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2004 Four Wheeler of the Year

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on January 29, 2004 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Four Wheeler Staff

Once again, it's time for our annual Four Wheeler of the Year comparison test, the purpose of which is to learn which one of our contenders is the one we would most want to recommend to you. To get invited to this competition, a vehicle must be either all-new or significantly revised from the previous year to affect its performance on or off the road. This means that vehicles with only cosmetic or interior changes are not invited to compete, but those with significant changes, such as increased horsepower, different suspension systems, the addition of lockers and so on, do qualify for our little soiree.

So we sent out our invitations, and a fascinating bunch of rigs showed up ready for battle. On hand were the Isuzu Ascender, Isuzu Axiom, Dodge Durango, Nissan Pathfinder Armada, Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen Touareg and Lexus GX 470. One of the important things we learned was that as a whole, SUVs are becoming more car-like. This proved to be good in some cases and bad in others. To get the dirt--literally and figuratively--on how every vehicle fared, read on.

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Seventh Place

Isuzu Ascender 7 Passenger

What's New

The Isuzu Ascender returns for '04, but since it was not available for us to test last year, it was eligible to compete in this year's battle. However, this year the name has been changed to Isuzu Ascender 7 Passenger in order to distinguish it from the Ascender 5 Passenger that will be available later in '04.

If the Ascender looks vaguely familiar to you, that might be because it is a near clone of the GMC Envoy. Under the hood of the Isuzu comes either the Chevy's 4.2L inline-six or an optional 5.3L V-8, which also is available in the Chevy. Our Isuzu came equipped with the V-8, which produces 290 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. Mated to it is a four-speed automatic transmission. Up front is an independent front suspension that features a coilover shock, and in the rear, a five-link coil/solid-axle suspension.

What We Liked

The Ascender features a comfortable, roomy interior that makes for an easy place to spend some time. It also has a comfortable and soft highway ride that makes it a comfortable vehicle for long trips. Our judges also found the gauges to be well laid out and easy to read, and they appreciated the climate control system, which was easy to use.

What We Didn't Like

2004 Isuzu Ascender front Interior View Photo 9287168

Unfortunately for Isuzu, there was plenty that our judges did not like about the Ascender. Thanks to pillowy-soft suspension calibrations, handling was poor on mountain roads--the Ascender became the automotive equivalent of a marshmallow as we tried to push it over twisty pavement. The brake pedal was also soft, leaving a dead, squishy feel when stepped on.

Our judges also disliked the Isuzu's steering, which was far too light and felt almost disconnected from the vehicle. The 5.3L V-8 produced power that could be described only as adequate. The transmission also seemed to hunt for the right gear among too few ratios.

Once in the dirt, things did not get much better for the Isuzu. In the sand, the Ascender almost instantly overheated, and had to be parked for our dune testing. On trails, great care had to be taken not to damage the vehicle or get it stuck. This situation was not made much better by the vehicle's running boards, which almost instantly became rock-modified. Unsupportive seats that made you feel as though you were precariously perched atop them let the occupants flop around on rougher terrain. Final Verdict

The Isuzu Ascender reminds us of a luxury car from the '70s. Just like an old luxury car, when asked to do anything more than a straight-line pavement cruise, it could not answer the call. If you are merely looking for a comfortable highway cruiser, it might be for you, but if you expect more from a vehicle, you likely will be disappointed.

Check It Out If:

You always wanted to drive your father's Oldsmobile.

Avoid It If:

Your drive involves corners and anything resembling dirt.

The Short Version

A 4x4 station wagon for people who hate station wagons, and an underachiever for nearly everyone else.

Sixth Place

Isuzu Axiom

What's New

The Axiom has been around for a while, and is set for retirement at the end of this year--but in spite of its impending departure, there's a significantly revised engine under the hood this year. It is still a 3.5L V-6, but it now features direct injection. This technology moves the fuel injector so that it is inside the combustion chamber, instead of upstream of the intake valve. The result is that a much finer mist of fuel can be sprayed into the cylinder, and at much higher pressure. Spraying high-pressure fuel directly into the combustion chamber helps cool the chamber, allowing for a higher compression ratio (10.3:1 versus the conventional engine's 9.1:1) on 87-octane fuel. A more efficient combustion process produces more power, upping the DI V-6's output from 230 hp to 250, and from 230 lb-ft of torque to 246. Of course, a more efficient combustion process also leads to better fuel economy, along with reduced emissions. The rest of the Axiom remains largely unchanged for '04.

What We Liked

Our judges found the new DI V-6 to be a zippy, frisky little engine. While the power was good, most of it seemed to be above 4,000 rpm. This meant that little low-end torque was available and that you really had to keep the V-6 revving to keep the Axiom moving.

The Axiom was also a decent trail performer, which surprised many of our judges. It has a decent amount of flex and it somehow always seems to find traction. These characteristics made into a billy goat, as it would scamper up most obstacles without even spinning its tires--all of this with open differentials and no traction-control system.

In the dunes, the Axiom performed well as it floated on top of the dunes. As long as the revs were kept up (and we mean way up), the Axiom could power its way to the top of most dunes.

What We Didn't Like

While the Axiom did a great job of finding traction, it was far too low for the trail, and would constantly scrape its belly or get dinged in the nose by even the smallest of trail obstacles. This left most of our judges lukewarm about its overall trail performance.

Almost all of our judges disliked the Axiom's HVAC system controls, finding them confusing. The Axiom uses a small display screen to show HVAC and audio functions, as well as direction of travel, date, outside temp and so on, and our judges found this to be too much info poorly organized into one area.

Other gripes also focused on the interior. Most of our judges noted that a surprising amount of wind noise made its way into the interior at highway speeds. The majority of our judges also disliked the Axiom's seating position, which was so low that it felt like we were sitting on the floor. Our taller judges (those over 6 feet) also found the front seats to be somewhat cramped, and many found their feet and legs cramped in a small footwell, and their lower legs squished up against the center console.

Final Verdict

The Axiom is a mixed bag of an SUV. Our judges liked the power of the new DI V-6, but did not like the fact that most of its power and torque is found so high in the rpm range. While it was a competent trail performer, it lacked ground clearance. The interior also left our judges lukewarm. With these negatives to counteract most of the Axiom's positives, it wound up finishing at the back of the pack.

Check It Out If:

You're interested in a compact vehicle with considerable capability.

Avoid It If:

You're of more than average size.

The Short Version

It's compact, nimble and quick. It's interior is cramped, and it's engine will, we hope, find a more hospitable home next year.

Fifth Place

Dodge Durango

What's New

For 2004, Dodge presents a brand-new version of the Durango. The most noticeable change from the previous generation is its increase in size. The new Durango is 7 inches longer, 3 inches higher and 3 inches wider. Of course, with a brand-new, larger exterior, there is also a new interior that is roomier, with three rows of seating.

Even better, the Durango offers new power options in the form of a 4.7L V-8 or the 5.7L Hemi V-8, the latter of which was under the hood of our tester. It produces 330 hp and 370 lb-ft. Resting behind the new engine is the 545RFE five-speed automatic transmission that also features a tow/haul mode.

But that's not all--the rear suspension also is all-new. Gone are the old leaf springs. They've been replaced by coil springs with a Watts link, which helps keep the solid axle positioned properly. In the front there's the now-standard independent system. Rear disc brakes off of the Ram 1500 have also replaced the rear drums of the previous generation.

What We Liked

Most of our judges liked the Durango's new interior. It is fairly quiet, and proved to be comfortable for a wide range of body types. The front seats feature a lot of adjustability, the new interior is roomy and the dash/gauge layout is uncomplicated and easy to read.

The new rack-and-pinion steering got high marks from most of our judges. It offers a crisp feel and quick response. Another mechanical component that the majority of our judges liked is the Durango's new four-wheel disc brakes, which offer good feel and effective stopping power.

What We Didn't Like

The Durango's major lack of under-chassis clearance was a major sore point for our judges. On the trail, the Durango would scrape its very low belly almost everywhere. The approach angle of the Durango is also poor, making it difficult to cruise the trails with confidence.

More gripes came on our trail rides. The Durango features a very firm suspension that tossed us around on the trail like marbles in a soup can, whether creeping along in low-range or at speed. Visibility on the trail was also poor, as the giant hood limited what we could see. The new suspension of the Durango does not offer much flex, which limited where we could take the Durango in the dirt. Some of our judges also thought that the traction-control system took too much wheelspin to engage.

Most of our judges thought the power output of the Durango was adequate at best. It was never described as poor or as great, but mostly just adequate. Maybe it was the Hemi badge that threw us, but the Durango was not as powerful as we expected. The throttle on the Durango was also fairly touchy, making it hard to use finesse while in low range.

Final Verdict

The new Durango is definitely an improvement over the old version. Nowadays, however, many car manufacturers are making their SUVs more carlike and this has definitely happened to the Durango. While this has improved the Durango in some aspects, it has hurt it in others.

Check It Out If:

You always wanted a bigger Durango.

Avoid It If:

Driving a 4x4 that is as low as a car scares you.

The Short Version

An SUV whose 'wheeling possibilities are limited by its clearance and approach and departure angles.

Fourth Place

Nissan Pathfinder Armada

What's New

The engineers at Nissan must have been putting in lots of overtime lately. Along with introducing their new fullsize truck, the Titan, they also developed an all-new fullsize SUV for '04 called the Pathfinder Armada. Some of the Armada's parts are shared with the Titan, and this is a good thing, especially when it comes to what is found under the hood.

Powering the big Armada is the same 5.6L V-8 that powers the Titan. It produces a hefty 305 hp and 379 lb-ft of torque. Another part shared from the Titan is its five-speed automatic transmission that features a tow/haul mode.

Yet the Armada is not simply a Titan chassis with a different body slapped onto it. The Armada uses a boxed, steel frame that features independent suspension front and rear, where the Titan uses a rear solid axle. A full-time two-speed transfer case instantly distributes torque to all four wheels upon demand. Of course there is also a cavernous interior that features plenty of room and third-row seating. A four-wheeling package also is available--it uses Rancho shocks, along with bigger BFGoodrich tires.

What We Liked

On top of everyone's list of likes was the power provided by the 5.6L Endurance V-8. Step into the throttle and the big Armada gets up and goes, thanks to oodles of low-end torque that had our judges smiling with glee. The five-speed transmission that helps to control this plethora of power also received high marks from our judges. Its shifts were smooth and at the appropriate times to keep the Armada moving. Another mechanical aspect that everyone liked was the rack-and-pinion steering of the big Nissan. It gives good feel and is nicely weighted.

The massive interior of the Armada was also a favorite. The seats are comfortable, with lots of adjustment and support. A huge amount of legroom is also present for second-row occupants. There are also plenty of clever storage areas found throughout the interior. On top of that, the Armada is quiet and it rides nicely. A surprise was that the Armada also handles rather well for such a large, heavy SUV.

What We Didn't Like

While the Armada was a plush ride on the pavement, it didn't fare as well when the blacktop gave way to dirt. With independent suspension at every corner, it yielded minimal flex, which made the Armada lift tires almost everywhere on the trail. Luckily, the Armada's traction-control system worked well, but required too much wheelspin to engage. This meant that in some nasty sections, the only solution was to put the throttle down and hope for the best. The Armada is also just plain big for most trails. Maneuvering it through tight sections was difficult, and this was compounded by the fact that overhood visibility is poor.

Final Verdict

The Armada is a great new SUV with lots of power and loads of interior room. It cruises down the highway with ease, and is plenty comfortable. However, if you plan to spend much time in the dirt, it is not the SUV for you.

Check It Out If:

You are looking for an SUV with lots of power and room.

Avoid It If:

You think independent suspension on every corner belongs on cars.

The Short Version

It's big, powerful and incredibly roomy. It would be a better four-wheeler if it shared more of the Titan's underpinnings.

Third Place

Porsche Cayenne S

What's New

An SUV from Porsche? It's true, and it's also a fact that has the Porsche purists moaning. Found under the hood of our Cayenne S tester was a naturally aspirated 4.5L V-8 that produces 340 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. The only transmission available is a six-speed automatic that can be manually shifted by rocker buttons on the steering wheel or by the console shifter. Power then runs through a sophisticated full-time transfer case that can transfer 100 percent of power to either the front or rear wheels. A 2.7:1 low range is also available for tougher terrain.

Independent suspension is found at every corner of the Cayenne. Our Cayenne S also featured the optional air suspension, which provides the Porsche with the ability to raise and lower itself up to 2 inches above or below its standard ride height on demand.

What We Liked

There was plenty for our judges to like about the mechanical aspects of the Porsche. First off, that 4.5L V-8 produces lots of power. The Cayenne is fast--and even better, its torque curve is flat from 2,500 rpm all the way to 5,500. This pleasant fact meant that the Porsche always has plenty of torque available. This helped to make the Cayenne the fastest vehicle during our dragstrip testing by a wide margin.

Mated to this magnificent V-8 is also one of the best transmissions we have come across. With six ratios available, it always seems to select just the right ratio to get the power to the ground most effectively. It also is one of the smartest, best-thinking transmissions we have used, as not only were its upshifts at the appropriate points, but so were its downshifts. The transmission's electronics are adaptive, so it learns the way you like to drive, and adjusts its shift points accordingly.

The Porsche's brakes also received high marks from our judges. Along with an admirably short stopping distance, the Cayenne's brakes, which use huge six-piston calipers up front and four-piston calipers at the back, also produce the best pedal feel of any SUV we have tested. The Porsche's accurate and quick steering also gained lots of praise from our judges.

Handling is breathtaking, as the Cayenne is as incredibly responsive as you might expect, and exhibits minimal body roll. It simply sticks and tracks around a corner, with little effort, at speeds much higher than any of the other SUVs in our test.

What We Didn't Like

The Porsche was great on the highway, but it was a different story on the dirt. First, the firm suspension values that work so well on the pavement mean that off-pavement, the Porsche has an amazingly stiff ride. The suspension also offered little flex--it would lift tires on just about any trail that wasn't flat. And though the air suspension will supply up to 10 inches of clearance, with the suspension topped out articulation is completely minimized, which means that over rough country, there will be tires in the air. With tires off the ground, the Porsche has to rely on its traction-control system to get though obstacles. Unfortunately, this system did not seem as well developed as we might have hoped--far too much wheelspin, accompanied by lots of grinds and groans from the system, was necessary to engage it, and it often became confused. In some difficult four-wheeling circumstances, the locking T-case differential would decide to unlock itself, causing a loud clunk and a jerk forward as the drivetrain took up the resulting slack.

Final Verdict

The Porsche Cayenne is a sports car posing as a 4x4. It is at home blasting through twisty mountain roads at high velocity, but on the trail it is truly out of its element.

Check It Out If:

You are looking for one amazing ride on the highway that also provides light-duty four-wheeling.

Avoid It If:

You believe a 4x4 should be capable in the dirt.

The Short Version

It's fast, comfortable and homely, and it's aroused all kinds of passions, pro and con, among the Porsche faithful. As effective as it is on pavement, it's that ineffective off.

Second Place

Volkswagen Touareg

What's New

The Touareg is an all-new SUV from Volkswagen and it is based heavily on the Porsche Cayenne--indeed, the chassis were developed together, and Volkswagen builds the bodies for both. But under the hood are two different engine options, consisting of a 3.2L V-6 and a 4.2L V-8. Our Touareg came equipped with the larger V-8. This is sourced from the Audi A8 and produces 310 hp and 302 lb-ft of torque. Mated to it is the same excellent six-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission that is found in the Cayenne--though this transmission seems to receive different electronic instructions than the Porsche's.

Other similarities include the optional air suspension that was found on our tester. It features six different selectable heights and the shocks also feature three different dampening settings from which the driver may select. The Touareg also employs the same steering system as the Cayenne, but does use a different braking system with slightly larger brakes. While the similarities between the Cayenne and the Touareg are many, the VW does use a completely different interior.

What We Liked

While the V-8 of the Touareg was not quite as powerful of that of the Porsche, it is still a great engine that provides plenty of power. We also loved the Touareg's transmission.

Just like the Porsche, the Touareg delivers amazing handling. Its cornering prowess is simply amazing, as it tracks around corners completely flat and with a ton of grip. The Touareg's steering and brakes also received lots of praise.

Where the Touareg made a departure from the Porsche, however, was on the trail. While the Porsche was miserable on the trail, the VW was quite effective. Most of this difference revolved around the fact that its traction control system worked much more effectively than the Porsche's did, transferring power quickly, quietly and smoothly to the appropriate wheel. While the Touareg uses much the same traction control hardware as the Porsche, the computers that control it seemed to have received different programming. Our Touareg also featured an electric rear locker, which helped when the going got rough. But even without that, the Touareg worked well on the trail.

What We Didn't Like

While the Touareg was much more effective on the trail than its German sibling, all was still not smiles and sunshine in the dirt. The Touareg's suspension delivers a very firm ride on the trail that can rattle your fillings out. Its suspension also yields little flex, especially when at full ride-height, a situation that leaves at least one wheel off the ground most of the time.

Final Verdict

The Touareg has excellent highway manners and a very strong mechanical foundation. It's also a decent performer on the trail, and all of these aspects let it rack enough points for a strong Second Place finish--and almost a win.

Check It Out If:

You want a Teutonic driving experience without mortgaging your house.

Avoid It If:

The thought of a steep learning curve for the heater and air-conditioning controls gives you pause.

The Short Version

In every way, the Touareg is the best of the German SUVs. And it's the most attractively styled of the pair, as well.

The Winner!

Lexus GX 470

What's New

The Lexus GX 470 that won our test last year remains largely unchanged for '04, with one major exception: the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System. This computer-controlled setup gives the GX the ability to soften its roll stiffness in uneven terrain. It operates by using hydraulic cylinders that are attached to each side of each antiroll bar and linked by a pressure-sensing hydraulic valve. During cornering, when both the front and rear cylinders on one side are compressed, the antiroll bars stay active and reduce body roll. However, when uneven terrain is encountered and only one cylinder is compressed, the antiroll bars disengage. And when one wheel deflects upwards, the system puts downward pressure on the other wheels. This dramatically increases the amount of articulation available from the GX's suspension.

The rest of the Lexus is mostly the same as it was last year. Powering it is the same 4.7L

V-8 that produces 235 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque. It is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission and two-speed transfer case. Suspension consists of an independent front suspension and a five-link solid rear with coils. The interior of the Lexus also remains largely unchanged.

What We Liked

As you might expect, the Lexus is an extremely plush highway cruiser. Once the pavement gets twisty, the driver can adjust the three-way suspension setting to "firm," and attack the corners. While the Lexus couldn't keep up with its German counterparts on the twisty mountain roads, it was still a competent handler.

The interior of the Lexus was also the favorite of our judges. It is comfortable and extremely quiet. Along with that, it offers a good amount of room for a vehicle that is not massive in size. The dash is also laid out nicely, and the HVAC and navigation systems are relatively easy to use.

The Lexus shined on the trail. Judging from the mail we received, many of you thought we were nuts last year when we praised the Lexus's four-wheeling abilities. It's based on the 4Runner, remember, which has always been a competent trail performer. Since we liked the Lexus last year, it is no surprise that we liked it even better this year, since it has greater articulation. Sure, at first some of us thought the KDSS system was a gimmick. But then we ramped the GX and found that increased articulation was notable and, on a 20-degree ramp, provided a 519 RTI, compared to an RTI score of 428 on a GX 470 without KDSS. This increased articulation is readily apparent on the trail, where the flex of the rear suspension helps the Lexus stay planted on the ground so that it can find traction. Also helping on the trail was a well-working traction control system that would engage with a minimum of wheelspin. With the most flex and a traction control system that worked well, the Lexus cruised to an easy victory in our important trail scoring section.

This Lexus also had a strong mechanical foundation. The 4.7L isn't the strongest engine in this bunch, but did provide good acceleration and power. A five-speed automatic transmission provides smooth shifts at the right moments. Its brakes produce some of the shortest stopping distances we have seen from an SUV, and its steering is precise and provides a great feel for the road.

What We Didn't Like

Every one of our judges wished the Lexus came without running boards. They were low and easy to damage, and sometimes hampered the GX's progress on the trail. Some of our judges also thought that the Lexus provided a bumpy and jarring ride while in the dunes.

Final Verdict

While some of the vehicles were very strong in certain aspects of our test, the Lexus GX 470 consistently performed well in all categories of our testing. It was also the best on the trail and this helped it to gather the most points to make it our choice for Four Wheeler of the Year.

Check It Out If:

You are looking for a well-balanced SUV that is capable on the trail.

Avoid It If:

You don't want to put up with infidels who refuse to believe that it's as effective as it really is.

The Short Version

Winnah, and still champeen! It's understated, subtle, comfortable and very effective. What more could you want?

How We Test Them

Putting the latest and greatest SUVs through their paces is lots of fun, but it is also lots of work. First, we get our hands on the vehicles. Then we assemble a competent crew of judges and drivers. After that, we head out on our multi-day affair to determine which SUV will become the champ.

The first day finds us at the dragstrip for acceleration and deceleration testing. From there, we take the twisty back roads up to Lake Arrowhead, California. The next morning we head back down the mountain, across plenty of desert and wind to the dunes of Dumont, California. Then it is back up to Lake Arrowhead. The next morning we hit the trails around Big Bear. The following day consists of more trail time in the mountains around Big Bear, and then the long drive home.

All this time on the highway, twisty mountain roads and the trail gives us plenty of time to evaluate and score each vehicle. Each vehicle is evaluated and scored in a Mechanical category (25% of final score), Interior category (15% of final score), Exterior category (10% of final score), Highway category (20% of final score) and Trail category (30% of final score). In each category the vehicles are scored in various subcategories to give a thorough evaluation. The winner is the vehicle that is well rounded and excels in a wide range of tasks. Since 30 percent of the final score consists of trail performance, the winner is also the vehicle that performs well on the trail.

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