Well, we jinxed it. Back in our 1996 4x4 of the Year competition, we promised that was the biggest ever comparo of new 4x4s. It was, but for the '99 model year, manufacturers spewed out new models and competitive upgrades like it was a bodily function, bringing this year's test to a record-setting 12 pickups and sport/utilities.
If you've been living in a hole for the last 16 years, then you're probably wondering what exactly our 4x4 of the Year test is. We like to say it's an annual invitation to all auto makers with new 4x4 models or existing ones with significant mechanical changes over the previous model to let us put their vehicles to the test on the highway and off road. What we like to do, however, is to have the opportunity to derby the wee out of machinery that costs more than two staffers' combined yearly salaries and to find out why the manufacturers claim their stuff is better than the other guy's. But either way, our real job is to find the 4x4 that not only is the best performer off road, but the one that gives a cushy ride both on dirt and highway and is best priced for what you get. In other words, the best all-around 4x4 for the given model year.
The categories that the vehicles are judged by are Ride & Drive (30 percent of the total score), Empirical (25 percent), Mechanical (15 percent), Interior (15 percent), and Exterior (15 percent). Each of these headings is broken down into subcategories by which we rank the vehicles. This test involved 12 trucks, so 12 points was the most one vehicle could get in any said subcategory (although ties were present this year), with 1 point being dead-last. Confused? Elsewhere in this story is a full interpretation of what this all means.
However, just to get your juices going, we'll let you know that Ride & Drive includes a comparo of ride quality-both urban and highway-and how the vehicle rates in sand, at hillclimbing, and at high-speed dirt and gravel. For Mechanical, we rank the vehicles by our seat-of-the-boxers impression of such things as the engine's available power, four-wheel-drive engagement, fit and finish, and driveline performance. Interior and Exterior are rated by what we think is comfortable, functional, and easy on the eyeballs. The final section is Empirical, which we don't vote on but rather let the numbers speak; it includes braking and acceleration data we gather at the racetrack and how much the vehicle would set a buyer back.
This year's vehicle lineup was the Chevrolet Silverado, the Dodge Ram Quad Cab, the Ford F-150, the Ford F-350 Super Duty, the Isuzu Amigo, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Kia Sportage, the Lexus LX 470, the Mercedes ML430, the Nissan Frontier, the Suzuki Grand Vitara, and the Toyota Land Cruiser. Each spanking-new truck logged hundreds of miles and layers of dirt as it was run throughout California, including the Hungry Valley SVRA training facility in Gorman, the rock-heavy trails in Lake Arrowhead, and the sand, hills, nachos, and fireroads of Ocotillo Wells SVRA in the Anza-Borrego Desert.
Those casting their two-pennies' worth were Editor Cole Quinnell, Executive Editor Tori Tellem, Technical Editor Trenton McGee, Staff Writer Travis Noack, and Editorial Directors Steve Campbell and Drew Hardin. Those not voting but helping out with the driving, tire changing, and all the other good and evil were 4-Wheel & Off-Road Publisher Joe Sebergandio, 4-Wheel Art Director Alan Huber, former 4-Wheel staffers David Freiburger and Rick Péwé, ad guys Brian Cox and Jeff Nasi, Hot Rod Bikes' main dude Frank Kaisler, Kit Car's Jim Youngs, and Sport Truck's Matt King.
We couldn't have pulled any of this off without the help of Ranger Bill Stewart at Hungry Valley SVRA, Betty Hartenstine in Lake Arrowhead, and Christine Faubel at Palm Canyon Resort in Borrego Springs.
And now, enough with the filler-read on for the year's surprises, the disappointments, and, most importantly, the winner.