About six years ago we had to make a tough decision. The 4x4 of the Year competition was in its 10th year, and the nature of new trucks had changed drastically in a decade. On one hand, they'd become the quietest, most comfortable and convenient 4x4s ever offered. On the other hand, traditional 4x4 abilities and off-road attributes had often been sacrificed for the sake of carlike ride and soccer-mom compatibility. So should we water down the test, opting for an ashtray-and-cup-holder shootout? Or should we stick to our roots and maintain the real four-wheeling nature of the test?
You know us. We chose the latter.
However, when you're paying up to 45 grand for some cushy, new sport/utility, you expect comfort and quality-so even though behind-the-wheel performance remains the 4x4 of the Year test priority, the amenities and fit and finish are also considered, just as they always have been. Bottom line: For 16 years, our test has found the single new 4x4 with the best balance of on- and off-road performance, comfort, and value. Here's how it works.
Each year, we invite all the new-for-the-model-year 4x4s and those with mechanical changes that make them perform significantly different from vehicles previously tested. By "4x4" we mean trucks and sport/utilities that have both low range and high range in the T-case-no all-wheel drives, no posers, no station wagons. This year, the field of competitors included the all-new Dodge Durango; the GMC Yukon with the new Autotrac transfer case; Isuzu's all-new Rodeo; the big-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited; Mazda's B3000 with a newly revised suspension; Mercedes' first-ever luxo-ute, the ML320; and the Mitsubishi Montero Sport, which was introduced too late to be involved in last year's shootout. We also invited the Chevy Suburban, the Ford Ranger, the Nissan Frontier, and the Toyota Land Cruiser, not one of which was able to participate.
Once the glittering new 4x4s arrived, we headed out to dull their sheen with more than 6,500 miles of cumulative on- and off-road thrashing. From the dragstrip to the off-road training facility of Hungry Valley, California, to the rocks and snow of the San Bernardino Mountains, to the varied desert terrain of the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area, and on many miles of pavement in between, we evaluated and scored the vehicles in five categories. Those are Ride & Drive (30 percent of the total score), Empirical (25 percent), Mechanical (15 percent), Interior (15 percent), and Exterior (15 percent). Each category has a number of subcategories, outlined in the Test Structure chart elsewhere in this story.
We judge the vehicles by ranking them against one another in each subcategory. For example, in this seven-vehicle contest, the best 4x4 in any subcategory gets a score of 7, and the worst gets a score of 1. These ratings are assigned by each of the voters, which this year included Editor Cole Quinnell, former Editor David Freiburger, Tech Editor Rick Péwé, and Feature Editor Tori Tellem. We also enlisted the help of new Publisher Joe Sebergandio, Editorial Director Peter MacGillivray, and Art Director Alan Huber, but they didn't get to vote.
By the time the test wrapped, every driver had experienced every vehicle in a variety of terrain. We learned what was gonna fall apart. There were at least 10 tire repairs. We slept in some of the 4x4s, hauled lots of junk in others, and crawled into every back seat. Half the trucks were dented and all were filthy. Most had seen terrain rarely encountered by a gleaming new 4x4, and as a result, all showed their true colors. But only one snatched the title of Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road '98 4x4 of the Year.