It's been 12 months since our last 4x4 of the Year competition, and it's time once again to put the finest new four-wheel-drive vehicles into the ring to determine who will be the 2009 4x4 of the Year. Every manufacturer is invited to this battle royale of off-roadability, and each enters with its own unique skills for taking on the tough off-road terrain and the challengers from the other manufacturers. The rules are simple. First, the vehicle must have a low-range two-speed transfer case. We're not Petersen's All-Wheel Drive & Parking Lot magazine. Second, the vehicle must be significantly new or redesigned in a way that's advantageous to off-road performance. Offering a new tone of cranberry-red metallic paint doesn't qualify; offering a front locking differential does. Third, the vehicle must be on sale by January 15 with at least 2,500 versions of the qualifying model to be built. No special edition of 20 solid-axle-with-dual-lockers Caprice Classics allowed; this has to be something the readers can actually buy. Finally, the winning company needs to supply our staff with one of the winning vehicles for a 12-month post-test evaluation so that we can determine whether any glitches, issues, or problems arise. (Next month you can read Rick Pw's recap of the 12 months he spent with last year's winner.)
As for the test, every year we notch it up a bit since all the other automotive magazines seem to tame down their tests as the OEMs tame down their trucks. The goal of the test is threefold-pick a winner, showcase what the OEMs have for all you readers, and explain to the OEMs what all we enthusiasts want from a truck or SUV. That's why we hit harder rocks, steeper climbs, and deeper sand each year and give heavier-ranking points to off-road criteria and lighter-ranking points to street use. The reason is simple-any magazine can pick an all-around winner, but we pick one based on how well it works and holds up to off-road use.
The winner of this test often surprises us, and that is because although we give more emphasis to off-road use, the truck must excel in a variety of terrains. As we all know, what works in the rocks doesn't always work in the sand. And while the security of a long wheelbase can make a hillclimb a breeze, it can also make a rock-strewn trail a white-knuckle, bashed-rocker-panel experience. We have even seen trucks with every bell and whistle get usurped by a dirt-simple truck that has a great power-to-weight ratio, sturdy yet nimble suspension, and just enough well-engineered traction-aiding devices. Who won this year? In a few more pages you'll know, but first let us introduce you to the seven contestants in this year's slugfest. Are you ready to rumble?!