The purpose of our 39-year-old Four Wheeler of the Year competition is to test and rate all-new or substantially-revised sport utility vehicles. The goal of this test is to assist you in your SUV buying decision, or at the very least, keep you up to speed on what's new in the SUV world and how that newness works. To be eligible, each vehicle must also have a two-speed transfer case, a production run of at least 1,500 vehicles available in the U.S., and be on sale by January 15, 2013.
To complete the task of intricately testing these vehicles we spend a week with them on a wide variety of terrain. For 2013, two vehicles qualified for Four Wheeler of the Year (FWOTY) and they were both Jeep products: the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and the Wrangler Unlimited Moab. We began the test by driving them from our El Segundo, California, headquarters to Off Road Evolution (ORE) in Fullerton, California. There we completed ramp travel index (RTI) testing on ORE's 30-degree ramp. Leaving ORE, we traveled to the abandoned runways at the former El Toro Marine Base in Orange County, California, for acceleration and brake testing. We finished our first day with road testing on interstate and twisty paved mountain roads as we traveled to our base of operations in Palm Desert, California. We spent the rest of the week testing the vehicles in places like the remote Soggy Dry Lake area near Lucerne, California. Characteristic of the test, we covered a wide range of terrain during this year's testing. In addition to highway and track testing the list included steep hillclimbs and descents, rocky trails, deep sand, sandy washes, high-mountain trails, deep silt, and dry lakebeds. Temperatures varied, which gave us the opportunity to test the vehicles air conditioning and heating output as well as related controls. We drove at night, to experience interior and exterior lighting, both on- and off-road. We also ran into some rain, which gave us the opportunity to test the vehicles in the wet, both on- and off-road. In the end, we put approximately 1,000 miles on each vehicle. During the test, our five judges were furiously taking notes in the official judging books, and they were scoring each vehicle using our extensive testing criteria that included five weighted categories (more on that later).
So what's new with these rigs? What attributes did they have that worked well? What needs improvement? Which vehicle is the 2013 Four Wheeler of the Year?
The answers to these questions are on the following pages.
2nd Place Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk
First shown as a concept at the 2012 Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, the Trailhawk takes the Grand Cherokee (which was all-new for 2011) to an even more off-road-friendly level with the addition of items including steel rock rails and more aggressive 30.5-inch-diameter Goodyear Wrangler SilentArmor all-terrain tires. The Trailhawk also has a number of exterior styling features that are designed to set it apart from other Grand Cherokee models visually, including black headlamp surrounds, a black hood decal with color-keyed pinstripe, a slew of Mineral Gray-painted components, red towhooks, a special Trailhawk badge on the liftgate, and unique 18-inch Mineral Gray wheels. The interior sports special red accent stitching, black leather seating with Trailhawk embroidery, dark silver brushed accents, and slush mats. Our Trailhawk tester included the 5.7L Hemi V-8 engine (Trailhawk is also available with the Pentastar 3.6L V-6), Quadra-Lift air suspension, Quadra-Drive II with rear electronic limited-slip differential (Quadra-Trac II is used if Trailhawk is equipped with the V-6 engine), and Selec-Terrain traction control system. New to the platform since it won our 2011 FWOTY competition is a 65RFE six-speed automatic transmission.
Ramp and track
During RTI testing we drove the Trailhawk up the 30-degree ramp in Normal, Off-Road 1, and Off-Road 2 modes. The SUVs best performance was in Off-Road 1 mode (1.3 inches higher than normal ride height), where it traveled a respectable 35 inches up the ramp. This edged out the 33.5-inch measurement it climbed in Normal and Off-Road 2 (2.3 inches higher than normal ride height) modes. At the track, the fastest 0-60 mph time we recorded was 9.3 seconds. The Trailhawk's best quarter-mile run was 17 seconds with a speed of 83.7 mph. Both the 0-60 mph and quarter-mile times were puzzling to us because the Hemi-powered Grand we tested in 2011 was 1.3 seconds faster 0-60 mph and 0.7 seconds faster in the quarter-mile with a 4.5 mph faster trap speed. Obviously, the more aggressive all-terrain tires (the previous tester was fitted with street-oriented tires) would account for some of that decrease. The remainder could be attributed to the fact that our tester only had 450 miles on the odometer and the engine and transmission were not "broken in." During brake testing from 60-0 mph, the binders reigned in the Trailhawk in a decent distance of 142.7 feet with little noticeable intrusive ABS input.
For the class of SUV I think they just about nailed it.
The sexy Trailhawk stitching and embroidery added to the interiors visual appeal and its comfortable leather seats, easy to manipulate switches, and loads of cool technology made it a place most judges wanted to be. One tester said, "Can I live in here?" That same judge noted the interior "feels rich," and he said that there was plenty of seat adjustment for his 6-foot, 2-inch frame, though he questioned the curious lack of seat memory switches. The cargo area also impressed our judges with its protective mat, sturdy tie-downs, and easy-to-open liftgate. We also liked that the spare tire was conveniently located inside the vehicle and not under. Our testers were split on cabin quietness, with some noting that they were impressed by its sealing, while others complained that they expected it to be quieter at speed. Cabin technology impressed even the most tech-shy member of our staff. The Uconnect 430N head unit with Garmin navigation offered up great sound and a staggering number of functions. These features included the ability to sync a personal device via cable or Bluetooth as well as the ability to upload your Garmin waypoints from your personal GPS and navigate to them in the Trailhawk.
Jeep hit the mark when it came to the Trailhawk's exterior treatment. One tester wrote, "Nailed it! Aggressive styling without being gaudy." Even the red tow hooks (open and easy to use) blend nicely with the color scheme. Judges also raved about the rock rails, which made trail-crawling less of a worrisome experience knowing that the Trailhawk's rockers were protected. We also like that Jeep designed the Grand Cherokee with a removable front air dam and recessed tailpipes to help create the impressive approach angle of 34.3 degrees and departure angle of 29.3 degrees (with the suspension in Off-Road 2 mode).
Whether it was flat highway or tricky twisties, all judges agreed that the IFS/IRS Trailhawk is a fine handling machine. One tester said that it was "Very point-and-shoot." Another noted that it was "More like a luxury car on the highway than a truck. Very quiet, smooth, and sporty." Another said it "Feels stable and secure when cornering." All agreed that this is a vehicle you can settle into, drive all day, and even have fun with on curvy roads. With Select-Terrain set to Sport mode it reacted predictably and confidently as we pushed it through twisting mountain roads. With Select-Terrain in Auto mode, the air suspension softened and allowed the rig to float down the highway.
Jeep has outfitted the Grand Cherokee with a number of electronic gizmos in an effort to make wheeling point-and-shoot. Hill Descent Control (HDC) and Select-Terrain are the two biggies and they work in conjunction with Quadra-Drive II's rear electronic limited-slip differential (ELSD) and brake traction control (BTC) for the frontend (in lieu of a limited-slip or locking front differential). We'd prefer the ELSD from the previous generation Grand Cherokee, but the system works well, though it doesn't react as quickly as we'd like. Nonetheless, even with a tire or two in the air the system put power to the all-terrain tires and it kept the rig moving. The adjustable air suspension is a functional, handy feature, offering the ability to alter the ride height for the type of trail. Off-Road 2 mode offered the highest ride height (2.3 inches over normal), which increased ground clearance, approach angle, departure angle, and rampover angle. This was most welcome, but came at the expense of suspension downtravel. This led to a "thud" that was transferred through the chassis and into the cabin when the suspension topped out. Every judge noted this harmless but annoying quality and we feel it tarnishes what is otherwise a very polished vehicle. One judge wrote "I got to the point that I would sacrifice ground clearance by lowering the suspension to keep it from topping out and clunking like a 30-year-old carnival ride." Also in regard to the air suspension, we found that when driven over rough terrain at speed for long periods of time requiring numerous automatic suspension adjustments, the air compressor would heat up and the computer would temporarily shut down the compressor until it reached a cooler temperature. The Trailhawk was a favorite in the sand ("Sand King," one judge christened it), on rocky trails ("No complaints," one tester noted), and on dirt roads and in washes ("Magic," said one judge).
The Trailhawk takes the very capable Grand Cherokee to a new level with some simple off-road-centric upgrades and a special look both inside and out. In the Empirical segment of testing it outscored the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Moab in payload and towing as well as maximum ground clearance, departure angle, and breakover angle. The Trailhawk is perfect for those who want a luxury SUV that excels off-road.
What's hot: Trail-ready tires, rocker protection, sexy interior, bold exterior
What's not: Air suspension noise at top-out, no front ELSD
Our take: A luxurious SUV that knows how to wheel
"Maybe lockers and coilovers could make it better?"
"Wonderful engine, sound, and power. Always brings a smile when I stab the throttle."
"Solid. I never felt like I could over-drive it."
"Great looking rig. Screams prestige and aggressiveness."
Winner: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Moab
Based on the premium Sahara model, the Moab comes equipped with a Dana 30 front axle, Dana 44 rear axle, standard Trac-Loc differential (the Tru-Lok electric locker is optional), Command-Trac transfer case, and 31.5-inch Goodyear Wrangler SilentArmor tires. Exterior features include black-painted Rubicon aluminum wheels (measuring a conservative 17-inch diameter), premium winch-capable front bumper with foglights, premium rear bumper, Power-Dome hood with Moab decals, standard premium soft top, and black fender flares, fuel filler door, and tail lamp guards. The interior sports a black dash, black leather-wrapped steering wheel, black leather seats, new electrochromatic rearview mirror with LED interior lamps, premium individual tire pressure monitoring and Electronic Vehicle Information Center, the Connectivity Group, Alpine seven-speaker audio, slush mats, and much more. Our tester was outfitted with several options including 3.73 axle gears (replacing the standard 3.21 axle gears), rear Tru-Lok electric locking differential, body-color three-piece hardtop, and Uconnect 430N head unit with SiriusXM satellite radio and GPS navigation. Our tester's Pentastar 3.6L V-6 was bolted to the NSG370 six-speed manual transmission. Also new to the Wrangler since it competed in our 2012 FWOTY competition is re-contoured front and rear seats.
Ramp and track
The Moab crawled 45 inches up ORE's 30-degree RTI ramp. At the track, the Pentastar V-6/six-speed manual combination threw down a best 0-60 mph time of 8.5 seconds. For reference, that's a blazing 4.58 seconds faster than the 3.8L V-6/four-speed automatic-equipped '07 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon we tested at that year's FWOTY test. In the quarter-mile, the Moab turned a best 16.7-second run at 82.7 mph. Braking was also impressive, with a best 60-0 mph stop of 142.5 feet, which is a tad less than the Trailhawk and on par with the two-door Wrangler Rubicon we tested in 2007. That number is also 4.24 feet shorter than the measurement we got from the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon at last year's FWOTY test. We have to surmise that the new-for-'13 11.9 x 1.1-inch rear brake rotors (replacing the 12.44 x 0.47-inch rear brake rotors) were partially responsible for the decrease in stopping distance.
The Moab traversed all of the sand we threw at it, and it threw plenty back.
The inside of our Moab was a study in contrasts. On the one hand there were luxurious leather seats, a 6.5-inch touchscreen display, and a quality feel to the switchgear. On the other hand, there were thick Mopar slush mats at our feet and a Moab logo staring at us from the passenger-side grab handle. Is this Jeep ready for the country club or the trail? That question haunted one of the judges, causing him to note, "The inside is getting almost too nice for a Wrangler." In the end we all agreed that the contrast is one we can live with because none of the "luxury" items detracts from the Wranglers functionality. Another thing we can live with is the recontoured, new-for-'13 seats, which have larger bolsters. The judges were in agreement that the new seats, front and rear, are a vast improvement over the previous seats. Other interior features that impressed us was the sound quality of the audio system (which does a good job of drowning out wind noise at highway speed), the strong heat and air conditioning output, and the easy operation of the swing-open tailgate and lift glass. Complaints included a rubbery-feeling shifter that vacillated wildly on rough roads and a poorly placed rear locker button.
We dig the two-color approach to the Moab. Ours was Gecko Pearl Coat and black, and the simple, chrome-free look works for us and we think that Moab buyers will be happy that their new rig will stand out from the other Wrangler models visually. The judges were split on the design and color of the new Rubicon aluminum wheels. One judge wrote, "Nice five-spoke wheels, too bad they are black." Another said, "I prefer more traditional wheels, but they look good and modernize the overall look of the Jeep." The busy Power-Dome hood received mixed reviews as well. Unanimous praise was heaped on the new winch-ready front bumper, not only for its winch-readiness, but also for its ruggedness. One tester noted that it's a "bumper that means business." We think it's awesome.
The overall ride quality of the coil-sprung Moab was quite good, though "darty" was the term often used to describe the Moab's directional stability and handling. Judges were impressed with the power of the 3.6L V-6, though lead-footed drivers longed for more power than the engine could give in the mountains and one commented that he "wished for more bottom end." Overall, the Moab is a very street-capable machine, which says a lot considering that first and foremost it's designed to be one of the best factory off-road machines built. And speaking of off-road…
The Moab dominated almost all of our off-road testing. It "effortlessly" conquered our nasty hill climb, was "point-and-shoot" on the rocks, and "impressive" on washboard terrain and whoops. "Great shock valving and bumpstops," wrote one judge after blasting over whoops. "Feels very stable in the rocks. It's no Rubicon, but it's pretty close," wrote another. And speaking of the Rubicon model, testers were in agreement that the Moab's NV241 transfer case with its 2.72 low-range gearing was more suited to a variety of terrain than the Rubicon's 4:1 gear ratio T-case, and they were pleased that the Moab was fitted with the higher ratio T-case. The only terrain that seemed to challenge the Moab was deep sand, which caused some front axlehop and challenged the engine. Nonetheless, with the T-case in 4-Lo and the transmission in Third or Fourth gear the engine rpm's were in their happy place. The Moab traversed all of the sand we threw at it, and it threw plenty back. Strong rocker protection, lots of skidplating, and a lever-actuated T-case added to the Moab's functionality and appeal. One area we'd like to see addressed are the closed towhooks, because using them requires packing along a shackle. Not a big deal, but not everyone packs a shackle (even though they should).
In the end, the Moab dominated the Trail Performance category of scoring, which helped give it the win over the very capable Trailhawk. If you're looking for a vehicle you can comfortably commute in all week and then wheel on the weekend, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Moab would serve you well. Strong power, an array of comfort features, and good fuel mileage make it easy to drive daily. The flexible suspension, grippy tires, and locking rear diff help make it easy to wheel. It's a well-rounded machine with incredible off-road capabilities, and it's our 2013 Four Wheeler of the Year.
What's hot: Electric rear locker, solid axles, dialed-in suspension, fuel mileage
What's not: Closed tow hooks, darty on-road
Our take: The 2013 Four Wheeler of the Year
"I do wish the Moab had an electronic sway bar disconnect."
"This is the Wrangler I would buy."
"Great clutch pedal feel and engagement."
"Surprisingly good fuel economy considering the shape and weight."
"Great daily driver/weekend wheeling machine."
"Fun to drive, with great control and visibility."
How We Score 'Em
Our scoring procedure utilizes five weighted categories. Here's the breakdown: 30% Trail Performance (how a vehicle performs in specific wheeling environments and off-road-centric features like 4WD system operation, tires, traction aids, etc.), 25% Empirical (RTI, acceleration, braking, price, etc.), 20% On Pavement (handling, ride quality, steering feel, etc.) 15% Interior (instrumentation, ingress and egress, seat comfort, storage, etc), and 10% Exterior (appearance, stance, body protection, etc).
Ken Brubaker, Senior Editor
Moab, please. I'm down with the package content of this Wrangler. The electric rear locker, 2.72:1 T-case, 3.73:1 axle ratio, and Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tires are perfect for the type of trail-wheeling I love to do (old mining roads in Colorado). I dig the winch-ready front bumper and the fact that the exterior is unique, yet not gaudy (though I'd insist on a less hyperactive color). I think the Trailhawk is cool, but the Moab is less expensive, simpler in regards to suspension and axles, and it gets better fuel mileage.
John Cappa, Editor
I can appreciate the capabilities of both the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Moab. In most cases the Wrangler would be a better vehicle off-road and the Grand better on-road, but ultimately the Grand would serve me better. I like that it has a higher tow capacity, more comfortable seating for four (or five) and it's just less of a me-too vehicle in my mind. It's a classy 4x4 with aggressive off-road-worthy features and styling.
Jason Gonderman, Web Editor
Both of the competitors this year are excellent and I would be honored to have either in my driveway. However, for the type of off-roading and trails that I like to do, I would have to choose the Jeep Wrangler Moab. It performs great in all types of wheeling, and it is darn comfortable and even fun to drive daily.
Ali Mansour, Technical Editor
This is a tough question. If I had to keep the vehicle stock, the Moab Wrangler is the better all-around vehicle for me. If I could modify the rig, the Grand is what I would want. I already own a modified Jeep Wrangler, and having another doesn't make too much sense to me. The power and feel of the Grand in the sport setting makes for a great handling SUV and something I wouldn't mind heading to the mountains in. Admittedly, it would not be my primary wheeler, but that's not to say that I wouldn't take it off-road. I like the potential of the fully independent suspension and would love to see what it would take to ditch the air-springs for a set of coilovers and maybe put on some long-travel A-arms. A set of lockers would be nice too. Sure, the Wrangler is better off-road in many ways, but I like the build potential of the Grand. If I was stranded on a desert island, I'd choose the Wrangler for its robustness and out-of-the-box off-road prowess, but given I am safe here on the mainland, I would enjoy tinkering with the wild bird that is the Trailhawk.
Steve VonSeggern, Publisher
I'd take the Wrangler Moab home. Not that there's anything wrong with the WK2 Grand Cherokee, or this Trailhawk derivative, but it's just another high-end car-based SUV. Yes, the Grand Cherokee is possibly the most dirt-capable of what's available, but one could be driving one of its M or G class sister ships from M-B or one of the VW-spawned Touareg/Cayenne/Q7 cousins and get mostly the same experience. In fact, that high-quality European feel of the WK2 may be its best asset. Well, except the Hemi, of course, which is wonderfully happy in this car in the way it's not so much powerful as effortless. Not to mention the beautiful sounds the engine makes, unlike so many harsh mechanical-noise-emitting overhead cam motors that come in the alternatives. The Wrangler, however, is in such a class by itself that it stands out as something clearly different and iconic, and it's hard to understand why it sells so well and yet has no competition. Further, it's wonderful to see Chrysler now investing in the product with improvements every year, because they could easily rest on their laurels and still sell every JK they can crank out of Toledo.
Specifications As Tested
||Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk
||Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Moab Edition
|Price as tested
|Options as tested
||Customer Preferred Package 24C ($10,800), Laredo E Group ($1,700), 5.7L V-8 VVT engine with Fuel Saver Technology($2,195); Uconnect 430N CD/DVD/MP3/HDD/NAV Garmin navigation system ($495), destination charge ($925)
||Customer Preferred Package 23M ($5,300), 3.73:1 rear axle ratio ($95), Tru-Lok locking rear axle ($1,500), air conditioning with automatic temperature control and air filtering ($155), body-color three-piece hardtop ($1,395), Uconnect 430N CD/DVD/MP3/HDD/NAV ($1,035), Destination Charge ($925)
||OHV VVT 16-valve V-8 with Fuel Saver Technology
||60-degree aluminum DOHC 24-valve VVT V-6
|Bore x stroke (in)
||3.92 x 3.58
||3.78 x 3.27
|Compression ratio (:1)
||Sequential, multi-port, electronic
||Naturally aspirated, sequential, multi-port, electronic
|Mfg.'s power rating @ rpm (hp)
||360 @ 5,150
||285 @ 6,400
|Mfg.'s torque rating @ rpm (lb-ft)
||390 @ 4,250
||260 @ 4,800
|Mfg.'s suggested fuel type
||65RFE 6-spd automatic
||NSG 370 6-spd manual
||1st: 3.00, 2nd: 1.67, 3rd: 1.50, 4th: 1.00, 5th: 0.50, 6th: 0.67, Reverse: 3.00
||1st: 4.46, 2nd: 2.61, 3rd: 1.72, 4th: 1.25, 5th: 1.00, 6th: 0.797, Reverse: 4.06
|Axle ratio (:1)
||MP 3022 full-time 2-spd
||NV241 Command-Trac, part-time, 2-spd, manual engagement
|Low-range ratio (:1)
|Crawl ratio (:1)
||Open steel tub
||Short- and long-arm independent, Quadra-Lift air spring and shock assemblies, upper and lower control arms, stabilizer bar/ZF 8.8-inch
||Leading arms, track bar, coil springs, stabilizer bar, high-pressure monotube shocks/Next Generation Dana 30
||Multi-link, Quadra-Lift air springs, twin-tube shocks, aluminum lower control arm, independent upper links (tension and camber), plus a separate toe link/Mercedes 7.7-inch with electronic limited-slip differential
||Leading arms, track bar, coil springs, stabilizer bar, high-pressure monotube shocks/Next Generation Dana 44
||Power recirculating ball w/damper
||18.9 (on center), 15.7 (full lock)
||12.9 x 1.2-inch vented discs, two-piston pin-slider calipers
||11.9 x 1.1-inch vented rotor w/single-piston floating caliper
||12.6 x 0.55-inch solid discs, single-piston pin-slider calipers
||11.9 x 1.1-inch vented rotor w/single-piston floating caliper
||18 x 8.0 aluminum
||17 x 7.5 aluminum black-painted Moab
||P265/60R18 Goodyear Wrangler SilentArmor
||P245/75R17 Goodyear Wrangler SilentArmor
|Overall length (in)
|Overall width (in)
||69.3 (standard), 72.3 (raised)
|Track f/r (in)
|Minimum ground clearance (in)
||8.6 (standard), 10.6 (raised)
|Turning diameter, curb-to-curb (ft)
|Approach/departure angles (deg)
||26.3 (standard), 34.3 (raised)/26.5 (standard), 29.3 (raised)
|Breakover angle (deg)
||18.8 (standard), 23.1 (raised)
|Maximum towing capacity (lb)
|Fuel capacity (gal)
|0-60 mph (sec)
|Quarter-mile (sec @ mph)
||17.0 @ 83.7
||16.7 @ 82.7
|Braking 60-0 mph (ft)
|Ramp Travel Index (30-deg, points)
||292 (Auto), 305 (Off-Road 1), 292 (Off-Road 2)