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2006 4x4 of the Year

Posted in Events on February 1, 2006 Comment (0)
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2006 4x4 of the Year
Photographers: Frank KaislerThe 4-Wheel & Off-Road Staff

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab
Hummer H3 SUV
Jeep Commander Limited
Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6
Suzuki Grand Vitara
The Scores and Previous Winners
The 2006 4x4 of the Year is ...

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab

If every car dealership in the country had an off-road test track, you wouldn't have to read this story. If every new four-wheel-drive vehicle came with a six-speed transmission, three low-range ratios, front and rear lockers, and 35-inch mud tires, you could toss this issue in your reading room and go out and wheel. But since neither of those things are going to happen in 2006, you better pay attention - especially if you're in the market for a new 4x4.

Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6 Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6

Every year we, your trusty off-road experts, assemble a field of the latest and greatest four-wheel-drive hardware to pit them against one another in the most grueling off-road test in the industry. It's not a battle to the death, but there are always some casualties. To be eligible for our evaluation, each vehicle must be all-new, or have major mechanical revisions that will make it perform significantly better off-road. Every vehicle must have at least a two-speed transfer case, have a planned production of no less than 2,500 units, and must be on the dealer lots by January 15, 2006. If a 4x4 meets all of our terms and the manufacturers can provide us with a suitable test vehicle in time for the competition, it's a go.

Jeep Commander Limited Jeep Commander Limited

Over the years these requirements have prevented some well-known vehicles from participating in our 4x4 of the Year test. Rest assured that if your favorite 4x4 is not here it's not because we overlooked it. This year's pack of qualifying 4x4s included: the Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab, the Hummer H3, the Jeep Commander Limited, the Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6, and the Suzuki Grand Vitara.

Hummer H3 SUV Hummer H3 SUV

Before we left civilization we stopped at Off Road Unlimited (818.563.DIRT, www.offroadunlimited.com) in Burbank, California. We had the owner, Maurice Rozo, put each of these 4x4s up on the lift so we could examine the undercarriages.

Suzuki Grand Vitara Suzuki Grand Vitara

And then for the 24th year in a row we set out for our Southern California 4-Wheel and Off-Road proving grounds to shake down each one of these 4x4s in the mountains and desert and on every trail we can find in between. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to figure out which one is the 4-Wheel and Off-Road 2006 4x4 of the Year.

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab
Hummer H3 SUV
Jeep Commander Limited
Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6
Suzuki Grand Vitara
The Scores and Previous Winners
The 2006 4x4 of the Year is ...

131 0602 year 06 z

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab
Evolution is a great thing. In 2002 Dodge debuted its new independent front suspension Ram platform with a sleek new body, five-speed automatic transmission, and the 4.7L Magnum V-8 engine. The off-road world responded by mourning the loss of the old solid front axle 360 V-8-powered trucks. Sure the 2002 version was newer, but it was also underpowered and the suspension tuning was way behind what Ford and GM were offering. Four years later, all is forgiven.

131 0602 year 07 z

The Ram 1500 is back because it has evolved with a new frame, a coilover shock front suspension, a new TRX4 Off-Road package with a decent rear limited slip, and the revised 5.7L Hemi with the multiple displacement system (MDS) that automatically runs the engine as a four-cylinder when under light load to save fuel.

131 0602 year 08 z

The updated interior, front clip, and chassis make the truck feel fresh, but at the root of this vehicle is a platform that Dodge engineers now have millions, if not billions, of miles of experience with. All you engineers with your "clean sheet of paper designs" can keep them!

The 2006 Ram snuck up on all of our judges and started racking up points from the first time we floored the Hemi's drive-by-wire throttle.

Better suited to the open road than urban life, the Ram 1500 scored the worst in the city and the best on the highway in our judging books. The smooth-riding truck has the power to pass on any hill, and is equipped with a satellite radio and even a rear-seat DVD player to keep the kids happy. Still, it was our last choice for parallel parking, narrow streets, and backing out into traffic.

131 0602 year 09 z

We'll concede that a four-door fullsize pickup truck is not the hot vehicle configuration for most off-roading. And unlike the Dodge Power Wagon we tested last year, this truck had no locker, winch, or detachable sway bars. Somehow it still managed to go everywhere we took this year's group. Hillclimbs were never a problem and the Ram 1500 had just the right mix of float and control over high-speed dirt roads. In the rocks the Ram 1500 just pushed the smaller stuff out of its way and the only time we ever got it stuck was when it would high-center itself at the top of a hillclimb. We attribute the Ram 1500s success to the right wheelbase, weight distribution, and tires.

Likes
-Solid frame
-Most versatile cargo space
-No deficiencies

Dislikes
-Straps can fall off the tow hooks
-Visibility
-Brakeover angle

Verdict
Evolution improves the breed

Specifications  
General  
Manufacturer Dodge
Model Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab
Base Price $30,860
Price as Tested $42,095
Options as Tested Inferno Red Crystal Pearl Coat paint, Premium cloth 40/20/40 bench seat, front seat cushion storage, Customer Preferred Package 26T (TRX4 off road group, TRX4 badge, 17x8 aluminum wheels, Sirius satellite radio, tow hooks, antispin differential, foglamps, skidplates, P265/7017 OWL on/off-road tires), Light group, Trailer Tow Group, antilock four-wheel ABS, five-speed 545RFE automatic transmission, 3.92:1 axle ratio, 5.7L Hemi multidisplacement engine, rear power sliding window, security alarm, 34-gallon fuel tank, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, six-CD/map GPS display navigation radio, Uconnect hands-free communication, leather-wrapped steering wheel, LT275/70R17C OWL all-terrain tires, power adjustable pedals, under-rail box bedliner, rear seat video system
Engine  
Type OHV Hemi V-8
Displacement (liters/cubic inches) 5.7 / 345
Bore & Stroke (inches) 3.92 x 3.58
Compression Ratio 9.6:1
Induction Type Sequential, multiport fuel injection
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal.) 89 (recommended), 87 (acceptable) / 26
SAE Peak Horsepower 345 @ 5,400 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft) 375 @ 4,200 rpm
Transmission  
Type Five-speed automatic overdrive
Model 545RFE
Ratios  
First: 3.00:1
Second: 1.67:1 (upshift); 1.50:1 (kickdown)
Third: 1.00:1
Fourth: 0.75:1
Fifth: 0.67:1
Reverse: 3.00:1
Transfer Case  
Type Two-speed, part-time
Model NVG 243
Low-range Ratio 2.72:1
Axles  
Front Type IFS
Rear Type Chrysler 9 1/4 with limited slip
Hubs N/A
Ratio 3.92:1
Suspension  
Front Short/long arm with coilover shocks
Rear Live axle, semielliptical longitudinal leaf springs
Steering  
Type Power rack-and-pinion
Turns Lock-to-Lock/Ratio 3 / 14:1
Turning Radius (feet) 46
Wheels  
Size (inches) 17 x 8
Material Cast-aluminum
Tires  
Size LT275/70R17
Brand Goodyear Wrangler AT/S
Brakes  
Front 13.2-inch discs with ABS
Rear 13.8-inch discs with ABS
60-0 (feet) 180.52
Acceleration  
Standing 1/4-mile (seconds @ mph) 17.17 @ 81.11
Weight (pounds)  
Curb Weight 5,233
Advertised GVWR 6,650
Mileage  
EPA Estimate (city/hwy. mpg) 14 / 18
As Tested (mpg) 10.51
Dimensions (inches)  
Wheelbase 140.5
Overall Length 227
Overall Width 95.25
Overall Height 77
Front/Rear Track 68.25 / 67.5
Front/Rear Overhang 38.25 / 48
Min. Front Ground Clearance 9.75

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab
Hummer H3 SUV
Jeep Commander Limited
Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6
Suzuki Grand Vitara
The Scores and Previous Winners
The 2006 4x4 of the Year is ...

131 0602 year 10 z

Hummer H3 SUV
Let's face it, since General Motors bought the rights to sell the civilian Hummer H1, three or four of our readers have probably bought one. When GM started selling the Hummer H2 in 2003, a lot of you got excited about the idea of having a 3/4-ton SUV with big tires and a rear locker, but we still haven't seen many of them out on the trail. That may all change now that Hummer has released the trail-friendly sized H3.

131 0602 year 11 z

This is the first time GM has ever offered a true off-road vehicle that drives like something an enthusiast would actually build. Sure, it's based on the Chevy Colorado platform, but since it's a Hummer, GM engineers were able to actually justify building off-road capability into it.

The Hummer's 3.5L I-5 engine can be lugged way down, yet doesn't mind being revved when we wanted the 220 hp. However, in a full-time four-wheel-drive like this (that weighs 4,700 pounds) we really want V-8 horsepower and torque.

131 0602 year 13 z

From the driver seat the H3 felt a little cramped until we opened up the enormous sunroof. The power window switches are located too far back on the door panels, and the seats almost need to be adjusted with the doors open. While we're griping, few of the judges liked the H3's high beltline as it makes the windows small and visibility poor.

In town the steering had a heavy on-center feel, possibly related to the full-time four-wheel drive and the manual transmission combination. We didn't detect any wander, but the power-assist ratio could be a little quicker off-center.

131 0602 year 12 z

The H3's highway ride is OK, but it does wallow over some expansion joints as the long-travel suspension cycles. Again, the engine power isn't there to merge with V-8 SUVs, but at least on a cross-country road trip with the H3 you'd always be ready for a quick trail ride or some backroad exploring.

Once we got it out on the trail, the H3 proved it would be the off-road heavyweight in our test. Our only two off-road complaints are that the front traction control requires a lot of wheel speed to be effective and the front suspension unloads quickly going up steep hills, causing the front tires to lose traction. Otherwise, the H3 is built to handle any trail a new vehicle owner will ever take it on, and the 4:1 transfer case, exceptional rear-axle articulation, and 33-inch-tall tires make this little monster feel right at home crawling over obstacles. It only took GM 98 years to do it, but it's finally got an off-road vehicle to offer its customers.

Likes
-4:1 low range
-Surprisingly good brakes
-Large sunroof makes cabin feel bigger than it is

Dislikes
-Not enough engine power
-Visibility isn't great
-Traction control in front requires lots of wheel speed

Verdict
The greatest off-road vehicle General Motors has ever built

Specifications  
General  
Manufacturer Hummer
Model H3 SUV
Base Price $28,935
Price as Tested $35,520
Options as Tested Luxury Package (first-row leather seating surfaces, second-row leather appointed seating, driver and passenger 8-way power and lumbar seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob, and boot, AM/FM six-disc in-dash changer, seven-speaker Monsoon sound system with amplifier and rear subwoofer, lighted driver and passenger vanity mirrors, Homelink universal transmitter, oversized front and rear carpeted floor mats with matching trim, oversized cargo area carpeted floor mat), Off road Suspension Package (LT285/75R16 on/off road tires, 4:1 two-speed transfer case, electronically-controlled full-locking rear differential, specially tuned shocks), power sunroof, Chrome Appearance Package (chromed exterior door handles and exterior mirror caps), XM satellite radio, trailer hitch and wiring harness, universal garage door opener
Engine  
Type DOHC I-5

Displacement (liters/cubic inches)

3.5 / 211
Bore & Stroke (inches) 3.66 x 4.00
Compression Ratio 10.0:1
Induction Type Sequential, multiport fuel injection
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal.) 87 / 23
SAE Peak Horsepower 220 @ 5,600 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft) 225 @ 2,800 rpm
Transmission  
Type Five-speed manual overdrive
Model MA5
Ratios  
First: 3.75:1
Second: 2.20:1
Third: 1.37:1
Fourth: 1.00:1
Fifth: 0.73:1
Reverse: 3.67:1
Transfer Case  
Type Two-speed, full-time
Model Borg-Warner
Low-range Ratio 4.03:1
Axles  
Front Type IFS with AAM 7.63-inch center
Rear Type Solid AAM 8-inch with selectable locker
Hubs N/A
Ratio 4.56:1
Suspension  
Front Short/long arms with torsion bars
Rear Live axle, semielliptical longitudinal leaf springs
Steering  
Type Power rack-and-pinion
Turns Lock-to-Lock/Ratio 3.25 / 17.1:1
Turning Radius (feet) 37
Wheels  
Size (inches) 16 x 7.5
Material Cast-aluminum
Tires
Size LT285/75R16
Brand Bridgstone Dueler AT
Brakes  
Front 12.4-inch discs with ABS
Rear 12.28-inch discs with ABS
60-0 (feet) 143.93
Acceleration  
Standing 1/4-mile (seconds @ mph) 19.42 @ 72.08
Weight (pounds)  
Curb Weight 4,700
Advertised GVWR 5,850
Mileage  
EPA Estimate (city/hwy. mpg) 16 / 20
As Tested (mpg) 10.68
Dimensions (inches)  
Wheelbase 112
Overall Length 186.5
Overall Width 85
Overall Height 73.25
Front/Rear Track 65.25 / 65.75
Front/Rear Overhang 30.5 / 43
Min. Front Ground Clearance 10.125

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab
Hummer H3 SUV
Jeep Commander Limited
Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6
Suzuki Grand Vitara
The Scores and Previous Winners
The 2006 4x4 of the Year is ...

131 0602 year 14 z

Jeep Commander Limited
As judges we're suckers for a great power-to-weight ratio, especially when it's coupled with the traction of four-wheel drive. So it was only natural for us to love the Jeep Commander's 5.7L Hemi engine and rave about Jeep's Quadra Drive II traction system. It's just that even when paired together in the new Commander the two weren't enough to overcome the new body style's shortcomings.

131 0602 year 15 z

Though it's hard to see the engine under the plastic covers, all of our judges raved about the Hemi's power. About the only way you could make it feel stronger would be with 3.92 axle gears.

With the best steering in the test, the Commander scored major points in around-town driving, even though it is a tad big. From the cockpit the ride is ultra plush. A few judges thought it might be too cushy. To a certain extent the Commander does wallow on the interstate, but we still awarded it top honors for its smooth, fast, and quiet ability to eat up asphalt.

131 0602 year 16 z

In the dirt our judges quickly found out the Commander design leaves off-road domination to the Grand Cherokee that's built on the same platform. During sand and high-speed dirt-road maneuvers the engine promptly overwhelmed the suspension till it was difficult to keep the Jeep pointed where we wanted it to go. The rear suspension does not have enough shock damping so the Commander tends to kick over the rough sand ruts until the rear suspension bottoms out. And for the first time this year all of our judges noticed the vehicle stability programming. Comments ranged from "delete that crap!" to "it saved me more than I'd care to admit."

131 0602 year 17 z

When it comes to crawling, the Commander still proves its Jeep roots run deep. It clearly had the best traction control of the group, but the system had to make do with the second worst ground clearance in the test. To keep the Jeep alive, we crept over some obstacles that everything else (except the Grand Vitara) just mauled over. As careful as we were, we still banged up the aluminum rear driveshaft to the point we had to replace it ($425) and we killed both passenger-side tires in the first two days of testing.

We'll leave the final judging of the Commander's exterior styling to you, but it left our judges cold. We think we know where the design studio was going - but it didn't get there! To us it just doesn't look upscale. We certainly don't see it becoming the classic the old Grand Wagoneer developed into. And just for the record, those aren't round headlights!

Likes
-Best interior to get stuck in
-Incredible traction control system
-Amazing hillclimber

Dislikes
-Vehicle feels fragile; each bump hurts the wallet
-Second worst ground clearance of test
-Lousy shocks

Verdict
Only kids who don't know any better will ride in the third-row seat

Specifications  
General  
Manufacturer Jeep
Model Commander Limited
Base Price $38,205
Price as Tested $43,310
Options as Tested Inferno Red Crystal Pearl Coat paint, Customer Preferred Package 25H (Trailer Tow Group IV), Off Road Group II (skidplate group, tow hooks), saddle-brown seats, 5.7L Hemi multi-displacement engine, Quadra Drive 4WD system, electronic limited slips front and rear, engine block heater, six-CD/map GPS display navigation radio, 17x7.5 aluminum wheels
Engine  
Type OHV Hemi V-8
Displacement (liters/cubic inches) 5.7 / 345
Bore & Stroke (inches) 3.92 x 3.58
Compression Ratio 9.6:1
Induction Type Sequential, multiport fuel injection
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal.) 89(recommended), 87 (acceptable) / 22
SAE Peak Horsepower 330 @ 5,000 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft) 375 @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission  
Type Five-speed automatic overdrive
Model 545RFE
Ratios  
First: 3.00:1
Second: 1.67:1 (upshift); 1.50:1 (kickdown)
Third: 1.00:1
Fourth: 0.75:1
Fifth: 0.67:1
Reverse: 3.00:1
Transfer Case  
Type Two-speed, full time
Model NVG 245
Low-range Ratio 2.72:1
Axles  
Front Type IFS AAM 790 with electronic limited slip/locker
Rear Type AAM 830 with electronic limited slip/locker
Hubs N/A
Ratio 3.73:1
Suspension  
Front Short/long arm with coil springs
Rear Live axle, four-link with track bar and coil springs
Steering  
Type Power rack-and-pinion
Turns Lock-to-Lock/Ratio 3.125 / 17.41:1 to 15.45:1 at full lock
Turning Radius (feet) 36.7
Wheels  
Size (inches) 17 x 7.5
Material Cast-aluminum
Tires  
Size P245/65R17
Brand Goodyear Fortera HL
Brakes  
Front 12.9-inch discs with ABS
Rear 12.6-inch discs with ABS
60-0 (feet) 152.96
Acceleration  
Standing 1/4-mile (seconds @ mph) 16.82 @ 83.10
Weight (pounds)  
Curb Weight 5,169
Advertised GVWR 6,400
Mileage  
EPA Estimate (city/hwy. mpg) 15 / 19
As Tested (mpg) 11.21
Dimensions (inches)  
Wheelbase 109.5
Overall Length 188.5
Overall Width 89
Overall Height 74.5
Front/Rear Track 62.875 / 62.625
Front/Rear Overhang 33.5 / 44.75
Min. Front Ground Clearance 7.5

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab
Hummer H3 SUV
Jeep Commander Limited
Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6
Suzuki Grand Vitara
The Scores and Previous Winners
The 2006 4x4 of the Year is ...

131 0602 year 18 z

Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6
The engineering team that developed this second-generation Xterra clearly knew what they were after, and to us their recipe seems just about perfect. Right off the bat we knew the 2006 Xterra had power - lots of power! The Nissan 4.0L V-6 puts the old Xterra's 3.3L supercharged engine to shame, and the five-speed automatic transmission backs it up with all the right ratios to make the Xterra feel torquey at any speed. Through our city test loop the Xterra proved easy to navigate with point-and-throttle driving that let us pass problem drivers and dismantle traffic jams with ease. Thanks to the Xterra's stance and seating position, the Nissan still has excellent visibility (on- and off-road) even though the sheetmetal has gotten a little "tubby" in the rear. On the open road the Xterra held its own with the other 4x4s in our test and gave a comfortable highway ride, plenty of room for gear, and a stereo that lets you listen to the radio with the windows down.

131 0602 year 20 z

There's not a lot to criticize on this vehicle, but none of our judges were particularly happy with the Xterra's steering. We felt it was too heavy, yet had a vague on-center feel. The Xterra always seemed to wander on the pavement. But somehow the steering ratio was also too slow, making the Xterra more of a handful to maneuver on the trail than the larger-wheelbase H3.

131 0602 year 21 z

Still, in our off-road testing the Xterra consistently rose to the top of the pack. Big tires, Bilstein shocks, lots of gearing choices, and the rear electric locker practically guaranteed that it would - no matter what the terrain. It ranked best in the sand, second in the rocks, and third on the high-speed dirt and gravel roads. The independent front suspension provided great ground clearance (much better than the Commander and Grand Vitara) and it did well controlling the front of the Xterra. The rear suspension was marked down, however, because it had a tendency to bounce in rocks and bottom-out over larger ripples in the sand dunes. Perhaps some revised shock dampening or larger rear bumpstops are in order.

131 0602 year 19 z

We're slowly (and reluctantly!) getting used to ABS-based traction control on new 4x4s. We'll concede that these systems are getting better, and clearly the Nissan team has done a better job calibrating theirs than their Hummer and Suzuki competition.

Likes
-Top-of-the-line off-road components
-Large and rugged cargo area
-Excellent power-to-weight ratio

Dislikes
-No rear trailer hitch or tow hooks
-Can't check tranny fluid. Dipstick is bolted down
-Interior is rugged but plain

Verdict
Best bang for the off-road buck by far

Specifications  
General  
Manufacturer Nissan
Model Xterra Off-Road V-6
Base Price $26,700
Price as Tested $28,980
Options as Tested Rockford-Fosgate Audio Package (380-watts, six-CD in-dash changer, nine speakers including subwoofer, steering wheel audio controls, prewired for satellite radio), Supplemental Airbag Package, floor mats
Engine  
Type DOHC 24-valve V-6
Displacement (liters/cubic inches) 4.0 / 241
Bore & Stroke (inches) 3.76 x 3.62
Compression Ratio 9.7:1
Induction Type Sequential, multiport fuel injection
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal.) 87 / 21.1
SAE Peak Horsepower 265 @ 5,600 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft) 284 @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission  
Type Five-speed automatic overdrive
Model Nissan
Ratios  
First: 3.84:1
Second: 2.35:1
Third: 1.53:1
Fourth: 1.00:1
Fifth: 0.84:1
Reverse: 2.76:1
Transfer Case  
Type Two-speed, part time
Model Nissan
Low-range Ratio 2.63:1
Axles  
Front Type IFS
Rear Type Solid axle with electronic locker
Ratio 3.73:1
Suspension  
Front IFS with upper and lower A-arms and coilover shocks
Rear Live axle, semielliptical longitudinal leaf springs
Steering  
Type Power rack-and-pinion
Turns Lock-to-Lock/Ratio 3.5 / 20.4:1
Turning Radius (feet) 37.25
Wheels  
Size (inches) 16 x 7
Material Cast-aluminum
Tires  
Size P265/75R16
Brand BF Goodrich Rugged Trail
Brakes  
Front 11.65-inch discs with ABS
Rear 11.25-inch discs with ABS
60-0 (feet) 127.8
Acceleration  
Standing 1/4-mile (seconds @ mph) 16.73 @ 84.25
Weight (pounds)  
Curb Weight 4,402
Advertised GVWR 5,400
Mileage  
EPA Estimate (city/hwy. mpg) 16 / 21
As Tested (mpg) 13.80
Dimensions (inches)  
Wheelbase 106.5
Overall Length 177.5
Overall Width 84
Overall Height 75.5
Front/Rear Track 60.75 / 62.5
Front/Rear Overhang 29.5 / 42
Min. Front Ground Clearance 8.75

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab
Hummer H3 SUV
Jeep Commander Limited
Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6
Suzuki Grand Vitara
The Scores and Previous Winners
The 2006 4x4 of the Year is ...

131 0602 year 22 z

Suzuki Grand Vitara
Our competition is always tough on the least expensive entry in the test. On one hand our judges were amazed at what Suzuki gives you in a $25,000 Grand Vitara, but on the other hand we always knew which vehicle was going to be the underdog in each category.

131 0602 year 23 z

Though mechanically impressive, the small 2.7L V-6 needs at least another liter of displacement or a turbocharger to compete at this level. Power-to-weight ratio is still more important in a 4x4 than fuel economy. The five-speed automatic transmission was a nice touch, but our judges complained about not being able to select Second gear with the shifter. Realistically this vehicle should come standard with a manual transmission.

131 0602 year 24 z

Sitting in the Grand Vitara the interior feels much higher-end than the sticker price would suggest. The dash is very well laid out and would look at home in an SUV costing thousands more. Nissan and Hummer could learn some things here. The most remarkable feature was the proximity key that allows the driver to unlock and start the Grand Vitara without taking the key fob out of their pocket. Not all of the judges were comfortable with it, but it was neat.

Dynamically the Grand Vitara was at its best during our drive out of the city. The steering has a moderate feel, visibility is second only to a motorcycle, and the cabin is quiet as long as the pavement is smooth. In the heart of Los Angeles the Grand Vitara's compact size easily made it the parking lot champ of the test.

However, rough roads and potholes disrupt the suspension more than we think they should on a four-wheel independent suspension vehicle, and comments like "harshest ride of the group" quickly followed. So it should come as no surprise when the Suzuki ended up being our judge's last choice to take on a cross-country road trip.

131 0602 year 25 z

Thanks to some decent Yokohama tires the Grand Vitara was OK on most dirt roads. The ABS-based traction control system that Suzuki spec'd took the Grand Vitara up hills and over moguls that we'd never guess it could. Unfortunately, in the sand that same system literally shuts the truck down as it tries to control wheel spin.

In the future we'd have to think twice before we would take a Grand Vitara in the rough stuff again. The chassis is simply not built for climbing over rocks. There's not a single skidplate to speak of, and now the crossmembers, exhaust, and evaporative-emission system hoses all show signs of being relocated by Mother Earth.

Likes
-Exterior styling has a modern look
-Even as the runt of the litter it has capability
-Very nimble steering

Dislikes
-Anemic engine power
-Worst ground clearance of the test
-Terrible in the sand

Verdict
It's a car with a transfer case

Specifications  
General  
Manufacturer Suzuki
Model Grand Vitara
Base Price $24,399
Price as Tested $24,994
Options as Tested None
Engine  
Type DOHC 24-valve V-6
Displacement (liters/cubic inches) 2.7 / 167
Bore & Stroke (inches) 3.46 x 2.95
Compression Ratio 9.5:1
Induction Type Sequential, multiport fuel injection
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal.) 87 / 17.4
SAE Peak Horsepower 185 @ 6,000 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft) 184 @ 4,500 rpm
Transmission  
Type Five-speed automatic overdrive
Model Suzuki
Ratios  
First: 3.52:1
Second: 2.04:1
Third: 1.40:1
Fourth: 1.00:1
Fifth: 0.72:1
Reverse: 3.22:1
Transfer Case  
Type Two-speed, part time
Model Suzuki
Low-range Ratio 1.97:1
Axles  
Front Type IFS
Rear Type IRS
Hubs N/A
Ratio 4.30:1
Suspension  
Front Independent MacPherson strut with coil springs
Rear Independent multilink with coil springs
Steering  
Type Power rack-and-pinion
Turns Lock-to-Lock/Ratio 2.75 / N/A
Turning Radius (feet) 36
Wheels  
Size (inches) 17 x 6.5
Material Cast-aluminum
Tires  
Size P225/65R17
Brand Yokohama Geolander
Brakes  
Front 11.42-inch discs with ABS
Rear 10-inch drums with ABS
60-0 (feet) 149.19
Acceleration  
Standing 1/4-mile (seconds @ mph) 18.28 @ 77.27
Weight (pounds)  
Curb Weight 3,682
Advertised GVWR 4,630
Mileage  
EPA Estimate (city/hwy. mpg) 19 / 23
As Tested (mpg) 15.11
Dimensions (inches)  
Wheelbase 104
Overall Length 174
Overall Width 82.75
Overall Height 66.5
Front/Rear Track 60.625 / 61.75
Front/Rear Overhang 29 / 441
Min. Front Ground Clearance 7.5

Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab
Hummer H3 SUV
Jeep Commander Limited
Nissan Xterra Off-Road V-6
Suzuki Grand Vitara
The Scores and Previous Winners
The 2006 4x4 of the Year is ...

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TEST STRUCTURE  
Category Ranked Highest
   
Ride & Drive (30% of total points)  
Urban Xterra
Highway Ram 1500
High Speed Dirt & Gravel Ram 1500
Sand Xterra
Rockcrawling H3
Hillclimbing Ram 1500
Braking Quality Ram 1500, H3, Xterra (three-way tie)
Overall Xterra
   
Empirical (25% of total points)  
Torque/Weight Ratio Commander
1/4-mile Acceleration Xterra
60-0 Braking Xterra
Load-carrying Capacity Ram 1500
Miles Per Gallon Grand Vitara
Price As Tested Grand Vitara
Overall Xterra
   
Mechanical (25% of total points)  
Engine's Available Power Commander
Transmission H3
4WD/Low-range Engage Ram 1500
Steering H3
Fit and Finish Ram 1500
Drivetrain Performance Xterra
Overall Ram 1500
   
Interior (10% of total points)  
Ergonomics Commander
Appearance, Fit and Finish Ram 1500
Appointments Commander
Perceived Noise Level Ram 1500
Overall Commander
   
Exterior (10% of total points)  
Body Styling H3
Cargo Ram 1500
Four-wheeling Attributes H3
Fit and Finish Ram 1500
Overall Ram 1500

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131 0602 year 37 z

Previous 4x4 of the year winners
2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee
2004 Volkswagen Touareg V-8
2003 Lexus GX 470
2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee (4.7 HO V-8)
2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee (five-speed auto transmission)
2000 Toyota Tundra
1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee (4.7 V-8 Limited)
1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee (5.9 V-8 Limited)
1997 Jeep Wrangler Sport
1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee (with center diff lock)
1995 Dodge Ram (2500 V-10 longbed Club Cab)
1994 Dodge Ram (1500 V-8 shortbed regular cab)
1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee1992 Chevrolet Blazer (fullsize)
1991 Dodge Dakota
1990 Nissan Pathfinder (four-door)
1989 Toyota pickup
1988 Jeep Cherokee (4.0 engine)
1987 Nissan Pathfinder (two-door)
1986 Ford Ranger
1985 Isuzu Trooper II
1984 Jeep Cherokee (2.8 engine)
1983 Chevrolet S-10 Blazer

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131 0602 year 43 z
131 0602 year 39 z

WINNER
Dodge Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab
We know a lot of you were expecting to find a very different Chrysler product on this page. Surprise! This year versatility and utility trumped everything. Yes, the vehicles with selectable lockers, antilock-brake-based traction control, and all-wheel drive were very impressive. And we fully expected one of the heavyweights to come home with the award. But in the end none of them offered the overall package and adaptability that Dodge gave us with this four-door shortbed Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab pickup.

131 0602 year 41 z

It started with the 5.7L Hemi's 345 hp and five-speed 545RFE automatic transmission that let us power out of any situation. Dodge engineers then went on to add unique engine and transmission calibrations (100 rpm higher idle speed, unique shift points, and a desensitized throttle pedal) that are tuned for off-road use in low-range. For 2006 the Ram's Hemi benefits from the car Hemi's modern cylinder deactivation system (MDS) that's supposed to fuel by running the engine as a four-cylinder under light load. Either our judges never had the truck under light load, or the system works transparently. We're guessing the former more than the latter because we only managed to get 10 1/2 mpg out of our test Ram. Still, we appreciate the attempt.

131 0602 year 40 z

That world-class drivetrain then found a home in Dodge's all-new boxed frame chassis that feels solid everywhere. Our judges appreciated the new coilover-shock front suspension that gives controlled movement through every inch of front suspension travel. And the rear leaf-spring setup has evolved to give a great ride with very little wheelhop for an unloaded pickup truck. Bottom line: The new suspension literally puts the old torsion-bar truck to shame.The word from Dodge was this new Ram 1500 SLT Quad Cab was all about refinement. We'll buy that 'cause while we had the new Dodge on the lift we noticed a lot of new sound- and vibration-canceling hardware. Dodge even fixed our biggest pet peeve on these trucks, the front doors no longer tear the weather-stripping when you open and close them.

131 0602 year 42 z

We'd love to tell you that the TRX4 Off Road package our test truck had made the Dodge an off-road animal. The truth is the new limited-slip rear axle, red shocks, and LT275/70R17 Goodyear tires only added to what at its core is a very capable platform. What we'd really like to see is a limited slip in the front, and the Power Wagon's electric locker in the rear. How about it Dodge? Want to try for a repeat next year?

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