And the winner is ... not who you'd think!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.