I recently traveled to Detroit, Michigan, and had the chance to get an early look at some new vehicle offerings coming down the pipeline in the near future. It got me to thinking about our Four Wheeler of the Year competition and the vehicle requirements we enforce for an SUV to be included. Currently, we require the competing SUVs to have a two-speed transfer case, a rule that has been set in place for as long as anyone can remember. In the past, we have let a couple of vehicles slide in because of new technologies that sort of take the place of a two-speed T-case, and for the most part those vehicles were indeed off-road capable enough to be included. The fact is that the SUV market has changed a lot during the 41 years of our annual competition. New technology has replaced old, and the vehicles have advanced and become more capable in some cases (and less capable in others). Vehicles that once had three-speed automatic transmissions featuring pathetic 2.46:1 First gears and uninspiring 20:1 crawl ratios have been replaced by modern 4x4s with automatic transmissions with up to eight speeds sporting 4.71:1 First gears and crawl ratios over 50:1. Painfully limiting open differentials have been replaced with impressive automatic electronic brake traction control systems and selectable lockers. Even what was once thought to be large 30-inch factory-sized tires have been swapped out for tires up to 35 inches tall.
Today, SUVs with two-speed transfer cases are becoming more and more rare. As the SUV segment split up and went in several different directions, new segments were created. This included the crossover SUVs that are more car-based, something we don’t test at Four Wheeler because they typically have little or no off-road capability. For the last few years, it has been very clear what was an off-road-worthy SUV and what wasn’t. I can tell you now that I think that line is starting to blur, and we may need to alter our Four Wheeler of the Year requirements to meet those new technologies and vehicles.
If a 4x4 with a two-speed transfer case featuring a 20:1 crawl ratio is eligible for Four Wheeler of the Year, regardless of any other features, why wouldn’t an all-wheel-drive SUV with a single-speed T-case and a crawl ratio over 50:1 be eligible? It seems to me using the two-speed T-case as the sole measuring stick no longer works. So here is what I think we should do with our Four Wheeler of the Year vehicle requirements. Of course, we would still allow all SUVs with two-speed transfer cases. But, if they did not have a two-speed transfer case, the vehicle in question would need to have other off-road attributes such as front and rear towhooks, an optional skidplate package, good ground clearance, off-road-friendly tires, suspension or drivetrain features or settings specific for off-road use, or any other factory-offered up-fits that improve off-road performance. If the manufacturer goes out of its way to offer an off-road package and capability, regardless of how many speeds the transfer case has, Four Wheeler shouldn’t ignore it. Of course, each vehicle in question would be put under scrutiny by the Four Wheeler staff and be allowed to compete on a case by case basis.
Let’s use the Subaru Crosstrek as an example. Under our current Four Wheeler of the Year rules, it’s not eligible to compete. It does not have a two-speed T-case, but I think we can all agree that it certainly looks like the most off-road capable vehicle in the Subaru fleet. It has decent ground clearance and approach and departure angles. But there is no factory-available skidplate option, nor are there front or rear towhooks. Subaru doesn’t really brag about the Crosstrek’s off-road prowess either. Now, if it at least had towhooks front and rear, I’d say it’s a legit competitor. Because it’s missing these items, I would say it’s not a recreational 4x4 that Four Wheeler should test. It’s simply an all-wheel-drive car. It would need to have some features that make me think Subaru is encouraging the end user to take it on trails, and not just graded-dirt or snow-covered roads.
How do you think we should handle the blurring line of off-road-capable SUVs and those vehicles only worthy for the street? Drop me a line and let me know.