Jean LindamoodCar and Driver
From the May 1981 issue of Car and Driver.
Dateline: Snow Belt, U.S.A. Undoubtedly, American Motors’ 1981 Eagle SX/4 Sport is great for winter driving in a city like Ann Arbor, which is notorious for its abominable road upkeep. The four-wheel-drive SX/4’s sure-footed grip is comforting when surrounding cars get stuck in their driveways and slide sideways through the slush. But to satisfy the Stump Jumpers and Brush Busters of America, the SX/4 needs to be put through more strenuous paces.
I have a five-acre field and some woods, and it seemed that the best approach to the Eaglet would be just to take the sucker out there in the field and bury it. Then I’d go and get the old Dodge Power Wagon and pull the SX/4 back out on the road, where, of course, it belonged. After the pantywaist city slickers in the office (who “needed” it to get home to urban apartments) had a chance to drive it, I managed to get the car for a weekend.
The weather couldn’t have been better. The sky had been dumping four inches of snow every other day or so for about two weeks, and the accumulation out in the field along the fence row was knee-deep. We had to knock down the snowbank that the plow had thrown up across the logging road into the woods before we could get in. The Dodge was ready nearby, its “snatchem” strap in place. My husband, Tom, was watching for traffic coming up over the hill as I hurtled the Eagle over the snowbank and into the woods. False start.
“We might not make it as far as the field,” I shouted. Tom grinned. I backed out over the bank, got a little running start, and heave-hoed over the hill, through the woods, into the field, and honked right around into Turn One.
By this time, my mind was changed about burying the car. I didn’t want to get stuck, because I had forgotten to put my ten-buckle boots on over my tennies. Naturally, that’s when I got stuck. When you’re four-wheeling, it’s just such a moment of indecision that will get you every time. I’m a girl, but even I know that when the goin’ gets rough, it’s balls out or die.
So there it died, the absolute furthest from the road it could possibly be. I rocked the car back and forth, thinking, “The truck might not even make it out here,” and then of the last $40 wrecker bill we paid to have the Power Wagon pulled out of a muck hole a mile off the road.
Tom slogged through the field toward me, grinning. The snow was literally up to the sills, and if you looked back at the two-track around the field you could see the flat spot down the center that the undercarriage had carved out. We kicked snow from around the wheels, rocked a little more, and proceeded to blast off once again. Tom was bummed. He wanted to tryout his new snatchem. “Well, your Eagle won’t haul a cord of wood.” he said in defense of the Dodge. Right. Tom. “Let me try it now.” he said. Right, Tom.
The SX/4 is a fun vehicle to drive, although four-wheel-drive truck junkies might need to be weaned gradually from their daily fixes of header roar and high-altitude jostling and turbulence. And drivers of a more civilized persuasion might wish for stiffer shocks to control the Eagle’s pitch and body roll over wavy pavement surfaces, and for better seats: the SX/4’s lack thigh and lateral support and are tilted back at an uncomfortably odd angle.
Another negative feature of the Eagle is its relatively low, 17-mpg EPA city-mileage rating. AMC has addressed this deficiency with a new transfer-case shifter it calls “Select Drive” and offers it as a $159 option. The two-handed operation of a dash-mounted control switch will cause two vacuum-actuated spline clutches to disengage: one stops power to the front axle’s driveshaft, the other splits the connection between the front wheels. Voilà, a two-wheel-drive car.
Select Drive is unique in that the Eagle’s four-wheel-drive mode is available anytime. When you flick your selector switch you can cruise on dry pavement in four-wheel drive without tearing up the front end. And in contrast with a part-time four-by-four vehicle, there are no hubs to unlock when switching to two-wheel drive.
There is no EPA mileage advantage in the Eagle’s two-wheel-drive mode, but AMC estimates a 10 percent real-world mileage improvement over four-wheel-drive operation. That makes for a substantial improvement over the low-teens fuel economy of most big four-by-four trucks, so if you’re in it for the sport of off-road travel and don’t really need the cargo area, this SX/4 is for you. And for off-road dilettantes, the Select Drive option is one more button to play with.
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