As part of each Four Wheeler of the Year competition, we pack on the highway miles, not only to get to our trail testing locations, but to see how the vehicles would respond in everyday life.
First impressions of the Kia had our testers praising the cabin size and comfort, not too big, but with just enough room. The front seats may have been the most comfortable in the test. The dash materials were nicely grained, featuring soft-touch materials. However, we felt the expanse of light grey was a little much, visually cheapening an otherwise nicely executed interior.
On the pavement, the Kia was a pleasant ride, but nothing exceptional. It was quiet enough, rode well enough, and was dynamically competent, but despite its willing engine, it just didn't do anything that would set it apart from the crowd. As one tester put it, "It just is."
At the other end of the spectrum, the LX 570 impressed at every turn. Loaded with luxury appointments and finishes, it was the vehicle to be in when covering lots of pavement. For such a big vehicle, the Lexus is responsive, has a vault-like noise level that inspires whispering and seats that we'd like in our living room. If there was one major flaw to the Lexus experience, it would have to be a near-useless navigation system when on the move. Instead of being able to change or gather information on the fly, the Lexus requires you memorize a list of voice commands to access the locked-down navigation system.
Out of the group, Nissan's Xterra proved to be the truckiest-feeling of them all, which some testers found endearing. They liked the fact that the Xterra feels like a beloved pair of old sneakers that are comfortable and familiar. Unlike some of the vehicles in this test, the Nissan was the easiest to just hop in and drive, requiring almost no learning curve to operate.
The changes to the new center stack are enough to give the dash a more up-to-date appearance, although the interior is still fairly pedestrian in look and feel. On the flip side, the Xterra has one of the most functional and usable interiors. At least the hard plastics are easily cleaned and don't scratch readily.
One comment repeatedly made about the Xterra was how relatively quiet the ride was, with no perceptible wind noise coming from the roof rack, making it quieter than the slick-topped Suzuki.
While it may not have been the quietest ride in the test, at least the Grand Vitara gives you a cockpit feel and great ergonomics with a very carlike seating position. The dash and lighting look great, but some materials could be a bit better. The Suzuki is engaging and fun to drive, but the engine becomes coarse in the upper third of the tachometer.
The Toyota Sequoia was a bit of a mixed bag for our testers. It offered, by far, the most interior room, with near Lexus-like luxury appointments including a silent ride that has to be within spitting distance from the LX 570 in terms of noise level and smoothness. We were also impressed with the compliance of the rear independent suspension; never did it feel too harsh or unsorted.
On the other hand, we had testers who found it difficult to get comfortable in the seats, and the Sequoia suffers from the same drawbacks as the Tundra with its wide cabin and expansive dash that has oddly spread-out control placement. Just operating the head unit requires leaning forward from the seating position. Like the Lexus, it also features a navigation system that limits function to almost unusable levels on the move if you are not familiar with the voice commands.
When it came to fuel economy over our entire test loop, the little Suzuki took top honors with an observed number of 17.96 mpg, while the Lexus saw 12.7 mpg over the same course. Splitting the difference were the Kia with a surprising showing of 14.73 mpg, compared with the Nissan's 14.84 effort and the Toyota's 13.61 mpg.
This year, our trail testing brought us back to some familiar territory, from the Four Wheeler hillclimb location to the sand dunes of Olancha to the rough terrain in and around the Mojave high desert. This year's competition was won and lost in the dirt.
It was a year of big rims and small tires, bringing about three flats on the rough terrain, including two to our Kia Borrego, which we had to abandon on the trail to find a new tire after the second Hankook sidewall pinch. The Borrego was the classic example of the wrong tires for the job. The hard compound would grip nothing, instead spinning into smoke while trying to climb the simplest obstacles. The Kia was also not helped by an unwilling four-wheel-drive system that inspired zero confidence and left the Kia to spin wheels in a futile attempt to gain traction that left it dug down to the frame more times than it ended with forward progress. It had to be babysat on the trail at every turn, always requiring a spotter and always threatening the need for extraction. The Kia was the only vehicle in the test that managed to get itself stuck in every off-pavement test venue.
Our Lexus was the only other vehicle to incur a flat, with its big 20-inch wheels and short sidewalls, but the chassis is simply incredible in the dirt. The suspension tuning is right on, and the Lexus was capable of speed in the desert you would more realistically expect from a vehicle modified in the aftermarket. The Lexus hardly ever bottomed out, and the structure was tank-solid through all types of terrain. The innovative Lexus Crawl Control, while quite noisy in its operation, worked fabulously in an intriguing display of point-and-shoot wheeling. The Lexus also had cameras that show a view wrapping around the bumper, helping the driver to avoid obstacles without the need for a spotter. If there is one thing the Lexus gives up, it is approach angle from its bulbous nose and fullsize girth that hampered it from completing our tighter, more technical sections of trail.
The surprise in the dirt was the Toyota. Despite it massive size, big 20-inch wheels, and IRS-a combination seemingly destined for disaster-the big Toyota completed everything we asked of it. There were no flat tires or body damage (although we can't say the same for the reshaped running boards). The traction control system, sometimes needing a few goes at it, worked well enough to get through some real tricky spots. The IRS was better than expected, eliminating axle hop in the sand and letting the big V-8 get all of its power to the ground. We think a true rear limited-slip would do wonders for this big guy, but as is, it exonerated itself quite nicely on trail, giving us confidence that the Sequoia would do just fine on a little family excursion to the back country.
The other vehicle we'd most likely take along in the backcountry would surely be the Nissan Xterra. With the excellent F-Alpha platform, designed with wheeling in mind, the Xterra showed its grit on the trail, often going ahead to scout the trail and yanking out other stuck competitors. In fact, the Xterra never got a flat or stuck throughout the testing process. The rear locker, great approach and departure angles, and well-tuned suspension meant the Xterra could be hustled through terrain and confidently tackle obstacles without reverting to the bypass as other vehicles had to do. If there was one complaint about the Xterra, it would have to be the lack of a rear tow point when the trailer hitch is not selected from the options list.
We voted the Suzuki Grand Vitara most likely to succeed "if it just had a couple of more inches of ground clearance." The Suzuki was fast and playful on smooth dirt roads, but the lack of clearance hurt it in the technical sections. In the dunes, the light weight of the Suzuki came into play again, going wherever we wanted and never fearing a stuck. We'd also like to see an ESP button that goes full off, because despite turning off the stability program, at a certain speed the Grand Vitara turns it back on in an apparent design to protect us from ourselves, sometimes cutting into the throttle when we needed it most and killing the momentum-and therefore the fun. But all in all, the Grand Vitara is a lot of bang for the buck, and is capable enough in the dirt that you want to forgive some of its shortcomings.
So with the testing complete, we added up the scorebooks and despite a tight race to the finish, the deserving rig in this test walked away with the 2009 Four Wheeler of the Year award.