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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
-Most versatile cargo space
-Straps can fall off the tow hooks
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