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2012 Four Wheeler Of The Year

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on February 1, 2012 Comment (0)
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2012 Four Wheeler Of The Year
Photographers: Ken Brubaker

Since 1974, Four Wheeler of the Year has been an annual tradition in the pages of this magazine, appearing on a regular basis for nearly 40 years of our 50-year existence. It is our annual roundup of what vehicles are new in the four-wheel drive market and it gives us a great reason to head out to the dirt for a week of wheeling.

In order to be eligible for Four Wheeler of the Year each vehicle is required to be all-new or substantially-revised from the previous year, 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. We score each of the vehicles based on an extensive testing criteria of five weighted categories that include Trail Performance (30%), Empirical (25%), On Pavement (20%), Interior (15%), and Exterior (10%).

For 2012 our eligible field included the Infiniti QX56 (which was redesigned last year, but not available in time for our test), the Jeep Wrangler, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and the Dodge Durango. Unfortunately, Dodge declined our invitation leaving our field at just three.

This year’s test took our three competitors on 1,000 miles of diverse terrain and pavement to get a feel for how these vehicles perform under all conditions. During the week, our seven judges rotated in and out of vehicles at a regular clip, filled out comment sheets, and judged the field based on their experiences, resulting in the outcome you’ll read here.

The Field
Potentially the most intriguing vehicle in our test this year was the $75,340 Infiniti QX56. While it may seem slightly out of place in this competition, the Infiniti has the pedigree to back up its admission. No longer based on the Titan/Armada F-Alpha platform, the new QX56 is now based on the much-heralded overseas Nissan Patrol. The QX56 features a body-on-frame chassis and all-independent suspension with computer-controlled All-Mode 4WD. Nissan’s excellent VK56VD direct injection 5.6L DOHC V-8 with 400hp and 413 lb-ft of torque, backed by a seven-speed automatic transmission with rev-matching downshift capability, powers the big SUV. In the rest of the world, and now in the U.S., the Patrol/QX56 is direct competition for the Toyota Land Cruiser, giving us lofty expectations of vehicular capabilities.

Our next entry, the tried-and-trued Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, came in with an as-tested price of $32,900, quite the bargain in our eyes when you start to consider the level of equipment. In addition to the Rubicon package, which adds 32-inch BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain tires, Dana 44 front and rear axles with driver-selectable electric lockers, an electronically disconnecting front sway bar, rocker protection, monotube shocks, 4.10 gearing, a 4:1 transfer case and full skidplating, our Rubicon featured Chrysler’s new 3.6L Pentastar V-6 with 285hp and 260 lb-ft of torque teamed with the NSG 370 six-speed manual transmission.

Lastly, our test included the $37,555 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Packed with all of the features of our two-door, the Unlimited adds 20-inches of wheelbase and a pair of rear doors to the Wrangler package. Wanting to round out our Wrangler experience, we requested that our Unlimited be equipped with Jeep’s new W5A580 five-speed automatic transmission.

Instrument Testing
On our first day of testing, we took our trio to Off Road Evolution in Fullerton, California, to borrow a couple of hoists and a 30-degree RTI ramp, allowing us to get up close and personal with the underbellies of these machines. Surprisingly, the Infiniti was completely unprotected underneath, making us wonder if “skidplate” was lost in translation from the overseas model to the U.S.-spec version. Not surprisingly, both Jeeps had almost complete coverage of the vitals with appropriate sheets of steel, however, both Wranglers lacked true protection for the vulnerable new exhaust trumpets, oil pans (although they are tucked pretty high up), and transmissions. More susceptible to damage than the manual, the automatic features a crash bar that offers at least some sort of protective ability.

On the ramp travel test, the Wrangler bested the Wrangler Unlimited and QX56 by driving an impressive 57.5 inches up a 30-degree ramp, earning a score of 526. This, of course, was with the electronic sway bar system disconnected. The Wrangler Unlimited wasn’t far behind with a distance of 50.5 inches and score of 495. The QX, with a fairly shallow approach angle did its best to just get on the ramp before traveling 41-inches for a score of 338.

From the shop, we headed out to the former El Toro Marine Base in Orange County, California. With wide, abandoned runways, we were able to do all of our acceleration and braking tests. It was here that we could finally open these SUVs up and get a sense for what the individual powertrains and binders were capable of.

The fastest in the test by far was the Infiniti. It felt like a rocket and was a blast to drive, pun intended. The 5.6L is a power-happy mill that is managed by a perfectly shifting automatic meant for fast, seamless power delivery. At one point, we used the empty runway to our advantage and kept the pedal pinned well past the quarter mile marker. We can tell you that at over 120 mph the Infiniti, smooth enough to give the sensation of flight, was still pulling hard and far from running out of breath. It knocked off 0-60 in only 6.85 seconds, exploding through the quarter in 15.38 seconds with a trap speed of 92.99 miles per hour, one of the quickest (and fastest) runs we’ve ever recorded. The engine sounds incredible, the trans shifts were barely perceptible, yet encased in a relative seclusion, we were pushed back in our creamy leather thrones, somewhat isolated from the mechanical doings, as if riding the tip of a Delta 4 at lift off.

If not for the Infiniti’s display of motorized flex, the Jeeps would have been the talk of the town. The manual Wrangler, happy to chirp Second gear, was able to hit 60 in an impressive 7.90 seconds and cross the quarter mile in 16.11 seconds at an incredulous 85.1 mph. To show just how good this new engine is, that is not only within sniffing distance of the Infiniti, but it pummels the time of our previous automatic-equipped ’07 Wrangler Rubicon by a full 4.1 seconds to 60, and 2.56 seconds through the quarter with a more than 10 mph faster trap speed.

The same story held true for the automatic Wrangler Unlimited, which absolutely buried the numbers set forth by our automatic-equipped ’07 Wrangler Unlimited. Compare our run of 8.67 seconds 0-60 and 16.67 in the quarter at 80.5 mph with the 13.08 second to 60 and the 19.26 seconds at 72.35 mph and it is clear that the 3.6L is more than a gratuitous engine upgrade. This engine, regardless of the transmission, is transforming, making the Wrangler fun to drive and, dare we say, quick in the real world.

Before wrapping up our day on the runway, we put the trucks through our normal 60-0 braking tests. Once again, it was the 5,850-pound Infiniti that beat the field. As if it had thrust reversers and an arrestor hook, the Infiniti ground down to 0 mph in only 127.06 feet – again, one of the shortest distance we’ve ever recorded. The 4,132-pound Wrangler was able to haul itself down in 146.12 feet, while the 400-pound-heavier Wrangler Unlimited nearly matched its little brother with a feat of just 146.74 feet.

Fuel economy fell in line with expectations from lightest V-6 to heaviest V-8. Over the course of 1,000 miles and a mix of terrain, the Wrangler achieved the best fuel economy at 15.23 mpg, followed by the Wrangler Unlimited with 14.86 mpg, and the Infiniti rounding out the group with an observed fuel economy number of 13.55 mpg.

3rd Place: Infiniti QX56
What’s Hot:
Impressive engine and trans, technology-packed, coddling interior
What’s Not: Expensive, no underbody protection, vulnerable tires

Our Take:
A luxurious vehicle that isn’t our first choice for an off-pavement excursion

From the Logbook:

  • “Seats fold flat, but center console doesn’t.”
  • “Engine sounds great at 6,000 rpm.”
  • “More technology than an iPhone – is that possible?”
  • “Creamy.”
  • “Flat tire. Couldn’t see that one coming.”
  • “It only feels long when compared to the two-door. Compared to everything else, it fits the trail perfectly.”

View Slideshow

Overall Impressions
If there were a vehicle in this test we’d want to go on a road trip in and take the entire staff, it would have to be the Infiniti. With a huge passenger cabin and accommodations that leave not a bad seat in the house, the Infiniti is a pleasure to ride in with a full compliment of crew and gear. The interior is screwed, glued, and stitched together with incredibly fine materials and the ride, with the help of Infiniti’s Hydraulic Body Motion Control System suspension, makes highway miles disappear like a box of donuts in the lunchroom. We also took a liking to the 15-speaker Bose Cabin Surround sound system, which recreated music in such a way, we were tempted to bust out our lighters and sway with the soundtrack.

From the driver’s seat, the Infiniti offers an Alphabits bowl of technology including the Around View camera and sonar system, Intelligent Cruise Control (ICC), Blind Spot Warning (BSW), Lane Departure Warning (LDW), Distance Control Assist (DCA), Intelligent Brake Assist with Front Collision Warning (IBA with FCW), Adaptive Front Lighting (AFL) with auto-leveling headlights and pre-tensioning seat belts. This is one of those vehicles that digitizes the driving experience, further removing the driver from the equation. While we can effortlessly roll miles on the odometer, it’s about as involved a driving experience as one would find on a gaming console in their living room.

While the Infiniti presented itself as a highway vehicle, we did note that it wasn’t as quiet as we would have expected for such an expensive ride. Part of the noise came from the optional 22-inch tires, which would slap tar strips and expansion joints, like they were bros hi-fiving after getting lucky on a double date. We also found the interface with the controls and technology to be complex, necessitating a steeper learning curve than the last Android phone we used.

If the Infiniti symbolizes the isolation chamber of the test, the Wranglers represent what may have caused you to need an isolation chamber in the first place. While offering much-improved NVH over previous models, there is no denying that you are immersed in the world outside your driver’s door in the Wrangler. If it is hot, cold, sunny, wet, busy, still, smooth or bumpy, you will know it in the Wrangler. The Wranglers are good, but not great, highway cars and require, even demand, driver involvement. The two-door, in particular, with its short wheelbase and manual transmission is not a vehicle you can be lazy in, but it is this involvement that makes the Wrangler an absolute pleasure to operate.

For those in the shift-it-for-me camp, you’ll be equally as impressed with the new W5A580 five-speed automatic, which is such a leap forward in progress from the antiquated four-speed 42RFE that you’ll wonder if Jeep engineers used a time machine to bring it back from the future. We especially like the manual-shifting functionality. Not only can you select a particular gear, but the transmission will hold it all the way to fuel cutoff, never second guessing your gear selection strategy by upshifting for you.

The interiors of the Wranglers are simple and straightforward with a clean, stylish, and uncluttered dash. Controls are intuitive to operate and everything just works. The Wranglers got high marks for comfortable seats that provide a wide range of adjustment and an elevated seating position.

We also had both versions of the Media Center head units offered by Jeep. The 430N and the 730N while similar, are not the same. The 730N is the more expensive option and has features not available in the 430N such as a much nicer NAVTEQ mapping system and display, SiriusXM Traffic, dead reckoning, and a music/nav split screen. If navigation is not the most important purchase consideration, then the 430N might be right for you as both units offer a 40GB hard drive, will play DVDs when parked, wirelessly stream music from your Bluetooth phone, and access SiriusXM Travel Link. There is no difference in sound quality, which is generally acceptable, if not a bit underpowered.

The main difference between the Wrangler and the Unlimited is the extra length on the Unlimited that makes it slightly more stable and less twitchy going down the highway, but a little less maneuverable at lower speeds. We also noted that the Unlimited seemed to be slightly noisier than the Wrangler, which would makes sense considering how much extra fabric is contacting the airstream.

2nd Place: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon
What’s Hot:
Power, room for the family, increased stability
What’s Not:
Decreased breakover angle, increased weight

Our Take:
The One when you aren’t wheeling alone

From the Logbook:

  • “Stability improvement on the highway over two-door is notable.”
  • “Reasonably quiet noise levels, despite an uninsulated cloth top.”
  • “Can feel increased weight over whoops.”
  • “The auto is way more fun than I expected, great shifts!”
  • “Maybe if I had a family, I would like the four-door more.”

View Slideshow

Staff Picks
John Cappa, Editor
Both the two- and four-door Wrangler Rubicons are impressive with their seemingly do-all-well capability. The Infiniti QX56 absolutely wowed me with luxury, technology, and it’s dune performance. But at the end of the day it’s the simple two-door Wrangler Rubicon with a manual transmission that I’d want in my driveway. I’d love to have the additional cargo space of the four-door Wrangler but I just don’t need it often enough to justify the compromises that the extra wheelbase creates.

Ken Brubaker, Senior Editor
Out of this trio of vehicles, I have to give a shout out to the Wrangler Rubicon. Having spent a fair amount of time behind the wheel of the 3.8L-powered JK, I have to say that the new 3.6L Pentastar left me very impressed. The new engine has significantly transformed the two-door JK into a snappy, fun-to-drive machine, and the bump in fuel mileage is decent, too. The Pentastar V-6 almost makes me forget that I prefer Jeep cylinders lined up in single file.

Sean P. Holman, Tech Editor
For me it has to be the Wrangler Unlimited with its extra set of doors and extended wheelbase. I am a fan of longer wheelbase vehicles, however, the Unlimited isn’t so long that it can’t get through tight places. It also allows me to carry enough supplies for a weeklong excursion, or transport the family in style. More than a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question, I was so impressed with the Wrangler Unlimited that I actually went out and bought one.

Jason Gonderman, Web Editor
If I were to choose one of these SUVs to live with everyday, I think it would have to be the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited. It has all the off-road prowess of the two-door Wrangler, feels more stable thanks to its added length, is easier to get people into, and holds more gear. The Infiniti is nice, but it makes me sad to get it dirty.

Greg Smith, Art Director
I would take the Wrangler Unlimited. It fits my family, will tackle any trail I’m brave enough to attempt, plus with the automatic, it’s a pleasure to drive in the torturous Los Angeles traffic. Also, I have to say that Jeep has hit a home run with the new powerplant, and makes this Wrangler the best yet.

Steve von Seggern, Publisher
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. To quote myself from our 2007 Four Wheeler of the Year story: “The two-door Jeep is the rightful winner, but only because the minivan V-6 just doesn’t have nearly enough huevos for the four-door. If you gave the Unlimited a Hemi, or a 3.0 CRD, or Jeep’s own 4.7 V-8, or even DCX’s new 4.0 OHC V-6, you’d have my winner of this smack down in a heartbeat. That’s sad because the Unlimited is the most significant new vehicle to come along for us in a very long time and will have implications for us for years to come; just imagine a rig as capable as the Rubicon Unlimited on 37s and still quite comfortable as a daily-driven family car. Let the aftermarketing begin.” OK, it finally happened, it just took Jeep 5 years to get around to it.

David Hamilton, Account Executive Vermin
I picked the JK Unlimited for my OTY winner. What other vehicle can you still buy off the dealer lot, that includes unmatched off-road capabilities, a peppy 3.6L Pentastar, five-speed auto, and a refined boulevard cruising interior. The new Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is hard to beat!

Trail Testing
Despite being the most road-friendly in the test, the Infiniti did well enough hold its own in the dirt, as long as the road was smooth and hard or the medium was sand. With 400hp on tap, the Infiniti was the sand car of the group, with a surprisingly compliant ride and enough oomph to push its way up to the top of the tallest dunes. This is where the independent suspension acquitted itself quite well, showing none of the axle hop or suspension chatter of the solid-axled Jeeps.

While the QX56 may have been a natural at sand, it needs to go to remediation classes for whoops. The short travel suspension and chassis are quickly upset by these trail undulations; causing the body to pogo and the occupants to be jostled about until the shocks eventually reached equilibrium.

On our rocky Hill Climb, the four-wheel drive system, which can be had with a rear locker in other markets, but relies solely upon Brake Traction Control in the QX, works well enough to get the big Infiniti up rocky faces, but could be quicker to react. Once it got traction, it climbed without drama, although the limited ground clearance, 50-series tires, and unprotected underbody always had us on guard. In fact, it was the only vehicle to suffer a flat, leading us on a 200-mile side trip to find a replacement.

When it came to the Jeeps and the trail portion of our testing, they did not disappoint. Regardless of whether we were piloting the Wrangler or the Wrangler Unlimited, the Jeeps owned nearly all aspects of our off-pavement testing. They didn’t care if the terrain was sand, rocks, or washes; they lived up to the Jeep reputation. It is clear that exceptional care was taken to valve the monotube shocks, which worked well to control the suspension and offer up fade-free performance, even on roads that had our support crew fading.

Equipped with robust bumpers and a ridiculous amount of clearance for a production vehicle, we never once felt guilty turning the Jeeps loose off the highway. We were never worried about scraping, body damage, or tires going flat. Both Jeeps felt perfectly at home on the trail and both Jeeps owned the Hill Climb.

As on the pavement, the biggest distinction between the two came down to wheelbase and transmission. The Unlimited was more stable, the two-door more tossable. As good as the auto is, the manual is still the way to go for the purists in the group and even though the auto-aficionados tried as they might, you just can’t argue with a 75:1 crawl ratio.

One advantage the auto-equipped Wranglers have, though, is Hill Decent Control, which has the ability to use the braking system to slow the Wrangler to a crawl on the steepest descents that even the manual couldn’t match. It even works in reverse and is one of the quietest HDC systems on the market. Manual gear selection in the automatic also minimizes the advantage the manual maintains over the automatic.

Among the other notable features of the Wrangler is the ability to completely deactivate the Electronic Stability Program. Without computer intervention, the Wrangler becomes a true driver’s machine in the dirt. We found that defeating ESP was a huge benefit in deep, unyielding sand, allowing the Wrangler to fully utilize the newfound powerband of the 3.6L. But even with ESP activated, the computer algorithms work well enough to get a new wheeler through terrain that they might not have deemed passable. Either way, the system is scalable to your skill level.

The Wrangler is good, very good, but not above critique. There are a few changes we’d like to see, such as a rear locker that is liberated from its computer overlord to be speed and transfer case position independent. We’d also like to see a speed-independent sway bar disconnect, at least in low range. And finally, the 4:1 case can be a bit too low if your mission isn’t rock crawling, so we’d love to see either a three-speed case or at least a transfer case gear ratio option in the Rubicon.

With a week of testing and impressions behind us, we collected the scorebooks, queried the judges, and tallied the numbers, coming up with our winner of the 2012 Four Wheeler Of the Year trophy.

Winner: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
So what does it take to woo the judges at Four Wheeler magazine? Well, Jeep seems to know the answer. It has done its homework and delivered a vehicle that presses all of our buttons. Solid axles. Front and rear lockers. Disconnecting sway bar. Monotube shocks. Mud terrain tires. Removable doors. Open top. Lever-operated 4:1 transfer case. There simply isn’t another vehicle like it available at any price.

And now for 2012, Jeep has addressed the Wrangler’s biggest longstanding complaint – the engine. With over 80 additional horses on tap and more refinement overall, the smooth-revving 3.6L has transformed the Wrangler from a third car to one you can easily live with every day. The 3.6L offers better fuel economy, more power, yet no drawbacks as far as we could find on the trail. It is better than the old 3.8L, but without any compromise. With over 20 mpg highway, can the Wrangler be officially considered an acceptable commuter now?

This well-rounded version is as versatile as it is durable, rugged as it is refined, and as fun as it is serious about the task for which it was built. Whether tooling around the backcountry or driving it daily to work, the Jeep Wrangler can fit the need. It is just as fun for those who are new to the sport of wheeling as it is for those who have been doing it all their life and the Wrangler can be optioned from the basic to the near luxurious, with options unheard of in this class of vehicle 10 or even five years ago. It can do things no other production vehicle can, yet it is as civilized as the family sedan.

The Wrangler, without apologies, is the best 4x4 in production today, and it just so happens to be a really decent vehicle when it is on the pavement too. The Wrangler has set the bar high and for these reasons, we stand behind the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon as our 2012 Four Wheeler of the Year.

What’s Hot:
Great engine/trans combo, super maneuverable, fun
What’s Not:
Rear seats hard to access, limited cargo space

Our Take:
2012 Four Wheeler of the Year

From the Logbook:

  • “Highly maneuverable in any terrain.”
  • “This is the anvil of 4x4s – versatile for a short wheelbase.”
  • “Why does the Nav keep zooming in at every turn? Stop already!”
  • “Nothing better than driving down a fast dirt road with the windows down on a warm desert morning.”
  • “The six-speed and this engine are unbelievably fun together.”

View Slideshow

Specifications As Tested

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