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Trail’s End: 1990 Four Wheeler Of The Year And The Modern SUV Transformation

Posted in Features on May 1, 2016
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Photographers: Four Wheeler Staff

The 1990 Four Wheeler of the Year competition, which published in the Feb. ’90 issue of Four Wheeler, included four SUVs that were either all new or substantially revised. Comprising the test was the new four-door S-10 Blazer, new Ford Explorer, new four-door Nissan Pathfinder, and revised Toyota 4Runner.

Interestingly, only the Explorer came to the test with an automatic transmission. The other three rigs were fit with five-speed manual transmissions. Also interesting is that each of the SUVs was equipped with a fuel-injected V-6 engine but not one engine made over 160 hp. Each of the SUVs was equipped with a part-time two-speed transfer case, independent front suspension, and solid rear axle. The Explorer and Blazer used rear leaf springs, while the 4Runner and Pathfinder were equipped with a coil-spring rear suspension.

The S-10 Blazer “would go where directed” off-road, so the 6 1/2-inch-longer wheelbase (compared to the two-door model) wasn’t a problem. “With its nice low gearing,” wrote one tester, “the Blazer crawled up and down with no clutching or braking. Its good torque and gearing let it walk up the rough sections, so long as the rear stays down.” That criticism was aimed at the Blazer’s rear suspension, which was described as “stiff” and “like a pickup.”

Grabbing the most points in the Off-Road Performance section of the test was the Nissan Pathfinder. All of the judges were said to be impressed by the “compliant and capable” suspension, plenty of ground clearance, and the “best OEM tires we’ve tested.” What tires were they? They were General Grabber APs. It’s also worth noting that the Pathfinder had the second best approach angle of the group at an impressive 37 degrees.

On smoother and faster off-road sections, the 4Runner “gave a smooth ride and let the driver relax and have fun.” We wrote that it was a different story on slow and rough off-road sections. “The 4Runner exhibited severe wheelhop, which was something of a mystery; the truck’s four-link rear suspension should eliminate wheelhop.” We also found that the gearing was too tall for slow speed work and the shock damping insufficient for the “big” (235/75R15) tires. Also worth noting: The 4Runner had a rockin’ approach angle of 43 degrees.

The winner of the 1990 Four Wheeler of the Year competition was the Explorer, and it did very well off-road. “The soft suspension showed great wheeltravel that allowed the Explorer to walk up sections the other trucks had trouble with without sacrificing the smooth ride,” we wrote. However, we didn’t like the fact that the lower rear shock mounts protruded below the axle, making them vulnerable to rock attack.

Today, all of these nameplates are still in production, except one (Blazer), but all are vastly different than they were in 1990. Two of the three remaining models (Explorer and Pathfinder) don’t use a two-speed T-case. This makes us wonder: Is the SUV with a two-speed T-case destined to be a niche market? Or, in the future, will pickup trucks be the only vehicles available with a two-speed case? How many of you would consider purchasing an SUV or crossover with a single-speed 4WD system? Let us know what you think at

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