As we headed out to the desert, the staff was starting to get an itch to hit the trails. As usual, we began our off-highway adventures at our Johnson Valley hillclimb location in the California desert before playing in and around on trails in the El Paso Mountains, as well as some sand and trail testing near the town of Olancha, California.
Running away with the off-highway portion of our testing were the Hummer entries, the H3 just barely pushing the H2 aside in points. On paper, it was a no-brainer, but on the trail, the H3's capabilities really came alive. The suspension was the only one in the group to confidently speed through the whoops without crashing through the travel; the chassis was tight and forgiving, and being a midsize with a super-tight turning radius, it was the only vehicle in the test that could reliably be piloted through obstacles without a spotter. While we'd be the first to ask for a front locker, we have to admit that the Brake Traction Control system works as advertised, allowing the H3 to walk right up the hillclimb on jagged lines. Our number-one request of the Hummer team would be to replace the more highway oriented Bridgestone Duelers with the same BFGoodrich All-Terrains on the H2. Of the four different H3s we have tested in the last three years, all four have suffered from at least one sidewall puncture (our long-term tester had two), and this test was no different as the front passenger-side tire was stabbed in the side by a murderous stick, causing precious air to flee through something other than the valve stem.
The H2 was right behind the H3 in points on the trail, but suffered from a basic case of hugeness and had to be spotted through the tightest places. Like the H3, the H2 has a well-sorted suspension and was also a blast to drive fast on desert two-tracks, and it walked up the hillclimb with little drama. Unlike the H3, the H2 has a more jiggly ride, and the structure allows much more vibration to reach the occupants on rough roads. We also found that while the H2 has the power, it's hampered by a traction control system that is never really off, intervening too much in loose sand. The H2 does offer the best tires of the group, but like the H2, we'd love to see a front locker.
If you like your vehicle to constantly beep at you and bemoan your driving skills, you will be perfectly at home in the Land Cruiser, but if you are someone who enjoys the backcountry for its peace and quiet, you'll be grabbing a pair of wire cutters and looking for a speaker behind the dash, like we were. The good news is the electronic nannies can be turned off-mostly-which minimizes their berating but doesn't disable them completely. With the nannying reduced, the Land Cruiser became a lot more fun on the trail. Its very capable four-wheel-drive system got the vehicle through everything we asked, although the herky-jerky Crawl Control took a little getting used to. We also felt that the suspension, which impressed us on the road, felt loose and disconnected on fast gravel roads and was not up to the task of following the H3 through the whoops sections. The stability-control system was best left in the Off position, as dirt surfaces confused it, causing the system to engage at inopportune times. Our tester came with prototype factory rock rails, which worked great, and we wish every Land Cruiser had these as an option to replace the running boards.
Everyone loved the Grand Cherokee in the sand, and on fast dirt roads, but when it comes to technical sections, the Grand's extremely capable drivetrain and Quadra Trac II four-wheel-drive system are let down by low ground clearance and small street-biased tires. What this rig couldn't accomplish with a pair of real lockers, a mild lift, and even some off-road oriented 31-inch tires-so close, but no cigar. If only "almost" counted as much in off-pavement testing as it does in horseshoes or hand grenades.
More akin to a Nitro with low-range than a modern XJ, the new Liberty has a case of the Needs. It needs bigger tires, it needs more power, it needs more ground clearance, it needs at a minimum a limited-slip, it needs better tuning, and it needs an ESP system that can go full off, as in the Wrangler. The Liberty is a better overall vehicle than the previous generation, but at the expense of trailability. We purposely got the Liberty crossed up with diagonally opposite wheels in the air, and it was helpless until one of the judges hopped up and down on the rear bumper while another drove it through the obstacle. It also failed to negotiate our hillclimb. We did appreciate its compact dimensions and Sky Slider canvas roof, which is about the only feature that gave a Wrangler-like feel to the wheeling experience.
We really like Nissan products, as we have shown in recent years, but this Pathfinder 's chassis just doesn't live up to the heritage of the Pathfinder name. With the limited articulation of IRS, it had a difficult time at the hillclimb and never made it to the top, open diffs not contributing to the effort. It is also hurt by limited ground clearance and the lack of Nissan's excellent off-road package. Where the Pathfinder does shine is on fast graded roads, where the V-8 can be really opened up, but try to drive fast on the trail, and the Pathfinder blows through suspension travel like a tornado through a trailer park. On the sand dunes, there was plenty of power available, but once again, it was the road-biased chassis setup that limited the fun in the Pathfinder and hence, hindered its run at this year's crown.
At the end of a long week of testing and staff discussions, the scorebooks were turned in, added up, and a clear winner of Four Wheeler of the Year 2008 emerged.