As always, we began the test with an assembly of judges, gear, and vehicles in the parking lot of our Los Angeles offices. Once the rigs were loaded up and the testers briefed on the FWOTY rules and routes, we headed off to California Speedway in Fontana, California, for track testing.
The acceleration tests this year were some of the fastest times we have ever recorded. The Pathfinder, with its 310hp Titan V-8, posted an explosive sub-seven-second 0-60 run of 6.75 seconds, beating out the second place 381hp Toyota Land Cruiser by nearly a second and even besting our '05 VW Touareg, which had been the quickest time we've recorded in the past three years. Even the massive H2 posted an 8.25-second run to sixty, besting the smaller H3 by over half a second and just edging out the Grand Cherokee by a hundredth of a second.
By the end of the quarter mile, the Pathfinder was still leading the field with a time of 15.7 seconds and a trap speed of 89.0 mph. Right behind it was the Land Cruiser at 16.0 seconds, picking up momentum with a higher trap speed of 90.0 mph, and the turbodiesel Grand besting the two Hummers. Bringing up the rear was the sorely outmatched Liberty, doing the best it could to keep up with the rest of the group, but falling almost two full seconds behind the tying pair of Hummers.
The lightweight Liberty redeemed itself by earning braking honors with a 133-foot score from 60 to 0 mph. Overachieving as always, the Land Cruiser was right behind, with an impressive 139-foot feat. The brawny H2 scored the longest braking measurement with an anchor-dragging distance of over 165 feet.
After track testing was completed, we fueled up and headed north out of town through the Tejon pass, allowing our testers to not only evaluate on-road ride, but passing power and the ability to climb the steep winding grade out of eastern Los Angeles Basin. From there, it was off to our hillclimb testing location and to points north for trail testing.
The vehicle that garnered the most praise for on-highway performance was the Jeep Grand Cherokee CRD, with its efficient turbodiesel mill unselfishly doling out smooth gobs of fat power on request. Passing was a point-and-shoot affair with Clydesdale-like torque building quickly. The ride and handling in the Grand Cherokee was also the sportiest, with the most carlike seating position, giving it a character on the highway unlike anything else in the test. If there was one complaint with the 3.0L, it would be the slingshot-like delivery of power, briefly sluggish until the turbos spooled, then releasing power like a rock leaving a previously stressed rubber band. Some testers noticed some driveline bind in low-speed maneuvers, but overall the Grand Cherokee CRD was a joy to drive. The interior benefited from driver-friendly controls and lots of storage areas, but with its fast roofline and limited knee room, we wouldn't wish the backseat on anyone over 6 feet tall for too long-at least not the ones we liked.
Also scoring highly in the highway portion of the test was the H3 Alpha with its tight, rattle-free structure, excellent insulation from road imperfections, and a well-matched V-8 providing plenty of extra oomph in reserve. The four-speed automatic, with its widely spaced transmission ratios, rarely had to downshift more than once to get into its powerband, and often held Fourth when other transmissions were downshifting once or twice. There is still something to be said for the old-style four-speed; however, we wouldn't mind having an extra cog or two for extra fuel economy and a lower First gear, like the H2. The steering on the H3 was predictable with a bit of understeer, exposing that it was no Grand Cherokee in the twisties. Areas of complaint centered on the H3's lack of storage areas and limited outward visibility.
Right in the mix for highway was the ever-present Land Cruiser, with its monster engine, expansive greenhouse, and luxurious appointments. However, we were disappointed that our Land Cruiser was a preproduction vehicle and had some uncharacteristic squeaks and rattles, which may have hurt it in scoring here, but which may very well not be present in production vehicles. If there had to be a downside to the Toyota's 5.7L, it is that we noticed a fair amount of torque steer through the full-time four-wheel-drive system as the big rig clawed at the pavement trying to convert twist into momentum. While it won't cure all ills, major kudos went to the Toyota's tailgate, once again the only vehicle in the test with one. Another area that was frequently commented on was the Toyota's layout of switchgear for climate control, frustratingly complicated at first but easier to use with additional seat time.
Our judges filled up the Nissan Pathfinder's logbook with comments of angst over the complicated vehicle controls that, unlike the Toyota, never got easier to use as the test wore on. One tester wrote that the sound system interface is ridiculously designed, with way too much complexity and too many convoluted buttons. Another wondered why the volume and climate control knobs that looked like one another were placed so close together, while another commented about taking his eyes off the road to operate the stereo. Once the right combination of buttons was pushed, the occupants were rewarded with a superior sound system sporting an onboard hard drive; it just took a maddening amount of effort and concentration to get there. There was universal praise for the 5.6L V-8 and the amount of get-up the Pathfinder offered, but that was countered by a too-stiff suspension that was deemed jarring, and by the requirement for premium fuel. Wind noise and road noise were also ample compared to other vehicles in the test.
The Hummer H2, with its rear air suspension, has always been a comfortable highway cruiser, and with its new interior, really made a point of wowing the staff. The ergonomics were tops in this group with everything in easy reach, and all buttons clearly marked and doing what was expected. The new 6.2L engine was deemed exceptional, with a fantastic song emanating from the tailpipe, and testers praised the new six-speed automatic transmission's low First gear and great manual mode, but felt it could use a little more marinating on the electronics side, as the transmission was often caught in the wrong gear on hilly terrain, sometimes double-downshifting to pass on a hill but forgetting to upshift when the hill was crested. Another drawback mentioned by testers was the H2's sheer size, which could be intimidating for drivers not used to piloting anything this side of a dualie. While the H2 was fairly quiet, exhibiting almost no road noise, it did present a fair amount of wind noise as its upright shape pummeled the air out of the way, especially in crosswinds. While visibility is typical Hummer, big mirrors helped in spotting suicidal Civics hiding out in the blind spots.
Another vehicle affected by crosswinds was the Jeep Liberty. What is normally a great sealing canvas roof in everyday driving becomes a swooshy affair when the winds come in sideways. The Liberty also suffered from a suspension that could use a little sorting out, exhibiting the odd mix of impact harshness and wallow at the same time. The Liberty's interior was also lacking, with cheap hard plastics, although the fit was fine and there were lots of cubbies to store things. The 3.7L V-6 was only adequate for most driving, leaving us to wonder why the Nitro's 4.0L was left back at the plant. While the Liberty is certainly an improvement over the previous version, it still left us with something to be desired.
Fuel economy kudos not surprisingly went to the diesel Grand Cherokee, with an overall average of 19.29 mpg during our heavy-footed, trail-heavy test. The H2 rounded out the test at OPEC-friendly 10.64 mpg, but we did see numbers as high as 13 mph during less aggressive portions of our test.