With the new model introductions coming faster than hikes in gas prices last autumn, it was hard to keep track of all the new metal that met our eligibility requirements for our much-coveted Four Wheeler of the Year award. As you know, in order to be invited to our annual test, a vehicle has to meet certain criteria, such as, but not limited to, having a two-speed transfer case, meeting the minimum production number of 500 vehicles, being all-new from the ground up or offering a significant change in drivetrain or suspension, and on sale by January 15, 2006. Those making it to this year's party were the Hummer H3, Jeep Commander, Land Rover Ranger Rover Sport, Suzuki Grand Vitara, and Toyota Land Cruiser.
The Hummer H3, an all-new vehicle for 2006, represents Hummer's attempt to lure the common man in to its fold. Being based on the architecture of the Chevrolet Colorado pickup, Hummer is able to price it competitively, while bringing the Hummer style and image to the average buyer. Hummer spent a lot of time refining that Colorado chassis, enough that the H3 feels like a completely different vehicle, and with some of the best four-wheeling credentials in the test, the H3 is no pretender in the dirt. The only engine available is the 225hp Vortec 3500 3.5L DOHC I-5, and our tester came with the standard five-speed manual transmission, rear locker, and superb 4:1 transfer case. With its armored-truck styling and aggressive proportions, the H3 clearly hails from the Hummer family tree.
Suzuki Grand Vitara
Jeep Commander Limited
Land Rover Range Rover Sport
Toyota Land Cruiser
The Jeep Commander is another all-new SUV for 2006 and the first seven-passenger vehicle from Jeep. Based on the Grand Cherokee and featuring Hemi power, the Commander lets you explore the backcountry with more friends than ever before. Despite sharing the Grand's platform, the Commander has its own sheetmetal and a unique interior. The upright profile, which incited controversy wherever we went, helps to give the Commander a more spacious interior, when compared with the fitted Grand Cherokee. Our example came with the 345hp 5.7L V-8, five-speed automatic transmission, and the Quadra Trac II full-time four-wheel-drive system.
Looking like a Range Rover, but built on the LR3 platform, the Range Rover Sport slots nicely between the two. Still confused? Think of the Range Rover Sport as a more luxurious, sportier, five-passenger version of the LR3. Land Rover sent us a normally aspirated 4.4L DOHC V-8 version with a six-speed automatic transmission. As with the LR3, Terrain Response was part of the package as well as an optional rear locker.
Still manufacturing real four-wheel-drive vehicles at prices anyone can afford, Suzuki has redesigned its Grand Vitara from the ground up for 2006. With a bold and confident new look, an upscale interior, and a fantastic warranty, the Grand Vitara is a lot of 4x4 for the money. The Grand Vitara now has four-wheel independent suspension. Ours came equipped with the full-time Four Mode four-wheel-drive system with the familiar 185hp 2.7L DOHC V-6 backed by a five-speed automatic transmission.
Toyota made a couple of notable updates to the classic Land Cruiser for 2006, including a more powerful 4.7L DOHC V-8, now churning out 275 hp, coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission. Our Cruiser also came equipped with the new Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) system with Adjustable Height Control (AHC) and automatic load leveling. The full-time four-wheel-drive system features a driver-selectable center locking differential.
We also extended invitations to Ford and Nissan for the new Explorer and Xterra, respectively (the '05 Xterra came to market too late to make last year's FWOTY test). Ford declined our invite, and Nissan was unable to deliver an Xterra to us before we turned our sights northward, to the rugged and scenic backcountry in and around the Reno and Lake Tahoe regions of western Nevada.