• JP Magazine
  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
  • Four Wheeler

2011 Four Wheeler of the Year

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on April 1, 2011 Comment (0)
Share this
Photographers: Four Wheeler Staff

We love when we have Of The Year tests with such equally matched competitors, as was the case with this year's test. Going into the competition, there was no clear favorite in the minds of the staff. Each of these vehicles has won our Four Wheeler of the Year test with a previous iteration, making this one of the most closely matched shootouts in recent memory.

The eligibility requirements are the same as always. Each vehicle is invited to participate based on it being all new or substantially revised for the upcoming model year. Each vehicle is also required to have a two-speed transfer case, have a production run of at least 1,500 vehicles available in the U.S., and must be on sale by January 15, 2011.

For 2011, we tested the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Land Rover LR4, and Lexus GX 460. Also invited was the Infiniti QX56, which is now based on the overseas Nissan Patrol platform, but Infiniti was unable to supply us with a vehicle in time for our test.

We score each of the vehicles based on a testing criteria of five weighted categories that include Trail Performance (30%), Empirical (25%), On-Pavement (20%), Interior (15%), and Exterior (10%).

This year's competition took the field on a 1,000-mile tour of Southern California, encompassing everything from desert terrain to twisty mountain roads. A week of rotating in and out of each of the vehicles culminated in the results you see here.

The Field
Starting out with the priciest of our V-8-powered trio was the Land Rover LR4 HSE. Beginning at $47,650, our tester was loaded to the hilt with an as-tested price of $62,115. For that money you get a silky smooth 375hp, 375 lb-ft 5.0L DOHC V-8 engine, backed by an equally impressive ZF six-speed automatic transmission. The Land Rover LR4 comes equipped with full-time four-wheel drive with an all-independent air suspension system, and the optional Heavy Duty package on our tester added a rear-locking differential to the 3.54:1 gearing.

Sharing a platform with our 2010 FWOTY-winning Toyota 4Runner, and being the only vehicle in FWOTY history to win back-to-back titles, the Lexus GX 460 had some big shoes to fill. Our Lexus GX tester was a 2010 model (it wasn't available in time for last year's test; neither was the LR4), so the base pricing of $51,970 may not reflect 2011 pricing. Options brought the total to $57,619 and included the all-new 4.6L DOHC V-8 with 301 horsepower and 329 lb-ft of torque. An Aisin six-speed automatic transmission and full-time four-wheel drive system with a lockable center differential routes power through 3.90:1 gearing.

The most affordable vehicle in the test was the reinvigorated Jeep Grand Cherokee. Now featuring four-wheel independent air suspension, Jeep is hoping the Grand Cherokee will appeal to a broader customer base, leaving the solid-axled Wrangler Unlimited for the hardcore customer. Our tester was an Overland model with the 5.7L Hemi OHV V-8 making 360 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque. Power flows from the engine to the full-time four-wheel drive system through a five-speed automatic transmission and 3.47:1 gearing. Our Jeep Grand Cherokee came with an Electronic Limited Slip Differential (ELSD) in the rear as part of the Quadra Drive II package.

Instrument Testing
Our track testing took place on the abandoned runways at the former El Toro Marine Base in Orange County, California, which gave us plenty of room for acceleration and braking assessments. Unfortunately, the Land Rover was not delivered in time for our instrument testing, and therefore did not score any points in acceleration, braking or RTI portions of the test.

With the Jeep and Lexus present and accounted for, we began our acceleration testing. The Jeep hit 60 mph in 7.97 seconds, with the Lexus out in front with a run of 7.77 seconds. In the quarter-mile, the Grand Cherokee made up some ground over the GX, posting a run of 16.05 seconds at 88.2 mph, compared to the Lexus run of 16.14 at 88.52 mph.

The GX again bested the Grand in 60-0 mph braking by scrubbing off speed in a satisfyingly short 129.95 feet. The Grand's shortest stopping distance was a still respectable but nearly 10-foot-longer distance of 138.20 feet.

Without our 20-degree ramp available this year, we improvised by using a forklift and a special formula that translates the lift height into a 20-degree ramp equivalent number. In no surprise, the rear solid axle-equipped Lexus proved flexier on our simulated RTI test, scoring a 435, while the adjustable air suspension-equipped Grand managed a 302 in the standard ride height configuration, and a 265 in the highest ride height setting.

With three V-8s, our observed fuel economy was directly related to the size of the engines. The 4.6L GX delivered 15.34 mpg, while the 5.0L LR4 delivered 14.47 mpg, and the 5.7L Grand, with one less tank recorded, was the thirstiest at 12.61 mpg.

Overall Impressions
The most changed vehicle in our test from its previous version was the Grand Cherokee. Riding on an all-new fully independent suspension platform with styling to match, the Jeep was praised for its athletic new look. Many of our testers felt the exterior was reminiscent of a European SUV. However, the high beltline was noted as reducing visibility in the Jeep.

On the inside, the previous interior, formed of the same grade of plastics that Rubbermaid settles on for its trash cans, has been replaced with truly world-class materials. Styling is thoroughly modern with understated luxury and a host of amenities. For less than $46,000 you get a leather-stitched dashboard, navigation and even heated rear seats. The real fun is getting in and grabbing the meaty wood-rimmed steering wheel that seems to have the same circumference as a baseball bat and feels just as good in the hand.

Hit the road and the Grand really shines. With Selec-Terrain in Sport mode, the Grand hunkers down, biases power to the rear and sacks the twisties like they are John Elway on the gridiron. It is truly a blast to drive in tight, winding stretches of road and is just as satisfying on wide straight portions of Interstate, where a taut ride and quiet interior work well to keep the occupants relaxed.

Overall the Grand is well thought out, with easy to understand switchgear and a level of value that undercuts the next-most expensive competitor by over $10,000.

The GX 460, by contrast, was a bit of a disappointment to the staff in the styling department. The once distinctive style of the GX series looks like a melted lozenge of its former self, with uninspired lines that left the staff wondering what happened to our beloved GX.

Inside, the GX is nice enough, with quality materials and a very executive-looking interior that has a mix of metal, leather, and wood. However, the Toyota roots are still evident, as it feels a half-step behind the others. Seats were as comfortable as anything in the test, and the quiet cabin bordered on a depravation chamber in its serenity and smooth ride. One tester feared the tranquil Lexus would cause him to nap at the wheel, but then discovered the great audio system to help keep him awake.

One place where there was no disagreement amongst testers was the Lexus' refined powertrain, with an engine that was eager to rev and well matched to the transmission. Passing power was immediate, and the Lexus never felt like it was in the wrong gear or breaking a sweat, despite having the smallest engine and least amount of power in the test.

The Lexus was noted for having solid steering and being far more dynamically capable on the road than the stability control would allow. To us, the GX seems like it would make a fantastic commuter. It always feels safe and in control, but rarely ever fun.

Unlike the Lexus and Grand, which only needed a quick tutorial with many of their controls being intuitive, the Land Rover requires a semester course in vehicle operation. The beautifully crafted LR4 interior is wrought with an array of buttons marked with hieroglyphics that aren't all easily deciphered. Simple interactions with the LR4 can be frustrating until you learn the shortcuts. This is not a car for the technology challenged.

Thanks to the boxy styling that manages to look both distinctive and modern, the LR4 has vast amounts of space inside. Slab sides and a tall greenhouse translate into 10-gallon hat headroom and plenty of cargo space. Expansive glass above and to the sides gives every passenger a front row view to the outside world, and a low beltline with narrow A-pillars provide the driver with unmatched visibility.

More refined than the LR3 it replaces, the LR4 keeps the great ride, but the vehicle feels better planted when pressed. The tall LR4 never feels top-heavy, but it does tend to get pushed around more on the highway by crosswinds. We also thought the LR4 steering was too quick, especially at highway speeds, netting comments in the logs about how the Land Rover felt twitchy on the highway.

Trail Testing
Not surprisingly, all of these vehicles perform well in the dirt. What was a surprise, however, was that the least trail-friendly rig was the solid rear-axle, body-on-frame Lexus with its lack of skidplating and overactive electronics. For example, on a steep fire road, a little slip from the inside rear tire on a turn would cause the GX to beep at the driver and the electronics to intervene.

We did manage to get the GX stuck in the sand once, where we discovered the lack of real tow hooks. There are tow points under the front, but they necessitate the use of a shackle for recovery. The hitch and plug also dangle vulnerably under the rear bumper, just waiting to catch on trail obstacles.

The GX is equipped with a fantastic Torsen limited-slip center differential that can be locked, but unlike its 4Runner cousin, it doesn't offer a rear locker. This didn't stop it from doing well on the Hill Climb, but the lack of Hill Descent Control (HDC) left it feeling outmatched by the others on the way down. Our tester was also devoid of Crawl Control, which is one feature that would have elevated its status in the dirt.

Part of the Grand Cherokee's new strategy for the dirt is Selec-Terrain. This knob, similar to the Land Rover Terrain Response system, allows the driver to access different vehicle parameters depending on the conditions the vehicle is driving in. Our testers felt that while it worked well, it wasn't quite as dialed in as the LR4.

Another aspect of the Grand that was not quite as refined as the LR4 was the air suspension. With limited travel at the highest setting, the vehicle would constantly get into the rebound springs, causing a normal but disconcerting "thunk" through the chassis, leaving the Grand feeling slightly unpolished in rocky or rough terrain.

Testers also missed the front ELSD from the previous generation Grand Cherokee. The 2011 model uses only a rear ELSD and relies on brake traction control (BTC) for the front. While the BTC works, it is not as immediate as we would like, and allows a certain amount of tire slip that hampers the Grand's climbing ability on loose, rocky surfaces. That being said, even with wheels in the air, the Grand never had problems getting enough traction to maintain forward momentum.

We did think that the Grand's HDC was the best in the bunch. It worked so well on steep slopes that it would sometimes bring the Grand to a complete stop. It does a great job of masking the Jeep's surprisingly high 28.3:1 crawl ratio.

A mechanical failure on our Grand caused a loss of front wheel drive, but not mobility. The occurrence happened to the Jeep on the last run of our Hill Climb, necessitating replacement of our vehicle (see sidebar on page 31).

Ironically, it was the Land Rover that felt the most Jeep-like on the trail, offering great sightlines, supple suspension and an overall polished feeling wherever it went. Terrain Response was amazingly dialed in, much better than in previous generations, and traction on loose surfaces was never lacking. Several of the logbooks noted how confidence inspiring the LR4 was and that it was able to easily walk up the Hill Climb.

As good as the LR4 was on the trail, it had a tougher time in sand, where the traction control cut in a little too early to realize the potential of the sweet 5.0L V-8. This resulted in a pretty deep stuck that gave us a chance to evaluate the front tow point that is hidden behind a removable plastic panel. This made the LR4 difficult to recover, to say the least.

We also managed to overheat the suspension system's compressor in the sand, causing the LR4 to enter default mode; this resulted in the suspension completely lowering in the front and the loss of all ground clearance. It was a contrast to the Grand's system, which has check valves in its system and will default to its current height. After about an hour of cooling, the Land Rover's air suspension returned to its former glory, and the LR4 continued on without any other problems.

At the end of the weeklong test, we gathered our opinions and impressions, loaded up the logbooks, and added up the scorebooks to bring you our 2011 Four Wheeler of the Year.

Staff Picks
Douglas McColloch, Editor
All three of the SUVs are linear descendants of past FWOTY champions, and in any other year, any of them would've been be a runaway winner. All of them will handle terrain that you wouldn't think them capable of, and all evince commendable levels of refinement. Even so, one vehicle distinguished itself from the others with a superbly engineered suspension, and a 4WD system that delivered a level of surefooted, trail performance that I wouldn't have thought possible from a unitbody 4x4 if I hadn't driven it myself. I'll gladly take any of these vehicles for my daily driver, but for getting deep into the backcountry and doing it elegantly, the amazing, astounding LR4 is first among equals here.

Ken Brubaker, Senior Editor
The LR4 has almost everything I want in an SUV. The tall windshield and side windows offer great visibility (something that seems to be absent on many SUVs nowadays); the multiple sunroofs flood the interior in natural light (the next best thing to a removable top); and it has a handy fold-down tailgate ('nuff said). I was skeptical of the luxurious LR4 before the test, but on the trail, it made me a believer.

Sean P. Holman, Tech Editor
For me, it has to be the Grand Cherokee. Stylish, elegant, and capable, Jeep has taken an old favorite to a whole new level. I love the underbody protection and rock rails, the interior is amazing, and I don't mind the high beltline. Some of my colleagues will pick the LR4, but the Jeep is such a feature-packed value, I can still wheel in style without going broke.

Robin Stover, Feature Editor
This year's OTY group was easy for me to decide between. The Grand Cherokee gets my vote by a big margin. It simply worked better, in my opinion, throughout the barrage of punishment we assaulted it with. Despite IRS and other street friendly-attributes, the hardcore SUV I've always known is still there.

Jason Gonderman, Web Editor
If I had to choose one of these three fine vehicles to live in my garage, I would have to pick the LR4. It rides great on the highway, has tons of available power, and does most things off road quite well without the annoying chimes and clunks of the other SUVs. Add in the super-luxurious interior, and you've got one amazing weekend warrior and daily driver. Sure, the price tag is steep, but you really get what you pay for.

Steve VonSeggern, Publisher
I like the LR4 because it's ironically the most Jeep-like vehicle of the group. What do I mean by that? Simply put, the outward visibility, styling, and off-road tuning are all more akin to qualities one would associate with Jeeps than the new Grand Cherokee.

2nd Place: Land Rover LR4
What's Hot:
Shocking dirt performance, great engine, airy interior, visibility
What's Not:
Expensive, hidden recovery point, very complex
Our Take:
The one to pick if you like to wheel with a computer
From the Logbook:

  • "Visibility is unmatched by any other SUV."
  • "I wasn't impressed at first with the LR4, but in the end, it won me over."
  • "You can't just get in the LR4 and drive-the learning curve is very steep."
  • "More Jeep-like off-road than the Jeep in this test."
  • "10 extra points for the tailgate."

View Slideshow

3rd Place: Lexus GX 460
What's Hot:
Great daily driver, isolated cabin, enthusiastic drivetrain, efficient
What's Not:
Intrusive electronics, lack of underbody protection, dull styling Our Take:
A very good tool that has lost its edge
From the Logbook:

  • "Power third row is a nice feature."
  • "Beep. Beep. Beep."
  • "No Crawl Control or rear locker."
  • "Lost the magic of the last generation."
  • "Interior feels very executive."

View Slideshow

Winner: Jeep Grand Cherokee
In the end, it was the Jeep Grand Cherokee that racked up the most points, undoubtedly helped by its huge price advantage over the rest of the field. The Grand matches most of the features of the also-excellent LR4, for about $17,000 less at our as-tested prices.

Starting with modern styling and a feature-packed, elegant interior, the Jeep easily feels $10,000 more expensive than it actually is. The Grand is roomy, yet cockpit-like from the driver's seat, and it offers all of the technology with none of the frustrations of the competition. You can just get in it and go.

On the pavement, the Jeep shines as a driver's car. With Selec-Terrain in Sport mode, the Grand was a blast to push hard on winding roads. Turn the knob to "Auto," and it can easily wolf down endless miles of highway, and you wouldn't get tired of driving it. Not only does the Grand have the chops to run with the luxury crowd, but it also has the capability that comes with the Jeep badge.

With the right options selected, this all-around performer comes with a complete compliment of skidplates, real tow hooks, and available factory rock sliders. Thoughtful touches abound, such as the way the trailer hitch and dual exhaust are integrated into the rear bumper, protecting them to a degree. The Grand was also the only vehicle in the test not to have a low-hanging spare tire. It is tucked out of the way, under the large cargo area floor.

Jeep also offers a new navigation option for 2011, which uses Garmin software. The best part is that through the USB port on the head unit, you can upload all of your Garmin waypoints from your handheld GPS and navigate to them in the Jeep. This is an awesome feature we have been asking for, for years.

While the Land Rover put up a tough fight, overall the Grand was the complete package at a price that leaves some extra cash for the project that has been sitting in your garage for years. Congratulations to Jeep and the 2011 Grand Cherokee-our Four Wheeler of the Year.

View Slideshow

What's Hot:
Hemi power, underbody protection, amazing on the highway, beautiful interior
What's Not:
Air suspension noise, no front ELSD, high crawl ratio
Our Take:
2011 Four Wheeler of the Year
From the Logbook:

  • "I love this version of the Grand."
  • "The Grand is really fun on the road, especially in Sport mode."
  • "The slanted windshield, big mirror and headrests block visibility."
  • "Only one with full skids and rock rails."

Testing to the Limit
It is a well known fact that our testing regimen is difficult and puts a lot of stress on the vehicles being evaluated. We often put harder miles on these testers during the course of a week than most vehicles will see in a lifetime, and sometimes, something fails. In the case of our Grand Cherokee, it was the transfer-case chain drive.

After two days of intensive instrumented and other objective testing, we were challenging the vehicles to a different line on our Hill Climb when the Grand lost front-wheel drive. We immediately contacted Jeep, and within less than two hours, we were on a conference call with the engineering team in Michigan. After performing some diagnostic procedures over the phone, Jeep made arrangements to pick up our vehicle and replace it with a nearly exact replica.

By that evening we had our Jeep swapped, and by the next afternoon a team of Jeep engineers had flown out to Southern California to examine our transfer case. They discovered that during our aggressive hill testing, we jumped a tooth on the chain sprocket, ultimately leading to a sheared sprocket tooth and a broken chain.

After an engineering analysis, Jeep determined that the specification they use for chain tightness was good for NVH, but had the potential for failure under extreme conditions. As a direct response to our testing, Jeep instituted a change to every Grand Cherokee on the production line by tightening the chain tension specification, ensuring that the end user benefits from our findings and gets the best possible product.

It is our policy to repair, if possible, any vehicle that breaks during the test, and return it back to duty as soon as possible. If an identical replacement vehicle is available, we allow it to be substituted and let the judges take that into consideration.

GENERAL
Vehicle/model 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland 2011 Land Rover LR4 2010 Lexus GX 460
Base price/Price as tested $41,910/$45,185 $47,650/$62,115 $51,970/$57,619
Options as tested Inferno Red Crystal Pearl Coat exterior paint ($225); Off-Road Adventure II package ($275); 5.7L V-8 MDS VVT engine ($1,995); destination charge ($780) Heavy Duty Package ($750); rear seat DVD entertainment system ($2,500); Vision Assist Package for LUX ($1,200); 7 Seat LUX Package ($9,165); destination ($850) Convenience Package ($800); Hard disk drive navigation system ($1,990); Comfort Plus Package ($1,770); cargo-area tonneau cover ($150); cargo net ($64); destination ($875)

ENGINE
Type OHV V-8 with MDS DOHC V-8 DOHC V-8
Displacement (ci/liter) 345 / 5.7 305 / 5.0 281 / 4.6
Bore x stroke (in) 3.92 x 3.58 3.64 x 3.66 3.70 x 3.27
Compression ratio 10.5:1 11.5:1 10.2:1
Intake Sequential, multi-port, electronic Sequential direct injection Sequential multi-port fuel injection
Mfg.'s power/torque rating @ rpm 360 @ 5,150/390 @ 4,250 375 @ 6,500/375 @ 3,500 301 @ 5,500/329 @ 3,500
Mfg.'s suggested fuel type Regular unleaded Premium unleaded Premium unleaded

DRIVETRAIN
Transmission 545RFE 5-speed automatic ZF HP28 6-speed automatic Aisin A760F 6-speed automatic
Ratios: 1st 3.00:1 4.17:1 3.52:1
2nd 1.67:1 (upshift) 1.50:1 (kickdown) 2.34:1 2.04:1
3rd 1.00:1 1.52:1 1.40:1
4th 0.75:1 1.14:1 1.00:1
5th 0.67:1 0.87:1 0.716:1
6th N/A 0.69:1 0.586
Reverse 3.00:1 3.40:1 3.91:1
Axle ratio 3.47:1 3.54:1 3.90:1
Transfer case MP 3022 full-time 2-speed Full-time 2-speed VF4BM full-time 2-speed
Low-range ratio 2.72:1 2.93:1 2.57:1
Crawl ratio 28.3:1 43.3:1 35.3:1

FRAME/BODY
Frame Steel uniframe Integrated Body-Frame Steel perimeter
Body Steel Steel Steel

SUSPENSION/AXLES
Front Short- and long-arm independent, coil springs, gas-charged twin-tube coilover shock absorbers, upper and lower control arms, stabilizer bar/ZF 9.1-inch Independent, double-wishbone, with air springs/Dana 7.9-inch Double-wishbone, coil springs, stabilizer bar/Toyota 8.1-inch
Rear Multi-link, coil springs, twin-tube shocks (including load leveling for towing), aluminum lower control arm, independent upper links (tension and camber), plus a separate toe link/Mercedes 8.9-inch/ZF ELSD Independent, double-wishbone, with air springs/Dana 8.3-inch Four-link rigid axle with coil springs/Toyota 8.2-inch

STEERING
Type Power rack-and-pinion Power rack-and-pinion Power rack-and-pinion
Turns (lock-to-lock) 3.67 3.32 3.0
Ratio 18.9:1 (on center), 15.7:1 (full lock) 19.3:1 (straight), 14.3:1 (on lock) 18.4:1

BRAKES
Front 12.9-inch vented discs, two-piston calipers 14.2-inch vented disc, twin-piston calipers 13.3-inch vented disc, four-piston calipers
Rear 12.6-inch solid discs, single-piston calipers 13.8-inch solid discs, single-piston calipers 12.3-inch vented discs, single-piston calipers
ABS Four-wheel Four-wheel Four-wheel

WHEELS/TIRES
Wheels (in) 18 x 8.0 19 x 8.0 18 x 7.5
Tires P265/60R18 Michelin Latitude Tour P255/55R19 Continental 4x4 Contact P265/60R18 Bridgestone Dueler H/T

FUEL ECONOMY
EPA city/highway 13/19 12/17 15/20
Observed city/highway/trail 12.61 14.47 15.34

DIMENSIONS/CAPACITIES
Weight (lb) 5,210 5,833 5,305
Wheelbase (in) 114.8 113.6 109.8
Overall length/width/height (in) 189.8/76.3/70.0 190.1/85.7/74.1 189.2/74.2/74.2
Track f/r (in) 63.9/64.1 63.2/63.5 62.4/62.4
Minimum ground clearance (in) 8.6 (standard), 10.6 (raised) 7.3 (standard), 9.4 (off-road mode) 8.1
Turning diameter, curb-to-curb (ft) 37.1 37.6 38.0
Approach/departure angles (deg) 26.3 (standard), 34.3 (raised)/ 26.5 (standard), 29.3 (raised) 32.2 (standard), 37.2 (off-road mode)/ 26.7 (standard), 29.6 (off-road mode) 28.0/25.0
Breakover angle (deg) 18.8 (standard), 23.1 (raised) 22.8 (standard), 27.9 (off-road mode) 21
GVWR (lb) 6,800 7,143 6,600
Payload (lb) 1,590 1,325 1,464
Maximum towing capacity (lb) 7,200 7,716 6,500
Seating 5 7 7
Fuel capacity (gal) 24.6 22.8 23.0

PERFORMANCE
0-60 mph (sec) 7.97 N/A 7.74
Quarter-mile (sec @ mph) 16.05 @ 88.20 N/A 16.14 @ 88.52
Braking 60-0 mph (ft) 138.20 N/A 129.95
Ramp Travel Index 302 (standard), 265 (raised) N/A 435

Comments

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Sponsored Links