As you read this, our Ultimate Adventure is over, even though you'll be reading about it next month. You'll be able to check out our Web site (www.4wheeloffroad.com) right now for coverage, but the whole adventure will becovered in the November and December issues. However, now is the time we prepare for our 2007 4x4 of the Year test, with a potential 20 vehicles eligible! The planning and execution of such a weeklong event with so many vehicles is a big undertaking, which is why we plan for it now in June, for a test held in October. Even at that, the results are published in the February issue which comes out the beginning of January 2007, so you can see what type of strange time schedule we are on. It's our 25th year of this important test, and every year we get letters wondering why (insert brand preference here) didn't win, or that our testing is flawed. We may have picked a few winning vehicles over the years that even make us wonder how they achieved such status, but overall, our testing is solid and truthful.
While many vehicles aren't eligible due to the on-sale date, lack of a low-range transfer case, inability of the manufacturer to supply a vehicle on time, or just a "we'd rather not compete" attitude from the OEs, we usually get a competent crop of 4x4s to test. However, we have instituted a new rule which will tend to keep many marginal rigs from even showing up. This rule is the crawl test, and has nothing to do with the vehicles lowest gear. Since many SUVs have become more mechanically capable but have lost ground clearance, we've decided to eliminate any 4x4 that can't be crawled under. It seems that even with full lockers, traction control, and whatever whiz-bang gizmo they have for off-roading, the simple fact is that many of these rigs can't even clear minor obstacles before a trail begins. Needless to say, if you want to tackle a simple Forest Service road which suggests "high-clearance vehicles only" you'd be having a miserable time. We find that our competent test drivers can usually get these rigs to such roads, but much carnage is created on the underside of the vehicles, with mufflers, evaporative canisters, driveshafts, and air dams lost in the process.
We haven't scientifically set a standard yet as to how or where we will measure the vehicles for clearance, but we have a sound basis to start. Being an average size guy myself at 5 feet 9 inches and 180 pounds, I'll check out a few vehicles that have competed before as a guideline by actually crawling underneath them, or at least trying. I've done plenty of spelunking before and am used to crawling through strange places, so it's not like we're eliminating every rig they send us. The theory here is that if I can crawl under it, it goes on the test. If even I can't squeeze through, there's simply no point in taking these rigs on a trail where a boulder the size of my head or a rut in the trail over 10 inches deep hinders the progress of the vehicle.
We'll figure out a measuring system in a few months, to eliminate the variable of my latest waistline changes and to keep me from being constantly contorted under a 4x4. Suffice to say, we can easily see the new Jeep Wrangler being crawlable, while any mini-SUV might have a tough time passing the crawl test. We'll keep you updated. Send in your comments as well and we'll see what you think.