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The Best 4x4 Trucks On Earth

Posted in Project Vehicles on June 1, 2006 Comment (0)
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Photographers: The Primedia ArchivesReaders of 4-Wheel & Off-Road

Whoaaa...that's a big claim. The best 4x4s ever? How about best ones this year? No...we already do that. Yeah, OK, guess I gotta take a stance, as this is my own personal opinion...and I know this one will generate some mail. So get out your best stationary, because I'm about to make some claims that you may or may not be pleased with. And one thing you'll almost immediately notice is that 7 of the 12 vehicles I selected for this story are still currently produced. What?! How could a new ride (maybe even IFS! Yuck!) outdo your old-iron solid-axle beast? Well, the truth is that in stock form, many of the new vehicles are able to go places you never could before (in a stock vehicle). We're not talking best build platform here, just stock vehicles in stock trim. And many of us own one of these. You know-the absolute best 4x4 that (insert your brand here) ever made.

The funny thing about this type of thing is that the best 4x4 for one particular person isn't necessarily the best 4x4 for his/her friend. But I'm going to try to base my judgements purely on four-wheel-drive capability, not if it has enough room to take your hunting dog and equipment, or gets better mileage than the rest, or is prettier than the others, or can make a cappuccino while giving you GPS directions (don't laugh, you just wait!). And it doesn't matter if it's an '06 or a '66; you should never get rid of that best 4x4, no matter how bad it gets. And those fools that sell these trucks in the Auto Trader? Well, they just don't know what they have. But you know better than to ever part with a 4x4 that is (arguably) touted as the best 4x4 that an OEM ever made.

Obviously "the best" is really only an opinion, whether or not it is based on certain criteria, and subsequently varies from person to person and maker to maker since some manufacturers have nothing that will meet even half the criteria we would set at the bar. So this is really just an opinion piece on what one magazine writer has come to accept as the ones you wanna keep. So make a list, start getting ready to collect, and tell your neighbors to quit their bitching: You're amassing your collection; the trucks are all gonna be parked there for a long time, so they better get used to it.

And if you have a problem with my choices, then see if I care. Take it up with me at jerrod.jones@sourceinterlink.com. Let me know what you think is the best 4x4 ever and why. Send me some pics (stock) even. Try and remember to title it "Best 4x4 Ever." We'll post some of the better arguments up on our Web site, www.4wheeloffroad.com, and you can give the off-road world your own opinion on what the best 4x4 is. Maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about, but I bet you're gonna have some trouble arguing with my logic....

International-'80 Scout II
International Harvester did come out with some cool 4x4s, though they're hard to find since so many were plagued with rust. But from the few relics left, I'd say that the Scout II trounces all other passenger vehicles IH produced. The last models had Dana 44s front and rear, T-19 four-speeds, and Dana 300 transfer cases, and came powered with an IH 345ci V-8 (which is essentially doomed to be a boat anchor if it ever stops running since there are very few replacement parts for these engines). If there wasn't a T-19 behind the IH V-8, there was usually a 727 auto tranny, but I've heard rumors of some being sold with TH400 auto trannies, and it wouldn't surprise me. In the '70s, whatever was available was often what made it into vehicles as part of standard equipment. If IH couldn't get enough 727 trannies, the TH400 would've been a logical choice.

AM General-H1 Alpha
OK, this is AMG, not Chevy, got it? AMG is still operating as a separate entity, even though it has close ties to GM. AMG is still far enough away with its sole production vehicle, the H1. And the current H1 Alpha is the cat's pajamas. It features a 300hp, 520-lb-ft torque Duramax diesel backed by an Allison automatic transmission for the ultimate in powertain packages. The Allison feeds an NV242 that sends power to AMC 20-based differentials that have inboard mounted disc brakes. The H1 Alpha is an all-independent coil-sprung suspension that holds a 1.92 portal gear reduction at the hub. The 37-inch Goodyear MTRs adorn Hutchinson bead-lock wheels equipped with CTIS (Central Tire Inflation System). Other features unique to the H1 Alpha are dual Eaton E-Lockers and a 12,000-pound winch. If you can convince me that this isn't the most heavy-duty stock 4x4 ever built, then I'll swallow paint chips.

Chevrolet/GMC-H3
All right, back to the fuzzy lines. Though AMG still produces the H1, GM/Chevrolet produces the H2 and H3. And the H3 has got to be the best 4x4 that GM ever sent out of the box. Yeah, I know it's a torsion-bar-sprung IFS, but the rear sports a 1/2-ton 10-bolt packed with an Eaton E-Locker and can be ordered with either a 4.10:1 or 4.56:1 gear ratio. The 3.5L inline five-cylinder engine produces 220 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque that can be sent through an optional five-speed manual transmission that made Editor Rick Pw automatically proclaim it better than a manual-tranny-deficient H2 before even driving one. The off-road package comes with 33-inch tires and the whole thing comes off much less offensive than the H2, not to mention that this one is actually strangely good-looking.

Dodge-'04-And-Up Power Wagon
This was an easy choice. It wouldn't be if we were talking best building platforms. Then, dreams of original Power Wagons come to mind and the previous '94-'01s wouldn't be a bad choice either. But the best stock 4x4 that Dodge has ever put on the ground has to be the new Power Wagon. The 3/4-ton truck comes with AAM's big axles packed with 4.56 gears and selectable lockers. If I stopped right here, it would still be Dodge's number one. But this truck has much more to make it the absolute best: The front antisway bar has a pushbutton disconnect for better articulation off road. And the front bumper hides all but the fairlead and hook of a 12,000-pound winch. The NV272 transfer case sports a 2.72:1 gear ratio, and we're not sure we'd want any lower in this type of truck. The truck can be also be ordered with a six-speed manual behind the 5.7L Hemi. And while we're mentioning engines, why doesn't Dodge offer the Power Wagon with a Cummins? Good question! And we think we may have come up with an answer: The diesel offers mega torque and is quite a heavy engine. The Power Wagon is an off-road packaged vehicle that still carries a manufacturer's warranty. There is a good chance that Dodge felt the Cummins engine was too much for two locked axles to handle in bad off-road situations, and saw better to just not offer it than to get reamed with a bunch of warranty claims on Cummins Power Wagons. This is just a theory though. Maybe Dodge just can't get enough Cummins engines!

Ford-'03 FX4 Ranger
Yes, I can see the hate-mail from Bronco owners piling up on my desk as I write this. How could I possibly look beyond '66-'77 solid-axle Broncos? Well, I hate to say it, but I think you could get further in an '03 FX4 Ranger in stock form. Yeah, the Bronco makes a much better build platform, but if given the right equipment and budget, I could make a Delorean the best off-roading vehicle you've ever seen. Hmm...a 4x4 Delorean? No...never mind. The FX4 might be a better package than you know. It came with an F-150 8.8 31-spline rearend with 4.10 gears and packed with a Torsen limited slip. The 4.0L V-6 feeds power to a five-speed manual tranny or a four-speed automatic that splits power from a Borg-Warner transfer case. The front end is an IFS A-arm setup, and at the end of each hub is a factory Alcoa wheel with a 31-inch tire. The suspension was also upgraded to carry Bilstein shocks on the FX4, so ride was much improved over a stock Ranger. The Bronco? Well, the last couple years were offered with Dana 44 fronts, and they had good suspensions and decent power-to-weight ratios. But the diffs were still open, the tires were wimpy, and it just didn't scream "Ford Power" like so many modified ones today. Have you even seen what a stock uncut Bronco looks like? They look like they have fender skirts for gosh sakes!

Isuzu-'98 Trooper
I didn't know too much about Isuzus before starting this story, but have since learned that they might be the new hot-parts car to either build up or strip down. A lot of 'em are sporting Dana 44s and other beefy drivetrain parts that could be used for other vehicles if an Isuzu wasn't your off-road choice. And out of all the Isuzus, I'd have to say the '98 Trooper was the best 4x4 they ever came out with. Though it sports an IFS front end, the rear is four-linked with coils over the axle. And what an axle! It's an Isuzu-derived part, and sports a 9.61-inch ring gear (that's bigger than a Dana 60, folks!) and 1 1/2-inch axleshafts. On top of that, it has a dropout style third member that is cake to work on or swap out. The powertrain tops the option list with a 3.5L V-6 with 215 hp and 230 lb-ft of torque directed through either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic tranny. The Troopers have always been considered sort of top-heavy, and the earlier models were just plain scary in a normal, everyday turn. But the newer ones have been said to handle much better and have less body roll.

Jeep-'06 Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited
Now, if I had my way and was just listing my favorites, I'd insert a unibody here. Partly because I love 'em and think they're the absolutely best platform for me to build on for my own personal style, but partly to give the Jeep world a heart attack and accumulate more hate-mail than Jp Magazine editor John Cappa. But when I weigh all the factors, there is no Cherokee or Grand Cherokee that could ever be No. 1 in stock form...not without putting the emphasis on street driving anyways.... And certainly not with the introduction of the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited. The Rubicon is probably considered by most to be the best out-of-the-box 4x4 ever made. And the Rubicon Unlimited is just a one-up over the short-wheelbase TJ. With 10 inches more distance in between the wheels, this 4x4 is more than just a rockcrawler and trailrider. Now it's overall off-roadability has been opened up to longer wheelbase stuff like mudding, desert, high-speed, and just plain more comfort on the highway. The Rubicon package (in case you've been asleep the last four years) comes with a 4.0L inline six-cylinder engine, with the '06 model sporting an available six-speed manual transmission (thus why I picked solely the '06). The tranny sends power to the Rocktrac NV241 transfer case packed with 32-spline outputs and a 4.0:1 gear reduction in low range. From the Rocktrac, muscle is directed to front and rear Dana 44 axles, both four-linked and coil-sprung under the Wrangler. The Dana 44s are packed with 4.10 gears and selectable lockers via a dash switch. Take the top off, and you should be good to go for some great fun in the sun. It should also be noted that 2006 is the last year for the current Wrangler platform, and the last vehicle that will ever see the venerable, beloved, and already missed 4.0L engine, besides being the only year a six-speed manual was offered behind it in a Wrangler.

Land Rover-'97 Defender 90
The Defender series of Land Rovers were based on the original Series 1 Land Rover and (lookswise) has not changed all that much. They still have the same classic boxy styling as the first ones, with the major aesthetic difference being the grille which was pushed out to the front of the fenderline instead of inset between the fenders. They were loved when they came out and are still loved today. But in the U.S. you can no longer buy new Defenders, not the 90s or the 110s, because Land Rover did not choose to adhere to the oncoming airbag laws that were required after the '97 model year. But don't fret, rumors of a new one coming into the U.S. are circulating and I'm sure we'll be anxious to get our hands on one as soon as possible (maybe even one with a Rover diesel!). In the meantime, I believe the '97 Defender 90 to be the best 4x4 that Land Rover ever offered in the U.S. I thought about the LR3 and the most current Range Rover as well, with their super-complicated 4WD traction systems and more options than you can shake a stick at. But their low ground clearance, lack of front solid axles, bigger size, and ultracomplex builds made me pick the D90. The D90 wasn't offered with any type of locker or traction control, but it was quite the bitchin' solid-axle 4x4 package out the door. Offset differential axles (both front and rear offset to the passenger side) get fed from a part-time transfer case that gobbles power from the five-speed manual tranny in back of the 3.9L V-8 Rover engine. It's not a very big V-8, but it's peppy in this 93-inch wheelbase package. The suspension consists of a radius arm, a coil front, and a four-link rear, and it allows a lot of flex while still fitting 32-inch BFG Mud-Terrains on 16-inch Rover wheels. And by the way, the BFG Muds were on there from the factory, giving this ride extra points as an out-of-the-box badass.

Nissan-'05-And-Up Nismo Frontier
I would've loved to put the Patrol down here, or even the Pajaro (but it was never a U.S.-sold vehicle). But in stock form, I think I have to choose the '05-and-up Frontier. Besides being a fun little screamer around town, this truck really has the guts to handle off road. The 4.0L V-6 puts out 265 hp and is backed by a good six-speed manual or five-speed automatic tranny that puts together a package that can embarrass a lot of V-8s. The A-arm front end is held up by coil-sprung struts, while the rear Dana 44 is slung via leaf springs. The Nismo package steps it up a notch and offers a rear selectable locker along with ABS traction control and a Hill-Descent Mode which allows the vehicle to crawl down steep inclines without really using the brakes. Can your Hardbody do that? Probably not.

Toyota-'97 FJ80 Land Cruiser
Don't even try to argue with this one. Even you FJ40 freaks! The '97 Land Cruiser has got to be the best 4x4 package that Toyota ever offered in the U.S. The 4.5L engine was backed by a four-speed automatic transmission that gave decent power and a good amount of torque when needed. The FJ80 sported matching front and rear solid heavy-duty 9 1/2-inch ring gear axles with dropout-style third members that made it the most heavy-duty Toyota to date. And if that wasn't enough, how about the option of three different lockers? The transfer case is a full-time 4WD unit with a differential that locks up when in low range, and the axles, both front and rear, were offered with selectable lockers. And this was back in 1997! Where was the Rubicon then? The axles were slung via a radius arm and coil front, with a four-link and coil holding up the rear. In stock form or as a build platform, I think this'd be the Toyota I'd buy if I could see past all the Chrysler symbols in my driveway.

Suzuki-'90-'95 Samurai
Wow, I feel like I don't really need to write anything here to justify my choice. Was there even a choice? I'm sure some Grand Vitara owner is writing me right now telling me all the wonderful attributes the Grand Viagra holds onto.... For the other 99 percent of us, there is no other Suzuki option than the solid-axled 2,100-pound Samurai. But the Sammy didn't find its real home until the late '90s, and was scorned by most due to some biased reporting done in the early '90s about rollovers and cornering. No, Samurais do not handle well, but neither does a dump truck; you have to take things for what they are. Sammys are 80-inch wheelbase vehicles, making them extremely squirrely and reactive to steering input. It was also an extreme economy vehicle that found an afterlife in the off-road community as more and more people started to appreciate their minute size and simple build as benefits off-road. Solid axles front and rear were slung over leaf springs that held 'em in place while the five-speed tranny kicked down power to them through the 1.4:1 high-range and 2.268:1 low-range transfer case. Power originated in the fury that is the 1.3L 66hp fuel-injected engine (that's up from the carbureted '89-and-below which punched out a massive 60 hp).

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