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The Most Influential Modern 4x4s (As Chosen By Us)

Posted in Project Vehicles on March 1, 2012
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Four-wheel-drive vehicles come and go, and they all leave a legacy. We know that sounds weird, but it’s true. Sometimes the legacy is good, and sometimes it’s best forgotten as soon as possible.

Often, four-wheel-drive enthusiasts look back on the early 4x4s of fifty or sixty years ago and wax eloquent about their simplicity, looks, or whatever, and we’ll be the first to admit that many of those old rigs make us drool, too. But wait. There’s no denying that there are some pretty incredible modern-era 4x4s.

These are exciting times in the four-wheel-drive world. Over the past 30 years (that’s what we consider the modern era) manufacturers have built some amazing 4x4s. Some of these vehicles have exhibited trend-setting styling, some have been masters of functionality, and others have been integrated with off-highway tech that has raised the bar for other manufacturers and even the aftermarket.

We thought it was time to give credit where credit is due, so the Four Wheeler staff was polled and each staffer was asked to provide a few of their personal choices of the most influential modern-day 4x4s that they thought were worthy of a pat on the back. We also asked them to elaborate as to why they chose what they chose. And then we asked each staffer to weigh in on the others’ choices. That’s where it got even more interesting in some cases. Polled were Editor John Cappa, Technical Editor Sean P. Holman, and Senior Editor Ken Brubaker.

The following are our choices for the most influential modern-day 4x4s, as chosen by at least a two-thirds majority of the Four Wheeler staff.

1993 Toyota FJ80 Land Cruiser
Nominated by: Cappa

Overview: The FJ80 Land Cruiser was introduced in 1989. It had a longer wheelbase than the FJ60 it replaced and its overall measurements were also longer, wider, and taller than the FJ60. In 1993, the FJ80 got a power increase from the inline-six engine, but more importantly it became available with front and rear lockers. In addition, the solid front axle was a high-pinion model.

Cappa’s take: When new, it was priced way outside of what a typical enthusiast would pay for a 4x4, but it certainly provided a look into the potential of what a real off-road package could be. Ironically, it didn’t include any of the gaudy stickers that were common with the 4x4 packages at the time.

Holman’s take: Back then, Toyota had a huge following in the off-road market. Its products were pricey, but they got it. You couldn’t beat the solid axles, fullsize versatility, and relatively economical and bulletproof straight-six.

Brubaker’s take: When I think about a tough SUV, the Land Cruiser name pops into my head. These rigs were built for the long haul. The FJ80 was most definitely ahead of its time by offering locking differentials.

1994 Dodge Ram
Nominated by: Brubaker

Overview: The Ram underwent a total transformation for the 1994 model year, but the engine offerings stayed the same as the previous-gen truck. Sales more than doubled from 1993 to 1994 and quadrupled by 1996, which proved that the Ram was a hit. All versions of the Ram were fitted with a solid front axle and coil spring front suspension.

Brubaker’s take: The ’94 Ram was a total break in styling from what had been produced to that point from any manufacturer. It had a significant impact on Dodge truck sales and made them a player in the light truck segment. The 2500 and 3500 models could be had with the Cummins diesel in a truck that wouldn’t rust away before the owner made all the payments. Too bad the stock transmissions in the 1500s were awful.

Cappa’s take: Yeah, before this truck everyone knew that old Dodge trucks would simply fall apart around the drivetrain. I really liked how the styling of the new Dodge seemed to mimic the swoopy fenders and hood of a Freightliner big rig from that era.

Holman’s take: Well, I guess all my jokes and points have been covered. Move along folks, nothing else to see here.

2010 Ford Raptor
Nominated by: Cappa

Overview: It was based on the 10th generation F-150, and features 11 inches of front wheel travel and 12 inches of rear wheel travel. Hardware included a Raptor-specific suspension with Fox Racing shocks; 35-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires; electric rear locker; 4.10:1 gearing; and a special composite hood and front fenders.

Cappa’s take: Obviously Ford got the suspension pretty dialed. If you want to wallop on your truck at speed down dirt roads (with a light load) then this is your monkey. But if you want to use it as a real truck the capacity is limited. I’ve towed and daily-driven the 6.2L Raptor now for a couple months. It’s a pretty amazing truck. The only thing it really sucks at is fuel.

Holman’s take: This is Ford’s take of the ultimate factory 4x4, a nice contrast to the philosophy of Jeep, Ram, and Toyota. Ford took it a different direction, and to the next level and did some things never before seen from the factory. Features such as Upfitter switches, Off-Road Mode, and the ability to activate the locker at any speed represent new freedoms to the end user not available anywhere else.

Brubaker’s take: It may be modeled after a desert truck, but the Raptor’s appeal stretches far past the desert southwest. Heck, even wheelers in the black-soil farmland of America dig the Raptor. On looks alone the Raptor is a winner.

1995-2004 Toyota Tacoma
Nominated by: Holman

Overview: This truck was the first generation of the new Tacoma line and it was more refined than the truck it replaced. It was IFS-equipped and available with either a four- or six-cylinder engine and in regular or XtraCab configurations. A four-door version arrived in 2001.

Holman’s take: The first generation of Tacoma, replacement for the beloved Toyota pickup, was wildly popular. It brought one of the first comprehensive “real” factory off-road packages with the TRD model (BFGoodrich tires, rear locker, Bilstein shocks, etc), and was one of the first successful four-door compact pickups at the time.

Cappa’s take: Toyota could certainly be held responsible for taking the off-road package to the next level. Before the TRD model in 1998, most off-road packages available in the U.S. consisted of flimsy skidplates, painted shocks, and a few stickers.

Brubaker’s take: The Tacoma was more refined than the no-name truck it replaced and it brought to the table outstanding visibility, nimble handling, and ruggedness. It grew in size compared to its predecessor, but it was still easy to wheel. To understand how popular these trucks are, just look at the stunningly high resale prices of a clean four-wheel-drive model.

2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Nominated by: Cappa

Overview: The Rubicon package made its debut on the Jeep TJ in 2003 and the package included Dana 44 axles, pneumatic locking differentials, rear disc brakes, a NVG241OR transfer case with 4:1 low-range ratio, 31-inch-diameter Goodyear MT/R tires, and rocker protection.

Cappa’s take: The last time Jeep really built a use-specific vehicle like this was in 1946, when the CJ was marketed as a possible replacement for a tractor. It had all sorts of PTO attachments available. The Wrangler Rubicon was almost everything an off-road package should have been from the beginning. And the funny part was that Jeep sold way more Rubicon’s than the company ever anticipated in the very first year. Nearly 10 years later, it’s hard to believe that this was the Jeep that almost never was.

Holman’s take: Game changing. The current iteration continues to be the benchmark for trail-specific content offered direct from an OE.

Brubaker’s take: The Rubicon package was, and continues to be, quite possibly the best idea to come out of modern Jeep. Wheelers could get all the most desired trail-ready mods by simply checking a box and it was cost effective and came with a full warranty.

2005 Dodge Power Wagon
Nominated by: Cappa

Overview: Based on the ¾-ton Dodge Ram 2500 platform, the new-for-’05 Power Wagon featured electric locking differentials, electronic disconnecting front sway bar, a taller suspension, forged aluminum wheels, 33-inch tires, a 12,000-pound Warn winch, and underbody protection. It was rated to tow up to 11,000 pounds and haul up to 2,430 pounds of payload.

Cappa’s take: It may not be the smoothest or fastest down a dirt road, but it’s pretty freaking amazing for a ¾-ton truck. You can’t beat the pure work-truck capability. It’s the only modern day U.S. 4x4 offered with a winch. And it’s a really trick hidden mount to boot!

Holman’s take: This was Dodge’s version of the Wrangler Rubicon. It was the Jeep for those who needed a big truck to haul and tow. With rocker protection and a Warn winch, it was essentially unstoppable—plus it was the best-riding Ram with the Bilstein shocks.

Brubaker’s take: Hands-down the most capable fullsize pickup to that point. It was the Wrangler Rubicon of pickups. I feel the ’05 Power Wagon trumps the current model due to standard factory rocker protection and a shorter wheelbase, shorter overall length, and less weight.

1992 Hummer H1
Nominated by: Holman

Overview: The civilian version of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (better known as the Humvee), the first year Hummer H1 was powered by a non-turbocharged 6.2L diesel engine that was mated to a three-speed automatic transmission. Options included air conditioning (late 1992), 120-amp alternator, Central Tire Inflation System, and 12,000-pound winch.

Holman’s take: The Duramax-powered ’06 Alpha model was the cream of the crop with a near-complete overhaul of the drivetrain and new interior that made the H1 much more civilized and easy to live with.

Cappa’s take: It was the ultimate American 4x4. It oozed excess, which was big at the time. But in the grand scheme of things, it was simply ridiculous. It was big, heavy, slow, only seated four people (uncomfortably), and got terrible fuel economy. Only Americans and people in small countries liberated by the American military would come to love it.

Brubaker’s take: It was an expensive niche vehicle, but cool nonetheless. It was as tough as the military version but without the Spartan-ness. It was like buying a fighter jet, upgrading the interior with leather and other luxuries, and using it as your personal aircraft. Not really all that practical, but a heckuva lot of fun.

1984 Jeep Cherokee XJ
Nominated by: Holman

Overview: This unitbody SUV was available in two- and four-door configurations with either a 2.5L four-cylinder or a 2.8L V-6, both carbureted. The suspension was called Quadra-Link and it located a pair of solid axles.

Holman’s take: It started the four-door craze and brought capability to families needing a smaller vehicle. It could be said that this is the predecessor to the JK Unlimited (even though there is a size discrepancy). A Cherokee Classic is the best of the breed, with a nicer interior and best drivetrain offerings.

Cappa’s take: The only real bummer was the available drivetrain at the time. Of course, over the years the powertrain improved. But today, unlike most of the other vehicles on this list, you can’t even give away an ’84 XJ.

Brubaker’s take: The XJ went head to head with the likes of the S-10 Blazer, but differed by offering Jeep ruggedness in the form of better approach and departure angles and a solid front axle. The first XJ revolutionized the small SUV scene, even with the suspect carbureted I-4 and V-6 engines and weak transmissions. I owned an ’84 with the I-4 and five-speed manual transmission and it was the most unreliable vehicle I have ever owned. Nonetheless, the XJ itself was game-changing.

1989 Dodge W250 Cummins
Nominated by: Cappa

Overview: The first generation Dodge Ram had been around for quite a while before Dodge dropped the 160hp, 400 lb-ft Cummins turbodiesel between the framerails in 1989. The Cummins was mated to either a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission.

Cappa’s take: Putting the Cummins engine in a light-duty truck really upped the ante in multiple ways. The ’89 Cummins made Dodge the first of the Big Three to offer direct injection, a turbocharger, and an intercooler. The Ford didn’t get direct injection until the ’94½ model and the GM didn’t get it until 2001. Ford didn’t offer a turbo until 1993 and GM didn’t get it until 1992. Ford didn’t offer an intercooler until 1999 and GM was sans-intercooler until 2001. Today, the old Cummins 12-valve is typically the engine of choice for diesel performance guys. It’s the GM small-block of the diesel world.

Holman’s take: Essentially a medium-duty engine in a light-duty truck, this level of power had never before been seen in the consumer-duty marketplace. The legendary Cummins gave Dodge instant credibility, something its neglected truck line sorely needed.

Brubaker’s take: Offering the Cummins in the old, outdated pickup gave Dodge a shot of increased sales and newfound respect. Interestingly, these old Cummins 12-valve engines are in big demand nowadays for swaps.

2009 Hummer H3 Alpha Adventure
Nominated by: Brubaker

Overview: The H3 debuted as an ’05 model, but in ’09 Hummer added an electric front locker to the list of available equipment. Other features available included a rear locker, 4:1 ratio transfer case, underbody/rocker protection, exterior-mounted spare, and recovery shackles. The Alpha option fitted the rig with a 5.3L V-8.

Brubaker’s take: The H3’s demise notwithstanding, this IFS vehicle was groundbreaking with its available trail-friendly goodies. But most amazing is that it was available with an electric locking front differential to go along with the rear locker. Had this ever been done before on an IFS vehicle? Has it been done since? I don’t think so, which makes it pretty gosh darn noteworthy.

Cappa’s take: I disagree. I hated this thing and all of the other Hummer derivatives (not including the H1). It was a total marketing ploy to make people think they were getting a real Hummer (at a fraction of the price). What they ended up with was a body-swapped GM 4x4 that was poorly re-engineered. The terrible visibility was included as a free bonus; you could back up over an entire schoolyard full of kids and never even know it. It’s kind of a counter-productive feature if you’re building a 4x4 to be used off-road. Of course it’s the only IFS 4x4 with a factory front locker, because the tie rods eject themselves the moment you flip the locker switch. Ultimately, Hummer H3 was the vehicular-equivalent of ordering a fine beer with a good head on it only to receive a pint of apple juice with whipped cream smeared on top. Just gross.

Holman’s take: Cappa is absolutely wrong here. He comes from a long list of Hummer haters that rather buy in the anti-Hummer feeding frenzy than take the vehicles for what they truly were. The H3 was a made-in-America GM platform, but it was re-engineered for the Hummer mission. This vehicle was incredibly tough, as proven on the racecourse in Baja and on unimproved Third World roads in international markets. The V-8 power, 33-inch tires, 4:1 ratio T-case, 4.10:1 gears, and front and rear lockers gave it the capability that was only surpassed by Jeep’s Wrangler Rubicon, but with more interior comfort and luxury. And don’t forget that the H3 Alpha was the winner of our prestigious Four Wheeler of the Year award.

1997 Jeep Wrangler TJ
Nominated by: Brubaker

Overview: The Wrangler TJ was completely re-engineered for the 1997 model year. It was wider than its predecessor the YJ, it sported a new coil spring suspension, a new interior that was more comfortable, vastly improved HVAC system, and a redesigned soft top.

Brubaker’s take: The TJ was vastly different than the YJ, yet it still retained basic Wrangler attributes like a folding windshield and removable doors. It’s an animal on the trail, yet relatively refined on pavement. Personally, I like the fact that it had no electronic crap like traction control and stability control. Unless a miracle happens, the TJ will probably go down in history as the last electronically-unadulterated, easy-to-modify 4x4 produced.

Cappa’s take: The aftermarket parts industry literally exploded when the TJ was introduced, in some cases like a rotting cow corpse. Many of the aftermarket products that became available were completely worthless and as hideous as dangling cow entrails. But the vehicle itself is indeed worthy of this list. It’s funny how a vehicle that was originally despised for its comfort and interior amenities is now embraced by the core of the 4x4 enthusiast market.

Holman’s take: The TJ was immediately panned for having expensive-to-lift coil-link-sprung suspension, but the detractors were quickly silenced as the TJ brought new levels of streetability and flex to the Wrangler platform. It proved to be incredibly popular and was the impetus to an entire aftermarket industry. Where would we be without the TJ paving the way?

2000 Dodge Dakota Quad Cab
Nominated by: Brubaker

Overview: The second-generation mid-size Dodge Dakota debuted in 1997, but it wasn’t until 2000 that it became available as a Quad Cab. This model had a slightly shorter bed, but it added rear seating for three or the seats could be folded for hauling cargo. It was available with a V-8 engine and a limited-slip differential.

Brubaker’s take: When the Dakota debuted in 1987 I thought it was a great compromise between fullsize and compact truck. It sold pretty well and looked sharp. When the Quad Cab configuration came along in 2000 it seemed to me the truck had instantly become a more viable option for families and those needing to haul gear. Aftermarket support was limited, unfortunately.

Cappa’s take: I remember when the Dakota Quad Cab was introduced. Dodge spent a mint on marketing this truck, but it just didn’t do much for me.

Holman’s take: This is at a time when Dodge was redefining itself with bold styling and products. The Dakota Quad Cab shared much with the Durango, which was good and bad. The styling, which looked great on the 4x4s with the optional 31-inch tires, didn’t translate as well to lesser models, making those trucks look awkward and under-tired. At least it offered real V-8 power at a time when gas prices were low and it was the only American sub-fullsize to offer real rear doors and seating accommodations. I’m still surprised that the aftermarket never embraced the Dakota. To me, it seemed like it was at a sweet spot of the market. Maybe this generation was ahead of its time.

1986 Suzuki Samurai
Nominated by: Brubaker

Overview: The Samurai was powered by a 1.3L four-cylinder engine that made 63 horsepower. Solid axles were used front and rear and a two-speed transfer case split power to the axles. Suzuki sold 47,000 Samurais in the first year, the bulk of which were convertibles.

Brubaker’s take: What’s not to like? They were inexpensive, they sported solid axles, and they had a two-speed transfer case. They were nimble and simple. It’s no wonder they sold so many of these. Someone needs to produce something like this again.

Cappa’s take: It was way before its time. And it’s unfortunate that it was not introduced when fuel was more expensive. The carbureted ’86 Samurai was rated at 23 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. In the late ’80s and early ’90s a gallon of gas cost about a buck, so few cared about fuel economy. Today, if Suzuki, Jeep, or anyone else created a similar fun, small, capable, easily-modified 4x4, that got great fuel economy they’d have a winner. Think mini-Wrangler.

Holman’s take: If it weren’t for the biased media outlet that destroyed the Samurai’s reputation, we might still be enjoying this nimble and fun little wheeler today. In the current market there is no doubt it would be a hit, especially for those cross-shopping little cars. Are you listening, Suzuki?

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