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September 2005 Limited Articulation Choosing The Best 4x4s

Posted in Features on September 1, 2005
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One of the things we're often criticized for is the fact that we don't take pricing into account when we conduct our Four Wheeler of the Year test each year. That $65,000 rally-car Touareg diesel we picked as our winner last time might be a nice piece, you say, but when you can nearly get three Wrangler Rubicons for the same price, is it really that much better for four-wheeling? A lot of folks also get annoyed when they see us testing only all-new vehicles in our FWOTY and PTOTY tests each year, and not every 4x4 that's on the market. Valid criticisms, the both of them.

So we thought we'd do something we used to do every year, but seem to have gotten away from recently: Rate all the new-model 4x4s, class by class-no more glaring apples-to-oranges, Hummer-versus-Wrangler comparisons-and take into account categories such as overall ride and handling based on our own experiences, the stoutness of components, the cost of operation, known reliability records, resale values, and sticker price. In the end, pick a class leader, a Best Buy, and tell the readers why we chose it.

Picking "winners" here, though, is not as easy as in years past. As an example, the so-called "midsize SUV" segment-once the province of a handful of vehicles such as Explorers and 4Runners-is now populated by close to 40 different 4x4s, ranging from the near-mini Suzuki XL-7 to the near-luxury Land Rover LR3. The "luxury SUV" segment, once occupied solely by Land Rover, is now populated by several marques. So while we debated our picks, we often ran into cases where no clear-cut favorite stood head-and-shoulders above the pack. In lieu of a tie-breaker, we asked ourselves a simple question: "All things being equal, which one's just flat-out best on the trail?" And surprisingly-or perhaps not-we were able to pick our winners pretty easily after that. You can find them in our "10 Best Buys in Four-Wheel Drive" on page 40. After you've read them, fire up your laptops and let us know what your picks are. We're sure you'll have something to say about them.

On the subject, a question we're often asked these days is, What exactly constitutes four-wheel drive anymore? With a raft of patented 4WD systems out there-Insta-trac, Quadra-Trac, 4xMotion, and countless others-it can seem as though the nominally simple concept of four driven wheels has been rendered indecipherable through a maze of electronically governed, and exclusively proprietary, systems that vary from manufacturer to manufacturer ... and we're not even counting some of those front-wheel "faux-wheel-drive" systems we see popping up on new vehicles like the Honda Ridgeline. As it turns out, the OEMs have not actually reinvented the wheel-or, in this case, the transfer box-and even the new 4WD systems are just as basic and understandable as they ever were. Our man in the U.K., Tom Sheppard, does a good job of breaking them down starting on page 56, with particular emphasis in Jeep's latest incarnation of Quadra Drive, which comes complete with locking front, rear, and center differentials.

And speaking of new four-bys, our Tech Editor Sean P. Holman just returned from testdriving the new Hummer H3 in the Arizona desert, and you can read his review on page 34. Judging by the looks of it, the H3 should be a serious contender for next year's Four Wheeler of the Year award-and with a 4.0:1 transfer-case option, 69:1 crawl gear, 33-inch tires standard, decent mileage (20 mpg), and a base price below $30,000, it certainly looks to be a Best Buy contender next year as well.
-Douglas McColloch

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