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September 2011 Firing Order

Posted in Features on September 1, 2011
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We’ve been running our Four Wheeler of the Year test since 1974, and our Pickup Truck of the Year test since 1989, and they’ve never failed to generate lots of reader interest and industry buzz. Readers, naturally, like to see their favorite brands win, and just as naturally get peeved when they don’t—and either way, the results never fail to generate lots of reader feedback, some of which is quite instructive. (The hate mail’s pretty good, too.) Our friends in the automotive industry also like it when their products win our awards, and some of them have used the honors aggressively in their national advertising campaigns. That doesn’t mean we realize any direct revenues from our awards—most years, we don’t—but we figure it never hurts to see your logo featured in a 30-second Super Bowl ad.

Unitbody? Check. No low-range? Check. Pickup Truck of the Year candidate? Uh, we’re thinking it over.

For our annual new 4x4 tests, the rules each year have been pretty straightforward: To qualify, a vehicle must be all-new from the frame up or have “substantial mechanical revisions.” Those would include new engines, gearboxes, four-wheel drive and suspension systems, and so forth; a new interior package or a refreshened front fascia doesn’t measure up for us. One rule that has been Holy Writ, up to now, is that all eligible vehicles must have a two-speed transfer case with a dedicated low-range gear. And up to now, we haven’t had any reason to reconsider our criteria.

As you all know, however, the 4x4 market has experienced a paradigm shift in recent years, away from truck-based platforms and low-range gears to unitbody architecture and all-wheel drive. There are a variety of reasons for this, and we’re fine with the trend as far as it goes. There are, after all, plenty of people for whom a Subaru will suffice for the kind of off-road driving they do, and there will always be plenty of people who will need a Jeep, an FJ Cruiser or a solid-axle pickup for their kind of driving.

However, from one model year to the next, the number of “all new” or “substantially revised” 4x4 vehicles hitting the market can vary widely, and lately, the number has dwindled—to the point where, alas, we may not have any eligible candidates for our 2012 Pickup Truck of the Year award, at least if we adhere to our existing criteria.

What to do? Well, of course we could simply postpone the test for a year, and announce “no winner” for 2012, but we think it’s always better for the sake of continuity to be able to crown a King of Trucks every year. (Remember the year they cancelled the World Series? It took a long time for baseball to win back its fan base after that, and some fans never came back.) So this month we’re asking: What would you do if you were us?

As a reminder, one option that is not on the table (and which we hear every year from readers) is, “Test all the new pickups/SUVs, etc.” We’d love to be able to do that, but our humble magazine has never had the resources or the budget to test 20-odd four-wheel-drive SUVs and/or 15 (give or take) new pickup trucks at the same time. (Yes, we know our buddies at Motor Trend do it, but they have a lot more staffing and lot more gas money than we do.) So we have to be able to whittle down our test field to some manageable number. Some alternatives that we could afford, from the standpoint of time and money, would be a test of 2012 ½-tons, or a test of ¾-ton diesel HDs, whether they were “all new” or not; we’d simply call this test a one-off for 2012, and resume our usual protocols the next year. Sound like a plan?

Another option, particularly among the SUVs should we ever lack enough qualified 4x4s, would be to include (gasp) all-wheel-drive crossover vehicles to our field if they met the “all new” standard. This may sound like the prelude to the apocalypse for some of you, but back in the day, we used to test Subarus and AMC Eagles and Audi Quattros in these pages, and a few of them even graced our cover throughout the years. Even now, we occasionally shake down a Jeep Patriot or a Honda Ridgeline, and most of the reader mail we receive in response has been pretty forgiving. So if you were us, would you include the new Land Rover Evoq, or the soon-to-come “lifestyle” Dakota, to participate in our truck tests—even if they lack a low-range gear?

I guess at this point, we’re now posing the deeper question of what constitutes a “pickup truck” and what constitutes an “SUV” anymore—but given the aforementioned changes that continue to sweep the automotive marketplace, those are probably timely questions for us to be debating right now.

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