Hoooweeeee! Every year around this time, a gleaming fleet of new 4x4s is readied to rumble, turned loose for a week of testing, on-road and off, powered by tireless drivers and company credit cards. If not for the experience and steady professionalism of our testers, yessir, there could be chaos and confusion, not to mention unnecessary tire wear.
But now, gas station cashiers, country store clerks, motel check-in ladies and waitresses at Western roadside cafes can all breathe easy. The Four Wheeler of the Year test is over, with nobody killed or caught, and eight dusty, mud-flecked 4x4s safely returned to their manufacturers, none the worse for wear. Mostly, anyway.
During our week of testing, we covered more than 1,000 miles, burned 363 gallons of gas, 97 gallons of diesel and wolfed Lord-knows-how-many sunrise egg McMuffins, bags of gas-station jerky and stale trail mix.
Most of all, we drove. Starting from our palatial Four Wheeler offices, we caravanned north to L.A. County Raceway for track testing, then followed Highway 14 north to U.S. 395, which took us through the scenic Owens Valley. Staying in touch by radio, we hustled up steep mountain grades well into Nevada, finally settling in the scenic Carson Valley, gateway to a wide variety of trails and the Toiyabe National Forest. In two days of low-range driving, we saw rocky hillclimbs to more than 10,000 feet, waded carefully through eight water crossings, crawled up rock-strewn trails, rattled down dusty washboard farm roads and tried some of the tallest, steepest sand dunes we'd ever seen.
We recorded our thoughts on tape, logged every gallon of fuel, rotated frequently through the vehicles, and debated among ourselves-professionally, of course-the meaning of our conflicting preferences.
We came to consider it the Year of the Diesel, or maybe the Year of Electronics. Confronted by two remarkable diesel powerplants, and an avalanche of functional electronic traction enhancements, we came to sense the tip of an iceberg, a pending transition that could ultimately change the way we four-wheel. In the end, we tallied our score sheets and named a winner. None of us could remember a time when we had to evaluate a fleet of 4x4s all so worthy, from top to bottom. But split hairs we did, as best we could. To find out how we see it, read on.