Taking on Pampanga's Lahar Beds with the Ford Everest

Learning to Love Lahar

I still remember with remarkable clarity waking up on the morning of June 15, 1991. It was a Saturday, and like any other 9-year old, I ran down the stairs to the living room to catch my morning dose of cartoons. Yet, despite that it was 6 in the morning, it was as dark as 6 in the evening.

*Photo courtesy of USGS*

That darkness was brought on by an eruption just 90 kilometers away, from a volcano that was long thought to be dormant. Pinatubo's wrath gutted the provinces around it particularly Pampanga, turning its rivers into a barren bed full of scorching hot lahar.

Fast-forward 25 years and that once-boiling, once-fluid product of Pinatubo has long cooled down and solidified. And now we can drive over it, all with the volcano just a few kilometers away. But driving on lahar is never easy; the surface is unpredictable, prone to collapse and easy to get stuck in.

On this day, despite the tricky terrain, no one is getting stuck... well, not if the Ford Everest has anything to say about the matter.

*Photo courtesy of USGS*

Launched just over a year ago, the Everest was the most anticipated vehicle in such a hotly contested -and highly competitive- class. We can credit Ford for that hype, one that they've been building on since they gave us a glimpse of the concept car which, unusually, looks almost exactly like the showroom model. Now that's cool.

But Ford's fighter in the sport ute segment -the class made up of vehicles built on the platform of each brand's respective pick-up truck- was not all about hype. It delivers real performance, regardless of surface.

“Don't let the needle drop below 30,” crackled the voice over the radio. It was from the lead car. “Anything less than 30 km/h and you'll sink.”

I gladly obliged. I apply a more generous serving of pressure to pedal, which in turn motivates that advanced turbodiesel engine to spin a little faster, which in turn sends more power to all four of the wheels, which in turn puts some more ticks under the needle of the speedometer.

This is four-wheel drive at its most enjoyable, all the tires splashing the still-active river attempting to reclaim what it lost to the volcano in 1991. The extra speed gives me more confidence, as a vehicle's survival here depends on how well I can sustain momentum. Rocks? Dodge them. Water? Power through. Feel a little understeer? Countersteer. And power through. If you do hit a rock? Keep going. Everything else is secondary to keeping the momentum going.

Such was the gameplan to conquer the treachery of lahar, but the Everest is managing nicely. Actually, it's barely breaking a sweat despite the fact that we're rolling on showroom stock highway tires, not the knobby, mud-grabbing rubber common on more serious off-roaders. Simply put, this is like playing a tough game of basketball with bowling shoes.

The Everest can do this because it's holding a pair of aces. They call it their Terrain Management System (TMS), and you can see it on the center console just beside the shifter; seemingly non-descript dial with some unusual icons depicting a vehicle driving a trail with a tree (Rock mode), driving in the desert with a matching cactus (Sand mode), and a snowflake (Snow mode). It's all self-explanatory, a heiroglyphic simplification of off-roading. Each setting in TMS was programmed to provide the best available traction for the surface, and they tested it all around the world to prove it. Today, I can easily put two of them to good use, though I doubt that we'll need Snow mode; we're not in a place like Finland and we don't use Nokias anymore.

Lahar behaves in a very similar manner to sand, and so, that's what we used most of the way. At times, particularly at the portions where we had to traverse the river, I flicked it to 4WD Low for maximum torque to surmount any obstacles in the way. Think the TMS like an electronic Army Corps of Engineers; by using sensors to control how power is sent to the tires, the TMS is able to build a (virtual) road for the Everest to drive over.

There was a time when off-roading was reserved for burly dudes hacking their way through a jungle, muddied up, eaten alive by mosquitos, with shovels and planks of wood handy should their extensively and expensively modified 4x4's get stuck. That's not the case anymore as the off-road tech once reserved for more expensive marques like a Range Rover (a brand that Ford owned at one point), is now available in the Everest; arguably the most affordable vehicle to offer it.

This is off-roading at its most convenient, perhaps even its most enjoyable. And we're doing it in a showroom stock 4x4; one so-named after the tallest, most challenging mountain in the world.

Two and a half decades ago, the volcano -the sheer power of nature- dominated this landscape and molded it to nature's will. Today with the Ford Everest we can tame the lahar beds, even if it's just in our own little way.

Go further? Gladly.