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Four Wheeler Of The Year Test - Limited Articulation

Posted in Features on February 1, 2007
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This is one of our favorite months of the year. Each year at this time, we pack up our boonie bags and flee the teeming masses of Los Angeles, piloting a fleet of new 4x4s for a week of backcountry 'wheeling. It's our annual Four Wheeler of the Year test, and it's the best of all possible worlds for us: We get to play in the dirt, and get paid for it too.

We've been running this test of new or significantly revised 4x4s since 1974, and we've learned a thing or two along the way. One year, for instance, we thought it would be fun to run the vehicles over Moab Rim. A great idea, except for the fact that none of us had ever 'wheeled the trail before, let alone with a bunch of stock trucks ... so now we prerun all of our test trails to minimize the risk of carnage later. An ounce of prevention is at least worth a pound of sheetmetal.

Even so, this year's test promised some fierce trail competition. First up were Jeep's newest Wranglers, the two-door JK and the four-door JK Unlimited. We drove them in Africa not long ago ("Wrangling the Motherland," Dec. '06) and came away with mixed feelings: they're a big step up in refinement, we felt, still great on the trail and better on pavement, but a bit down on power, and perhaps too portly for their own good. Would a little more time behind the wheel change our minds?

Any time a new Toyota joins the fray, it's big news hereabouts, and the '07 FJ Cruiser was no exception, with gobs of power, a locking rear diff, a good ol' lever-operated transfer case, and styling cues reminiscent of legendary bobtail FJs of yore-not to mention Toyota's bombproof build integrity. A fullsize 'Cruiser won our test last year-would the Tacoma-based FJ make it two in a row?

Returning to our field was the Hummer H3, now sporting greater displacement underhood, its 3.5L five-cylinder now punched out to 3.7 liters. The H3 led the pack in off-pavement performance at last year's competition, but suffered in testers' eyes from a lack of engine power and a torsion-bar frontend. Would the additional ponies, and a new field of competitors, improve its fortunes this time around?

Eagerly anticipated, too, were Chevy's new-from-the-ground-up GMT900-based Tahoe and Suburban. We already knew these Bow Ties were a quantum leap forward in interior refinement and overall build quality, and we're thrilled that GM has ditched torsion bars for coilovers at long last, but we couldn't be sure how these shining examples of U.S. Steel would fare over washboard, in the dunes, or on rocky trails. Chevy fullsizes have been five-time FWOTY winners-would this year mark number six?

And last, but certainly not least, joining our field was a Kia Sorento, which, while lacking lockers or limited-slips, comes equipped with a genuine two-speed transfer case. Given automakers' recent proclivities towards all-wheel-drive cute-utes and away from "real" four-wheel drives, we think that's laudable in itself. We also liked its dimensions and its specs on paper, but hadn't driven one before our test. Would the little Kia be able to keep up with the big dogs?

So now we've run our test, marked up our scorecards, and we've got ourselves a deserving winner ... and for the legions of you who think we've grown soft from testing tech-addled Touaregs and high-dollar Lexi, you might be surprised to see which 4x4 we picked as this year's best of the bunch. You can see the results starting on page 34.

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