Welcome to the 2009 Four Wheeler of the Year competition, where brand-new sport/utilities compete for the title on a 500-mile test of ultimate capability through pavement, track, and trails.
The eligibility requirements are simple. Each vehicle is invited to participate based on it being all new or substantially revised for the upcoming model year. Each vehicle is also required to have a two-speed transfer case, have a production run of at least 1,500 vehicles available in the U.S., and must be available to the consumer by February 15, 2009.
This year's field of five included the Kia Borrego, Lexus LX 570, Nissan Xterra, Suzuki Grand Vitara, and Toyota Sequoia. General Motors declined our invite for the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid.
We score each of the vehicles based on five weighted categories that include Trail Performance (30%), Empirical (25%), On-Pavement (20%), Interior (15%), and Exterior (10%).
Kia's newest foray into the four-wheel-drive world is its midsize Borrego SUV. It is considered by Kia to be an affordable luxury SUV. The Borrego offers body-on-frame construction, seven-passenger capability, and, as in our tester, an optional 337hp/333-lb-ft 4.6L DOHC V-8, backed by a six-speed automatic transmission. A 276hp 3.8L V-6 is also available. The as-tested asking price of our Borrego was an ambitious $39,295. Knowing how well the Sorrento does on the trail, we had high hopes for the Borrego.
Unfortunately, Lexus was unable to meet the time requirements for the LX 570 last year, so they took us up on their re-invite for this year's test. If you are familiar with the Toyota Land Cruiser, then you'll have a good idea of the excellence that the Lexus LX 570 starts with. Replacing the LX 470 in the Lexus lineup, the LX 570 is now packing the 5.7L DOHC V-8 from the Tundra underhood with Toyota's superb six-speed automatic transmission. In the LX, output of the 5.7L is rated at 383 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque. Buying one equipped like our tester will set you back an ATM-draining $80,750.
Suzuki Grand Vitara
We have been chasing the current generation of the Nissan Xterra around for the past few years, and we've never been able to land one in any of our FWOTY competitions. For 2009, the Xterra receives a mild interior and exterior freshening and an Off Road package with a few new goodies, such as cargo-rack-mounted roof lights. The rest of the package, including 32-inch tires, Bilstein shocks, and a rear locker, remains intact. So, once again, we invited the elusive Xterra to our test and this time Nissan delivered. With 261 hp and 281 lb-ft of torque coming from the 4.0L DOHC V-6, the Xterra is no slouch. Our tester had the five-speed automatic transmission and came with an agreeable as-tested price of $30,235.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara has always been a great little SUV, packing tons of value in a compact package. Now that compact package is packing. New for 2009 is a 230hp, 213-lb-ft 3.2L DOHC V-6, with a five-speed automatic, replacing the efficient if not somewhat anemic 185hp 2.7L V-6 from last year's model. We have always been fans of the little Grand, and were excited to see Suzuki reinvesting in the platform. Talk about value-our Grand Vitara had the lowest as-tested price in the group at $25,863.
The last entry in our field of five is the all-new Toyota Sequoia, still sharing a platform with the Tundra fullsize pickup and now a gargantuan size. The Sequoia's main difference is an independent rear suspension; otherwise it shouts "Tundra" just as loud as the pickup does. Our Sequoia was the new top-tier Platinum edition and also came equipped with Toyota's 5.7L DOHC V-8/six-speed automatic combo. In the Sequoia, the engine is rated at 381 hp and 401 lb-ft of torque. Our Toyota's as-tested price will lighten your wallet by $58,765.
With the vehicles ready and testers anxiously awaiting the start of the competition, we headed off to the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, to perform acceleration and braking tests.
As the staff took bets on which rig would be grabbing acceleration honors, it came down to the Lexus edging out the Toyota with a 0-60 time of 7.14 to 7.56 seconds. Our Sequoia wasn't equipped with the optional trailer towing package, so it was saddled with the tall 3.06:1 final drive ratio, instead of the 4.10:1s. The armchair racer in us says that a Sequoia with the shorter gears is good for a sub-six-second run, if you are into that sort of thing. Also in the hunt was the Kia at 7.75 seconds, with only a gooey 1-2 shift holding it back. The Kia did, however, run the engine to redline in every gear. The Nissan was right behind with a run of 8.02 seconds, followed by the Suzuki at a puzzling 9.4 seconds.
At the end of the quarter-mile, the Lexus was still just ahead of the Toyota with a time of 15.42 vs. 15.74 seconds. However, the Toyota was a nose faster at 89.76 mph compared to the Lexus trap speed of 89.29. Talk about a close one. Once again, the Kia was in the mix at 15.97 seconds at 86.32 mph. The Nissan posted a very strong 16.11 seconds at 85.10 mph, showing it didn't give up much to the big V-8s in terms of power. Rounding out the group was the Suzuki with 16.95 seconds at 80.22 mph.
The final test at the track was 60-0 braking distances, which were surprisingly all within a car-length of one another, with the Kia's momentum-defying 133.29-foot distance taking the top honors. The featherweight Suzuki scored a 138.42-foot stop, followed by the Lexus at 139.5 feet, the Nissan with 141.67, and the Toyota with a still impressive 145.39.