A Tale of Two Badges

August 14th, 2020 by

A silver 2020 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is shown driving through a shallow river.

Jeep is renowned for building some of the most capable off-road vehicles available. This includes not only the iconic Jeep Wrangler and the closely related Jeep Gladiator but even the other Jeep models from the Jeep Compass to the Jeep Grand Cherokee. However, while every Jeep is built to be more than able to handle backroads and bad weather, Jeep’s ultimate off-road models can be identified by their unique Trail Rated and Desert Rated badges. If you are new to Jeep and have just begun searching for a “Jeep dealership near me,” then you are probably wondering what the Jeep Trail Rated and Desert Rated badges are. And even some old Jeep hands may be unfamiliar with the new Desert Rated badge or be unaware of the exact meaning of the Trail Rated badge. If you fall into either of those categories, then the short story is that these badges are awarded to Jeep models that pass demanding off-road performance requirements. The tests for the Trail Rated badge focus on rock climbing and river fording, while the Desert Rated badge is aimed at Baja style cross country performance.

Why Badges?

Ever since the original military Jeep that launched the brand, Jeep has always produced off-road oriented vehicles. But while no Jeep is incapable of venturing off the blacktop, some models are more capable than others. And as Jeep’s vehicle lineup expanded, it became more difficult for customers to identify the true off-road-ready vehicles at their local dealerships from the models with more moderate performance. So in 2004, Jeep introduced the Trail Rated badge in order to clear up any confusion. This badge is only applied to Jeep models that pass a series of stringent tests and demonstrate their superior off-road capabilities. The Trail Rated badge quickly became a synonym for out of the box performance. However, the tests for this badge were designed with traditional technical off-roading in mind and emphasized the characteristics necessary for rock climbing and negotiating backwoods trails.

With the rising popularity of different types of off-roading, such as Overlanding and Baja style racing, the Trail Rated badge was no longer the final word in judging a vehicle’s off-road performance. So for 2020, Jeep came out with a brand new Desert Rated badge and a new series of tests designed to demonstrate off-road performance at higher speeds and on more arid terrain.

Trail Rated

A blue 2020 Jeep Compass Trailhawk from a Jeep dealership near you is driving down a rocky hill near Colorado Springs, CO.

If you are looking for a vehicle that can take the most rugged terrain in stride, then searching your nearest Jeep dealership for something that wears a Trail Rated badge is still your best choice. Trail Rated vehicles come from the factory with all of the characteristics an off-road vehicle needs to succeed in a wide variety of environments. In order to receive a Trail Rated badge, a Jeep model must undergo extensive testing both in the lab and at real-world locations ranging from the cold of Northern Michigan to the heat of Moab, Utah, to the rigors of the legendary Rubicon Trail. But all of these tests examine the same five key criteria that are necessary for off-road performance. These criteria are traction, water fording, maneuverability, articulation, and ground clearance. While Jeep does not release the details of its internal testing, the importance of these five criteria are easy to understand.

Traction is a fundamental need for all vehicles, but it is particularly important when it comes to traversing difficult terrain from smooth rocks, to slippery ice, to soft earth. One of the best ways to improve traction is to use a quality 4X4 drive system, and because of this, the Trail Rated badge is only awarded to 4X4 vehicles. The value of water fording is somewhat dependent on your environment, but there are a few areas in America that do not have at least some streams and rivers that will need to be crossed. That is why all Trail Rated Jeeps include features such as sealed electrical connections and well as higher air intakes that allow them to charge through deep water without issues.

While good maneuverability is an obviously valuable attribute, articulation is more subtle. When crossing uneven terrain, the improved suspension articulation of Trail Rated vehicles allows them to keep all four wheels in contact with the ground for better stability and traction. Finally, there is ground clearance. Ride height is well understood to be vital for crossing obstacles, but Trail Rated Jeeps also have just as much attention paid to less well-known aspects of ground clearance, such as approach angle, breakover angle, and departure angle.

Desert Rated

While all forms of off-roading share many of the same requirements, slow rock crawling and high-speed desert racing have some obvious differences. So if your preferred environment more closely resembles the Baja course than the Rubicon trail, then you will probably be better served to search your local Jeep dealership for something with a Desert Rated badge. This emblem signifies that the vehicle wearing it has passed testing every bit as stringent as the requirements for a Trail Rated badge. Still, the tests for a Desert Rated badge are intended for a different kind of driving.

Like the Trail Rated tests, the Desert Rated tests explore five key areas. But while traction, maneuverability, and ground clearance tests are shared by both badges, water fording and articulation are replaced by desert prowess plus ride control and stability. Ride control and stability are fairly straight forward criteria. High-speed driving over rugged terrain demands high-quality suspension in order to prevent damage to the vehicle and possibly even injury to the passengers. Further, the suspension must also be stiff enough to provide responsive handling and to keep the vehicle upright through high-speed maneuvers. This is in sharp contrast to the more flexible suspension required to succeed in Jeep’s Trail Rated testing.

The desert prowess category refers to a Desert Rated vehicle’s ability to withstand the harsh desert environment. While there may not be water to ford, a desert presents its own unique challenges of extreme heat and sand that can put an unprepared vehicle out of action as quickly as driving through too deep of a river.

A silver 2020 Jeep Gladiator Mojave with no roof is kicking up sand.

Which Jeep Models are Trail Rated or Deserted Rated?

Currently, every vehicle in the Jeep lineup has at least one variant that bears the Trail Rated badge. For Jeep’s more conventional models, including the Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Jeep Cherokee, and Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Trail Rated badge is found on the off-road-oriented Trailhawk trim level. The Trailhawk variants of these models may look similar to the other trims on the surface, but they have been upgraded with a wide range of additional features designed to provide the additional performance needed to tackle the wild. However, if you have your eye on the iconic Jeep Wrangler or the related Jeep Gladiator, then finding a Trail Rated version at your nearest Jeep dealership will be much easier because every single one of these rugged vehicles comes with the desired badge.

Still, while even the most basic Jeep Wrangler Sport is Trail Rated, even better off-road performance can be had from the Rubicon trims of Jeep’s flagship products. However, if you are seeking something with the brand new Desert Rated badge, then your only option at the moment is the Mojave trim of the Jeep Gladiator. Still, now that this new badge has been introduced, we can likely count on more Desert Rated models appearing in the near future.