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Launch control: desert driving in the Tesla Cybertruck and Rivian R1T

Tesla has finally unlocked the Cybertruck’s off-road potential. We grab a rival and head to the desert for a baptism of fire...

Published: 01 Jul 2024

A naked car in a naked place. Hours from LA and light years from its celebrity culture the Cybertruck sits in a desert, as if sent from the future by Skynet. If it had zapped into existence on bolts of electricity, that would be no less believable than it driving here. It is not of this world. It’s a bewildering, alien machine.

So let’s bring it crashing down to earth. Both metaphorically and literally at 60mph from about a metre above the deck. Then we’ll bounce it back up again through some whoops, scramble over rocks to the sky, plunge through sand dunes and a whole lot more. Put it through earth’s off-road wringer, in other words.

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Because Top Gear is the first in the world to drive a Cybertruck with all its off-road modes and camping tricks activated. We’ve got fully operational diff locks to go with a foot of height adjustable air suspension, we’ve got Baja mode, plus a light bar, Cybertent and Cybercooler. We’ve also got more than one Cybertruck. An 845bhp tri-motor (with light bar) is here for the drag racing, drifting and camping, while a 600bhp dual motor does the rest. Both have the full off-road suite; the dual motor has mechanical locking diffs at both ends, while the tri-motor has a virtual rear diff – no physical connection, but individual torque vectoring and trick software to mimic it.

Words: Jack Rix & Ollie Marriage/Photography: Greg Pajo

We’ve also brought along a little competition. You don’t need us to tell you the Cybertruck is a lifestyle adventure pickup rather than a workhorse, so rather than Ford’s F-150 Lightning or the GMC Hummer EV, here we have the R1T, a pickup from another west coast startup, Rivian. Complete with Yakima roof tent and front end styling closer to Baymax than the Terminator. It’s an 835bhp quad motor and costs $87,000 before options. The dual motor Tesla costs from $79,990, while the tri-motor Cyberbeast is $20k more.

We’re in Johnson Valley OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) area. A 96,000 acre off-road paradise that Brits can barely comprehend. Let’s get stuck in. OM

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Drag Racing

We’re not exactly famous for our scientific precision here at Top Gear, which is why we begin with the world’s most ramshackle off-road drag race. We say off-road, but the cracked dirt is baked hard and crusty as we survey the vast and shimmering Soggy Dry Lake. This should be close: both Tesla and Rivian are carrying ballast in the form of tents bolted to their backs (they didn’t need it – they weigh 3.1 and 3.2 tonnes unladen respectively) and there’s a mere 10bhp differential in favour of the Tesla, although the Rivian scores pub points for having one motor more.

On paper it’s the Cybertruck’s to lose given its 0–60mph time of 2.6secs vs 3.0secs, however the Rivian wears optional off-road tyres that should claw into the dirt more effectively, whereas the Tesla wears standard fit, less aggressively treaded all-terrain rubber.

We use a GPS app to measure a quarter mile, lean a couple of sand ladders against each other to mark the finish line and place our Cybercooler (no really, it’s designed to fit perfectly in the Cybertruck’s frunk, match its stainless steel aesthetic and is currently a one-of-one prototype) down on the dirt to designate the starting post. Ollie in the Cybertruck reaches maximum smug face as he slots it into Beast mode, holds the brake and throttle to enter ‘cheetah stance’ (tail up, nose down for optimum launch conditions). I keep it in Sport, lower the suspension, press brake and throttle and... three, two, one... lift my left foot.

The Rivian scarpers into an early lead – not a false start as Ollie would have you believe, but the tyres finding instant purchase. A third of the way down a low-flying UFO starts closing the gap, two-thirds of the way and it takes the lead. At the line it’s the Cybertruck by two car lengths. A win from the form book, but the Rivian made it sweat. JR

Drifting

I celebrate by doing some massive skids. The Cybertruck is most excellent at this thanks to a trick that most 4x4s would kill for – selectable torque split. In Baja mode, a slider on screen allows you to choose the torque bias to each axle. It’s never 100 per cent to either one, but I choose 15:85 to make my intentions clear and off I go slewing back and forth across Soggy Dry Lake, dust billowing, tyres squealing (yes, really – it seems tyre tread moans before the surface breaks up), Rivian trailing and inside front wheel waggling in the air.

It’s daft, but for something weighing upwards of three tonnes, it does a commendable impression of a rally car. Apart from a couple of small things – there’s no noise to indicate how hard the motor is having to work and the steering... where to start? There’s no physical connection between helm and wheels (don’t get me started on the safety implications of this, though redundancies are built in) so zero feel. And with less than a turn between locks, small inputs make a very big difference. Nevertheless, although drifting isn’t a recognised off-road pursuit, this does it better than a Lambo Sterrato. OM

7 minutes 15 seconds

Camping

Day one complete we retire to our luxury accommodation for a shower and some well deserved feet-up time. Couple of problems – there are no showers beyond dousing ourselves in bottled water... and before sleep, some construction is required. The Cybertruck Basecamp tent ($2,975 vs $2,600 for the Rivian’s Yamika SkyRise) has received some internet flak on account of it looking nothing like renderings Tesla released back in 2019.

In reality, it’s a brilliantly clever piece of design – developed in partnership with Heimplanet – that folds up in a case designed to slot underneath the tonneau cover (thus staying dry in downpours) and leaves just enough space underneath it for the yet to be delivered 50kWh range extender pack or, in our case, some Cyberboxes that slide neatly into the grooves on the bed floor.

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Step one – engage Tent mode either on the main touchscreen or your phone app. This levels out the body on the air suspension and rolls back the tonneau (the Rivian has a similar trick). Unzip the cover, unclasp and unravel the case, extend the legs and you’re most of the way there. Locate two strips of material, clip them to the Toblerone roof peak, then inflate the structure with a pump. Leave it there – or zip on the awning if you’re feeling fancy – grab a sleeping bag, pillow, teddy and you’re good to go. A pass-through slot lets you charge your phone using the outlets in the bed while you kip, and you can use the app to control the strip lighting in the bed that glows calmly through the material until you’re ready for lights out.

It’s all rather civilised. As is making the most of our two enormous battery packs on wheels to decorate the camp with festoon lights and plug in a $20 Plancha grill to cook a tomahawk steak the size of our heads for supper.

A good night’s sleep? Not sure Ollie appreciated my deployment of Fart mode at maximum volume just as he was dropping off, and did you know the desert gets teeth-frostingly cold at night and a cheap sleeping bag from Walmart has the thermal insulation properties of a string vest? We do now. Still, the built-in mattress was decently squidgy and it was nothing a cup of coffee lovingly brewed using the Cybertruck’s power outlets couldn’t cure.

Bleary eyed, caffeined up, smelling bad, we were ready for round two. JR

Sand Dunes

In the shadow of Johnson Valley’s gnarliest off-road trails – Jack Hammer and Sledge Hammer – we stumble across sand dune nirvana. Views to make you audibly sigh, and a sand bowl shaped by mother nature specifically for high-powered hooning. Ollie goes first in the Cybertruck, initially in Sand mode which has too much traction intervention, then in Baja with looser ESC and more rear biased torque. He’s slow-mo sideways everywhere, rear wheels frantically overspinning, stainless steel panels catching the sun here and there like a sand-spitting glitter ball.

I watch on as he biffs about joyously, tyres labouring, threatening to bury him up to his belly several times, but he keeps it pinned and finishes his routine by drifting rings around the Rivian, taunting me with his rooster tails and four-wheel steering. 

Aha, but I have off-road tyres and very little mechanical sympathy. I set off in Rally mode, ESC off, right foot welded to the floor. The depth of sand ruts a three-tonne 800+bhp truck can produce are quite remarkable, as is hitting them fully lit looking through the side windows, but nothing can unsettle the mighty Rivian... except perhaps watching my range tick down alarmingly with all four motors giving it the simultaneous berries.

I try to calculate distance back to civilisation then lose my train of thought because I’m having far too much fun. However, with no engine noise to gauge your revs and no gears to manipulate, it’s a weirdly one-dimensional experience – neither of these trucks want you to know exactly how they’re doing it, only that they can. JR

Rock Crawling

Look, everything else we’re doing is a laugh, and a bit frivolous. But rock crawling is what proper off-roaders do. This is why you need diff locks, axle articulation, ground clearance, breakover angles, accurate throttles and all the rest. It’s difficult, and the jeopardy is real.

It takes us a while to find a fitting test. We head north from the dunes, deeper into the foothills around Fissure mountain, past scrubland and beautiful blooming desert flowers. It lulls us into a false sense of security because around the next corner we find exactly what we’re looking for: a less trodden track arrowing to the sky, packed with boulders and treachery.

In a rare attack of sense we decide to walk it first. We pant our way up, and round the first bend we’re confronted with a giant’s staircase, a jumble of huge rocks. We haul ourselves up like toddlers and are rewarded with a corking view. “Just the test we’re looking for,” I say to Jack, using bravado to mask my concern. If either lurch or lose their footing, it’s so unnervingly steep that there’ll be a three-tonne bowling ball tumbling back down the mountain.

I go first in the Tesla, Jack on the radio giving me the hand signals. Because here’s the truth about the Cybertruck: the forward visibility is lousy. So far do the windscreen and dash project that you’ve got no idea what’s ahead going over crests. A truly exceptional camera system isn’t enough of a substitute. Neat thing though: the hill descent control is also a hill ascent control. I set it for 1.5mph and venture forth. And I’m really impressed.

With front and rear mechanical diffs locked, the Cybertruck picks its way up calmly and securely. Not once does it scrape its belly or spin a wheel. The steering here is a boon, small inputs making a big difference, rear wheels angling to assist. It’s not capable of the extraordinary acts of articulation of, say, the new Land Cruiser 250, but I genuinely thought it might not get up this savage, loose slope. And instead it did it largely without my feet touching the pedals.

And then the Rivian. This time I’m on the radio, trying to stay on my feet (something Jack singularly failed to do) as the R1T jabs up at me. Despite those chunkier tyres there’s more scrabbling as each e-motor struggles to work out what to do, and more lurch on those softer springs. But again, it summits with no biffs or bashes. Of all the things we do with them, this is the one that impresses me most. OM

Whoops

We’re on a search for a legend: the whoops. Joyous name, loathsome reality. They’re undulations tracks get as cars drive over them. And they’re absolutely not an issue at all. At 10mph. But that’s not the point of the whoops. They’re a challenge to be tackled at speed. Unfortunately, while the Cybertruck is many things, it’s not a Baja Class 1 buggy. Those hit the whoops and with 42in tyres and a metre of suspension travel, glide over the top. That will not be true of our pair.

Particularly since I have made this a competition. I’m in the Rivian, Jack’s in the Tesla and I’ve set out a there-and-back course which means charging as fast as we dare/the cars are capable of (whichever gives up first) for honour and glory. Jack powers off in the Tesla, its firmer springs should support its weight better, plus it has a Baja mode. No excuses. He’s back 2m 37s later with tales of hitting over 40mph. Jeepers.

Now the Rivian. The first hundred metres are OK, but then there’s an evil section. I chance a glance at the speedo: 50mph. Crap. The R1T is suddenly a rodeo bronco, tail way up in the air, me a complete passenger. The front wheels then clobber the next whoop, spearing the nose into the air. And repeat. For about a mile and a half.

When I did Baja this went on for 80 miles and remains the most gruelling thing I’ve ever endured. I win by 20 seconds, but it’s hollow. When we tackle the whoops for filming it’s clear the Rivian is less well controlled here. But both cope. As do their drivers. Which just leaves one final challenge... OM

Jump

Hard to figure whether Ollie’s offer to let me go first is a gentlemanly gesture, or throwing me, quite literally, under the bus. Still, jumps are not hard, they just require commitment and a car that’s been screwed together properly and engineered to the right tolerances. I have every faith in my three-tonne stainless steel door stop.

We’ve been told 50mph is the sweet spot, I read that as “60mph can’t hurt”, and launch it skyward wearing my thrilled but worried face before crashing back to earth with a surprisingly cushioned landing. We sent an F-150 Raptor R off this same ramp a year ago and it recoiled so hard all four wheels left the earth again. Not here, which speaks of body stiffness and good damping.

Rivian’s turn and Ollie ‘never one to back down from a driving challenge’ Marriage fires it into the air at what looks distinctly like 61mph... and sticks the landing, albeit with a fraction more bounce. Clearly the forces being exerted and absorbed here are monumental, you feel the air pressure change as they sail through the air, the ground shake as they impact and the thump of components clinging on for dear life. But both survive, which is mighty impressive. In fact, they survive three times apiece to ensure we have the shot from all angles... and without a scratch.

OK, I may have knocked the Cybertruck’s tonneau cover out of its rails, and the weight of the Rivian’s tent might have bent the rear crossbar, but everything’s fixable, right? JR

Both survive, which is mighty impressive

This is not a head-to-head test exactly. It was a test to see if both could excel with life as an outbound adventure truck. Could they do more than preen around? Could we camp in them? Can they cope in terrain where you can’t? The answer to all those questions was an emphatic yes. Would we trust either to venture as far afield as a Toyota Land Cruiser? Of course not, where would you charge? How would you fix them with a hammer?

Of the two, the Tesla impressed us more off-road. It had the better manners, support and control. The Cybertent is a very neat bit of design and there’s plenty of clever thinking in evidence elsewhere. But owning one? It’s just too alien, too weird, too off-putting, too hard to interact with.

The Rivian is a cosier, more welcoming object. It’s a better car. But it doesn’t challenge convention like the Cybertruck, it won’t have the impact or influence. Does that matter? Does it heck. What these two do is take electric in a brave new direction.

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