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January 2012 Firing Order

Posted in Features on January 1, 2012
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They don’t build them like the used to. Whoever has said that about 4x4s was right, and not necessarily in the way you might be thinking. What was once considered safe and manageable for the road years ago would be a huge liability by today’s safety standards. Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not on the newer-is-better bandwagon, in fact, quite the opposite. If I’m building a 4x4 to be used pretty roughly then I’m likely heading straight for the older trucks with solid axles front and rear. But if I want a reliable tow rig or comfort and capability in stock form I really can’t deny the technology and advancements available nowadays. Sure some of these systems are an absolute pain in the butt in certain circumstances (ABS and traction control in the sand and mud for example), but when was the last time you tried towing 10,000-pounds with any ’70s, ’80s, or even an early ’90s truck? Ford, GM, Ram, and even Toyota all currently offer ½-ton pickups rated to trailer over 10,000 pounds, and they do a pretty good job of it. The new engines make more power using less fuel, computer-controlled five- and six-speed automatic transmissions make better use of that power and are more in sync with the rest of the drivetrain, huge factory disc brakes front and rear bring everything to a halt much quicker, nearly all of these new 4x4s have some sort of traction control that can be pretty handy in most situations (sand and mud excluded), and some even have locking differentials. So it’s a no-brainer, the new trucks rise to the top when comparing stock to stock. But I see both sides of the coin.

Photo courtesy of Ram.

Many years ago I was schlepping parts at an off-road shop. I had one customer who spent thousands of dollars modifying his showroom-new (at the time) ’98 GMC 3500. We had added a six-inch lift, 35-inch tires, axle gears, and more. Less than a week later the truck was towed back to the shop on a flatbed because the tie rods ejected themselves during an attack on a steep and loose off-road hill climb. I knew the customer pretty good so I’m sure he had his foot well into the throttle up to and even after the point of failure. I had seen the hill he tried to climb; in fact I’ve driven up it many times. Any similarly modified, older, solid-axle 1-ton would have driven right up without a whimper, regardless of how abusive the driver insisted on ascending.

I also remember towing up a particularly steep grade out in the desert (Highway 62 between Yucca Valley, California, and the I-10 freeway). This brutal incline combined with the typically 100-plus-degree summertime temps does unthinkable things to tow rig engines and automatic transmissions. It was the late ’90s and my buddy and I were headed to Johnson Valley via this grade. He was flat-towing his Jeep behind a stock early ’90s GM 1-ton truck with a fuel-injected big-block V-8. It was the pinnacle of towing technology in its time. I was towing my Jeep on a trailer with a ’98 Grand Cherokee 5.9L Limited. Our towed loads were nearly equal, mine was likely a little heavier, but you wouldn’t have known it based on how much better the Grand Cherokee maintained its speed up the grade. The 1-ton truck fell far behind and just couldn’t keep up. Less than a decade of vehicle advancements had made his 1-ton truck obsolete, at least for our purposes. Interestingly enough a few years later I smoked both the rebuilt engine and tranny in my late ’70s Ford while towing up this exact same grade. Of course I was leaning on it, but not any harder than I was leaning on the ’98 Grand Cherokee, which made the same pull effortlessly—with the A/C blasting no less.

In the late ’90s when fuel was cheap it seemed like almost everyone was behind the wheel of a large V-8-powered SUV or fullsize truck, regardless of if they needed it’s capability or not. To appease the new customers during this time I saw more creature comforts and technology find their way into the new trucks and SUVs. As oil prices increased during the 2000s the demand for these large vehicles subsided. In the last decade or so we’ve hit a fork in the road. The auto manufacturers have responded to customer demand by supplying more road-, fuel-, and family-friendly SUVs while still retaining some vehicles meant for the traditional truck and SUV buyer. In some aspects, today is an exciting time to be a 4x4 enthusiast. Original-equipment off-road packages that once consisted of nothing more than a few gaudy stickers, painted shocks, tow hooks, and a couple skidplates have now been replaced with entire vehicles that have been designed specifically to go off-road, and do it amazingly well. Traditional truck and 4x4 customers can now buy vehicles that were designed around their needs, and not necessarily the needs of a soccer-mom toting nothing more than the team.

In the end, picking the right 4x4 is a lot like picking the right tool for the job. Sometimes you need to reach for the advancements of modern metal, and sometimes you just can’t deny the big-hammer technology of old iron.

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