You Can Do Hard Things, and the Kia Telluride Team Proved it at the 2023 Rebelle Rally

It takes passion and precision enter the Rebelle Rally. It takes grit to even commit. And to win? Well, that's incredible. Here's how Team KiAloha took the podium in the Kia Telluride.

Team Kialoha Is The 2023 Kia Telluride. Photo: Sara Lacey
Team KiAloha is the 2023 Kia Telluride. Photo: Sara Lacey

And then, they won a podium spot – and a place in my heart.

You *might* have heard us singing the praises of the Rebelle Rally in these pages. We love this competition that, over the course of 8 days, participants locate checkpoints throughout Nevada and California. It’s a serious test because competitors can’t use GPS in any form; no phones, GPS devices, or even onboard navigation systems are allowed. The rally covers a multitude of challenging terrain, including rock trails and desert dunes, and drivers sleep in tents every night between the stages. Additionally, friends and family are not allowed any contact. No spectators beyond staff and some sponsors and media. Yes, it’s hardcore.

So people may be surprised to learn that the Kia Telluride X-Pro was not only a competition vehicle in this year’s rally, it finished with a third-place podium spot in the X-Cross class. I’ve driven the Kia Telluride X-Pro on an off-road course and loved how it made challenging terrain so easy to manage. But competing in the Rebelle seemed like Kia was taking it to a bit of an extreme.

And yes, the Rebelle is a bit extreme, so Kia teamed up with Theresa Contreras of Baja Forged to make the Telluride X-Pro as robust as it could be (within the rules, of course). Kia has worked with Contreras over 10 years for SEMA Show exhibits and now the Rebelle. Contreras assisted with the paint job on the Telluride X-Pro, embracing the feel of the environment of the race. The final design was actually thrown in at the last minute. “You want the vehicle to feel like it’s in place…the design needs to incorporate that. And we really wanted to work with the Wolf Grey, which is a great color. And then we brought in the different terrains of the rally.”

Related: A New Sport: Rebelle Rally Newbies Learn Off-Roading Skills

2023 Rebelle Rally Kia Team. Photo: Kia

2023 Rebelle Rally Kia Team (l-r): Susie Saxten, Verena Mei and Theresa Contreras. Photo: Kia

Modding within the Rebelle Rally Rules

The Rebelle Rally really limits what competitors can modify about their off-roaders. In fact, there is a “Bone Stock” award for the off-roader that does the best job, and is most like a model you can drive off the lot. If you do modify, there are limits on all modifications. Contreras explained some of the modifications added to the Telluride, like a skid plate, and changing the front bumper so it doesn’t get caught in the dunes or the rocks, and tow points. If the team needs to get pulled out, they need access to some tow hooks quickly. And those tow hooks were mounted to the front of the unibody frame. There is a roof rack and a lift to increase ground clearance to ten inches.

Related: At the Rebelle Rally, the Best Prize Is the Friends You Make

Team Kialoha'S Cargo Space. Photo: Kia

Team Kialoha’s cargo space. Photo: Kia

So, What Does it Take to Place in This Race?

After the Telluride was modified, how did Kia and Team #206 KiAloha get the job done? The deep skills and experience of both the driver and the navigator got the Kia Telluride to the podium. The driver and navigator share some skill sets but mostly stick to what they know best. Verena Mei drives, and Susie Saxten navigates.

Verena Mei has been in various types of motorsport for many years. She is an expert drifter, rally racer, and even a sim racer. I met her at the Rebelle Rally. She has competed in the Rebelle in 2016, 2020, 2021, and now 2023. She has made shifts in her life recently, going to a more traditional job outside of automotive for the first time in 15 years. And that’s why she came back to Rebelle.

Related: Navigating Terrain and My Feelings at Rebelle Rally

Team Kialoha. Photo: Kia

Team KiAloha: Susie and Verena. Photo: Kia

What Drives Team KiAloha’s Passions?

“Competing keeps me in the racing world I love so much while stepping away from it to try something different,” she said. Mei switched up her career a couple of years ago, laughing about how she kind of did things backwards. “I started racing as a young person and didn’t get into the corporate world until recently. So it’s fun for me to be back here and get to compete and check that box.” It should be noted that in addition to taking third place in this year’s Rebelle, she took a stage win and also second place in the X-Cross class in 2021 (in a Kia Sorento plug-in hybrid, no less).

The driver ensures the team gets where they need to go with minimal damage or pitfalls. It’s not uncommon for teams to get stuck or have a flat. So a good driver will mitigate as many of those instances as possible.

And why the Kia Telluride X-Pro? Well, because it’s so capable. And Mei says, “It’s beautiful!” Mei isn’t kidding. It’s got gorgeous quilted leather seats and a fabulous multimedia system that actually couldn’t be used because that is not allowed at Rebelle.

Susie Saxten And Verena Mei Are Kialoha. Photo: Rebelle Rally

Susie Saxten and Verena Mei are KiAloha. Photo: Rebelle Rally

Navigation Motivation

Susie Saxten has been Rebelle-ing for a long time, too. 2023 is her fifth year competing, and she has collected a bunch of stage wins. This is the first year she has been on the podium, though. Beyond Rebelle, she competed in Rally Jameel in 2022, the first race for all women in Saudi Arabia. When I asked Susie what keeps her coming back to the Rebelle, she gave an interesting answer I hadn’t heard before. She said, “I see the Rebelle as kind of a detox. I get to turn off my phone and computer and come out here and just think about the rally. It’s my yearly reset.”

The role of the navigator in the Rebelle Rally is a much more involved one. Saxten must take the given latitude and longitude points and translate them into a precise location on a map using rulers and a plotter. Then, once out on the course, the navigator gets out of the car and takes measurements with a compass to make sure the team is driving in the correct direction at all times. As you can imagine, one small error can blow up pretty quickly once distance is added. So precision is vital. Saxten commented, “I loved the look of our Telluride this year with the wrap and the roof racks; it felt like a real badass off-roading car. I also appreciated all of the storage in the front seat. In the seat, on the dash, center console, etc. I have a lot of rulers and plotters and pencils, and there was a spot for them all!”

To be clear, the experience of Team KiAloha cannot be understated. The Rebelle Rally is an event that has participants excited just to finish. It was great fun to follow Team KiAloha throughout the course of the race and see how they were doing. Susie herself said consistency is key, and they never dropped below fourth place on any stage. As for Kia, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was just a proving ground for their cars. A Kia spokesperson said, “The Rebelle Rally is much more than just a platform to showcase how capable Kia SUVs are. It’s an incredible community that embodies Kia’s slogan, ‘Movement that Inspires.’ The challenges the women go through – and overcome – are nothing short of inspirational.”

Team Kialoha Finding Some Shade While Plotting Checkpoints. Photo: Sara Lacey

Team KiAloha finding some shade while plotting checkpoints. Photo: Sara Lacey

Kias, Kias Everywhere

I actually met a couple of people on staff at the Rebelle Rally that drive new Kia Tellurides. One person picked me up from the airport in hers, and she talked about how much she loved it. She was neither from Kia nor a competitor on the Kia team. I was impressed. She drives it for work, and for her family camping trips. She grew up going to dunes similar to where we were and off-roading there as a kid.

That is the biggest takeaway from the Rebelle Rally. That women can overcome and conquer anything. If it’s taking your own Kia Telluride to a remote cabin to get away from it all, or challenging yourself to an intense 8-day-long rally, believe in yourself. You can do hard things.

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Sara has written about cars since 2005. She used to beat them up with her kids and write about... More about Sara Lacey