Not surprisingly, all of these vehicles perform well in the dirt. What was a surprise, however, was that the least trail-friendly rig was the solid rear-axle, body-on-frame Lexus with its lack of skidplating and overactive electronics. For example, on a steep fire road, a little slip from the inside rear tire on a turn would cause the GX to beep at the driver and the electronics to intervene.
We did manage to get the GX stuck in the sand once, where we discovered the lack of real tow hooks. There are tow points under the front, but they necessitate the use of a shackle for recovery. The hitch and plug also dangle vulnerably under the rear bumper, just waiting to catch on trail obstacles.
The GX is equipped with a fantastic Torsen limited-slip center differential that can be locked, but unlike its 4Runner cousin, it doesn't offer a rear locker. This didn't stop it from doing well on the Hill Climb, but the lack of Hill Descent Control (HDC) left it feeling outmatched by the others on the way down. Our tester was also devoid of Crawl Control, which is one feature that would have elevated its status in the dirt.
Part of the Grand Cherokee's new strategy for the dirt is Selec-Terrain. This knob, similar to the Land Rover Terrain Response system, allows the driver to access different vehicle parameters depending on the conditions the vehicle is driving in. Our testers felt that while it worked well, it wasn't quite as dialed in as the LR4.
Another aspect of the Grand that was not quite as refined as the LR4 was the air suspension. With limited travel at the highest setting, the vehicle would constantly get into the rebound springs, causing a normal but disconcerting "thunk" through the chassis, leaving the Grand feeling slightly unpolished in rocky or rough terrain.
Testers also missed the front ELSD from the previous generation Grand Cherokee. The 2011 model uses only a rear ELSD and relies on brake traction control (BTC) for the front. While the BTC works, it is not as immediate as we would like, and allows a certain amount of tire slip that hampers the Grand's climbing ability on loose, rocky surfaces. That being said, even with wheels in the air, the Grand never had problems getting enough traction to maintain forward momentum.
We did think that the Grand's HDC was the best in the bunch. It worked so well on steep slopes that it would sometimes bring the Grand to a complete stop. It does a great job of masking the Jeep's surprisingly high 28.3:1 crawl ratio.
A mechanical failure on our Grand caused a loss of front wheel drive, but not mobility. The occurrence happened to the Jeep on the last run of our Hill Climb, necessitating replacement of our vehicle (see sidebar on page 31).
Ironically, it was the Land Rover that felt the most Jeep-like on the trail, offering great sightlines, supple suspension and an overall polished feeling wherever it went. Terrain Response was amazingly dialed in, much better than in previous generations, and traction on loose surfaces was never lacking. Several of the logbooks noted how confidence inspiring the LR4 was and that it was able to easily walk up the Hill Climb.
As good as the LR4 was on the trail, it had a tougher time in sand, where the traction control cut in a little too early to realize the potential of the sweet 5.0L V-8. This resulted in a pretty deep stuck that gave us a chance to evaluate the front tow point that is hidden behind a removable plastic panel. This made the LR4 difficult to recover, to say the least.
We also managed to overheat the suspension system's compressor in the sand, causing the LR4 to enter default mode; this resulted in the suspension completely lowering in the front and the loss of all ground clearance. It was a contrast to the Grand's system, which has check valves in its system and will default to its current height. After about an hour of cooling, the Land Rover's air suspension returned to its former glory, and the LR4 continued on without any other problems.
At the end of the weeklong test, we gathered our opinions and impressions, loaded up the logbooks, and added up the scorebooks to bring you our 2011 Four Wheeler of the Year.