Once again it's time for our 4x4 of the Year test, to see which manufacturer builds a rig capable of winning our torture test. We call it a torture test because these new vehicles will typically never be taken by their futureowners on the type of trails and terrain we traverse, even though we would if we owned them. True, we don't take these shiny rides up Sledgehammer or the Rubicon, but with a few exceptions, they were never designed to be that capable. We have to design our testing procedures so that we can determine which vehicle is the best out of what the manufacturers supply us. For instance, when the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon was entered, our test track was much more difficult than a year when incapable dork-utes were all that were entered. There isn't much that a judge can learn from a vehicle when all of the contestants can't even make it past the first obstacle, other than they are all pretty worthless. Regardless, we make sure all of our courses are something that our readers would tackle in a 4x4, not some bricks and boards in a Hollywood backlot for photos-like some other magazines.
We've taken quite a bit of flack over the years from the readers who complain about expensive SUVs that no one would buy, or the lack of certain models which they felt should have been included. Of course, everyone feels that their certain make or model should be tested and win, otherwise the brand loyalty one feels makes no sense. We, on the other hand, have to remain totally neutral on brand loyalty or which one we feel should win. In fact we've had quite a few surprises over the years, and probably will in the future as well. As far as the cost of an "expensive SUV" goes, the higher the cost of the vehicle, the lower it ranks in the empirical section, as we feel a 4x4 should be a good value for the cost, rather than just cheap. The price alone will not make a vehicle win or lose, but just like your own rig, by the time you add a big engine, lockers, fancy suspension, and all the other related improvements, it will perform better and the cost will be higher. If it was cheap to do, then everybody would do it. This isn't an inexpensive hobby, even though we try to give you plenty of tips and tricks on your own rigs to keep it this way.
Our testing parameters keep many vehicles from competing, and manufacturer's concerns limit that amount even more. All vehicles need to be at our offices by the middle of September, and some vehicles aren't available until later so we can't test them. Since pricing is figured into the equation, we also have to have a firm MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price) at that time, or it's as bad as a no show. Also, the 4x4 has to be on sale by January 15, and more than 1,500 available for sale to the general public. That keeps the 4x4s that you can't buy out of our test, unlike other magazine's choices. We figure you might just buy these rides, either for towing, camping, light 4x4 work, or commuting, as well as that hard-core trail riding you envision once the warranty runs out. We've even had manufacturers tell us that "you just aren't our market," and "we just can't afford it" as excuses for not supplying a vehicle for the test, when oftentimes it's because they know the other vehicles entered will have a better chance of winning. No manufacturer wants to be a loser, even though any publicity is better than none.
Finally, we also asked to have a reader come along with us to give their input on our testing this year, and we received numerous applications from qualified individuals who were as eager to join us on the test as we were to have them. Unfortunately, budgetary, insurance, and legal issues forced us to cancel that idea for the moment, but we still plan for more reader input in the future. Exactly how we can skirt certain issues remain to be seen, but we appreciate what readers have to say about our test as well as the rest of the magazine. To that end, make sure to pick up the February issue of 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine to see which contestant comes out ahead on our 4x4 torture test.