Every year we round up ALL the new 4x4s on the market and take them out testing. We pack our bags, leave home for a week, and run these new (or significantly changed) trucks through the dirt. The goal is to pick the best of what's new, not the best of what's available.
Imagine you're in a grocery store and you spot apples, a new brand of cereal, an improved flavor of chips, and your favorite beer but now in a can with openings top and bottom. Our test would showcase all these items, telling you why we like or dislike each, and picking the best of what's new. Yes, it may seem like we're comparing apples to ... well, cereal, chips, and beer, and we are, but we're also showing you what's new, not just what's the best.
This year we have just four contenders for 2011 4x4 of the Year, due to two reasons. First, we recommended that manufacturers send only their best contender. For example, Jeep sent us the 5.7L V-8 Grand Cherokee, not the Pentastar V-6 version. This is so that automakers don't compete against themselves. (We may see their other offerings next year.) Second, because we will have a dedicated heavy-duty truck shootout in a few months to pit the 3/4-ton trucks of the Big Three domestic automakers against one another, those same trucks opted out of 4x4 of the Year.
The 4x4s competing for the 2011 title are the Lexus GX460 Premium, the Ford SVT Raptor with the 6.2L V-8, the Land Rover LR4, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. (To qualify, all vehicles must be in production by January, 15, 2011, must produce no fewer than 2,000 vehicles, and must have a two-speed transfer case.) The prices for these contenders range from $40,000 to nearly $66,000, while the power numbers vary from 300 hp to just over 400. Oddly, the most expensive truck also has the lowest power rating.
More than power and cost are factored into our test. We consider on-road drive, cargo space, and general ergonomics, but mostly we judge their off-road performance. How well can we see off-road? Is there good underbody protection? Are the fancy traction control systems too fancy? Does the vehicle climb hills? What about descending hills under control? Can it carve a sand dune, crawl a rock, twist through a ditch, and still bomb across a desert two-track? Will it fit in a tight spot, or are we going to be calling the manufacturer's representative to explain why their new SUV has a dent in the rocker panel? These questions and more set the 4-Wheel & Off-Road test apart from street car magazines that claim to test 4x4s when all they really do is drive to a ski resort or golf course for the weekend.