After visiting our top secret hillclimb and dry lake facility, we headed north on Highway 395 and based this year's test out of Ridgecrest, California. From our base camp, we were able to do our sand testing at Olancha Dunes before hitting the Cactus Flats trail just south of Olancha. The rest of the test took us wheeling in and around Randsburg and Red Mountain, California, where we explored Grass Valley, sections of Last Chance Canyon, the Burro Schmidt Tunnel, and Trona Pinnacles.
What felt impressive on the pavement faded a bit on the trail as the Kia started to show some weaknesses. Only mild skidplating and low ground clearance made the Kia more vulnerable to trail damage. Through a section of whoops lasting many miles, the lack of suspension travel caused the Kia to bound and crash over the terrain, relegating it to the back of the pack. We also triggered its inertia-activated fuel cut-off switch not once, but twice on the trail. This caused the Kia to cut fuel to the engine because it thought it had sensed an accident. Fortunately, once we found it, the reset switch was easily reached under the hood, but the owner's manual fails to mention anything about it. We also managed to cause a leak in the front differential housing, but it didn't keep the Kia from continuing on the test. One area the Kia did shine was on the dunes where its high-revving engine and Auto 4WD kept the Sorento running around like a big sand rail.
The Chevrolet twins handle the trail remarkably well, considering their size. The Z71 package offers more underside protection and better suspension tuning than expected, as the big guys did a good job keeping up with the smaller vehicles. It is amazing how fast you can hustle these big guys down choppy dirt roads-just be prepared to slow down when the chop become whoops or you'll quickly find yourself on the bumpstops. The main drawback is overall size and poor ground clearance, although the slightly better approach angles offered with the Z71 package do help a little bit. We were a bit disappointed to hear some squeaks coming from the Tahoe's suspension toward the end of our test, and a loose negative battery connection on the Suburban sent it into limp mode on the trail at night, only resetting after completely disconnecting the battery, which took us nearly an hour to figure out.
In this test, the FJ Cruiser seemed to be the real jack-of-all-trades, doing well in every category. Toyota really has the magic touch when it comes to chassis tuning and the FJ's platform is no exception. The FJ really handled itself well on the trail with a supple ride and excellent handling, although some felt the electronics were too quick to end the fun and the IFS could be bottomed out if the trail deteriorated quicker than the driver could slow down. The rear locker operates as advertised, but we kept dreaming of how much better the FJ would be with a set of 33s on it, like the H3. In addition to the aforementioned visibility issues, the clamshell doors rattled a tune of defiance over rippled two-tracks and soft sand dunes, which is a shame in an otherwise solid structure. Testers also commented that they wish the FJ Cruiser was born more in the likeness of the original FJ and Wrangler and less like a two-door 4Runner.