The first day of our weeklong test started out with a quick meeting in the parking lot of our Los Angeles headquarters. With all of the testers and vehicles accounted for, we headed off to the dragstrip at Los Angeles County Raceway in Palmdale, California. At the track we recorded the performance data, in addition to collecting other empirical information, we spent valuable time walking around and inspecting the vehicles while they were all still clean.
At the track, there was no surprise which vehicle was going to take top honors in acceleration, as nothing even came close to the 345hp output of the Hemi in the Commander, with a 0-60 mph time of 8.9 seconds and a quarter-mile run of 16.51 seconds at 82.59 mph. The second-place 300hp Land Rover was a full second and a half off of the Commander's 0-60 pace with a run of 10.48. The most disappointing acceleration run of the day was by the 225hp Hummer H3, which was even beaten by the lightweight 185hp Suzuki. Braking honors went to the Range Rover, with a distance of only 128.85 feet, while the Land Cruiser was within striking distance at 128.94.
With the track behind us, we had a full day of driving to look forward to. We took our field of five over highways, desert byways, and twisty mountain roads, all in an effort to expose these wheelers' weaknesses on the blacktop. At the end of this test, we drove our group of candidates over 7,300 miles, giving us plenty of time to comprehensively evaluate each vehicle. With long hours in the saddle, favorite vehicles of each individual judge began to emerge.
0-60 mph Acceleration
The Land Cruiser, with its smooth manners and excellent visibility, shined on the open road. The beefed-up V-8 still struggled on the steepest grades, but with its smooth, linear powerband, it always felt willing. The new AVS suspension system also was right on the money, constantly varying shock tuning-and constantly getting it right, finally solving one shortcoming of past Land Cruisers, a too-soft suspension. Our testers found the seats exceptionally comfortable, and the quality interior materials, ample storage space, and low sound levels made for an inviting cabin. The new variable steering ratio, noted by testers, helped the large Toyota feel extra-maneuverable at any speed.
The Range Rover Sport was another staff favorite for long highway jaunts. Exceptionally quiet and smooth, the Sport gobbled up highway miles at supra-legal speeds with effortless grace. The finely crafted interior featured warm colors and more real wood and leather than a Texas ranch house. Generally, ergonomics were good, however the learning curve to operate all of the electronic features was steep and the navigation system felt cumbersome at times. We thought the engine and transmission combination was hard to beat, although several of our judges yearned for the supercharged engine option. We also noted the Sport's six-speed automatic's reluctance to downshift and often found ourselves using the manual shift feature before passing on two-lane roads.
While the Range Rover Sport felt like a finely tailored suit on the highway, the Commander was more akin to a favorite pair of jeans. Unlike the Ranger Rover Sport, you could just hop in to the Jeep and drive, without having to learn any of the electronic functions or decipher dashboard hieroglyphics. Thanks to suspension tuning that is softer than the Grand Cherokee's, it was also an exceptional performer on the blacktop, aided by an effortless drivetrain. However, there is a price to pay, and even with MDS, it gulped down dead dinos at the rate of 13 mpg, and rear visibility with the third seat upright was nearly non-existent. Trust us on this one: With 345 hp under foot, being able to see out the back should be a prerequisite.
Unfortunately for the H3, its smooth ride and comfortable interior were not enough to overcome an anemic engine that struggled to keep pace with the group on the highway. While everyone agreed the Hummer styling hit the mark, outward visibility was hampered by the turret-like interior. Most testers found the seats comfortable, though the power-seat adjustment is impossible to reach with the door closed. All considered, this H3 offers one of the best interiors of any GM product on the market, and with the optional seven-speaker Monsoon sound system and XM radio, it is a nice place to spend time.
The Suzuki Grand Vitara held its own out on the highway, where its responsive V-6 and five-speed transmission were eager to please. The four-wheel independent suspension gave it slot-car-like handling, and the feature-laden interior was a nice upgrade from what you would normally expect in this price class. The Grand Vitara did let in some road noise, but nothing that was objectionable over many hours in the saddle.
When we finally hit the dirt trails in and around beautiful Lake Tahoe, our money was on the H3. With the best approach and departure angles, the best crawl ratio, and the best tire diameter, it was nearly unstoppable and it was the only vehicle that none of us felt guilty taking off-pavement. In the dirt, the H3 is in its element, and with a stiff, well-built structure, the H3 never once creaked or squeaked. We also threw attaboys at Hummer for the beefy shackles that made any recovery operation a breeze. Other than a slightly stiff ride (compared to the rest of the field) and high window sills, which made leaning out to spot trail obstacles nearly impossible, the H3 impressed on the trail and keeps company with the best factory four-wheelers available.
Off the pavement, the Range Rover Sport also did everything we asked of it, though some testers felt that the Terrain Response learning curve was too steep. Terrain Response, while great for 'wheeling novices, left our experienced testers frustrated that it took their driving expertise out of the equation. Despite the staff's split on Land Rover's electronics, the Sport is still an awesome vehicle off-pavement, feeling so seamless at times that our drivers couldn't tell when they lifted a wheel. The few complaints in the logbook surrounded the harsh ride in the highest suspension setting, and the lack of a fullsize spare when the low-profile tires are so susceptible to sidewall cuts.
The Toyota Land Cruiser had the best articulation of the bunch and put it to good use, easily winning over some staffers who thought they already had their favorite trail machines pegged. Another benefit of the Toyota is a low beltline with expansive glass and outboard-mounted seats, which brings the driver close to the door panel, granting some of the best sightlines in the test. Toyota really raised the bar with the new adaptive shocks, and even on the highest suspension setting, the Cruiser never rode harshly. Despite only being equipped with a center diff-lock and electronic traction control, the Land Cruiser confidently powered through the obstacles without breaking a sweat. We also scored it high for having three different recovery options in the rear: a hook, a loop, and the hitch.
We expected the Trail Rated Jeep Commander to be exceptional off-pavement, but in this group, it just didn't stand out from the crowd. The Quadra Drive II four-wheel-drive system felt jerky in comparison to other types of systems in the test, and when driven back-to-back against the Range Rover Sport and Land Cruiser, which felt like rolling terrariums, the Commander just didn't offer the same command seating position and outward visibility. It also had the highest crawl ratio in the group. And even when ESP was turned completely off, the Commander had a tough time in the sand, sticking itself over and over and over again. It's not that the Jeep Commander doesn't get it done off-pavement-we can tell you that the Commander excels at going fast over unchallenging terrain, but when it comes to the harsher stuff, there are just others that do it better.
On the dunes, there was only one vehicle that everyone fought over: the Suzuki Grand Vitara. Thanks to a lightweight chassis and a good power-to-weight ratio, the little Suzuki blasted around the dunes like it was a sand rail in its former life. At one point when one vehicle got stuck, along with the two recovering it, the little Suzuki was used to pull out the bigger machines. If sand is where you play, there isn't a better vehicle in the group. However, when the trail turns rough, the Grand Vitara's low undercarriage becomes a symphony of rock clinks, which can become a bit disconcerting, considering the Suzuki lacks major skidplate protection. While the Grand Vitara is happiest being thrown sideways, rally-car style, on fire roads, it was still capable enough to go everywhere the big boys went and we never once had to leave it behind.
After a week of testing five vehicles, with five distinct personalities, over diverse terrains, choosing a winner wasn't as easy as you might expect. After lots of debate, we collected the logbooks, tallied up the score sheets, and came up with a winner that we think is deserving of the prestigious 2006 Four Wheeler of the Year award.