When I first saw the Tesla Cybertruck way back in November 2019, I’ll admit I immediately hated it. As a truck person, the design offended me. As an off-road enthusiast, the unibody construction insulted me. As a human being with a brain who has been working in the car business for a decade or so, the intended two-year delivery timetable just flat-out made me laugh.
Well, here we are in 2024, and Cybertrucks have made their way to a few select customers, albeit two years later than promised. And early reviews, tests and owner accounts have not exactly been mind-blowing. All of this was on my mind as I took one into the desert.
I got an unexpected quick off-road drive in the Cybertruck at the Optima Unplugged electrified drive event at this year’s King of the Hammers race in Johnson Valley, CA. I’ve spent plenty of time in electric vehicles off-road, from campaigning a Volkswagen ID.4 in the Mexican 1000 in Baja California with factory driver Tanner Foust to being the first journalist to drive a Rivian R1T—and in the grueling off-road Rebelle Rally to boot. I’ve driven the Hummer EV in Arizona and California and spent time in the electric Jeep Magneto Concept in the red rocks of Moab, Utah. Further, I’ve raced in the Mint 400, the Baja 1000, and various local off-road races in all kinds of vehicles. All of this is to say that I know my way around what good off-road suspension feels like and what an EV can do in the desert.
And you know what? The Cybertruck wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. The good folks at Unplugged Performance had their truck out for testing and were kind enough to let me loose behind the wheel of their rig for 15 minutes or so. Not enough time for a thorough evaluation but enough to get the gist.
First off, there are myriad drive modes. Drivers can choose Comfort, Sport, Custom or Off-Road. Choose Off-Road and you can go between Overland or Baja. I’ll let you guess which one is quick. Within those two modes, you also have some terrain settings: All-Purpose, Sand, Gravel and Rock.
I was most concerned about the air suspension in the soft whoops. These are rolling undulations in the track that require precise damping and a decent amount of travel to traverse smoothly. Overwhelm the suspension and it can feel like you’re driving a giant stapler with the front slamming into the whoops while the rear pogos about. The only cure is to slow down.
When I attacked a set of moderate whoops at 35 miles per hour or so, I was surprised at how composed the Cybertruck felt. There was some clunking from the rear thanks to the sway bars– Unplugged Performance had installed a set of manually disconnecting sway bars that remained connected for my drive—but it handled the rough stuff at a quick enough clip. There were a few moments where I braced for a hit, but the Cybertruck soaked it up pretty easily.
I don’t think the Cybertruck couldn’t lay down Ford Raptor speed in the whoops, but it wasn’t embarrassing. The total amount of travel is about 12 inches– a bit more in Extract mode– which is a respectable number. I personally still have some trepidation with air suspension as I’ve seen too many fail to be comfortable, but it seems to work in this application. However, long-term reliability is not something I can speak to.
Although the Cybertruck doesn’t have the stellar suspension found on ICE trucks like the Raptor or Ram 1500 TRX, I can’t argue with the powertrain. Like the Rivians, the Cybertruck’s electric motors can lay down massive amounts of torque instantly. This makes the old adage “when in doubt, throttle out” easy to do in sketchy situations. Power delivery here is so smooth and linear whether off the line or mid-range, it makes the aforementioned trucks look like dinosaurs.
Unplugged Performance had swapped out the factory 35-inch Goodyear Wrangler tires and stock wheels for a set of custom low-offset beadlock wheels and 35-inch Yokohama Geolanders. I heard these rub a few times during my drive, likely thanks to a bit more aggressive tread, but they looked really good with the company’s carbon fiber fender flares.
When it came time to do some donuts, I was also impressed with the rig’s traction and stability control systems. They are turned almost-off when in flat-out Baja mode but engaged enough to keep the Cybertruck from any snap oversteer when straightening out after a few dust-cloud donuts. I also liked that the driver can precisely control the all-wheel drive system. Whether you want 100-percent rear bias, 50/50 or anything in between, a slider on the infotainment screen lets you dial it in percentage by percentage. It would be fun to mess around with this in different scenarios but alas, my drive was pretty short.
The rear steering keeps those donuts nice and tight and also makes the Cybertruck a bit more nimble than its 18-and-a-half-foot length deserves to be. However, when someone else was behind the wheel later that day, the tie rod on the passenger-side rear steering system failed, leaving Unplugged Performance in a bit of a pickle. The company says their goal was to push the truck to its limits, so I’d say mission accomplished. Further, I’ve seen plenty of off-road vehicles with tie rods snapped on the side of a trail. It’s nothing new.
What I really hated were the brakes. Coming down a soft hill perpendicular to a busy trail, I hit the brakes as I looked left and right for cross traffic, but the 6,600-pound Cybertruck just kept on going. The ABS is definitely not tuned for dirt and for a rolling computer, that seems like an egregious mistake. If ride height, throttle mapping and traction control can all be calibrated in different drive modes, the electronic brakes and ABS should be too. I stomped on the brakes so hard I could see my thigh flexing through my pants and still never felt secure, turning onto the trail at a faster speed than I had intended. Fortunately, there was nobody to hit but it was a bit terrifying nonetheless.
The seating position and visibility are a bit of a bear as well. The dash is so long that the bottom of the windshield might as well be a football field away. The frunk extends even further from that and then drops off into that flat front and yes, the rumors are true. Those front edges are sharp, but I digress.
With that long front end I was never really sure where my front tires were and it made cresting a hill risky. There are cameras, of course, and they are clear and crisp, but lenses can get dirty. I’d rather be able to see what’s going on with my own two eyes.
Finally, having all the controls on a screen—something that is common to all Teslas—is just plain dangerous for off-roading. There are no fewer than 15 categories to choose from on the screen and each of those have multiple functions on each page. I’m sure owners soon memorize the location of their most used functions, but they shouldn’t have to tap the screen to move the HVAC vents or open the glove box.
I didn’t get the chance to take the Cybertruck on any rock trails, but the specs all point to a decent amount of capability. The air suspension maxes out at 17 inches of ground clearance, an approach angle of 35 degrees and a departure angle of 28 degrees. No other truck can match the ground clearance and the departure angle is respectable. The Jeep Gladiator has a better approach angle but 35 degrees is nothing to sneeze at. The Cybertruck doesn’t have a rear locker but I have a hunch that the traction control system would do just fine on its own when pushed in the rocks. Regardless, Unplugged Performance says an update is coming soon that should add locking capabilities to the rear differential.
As for range, on this particular day, Unplugged Performance drove the Cybertruck 33 miles off-road in a mix of Baja and Overland modes and used 47 kWh of power. That works out to about 0.7 miles/kWh. Tesla doesn’t publish its battery pack sizes, but it’s been reported to be 123 kWh, which works out to about 86 miles of off-road range.
However, keep in mind that rocks, soft sand, dirt and tire pressure will have varying effects on real-life range, and Unplugged Performance was definitely driving with a devil-may-care attitude towards range with tire pressure around 26 psi and encountered plenty of soft sand. I’ve gotten better range out of a Rivian R1T at the Rebelle Rally by driving more conservatively on harder-packed ground and keeping my tire pressure on the high side.
At the end of the quick drive, I walked away still on Team Rivian. The styling is better, it’s smaller, has an onboard air compressor and I dig the gear tunnel. It also looks at home in the desert and in my experience can eke out more range when off-road.
However, the Cybertruck surprised me with its capability, at least when I was driving it. Adding the Geolander tires likely made a huge difference in traction and durability, but the air suspension did its job admirably and the traction control system seems to divvy up the torque to where it's needed. I look forward to spending some time with it in the rocks.
I’ll let the InsideEV crew drive it on the pavement. I don’t need roads to get to my destination.
Emme Hall is a former features editor at CNET Cars. She follows cool stories anywhere she can, from Michigan to Mexico, Morocco to Mongolia. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @yeahemme.