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2003 Four Wheeler of the Year

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on August 21, 2003 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Four Wheeler Staff

Just when we get to thinking that factory-fresh four-wheelers can't get any better, they get better. This is a pretty good deal. When you improve on an already high standard of excellence, everybody benefits. Quantifying those benefits, and apportioning kudus where they are deserved, is the point of Four Wheeler of the Year.

The point of the exercise is to find the new vehicle that offers the most balanced performance to the four-wheeling enthusiast public. That's a careful definition, because if we were looking for the vehicle that provided the best trail performance, or the most hauling capacity, or the best highway manners, well, that would greatly narrow the focus of what we're trying to accomplish. If we focused on trail performance only, for instance, it would mean that a Jeep might win every year. As much as we admire Jeeps of all stripes, that would not serve our interests, or yours.

When we select pals--either male or female--we tend to look for someone with a balanced personality. Same deal here. We're looking for the vehicles that do it all well, that present a terrific balance of trail and pavement manners and with the fewest tradeoffs or compromises in either direction. When manufacturers approach four-wheelers from that direction, we all benefit. When they don't, we don't.

This year we had a terrific crop of contenders. This crop was composed of the Hummer H2, the Toyota 4Runner, the Kia Sorento, the Lexus GX470, the Ford Excursion, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and the Mitsubishi Montero. To make it into this field, each vehicle had to be either new or substantially revised. All were. And frankly, all were, in their own ways, really excellent. We'd be happy to own and wheel any one of them. But we go about this methodically, by the numbers, and only one of the seven gets to be Four Wheeler of the Year. Which one is it? Read on, dear reader, read on.

-Jon Thompson

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Ford Excursion Ford Excursion
Hummer H2 Hummer H2
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Kia Sorento Kia Sorento
Lexus GX 470 Lexus GX 470
Mitsubishi Montero Mitsubishi Montero
Toyota 4Runner Toyota 4Runner

How We Test Them

Testing seven brand new SUVs isn't easy, but someone has to do it. While it is lots of hard work planning and organizing it is also a lot of fun too. Plus we take it as our duty to test the vehicles and report the results to you.

On the first day of the test we head out to Los Angeles County Raceway to put the SUVs the acceleration and braking testing. From there it is off to our desert test trail for plenty of time in the dirt. This year we suffered two flats and two stucks on this rock-infested trail. After lots of wheeling and plenty of photography we head up the mountain to beautiful Big Bear, California for a well-deserved dinner and rest.

The next morning we head out bright and early for the dunes of Dumont, CA. It is a long trip but gives us plenty of time on the highway with the vehicles. We also get to tackle the twisty pavement roads along the way. Once at Dumont we attack the dunes and try to have some fun. This year we encountered a massive sand storm, which made us flee. After that it is back to the home base of Big Bear.

Bright and early the next morning we tackle the many trails of Big Bear, getting some time on the pavement in between. This time we encountered a freak snowstorm and cool temperatures. After a full day on the trail we wake up the next morning for more trail time.

All along the way we are taking plenty of notes and judging each vehicle in a five separate categories. The mechanical category accounts for 25 percent of the final score while trail performance accounts for 30 percent. Another large category is highway performance, which is 20 percent of the final score. Smaller categories are interior and exterior and account for 15 and 10 percent respectively. After the test is over we tally up the scores and have a winner.

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Seventh Place

Kia Sorento

What's new

For '03, Kia, that surprising Korean company, introduced an all-new vehicle, the Sorento. Bigger in size than the Sportage, the Sorento sports a 3.5L V-6 that puts out 192 hp at 5,500 rpm and 217 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm. This five-passenger SUV is built on a full ladder frame that features nine crossmembers for maximum strength. Suspension consists of IFS/double wishbones with coil springs up front and a solid-axle/five-link/coil system out back. Steering is a power-assisted rack-and-pinion system and brakes are discs at every corner. Compared to the Sportage, the Sorento is bigger, more powerful and more refined.

What we liked

Probably the biggest surprise to our judges was the Kia's wheel-ability. Somehow, the Sorento would always find traction, and as a result, it was able to climb over most obstacles we pointed it toward. The Sorento has a limited-slip rear diff, but this rarely would engage, as there was hardly ever any wheelspin. Most of us were just left scratching our heads wondering how the Kia found traction. It's that effective, at least in part thanks to its excellent Michelin tires.

Another surprise was how the Kia handled twisty pavement--it did so with ease. The Sorento was a joy to push hard through the corners. Aiding the Sorento in the twisties was its rack-and-pinion steering providing excellent feel and precision. Our judges also liked the brake-pedal feel of the four-wheel disc brakes, which offered good feedback and made the brakes easy to use. Our team of judges also approved of the willing, revvy engine.

What we didn't like

Probably biggest on everyone's gripe list was the Sorento's ride. Whether it was on the trail or the highway, the Sorento was just a bit too stiff. Its suspension did not want to absorb small impacts, transferring them instead to its occupants. This made for a busy, unsophisticated ride, regardless of the terrain.

Another complaint was the Sorento's low height. Most of the time the Kia's underside was hitting something on the trail, as it just did not have the height needed to clear most trail obstacles. Unearthly grinding and scraping noises could be heard as the Sorento dragged itself across the trail. An unseemly amount of engine, road and wind noise also made its way into the interior of the Kia. It just was not as quiet as the other vehicles on the test, but to be fair, it was also one of the least expensive. A young cacophony of squeaks and rattles also developed on the inside of the Sorento over the course of our test.

Check It Out If:

You're looking for an honest, basic 4x4 SUV that will fit into a tight budget.

Avoid It If:

You need a bit of room--the Sorento is the smallest of this bunch.

The Short Version:

Smooth, willing V-6 engine. Nimble chassis, especially on curvy pavement. Surprisingly capable in the dirt. Not enough low-range-ratio. Comes wearing high-end Michelins, a good thing.

Final Verdict

Just because the Kia finished last in this strong group of vehicles does not mean we aren't fans. It isn't a perfect vehicle--which of them is?--but it does offer good value.

Sixth Place

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

What's new

If you haven't heard about the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, you just haven't been paying attention. The folks at Jeep took the normally capable TJ and equipped it with an assortment of hard-core trail goodies to make it even better. Most notable of these are Dana 44 axles front and rear that are equipped with air lockers and 4.10 gears. Of course, there is also the 4:1 low range of the NV241OR transfer case, disc brakes at every corner, 31-inch Goodyear MT/R radials, and 1330 U-joints. Armed with this impressive list of equipment, the Rubicon is set to do battle.

What we liked

It came as no surprise to us that the Rubicon was awesome on technical trails. Put it in low range, first gear and engage the front and rear air lockers and the 'Con would go pretty much anywhere. It was only limited by its lack of under-chassis clearance, but could easily take lines that the other vehicles could only dream of taking.

We liked most of the mechanical aspects of the Rubicon. How can you not like a lever-operated transfer case with a low-range of 4.0:1? Or air lockers built by Tochigi Fuji Sanjyo front and rear that engage with the push of a button? Praise also went to the Goodyear MT/Rs, which provided good bite and traction in most situations.

What we didn't like

While the Rubicon did perform well while crawling over the rocks, it did not fare well in other types of terrain. On washboard dirt roads the Rubicon was way too stiffly sprung, and this, combined with its short wheelbase, made it a handful. In the sand the Goodyear MT/Rs were too aggressive and tended to dig rather than float.

Something everyone noticed and commented upon was the Rubicon's lack of power. For whatever reason this was the most underpowered TJ we had ever driven. Finally, the Rubicon was not a fun vehicle to be in on the pavement. Lots of engine and wind noise made its way into the interior. The stiff springs made for a busy and nervous ride. Our Rubicon also seemed to like to move around on its rear axle, which made for constant corrections at the steering wheel.

Check It Out If:

Rocks are your thing.

Avoid It If:

You have to commute in it.

The Short Version:

Note to Jeep: It's time for the 3.7L V-6. Brilliant at what it's built for, less than brilliant everywhere else. It has the T-case and differentials every 4x4 should have. Five-speed trans nice and shifty. Plenty of underbody protection.

The Final Verdict

The Rubicon is a specialized vehicle built for technical trail sections. That's it. We love the fact that it does not pretend to be something it is not, and our hats are off to Jeep for building it. However, it did not do well in this comparison test, in which many aspects beyond trail performance are considered and evaluated. To the hard-core enthusiast, however, this should mean nothing. If you are looking for the most capable Jeep ever built, we advise you to rush right out and buy one of these--as long as you're sure you won't mind living with its shortcomings on the pavement.

Fifth Place

Ford Excursion 6.0L Power Stroke

What's new The big news for the Excursion is what is found lurking under its massive hood--the all-new 6.0L V-8 Power Stroke. While we affectionately refer to this engine as the baby 'Stroke, it is no baby. It packs 325 hp and 550 lb-ft of torque while offering reduced emissions and noise. Bolted to the 6.0 is the all-new TorqShift five-speed automatic transmission. Besides those additions, changes are limited to things like colors and trim.

What we liked

Tops on everyone's list was the P-Stroke's power output. It is hard to argue with an engine that produces this kind of power and torque, and none of our judges did. There was just a bit of turbo lag right off the bottom, but then the Stroke would accelerate with an amazing rush. It was the second-quickest out of our group at the dragstrip, which is quite amazing when you consider its size. Also receiving praise was the Torqshift five-speed automatic transmission. Its operation was seamless and it always seemed to have the appropriate gear for the job. Our judges also liked its tow/haul mode. Once engaged, the transmission would raise its shift points, and downshift automatically. The downshifting is an especially nice touch, as it helps take advantage of the diesel's awesome compression braking.

On the trail, the diesel Excursion was an effective crawler. The diesel's awesome torque and compression braking allow it to crawl along with hardly any input to the brake or gas pedal. It was easy to finesse it through difficult sections of the trail, as just a tad of throttle was needed to overcome most obstacles.

Our judges also liked the massive interior of the Excursion. It was huge, and was the only vehicle that could accommodate all of our staff at once--important at day's end, when we all wanted to head out to dinner. We also constantly found ourselves throwing our mountain of luggage into it, as it all would fit with ease.

What we didn't like

Everyone complained about the steering on the Excursion. It was vague, sluggish, and required constant recentering to keep the big Ex heading straight. There also were times on the trail when it simply did not have the power to turn the tires.

Another complaint was the Excursion's massive size. On the dirt it felt like we were trying to take a school bus over the trail. In the city it was hard to find a parking spot for the massive beast. While we did enjoy its gargantuan interior, its giant size made it a hard vehicle to live with.

Check It Out If:

You need to haul a bunch of people in great comfort and security while easily towing your trail rig straight up the side of Pike's Peak.

Avoid It If: You've got to have crisp, precise steering.

The Short Version:

Power Stroke 6.0L is the engine to have. Good, but not great, as a wheeler. Might be the best tow rig on the planet. Comfortable, understated interior. Dead, vague steering.

Final Verdict

The Excursion is a massive beast that when equipped with the 6.0L Power Stroke makes for an awesome tow rig or family hauler. Just make sure that you have plenty of wide-open spaces for it to roam free in.

Fourth Place

Mitsubishi Montero

What's new

New for the '03, Mitsubishi Montero is a larger V-6, now displacing 3.8 liters. The new engine boosts power to 215 hp at 5,500 rpm and 248 lb-ft of torque at 3,250 rpm and is designed to start building torque early in the rpm range. Also new are throttle-by-wire controls that completely replace the old system and are said to improve throttle response.

Another new system is the Active Skid and Traction Control system that replaces the old limited-slip differentials that were available as options before. The new computer-controlled system uses an Active Brake Traction Control module to control the brakes to limit wheelspin at slow trail speeds or on slippery paved roads.

What we liked

High on everyone's list of praise for the Montero was its interior. Tastefully done and well laid out, the interior made the Montero an easy vehicle to live with. The leather seats were firm, comfortable and supportive. Another nice feature was that the rear seats reclined and provided plenty of legroom. We also liked the trick third-row seat of the Montero--it completely disappears into the floor of the cargo bay when not in use.

Another strong point for the Montero was its highway ride. It would glide down the road and its independent suspension at every corner would suck up roughness in the driving surface without transmitting it to the occupants. Very little wind, road or engine noise makes its way into the interior, and this aural serenity makes for a pleasant highway experience.

Our judges also liked the Montero's Sportronic five-speed automatic transmission. It offers the ability to manually shift the tranny through each gear with a simple up or down flick of the shifter. Best of all, the tranny can be held in each gear all the way up to rev limiter. This was a big aid in the dunes, helping to take advantage of the power output of the 3.8L V-6.

What we didn't like

On the trail, it was easy to discover that the Montero has hardly any flex. Its independent suspension at every corner exhibited very little travel and the Montero will lift tires big-time on uneven surfaces. When this happens the traction-control system kicks in and keeps the Montero propelled onward. However, it requires a bit too much wheelspin to engage it.

Additionally, in low range, both the brakes and the throttle on the Montero are very touchy. This makes it hard to finesse it through technical sections. On twisty mountain roads, the Montero exhibits more body roll than usual. This makes pushing it hard through the corners somewhat unnerving.

Check It Out If:

You're looking for a capable SUV that's been styled to the beat of a different drummer.

Avoid It If:

You want to run in the sand--you'll break the rear plastic panel for sure.

The Short Version:

Very nice engine. Best seats in class. Traction-control system works quite well. Fine visibility for the driver. Not near enough suspension articulation.

Final Verdict

The Mitsubishi Montero is a solid performer on the highway with a great interior. However, if you are looking for a comfortable SUV that also is a capable trail rig, you should move on.

Third Place

Toyota 4Runner

What's new

For '03 Toyota introduces an all-new 4Runner that is larger, roomier, and more powerful. Under the hood can be found either a new, all-aluminum 4.0L V-6 that produces 245 hp and 283 lb-ft of torque or the familiar 4.7L V-8 that produces 235 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. A new five-speed automatic transmission is available with the V-8 and a new Multi-Mode 4WD system is available with both engines. It uses a Torsen limited-slip center differential that can send power front to rear depending upon road conditions. Other advance features like Downhill Assist Control and Hill-start Assist Control find their way onto the 4Runner. The new body also includes a much roomier and more spacious interior.

What we liked

The new 4Runner was a very strong performer. Ours came to us with the 4.7L V-8, and its 235 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque was more than adequate to move the 'Runner along smartly. It was the hot rod of the group.

The 4Runner's brakes are extremely powerful and produced the shortest stopping distance of all the vehicles tested. Another plus was that the brake pedal is very linear, offering great feel and making the brakes easy to use.

The 4Runner's ability to carve through twisty mountain roads is also impressive. Standard on our Sport model is the diagonal-linked suspension system called X-REAS, developed by Yamaha. In this system, the compression chamber of each shock is cross-linked to its diagonal mate, and when a unit deflects, fluid is transferred from shock to shock. This reduces body roll and pitch. It was noticeable, as the 'Runner can be pushed through the corners extremely hard with a ton of confidence. Coupling this with a smooth highway ride made the 4Runner great on the pavement.

On the trail the 4Runner also did surprisingly well. Its suspension gobbled up bumps with ease and it could creep slowly in low range when needed. The power of the V-8 propelled it to the top of most dunes with ease--as long as the Vehicle Skid Control system was turned off. Leave it on, and the 4Runner instantly bogged.

What we didn't like

While the 4Runner did well on the trail, we wished it were a bit higher. Another minor gripe was that the traction-control system required too much wheelspin to engage.

Other gripes revolved around the 4Runner's interior. While the new layout is roomier and more comfortable than that of the previous generation, most of our judges did not like the new instrument cluster, which is difficult to see. Other judges did not like the HVAC controls, and some commented that there was just too much plastic.

Check It Out If:

You're in the mood for a killer ride that will do it all at a moderate price.

Avoid It If:

You're a traditionalist who doesn't trust electronic traction control.

The Short Version:

Terrific drivetrain. Who did that dash? Relies on wheelspin, instead of eliminating same. Hoodscoop is for decoration only. Weirdest heater controls in the bunch.

The Final Verdict

The 4Runner is a strong performer on the highway or trail with an excellent mechanical foundation. Only a few gripes about the interior kept it from finishing better.

Second Place

Hummer H2

What's new

Another vehicle that you have more than likely heard about is the Hummer H2, developed by GM but built by American General. Basically the H2 consists of the front frame section and independent front suspension off of the 2500-series truck and the rear frame section and five-link coil suspension from the 1500-series Suburban/Tahoe. Powering the H2 is the familiar 6.0L V-8, which is backed up by another familiar piece, the 4L65-E four-speed automatic transmission. Wrap the whole thing in a Hummeresque body and dump a new interior into it, and the H2 is born.

Of course the H2 was not just built for looks but also for the trail. A set of 35-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires and plenty of skidplates are a testament to that. Other trail goodies are its rear Eaton electric locker and a Bosch traction-control system.

What we liked

Our H2's suspension, which was equipped with the optional rear air coils, received lots of kudos from our judges. Its spring rates were spot on for a wide variety of activities, from blasting down graded dirt roads, creeping along a trail in low-range or cruising along the highway. Most of the time the big H2 felt like a Cadillac, as it would absorb anything thrown at it with ease. Another plus was that it also offered a good amount of articulation.

The interior of the H2 also scored well with our judges. Leather-covered seats taken from the Suburban and Tahoe that feature lots of adjustability and support supply plenty of comfort. There is also lots of room inside the massive interior, so measurements such as legroom, shoulder room, headroom and just room in general are ample.

In the dirt, the H2 also did well. A combination of its large tires and height helped to give it plenty of clearance. When it did encounter obstacles a tad too big for it, a plethora of skidplates and under-belly protection protected it. The rear locker was also a big plus. With a push of a button it engaged and greatly expanded where the H2 could wander while off the highway.

What we didn't like

Not everything was smiles and sunshine on the trail, however. When the rear locker is engaged the H2 relies on its traction-control system for the front, and that seemed to take plenty of wheelspin to engage. This fact sometimes left the H2 searching for traction. Other problems on the trail included the lack of comprehensive visibility out of that narrow front windscreen, and the vehicle's sheer size. In tight sections, especially, it was a handful to navigate the H2 and see out of it.

Another sore point for our testers was the power output of the 6.0L V-8. While it does produce 315 hp and 360 lb-ft of torque, it was overtaxed when trying to push around the 6,400 pounds of the H2. Most of our judges were left lusting for more horsepower.

Check It Out If:

You want a Hummer that you can actually use and enjoy.

Avoid It If:

You don't want people staring at you.

The Short Version:

Best steering feel of any GM truck. Best interior of any GM truck. Needs the 8.1L V-8. Has lots of clearance and great tires. Not easy to see out of.

The Final Verdict

The H2 is a solid vehicle that is comfortable and competent. However, its traction-control system and power output cost it valuable points.

The Winner!

Lexus GX 470

What's new

The new-for-'03 Lexus GX 470 shares mechanicals with the new 4Runner. However, true to the Lexus name, the GX 470 is crammed with a host of luxury features and other refinements to make it worthy of its Lexus badge. Automatic climate control, leather seating and trim, a premium audio system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, steering-wheel audio controls, a memory system for the driver's seat, steering-wheel position and outside mirrors, along with heated front seats and an overhead console with integrated HomeLink transmitter all come as standard equipment. A wide array of luxury options are available for those looking for even more.

Powering the GX 470 is the same iForce 4.7L V-8 that is available on the 4Runner. Also carried over from the 4Runner is the traction-control system, Downhill Assist Control system, Hill-start Assist Control system and Vehicle Skid Control system, along with the other electronic systems off of the 4Runner. There is one system that's unique to the GX 470--its Adaptive Variable Suspension damping. This system enhances ride quality and handling by continuously changing each wheel's shock-absorber damping rate in response to road conditions, vehicle speed and driver steering and brake inputs.

What we liked

Since we were big fans of the 4.7L V-8 found under the hood of the 4Runner, it should come as no surprise we liked the same engine in the Lexus. With 235 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque on tap, it is able to move the GX 470 with authority. The same mechanical aspects of the 4Runner that ranked at the top also ranked high on the Lexus. The GX 470 shared the same awesome brakes as the 4Runner and its precise and nicely weighted rack-and-pinion steering setup. Also scoring at the top was its five-speed automatic transmission, also shared with the 4Runner. However the Lexus surpassed the 4Runner's impressive pavement manners. Its ride on the highway was silky smooth, and it would easily gobble up irregularities without any jarring of the occupants. This great ride transferred to the trail. Another nice feature is that the GX 470's shock values are adjustable from within the cockpit. This came in handy once twisty pavement was encountered, as the shocks could be set to a firm mode, resulting in impressive handling.

Another area where the Lexus was superior to the 4Runner, and in fact everything else, was its interior. The GX 470's interior was easily the favorite of the bunch. Comfort and luxury were abundant as its leather seats offered plenty of support and adjustment. The inside of the GX470 was a very quiet place to spend time.

What we didn't like

Just like the 4Runner, the Lexus was low to the ground and this was an issue on the trail. Adding insult to injury were the GX 470's running boards, which exacerbated clearance issues. In fact, by the end of the test the running boards had seen more than their share of geolithic modification. At least they remained on the vehicle. That doesn't always happen.

Another gripe was the traction-control system. As with the 4Runner, engaging this requires far too much wheelspin. This is especially an issue on slow-speed technical sections of the trail, where wheelspin never is welcomed.

Check It Out If:

You've got to have a ride that is the most capable, and the most comfortable.

Avoid It If:

The idea of tearing up the running boards on a $53,000 SUV gives you the willies.

The Short Version:

Wears the dash panel the 4Runner should have. Electronically adjustable suspension. Air-adjustable rear ride height. Almost too nice to wheel in--almost. Exemplary fit and finish.

The Final Verdict

This year's Four Wheeler of the Year was a slugfest that resulted in a close finish in which every point counted. So how did the Lexus GX 470 wind up winning in this field of heavy hitters? Well, the Four Wheeler of the Year competition tests a vehicle over a wide range of categories. What wins is a vehicle that is well-balanced and can do a wide variety of tasks well. The GX 470 handled every task we threw at it with ease. That's why it was voted Four Wheeler of the Year for 2003.

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