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Jeep thrills having a blast on volcano adventure

07:37 24 December 2015

Jeeps in convoy in front of an erupting Mount Etna.

Jeeps in convoy in front of an erupting Mount Etna.

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Matt Kimberley has a blast joining a convoy of Jeeps for an off-road adventure tackling a live volcano.

Jeep is the definitive sport utility vehicle brand. Its image is all bald eagles and star-spangled biceps.

It sells about three times as many cars as Land Rover and is growing much faster than the British favourite.

Normally when a car brand invites journalists to do a bit of off-roading they mean they’ve found a dusty track that wouldn’t trouble a golf cart, let alone a lightweight faux-by-four or crossover. Jeep, on the other hand, invited a small group to Sicily to drive up Mount Etna – a live volcano.

It’s also a chance for some nostalgia, because the Wrangler is on the way out. The car that defined an entire genre of vehicles is to be replaced next year. Jeep says the new one will stay true to its roots, but emissions laws are raising their eyebrows.

To salute the iconic Jeep one last time I’m sitting in a Wrangler at a road junction in Sicily. Everything from Renegades to Grand Cherokees litter a field, waiting for action. There’s a jungle nearby and we’ve got to plough through it – roof or no roof. Setting off with the car in two-wheel drive we turn towards the start line and cross a shallow river. On the other side, it’s time to knock the transfer box into four-wheel drive.

The route is mega, smashing through an undergrowth of roughly-cut bamboo and hanging branches that keep whipping my head through the open roof. Someone has cleared a path – well, sort of – but you wouldn’t want to bring anything 
precious down here.

From mud to rock, rock to flowing water and water to gravel and dirt, the Wrangler feels so at home. Refinement doesn’t matter out here, only the ability to keep going.

Even more impressively, the Renegades are keeping up. This is not a route you’d manage in any old car but the baby Jeep is hanging in there. It’s on dual-purpose tyres but that’s only fair.

Arriving at the nearby coast, a stretch of sand dunes threatens to become a Jeep graveyard. We’re all getting stuck. The untouched sand is crisp and firm to stand on, but once it’s had a few wheels through it the ruts are almost a foot deep and the Renegade gets beached. Ultimately everyone is wrenched free and we’re off.

Time for the main event – Etna. It’s been a bit unpredictable lately and there are 300 craters known to cough up lava 
now and again.

In a Renegade Night Eagle, a new special edition, we hop and skip up technical but well-trodden tracks in the foothills below the volcano.

We visit a ‘magma mine’, a hollowed-out part of the mountainside where young layers of rock are vividly, fascinatingly visible. From Aero-esque black pumice to a thick layer of gorgeous slow-cooled granite, the formation of our planet is happening right here. The Renegade skims lightly over the loose surface and shows off impressive balance when things get a bit slidey.

Onwards towards the summit, in a loose convoy, it’s a heck of a lot colder up here. And then it happens. A distant but distinct boom. Local guides start yammering and pointing, turning eyes to the mountain’s peak where smoke is billowing from a crater. Someone on a phone tells us it’s spewing lava out, but on the other side – for now.

Another boom. We’d probably better leg it, just in case. No one wants a new and far less interesting Pompeii filled with fossilised journalists. Still, the Jeeps have been impressive. Only the deep sand slowed them down, and probably only because their drivers were idiots. Freedom lovers and adventure seekers, consider your boxes ticked.

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