincial pockets it’s a wonder they didn’t just pave the streets with the millions of crooked loonies and toonies that the metropolis has been haemorrhaging in an effort to patch the nightmare quilt it calls a road system.
In short, it’s an urban off-roader’s paradise. In what other city could you slip behind the wheel of your 4x4, head towards the downtown core, and be rewarded with mud bogs, gravel pits, crumbling cliff faces and challenging waterlogged trails? After living here for the better part of 15 years, I thought it was finally time to put corruption to work in my favour for a change, and fully explore the limits of the Mopar-modified 2016 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara sitting in my driveway.
A little background for those who haven’t had to deal with the mixture of back-slapping mob bosses and cut-rate concrete that has defined Montreal’s motorized landscape for so very, very long: The city is currently in the midst of not only replacing the country’s busiest bridge (the Champlain, a federal responsibility) as well as the entire interchange system where three major highways meet just after it crosses over onto the island, but it’s also tearing up most of its inner city roadways to replace aqueducts originally installed around the same time the trans-St. Lawrence span’s namesake first set foot on the island. Sound like an exaggeration? Some of our pipes are over 120 years old. There are even a few left that are made out of wood. Yes. Wood.
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The mess of broken pavement, potholes and near-constant water main inundations is hardly ideal to navigate from behind the wheel of a Civic or a Camry, but it’s exactly the kind of terrain that makes my Wrangler Unlimited raise one edge of its solid steel bumper in a defiant snarl. This bright green behemoth started out life as a mid-range Sahara model before being upfitted with a long list of Mopar-sourced accessories. I’ll give you the highlights:
Lift kit? Check.
Meaty off-road rubber on blacked-out rims? Check.
Rock rails? Check.
Skid plates? Check.
Warn winch mounted on aforementioned big, bad, steel bumper? Check.
Ridiculously bright LED floodlights? Check and check.
It’s the latter two pieces of gear that turned out to be my favourites. Absurdly bright from a pair of three-inch wide housings mounted at the base of the windshield pillar, the LED setup offered me all the illumination I need to get off the grid and check out Montreal’s slippery, slimy underbelly.
As for my exploratory chariot - my “Mud Nautilus”, you will – even in stock form it’s a formidable beast for conquering forbidding terrain. Featuring a pair of ultra-strong solid axles front and rear, enough ground clearance to ford the occasional stream or sewer “oops”, and a low-range four-wheel-drive system that won’t take no for an answer, the Wrangler (in this case the four-door Unlimited version) has long been Canada’s most popular go-anywhere weapon of choice.
While those thick knobby tires and ramrod-straight axles might be somewhat of a liability within a civilized city’s limits, in downtown Montreal they prove to be ideal. It’s safe to say that these days there’s more ankle-deep mud than smooth asphalt connecting the boroughs of Ville Emard, Notre-Dame-De-Grace, St-Henri, and Pointe-St-Charles. As I ploughed the nose of the Jeep face first into the muck, I was happy to be commuting two inches taller than the standard version of the Wrangler – a fact that still didn’t keep the spray of liquid brown debris from rising up over the windshield and coating the hardtop in a fine film of filth.
Word to would-be off-roaders: the six-speed manual gearbox attached to the 285 horsepower, 3.6L V6 engine that is included free of charge with each Wrangler does a good job of offering you an extra layer of control when distributing power. When paired with the ultra-tall tires that came with my Mopar beast, however, the resulting taller gear ratio led to more than a few low-speed stall outs. I recommend upgrading from the stock 3.2:1 rear gear to the available 3.73:1 unit to maximize the 260 lb-ft of torque available from its engine.
Construction site prowling and urban exploration is not without its risks. Even from the safe perch of the Wrangler Unlimited I had to keep my guard against other vehicles – many much larger than myself – as well as try to judge just how solid the ground ahead actually was (spoiler alert: it ranged from deep, delicious brownie to scary, melted marshmallow). If you plan to visit Montreal, and you think you can handle the traffic, the onslaught of orange cones, incomprehensible signs, and roads that are seemingly supported exclusively by the leftover trolley lines that still show through the pavement on St. Catherine’s street each and every spring thaw, then make sure at the rental desk they slip you the keys to a Jeep. Otherwise, maybe you should just call an taxi.