Four Wheeler Of The Year, Or Fear Of The Unknown
One of the most common refrains we hear from our readers around this time each year is, "How could you have picked that (insert vehicle name here) as your Four Wheeler of the Year? Have you gone completely soft, or what?" followed by a long list of reasons why said vehicle should never be considered a "true" four wheeler. We heard it lots last year, when we picked a Lexus as our FWOTY winner ... and we have no doubt that we'll be hearing it again once you see who won this year.
We also remember the howls of anguish heard in the late '80s when Chevrolet unveiled its brand-new K-truck with IFS and Insta-Trac 4WD system with (the horror!) automatic hubs. The truck was a winner with us, but we heard plenty of purists' gripes: "How the heck are you gonna lift it?" "How do you know if the hubs are locked?" "EFI was bad enough-now they're making these things so you can't modify anything!"
Yet somehow, Chevrolet sold thousands of these "unbuildable" trucks, and nowadays you can find them all over the country, built up with all manner of suspension, drivetrain and exterior mods, courtesy of the aftermarket. Moral: When it comes to new models, sure, you can modify them-you just can't do it the same way you've done it before.
So, whom amongst this year's FWOTY field is likeliest for vituperation? Certainly the Jeep Grand Cherokee would appear to be first up. Its no-more-Dana-frontend, all-new IFS has already earned the wrath of the Jeep Faithful, so much so that one of our sister publications recently opined that Jeep had in all likelihood engineered the GC straight out of the aftermarket. Ourselves, we're not so sure. The GC's 345hp Hemi V-8 is a potent engine-it's hands-down the quickest Jeep we've ever driven-and rack-and-pinion steering makes it arguably the best-handling Jeep we've ever tested as well. And while that unibody continues to pose some problems to would-be builders, it's still all Jeep beneath the sheetmetal. And that alone, we think, should inspire a new generation of parts and products from the aftermarket.
Next victim? Well, the new Land Rover LR3 is, as one staffer put it, a "giant rolling laptop" that you can basically re-program, with the turn of a knob or two, to recalibrate throttle input, transmission shift points, front-to-rear torque bias, engine compression and suspension travel-among a thousand other things-to best suit the terrain you're driving on. Add a driver-adjustable air suspension, and you've got a 4x4 that's beyond modifying, right? Perhaps. But in the end, the LR3 still uses a basic ladder design, which is still the plinth of the truck builder's art.
And lest we forget the Volkswagen Touareg TDI, simply because (for many of you) it's a Volkswagen. All we can say is, this thing 'wheels like you wouldn't believe-even with wimpy street tires-and the new 550 lb-ft turbodiesel V-10 will make you rethink the entire concept of what a diesel motor is, and what it can be made to do in the hands of inspired engineers. Volkswagen has already built race Touaregs to compete at the Dakar rally, so while it's a daunting project, it's not outside the pale of modification.
But rest assured, dear readers. For those of you in the throes of Future Shock, we have a dedicated throwback in our test: The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, still with a pushrod motor, solid axles and a lever-operated transfer case. Plus a change. May it ever be thus.