Since 1974, Four Wheeler of the Year has been an annual tradition in the pages of this magazine, appearing on a regular basis for nearly 40 years of our 50-year existence. It is our annual roundup of what vehicles are new in the four-wheel drive market and it gives us a great reason to head out to the dirt for a week of wheeling.
In order to be eligible for Four Wheeler of the Year each vehicle is required to be all-new or substantially-revised from the previous year, have a two-speed transfer case, have a production run of at least 1,500 vehicles available in the U.S., and must be on sale by January 15, 2011. We score each of the vehicles based on an extensive testing criteria of five weighted categories that include Trail Performance (30%), Empirical (25%), On Pavement (20%), Interior (15%), and Exterior (10%).
For 2012 our eligible field included the Infiniti QX56 (which was redesigned last year, but not available in time for our test), the Jeep Wrangler, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and the Dodge Durango. Unfortunately, Dodge declined our invitation leaving our field at just three.
This year’s test took our three competitors on 1,000 miles of diverse terrain and pavement to get a feel for how these vehicles perform under all conditions. During the week, our seven judges rotated in and out of vehicles at a regular clip, filled out comment sheets, and judged the field based on their experiences, resulting in the outcome you’ll read here.
Potentially the most intriguing vehicle in our test this year was the $75,340 Infiniti QX56. While it may seem slightly out of place in this competition, the Infiniti has the pedigree to back up its admission. No longer based on the Titan/Armada F-Alpha platform, the new QX56 is now based on the much-heralded overseas Nissan Patrol. The QX56 features a body-on-frame chassis and all-independent suspension with computer-controlled All-Mode 4WD. Nissan’s excellent VK56VD direct injection 5.6L DOHC V-8 with 400hp and 413 lb-ft of torque, backed by a seven-speed automatic transmission with rev-matching downshift capability, powers the big SUV. In the rest of the world, and now in the U.S., the Patrol/QX56 is direct competition for the Toyota Land Cruiser, giving us lofty expectations of vehicular capabilities.
Our next entry, the tried-and-trued Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, came in with an as-tested price of $32,900, quite the bargain in our eyes when you start to consider the level of equipment. In addition to the Rubicon package, which adds 32-inch BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain tires, Dana 44 front and rear axles with driver-selectable electric lockers, an electronically disconnecting front sway bar, rocker protection, monotube shocks, 4.10 gearing, a 4:1 transfer case and full skidplating, our Rubicon featured Chrysler’s new 3.6L Pentastar V-6 with 285hp and 260 lb-ft of torque teamed with the NSG 370 six-speed manual transmission.
Lastly, our test included the $37,555 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Packed with all of the features of our two-door, the Unlimited adds 20-inches of wheelbase and a pair of rear doors to the Wrangler package. Wanting to round out our Wrangler experience, we requested that our Unlimited be equipped with Jeep’s new W5A580 five-speed automatic transmission.
On our first day of testing, we took our trio to Off Road Evolution in Fullerton, California, to borrow a couple of hoists and a 30-degree RTI ramp, allowing us to get up close and personal with the underbellies of these machines. Surprisingly, the Infiniti was completely unprotected underneath, making us wonder if “skidplate” was lost in translation from the overseas model to the U.S.-spec version. Not surprisingly, both Jeeps had almost complete coverage of the vitals with appropriate sheets of steel, however, both Wranglers lacked true protection for the vulnerable new exhaust trumpets, oil pans (although they are tucked pretty high up), and transmissions. More susceptible to damage than the manual, the automatic features a crash bar that offers at least some sort of protective ability.
On the ramp travel test, the Wrangler bested the Wrangler Unlimited and QX56 by driving an impressive 57.5 inches up a 30-degree ramp, earning a score of 526. This, of course, was with the electronic sway bar system disconnected. The Wrangler Unlimited wasn’t far behind with a distance of 50.5 inches and score of 495. The QX, with a fairly shallow approach angle did its best to just get on the ramp before traveling 41-inches for a score of 338.
From the shop, we headed out to the former El Toro Marine Base in Orange County, California. With wide, abandoned runways, we were able to do all of our acceleration and braking tests. It was here that we could finally open these SUVs up and get a sense for what the individual powertrains and binders were capable of.
The fastest in the test by far was the Infiniti. It felt like a rocket and was a blast to drive, pun intended. The 5.6L is a power-happy mill that is managed by a perfectly shifting automatic meant for fast, seamless power delivery. At one point, we used the empty runway to our advantage and kept the pedal pinned well past the quarter mile marker. We can tell you that at over 120 mph the Infiniti, smooth enough to give the sensation of flight, was still pulling hard and far from running out of breath. It knocked off 0-60 in only 6.85 seconds, exploding through the quarter in 15.38 seconds with a trap speed of 92.99 miles per hour, one of the quickest (and fastest) runs we’ve ever recorded. The engine sounds incredible, the trans shifts were barely perceptible, yet encased in a relative seclusion, we were pushed back in our creamy leather thrones, somewhat isolated from the mechanical doings, as if riding the tip of a Delta 4 at lift off.
If not for the Infiniti’s display of motorized flex, the Jeeps would have been the talk of the town. The manual Wrangler, happy to chirp Second gear, was able to hit 60 in an impressive 7.90 seconds and cross the quarter mile in 16.11 seconds at an incredulous 85.1 mph. To show just how good this new engine is, that is not only within sniffing distance of the Infiniti, but it pummels the time of our previous automatic-equipped ’07 Wrangler Rubicon by a full 4.1 seconds to 60, and 2.56 seconds through the quarter with a more than 10 mph faster trap speed.
The same story held true for the automatic Wrangler Unlimited, which absolutely buried the numbers set forth by our automatic-equipped ’07 Wrangler Unlimited. Compare our run of 8.67 seconds 0-60 and 16.67 in the quarter at 80.5 mph with the 13.08 second to 60 and the 19.26 seconds at 72.35 mph and it is clear that the 3.6L is more than a gratuitous engine upgrade. This engine, regardless of the transmission, is transforming, making the Wrangler fun to drive and, dare we say, quick in the real world.
Before wrapping up our day on the runway, we put the trucks through our normal 60-0 braking tests. Once again, it was the 5,850-pound Infiniti that beat the field. As if it had thrust reversers and an arrestor hook, the Infiniti ground down to 0 mph in only 127.06 feet – again, one of the shortest distance we’ve ever recorded. The 4,132-pound Wrangler was able to haul itself down in 146.12 feet, while the 400-pound-heavier Wrangler Unlimited nearly matched its little brother with a feat of just 146.74 feet.
Fuel economy fell in line with expectations from lightest V-6 to heaviest V-8. Over the course of 1,000 miles and a mix of terrain, the Wrangler achieved the best fuel economy at 15.23 mpg, followed by the Wrangler Unlimited with 14.86 mpg, and the Infiniti rounding out the group with an observed fuel economy number of 13.55 mpg.
3rd Place: Infiniti QX56
Impressive engine and trans, technology-packed, coddling interior
Expensive, no underbody protection, vulnerable tires
A luxurious vehicle that isn’t our first choice for an off-pavement excursion
From the Logbook:
- “Seats fold flat, but center console doesn’t.”
- “Engine sounds great at 6,000 rpm.”
- “More technology than an iPhone – is that possible?”
- “Flat tire. Couldn’t see that one coming.”
- “It only feels long when compared to the two-door. Compared to everything else, it fits the trail perfectly.”