In Search Of The Best Off-Road package
With every Four Wheeler of the Year competition comes the inevitable deluge of mail from our readers asking how we selected the vehicles we did and why we don’t test every 4x4 on the market. Because OTY is setup to only evaluate those vehicles that are all new or significantly revised, we decided a new shootout was in order.
To answer our OTY critics, we partnered with our friends at PickupTrucks.com and invited every current 4x4 offered with a factory off-road package to Michigan to battle head-to-head for off-road package supremacy. This test would focus primarily on wheeling, with none of the scoring taking in to account how smooth of a highway ride these rigs offer, whether they have heated seats, or which truck has the best stereo. No sir, this shootout is solely about function on the trail.
For this test, we developed simple testing criteria that included four major scoring categories, each worth 25 percent of the total score. In the Empirical category, we scored areas such as performance, specifications, capability, and base price. Off-Road Package Content took in to account the upgrades and features of each off-road package. Vehicle Operation judged the vehicles off-highway performance and the functionality of its 4x4 systems, and finally, Trail Testing is how well the vehicle responded in real-world wheeling.
Answering our invite was Ford with the ’12 F-150 SVT Raptor, Jeep with a ’13 Wrangler Rubicon, Nissan with a pair of entries in the Frontier PRO-4X and Xterra PRO-4X, Ram with a ’12 Power Wagon, and Toyota sending the company’s 4Runner Trail and Tacoma TRD T|X Baja Series. General Motors was also invited, but declined to participate in our test.
Once our field of seven was assembled, we took over Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Michigan, for performance and trail testing. On the skidpad we collected our acceleration and braking data, before moving to our individual events, such as a loose, sandy hillclimb and a rocky stairstep obstacle. Each event provided valuable information and was set up in a way that we could directly compare the vehicles back-to-back.
To expand our testing outside of the controlled environment of a proving ground, we also took our fleet of four wheelers to the popular Mounds Off-Road Vehicle Area in Mt. Morris, Michigan. With our tests occurring on a rainy day, we had a chance to sample these vehicles in the mud, wet sand, and in a rock garden where the lack of grip really allowed us to see how the traction control and four-wheel-drive systems responded in less-than-ideal conditions.
After a week of evaluations, we tallied up the scores and ended up with the following results…
2012 Nissan Xterra PRO-4X
Total Points: 54.37/100
Base Price: $30,720
Off-Road Package Contents: Electronic part-time four-wheel drive, Bilstein shocks, P265/75R16 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires w/fullsize spare, electronic locking rear differential, 4-Wheel Limited Slip, Hill Descent Control, Hill Start Assist, front tow hooks, full skidplating, auxiliary roof-mounted lighting
The Xterra offers a lot of bang for the buck. With the third-lowest starting price in the field of just $30,720, you get upgraded tires, Bilstein shocks, an electronic rear locker, and class-exclusive auxiliary lighting. We were impressed that nothing important hangs down past the bottom of the framerails and full skidplating, although thin-gauge, protects the undercarriage. The chassis, Nissan’s stout F-Alpha architecture, is shared with the Frontier pickup.
The Xterra was praised for its simple, intuitive controls, good visibility, and overall package. However, it does sit low to the ground, meaning you’ll be using those skidplates, and the interior, especially, is showing its age. Ride quality in the dirt is acceptable, but not as good as others, which is probably a result of Nissan sticking with durable leaf springs in the rear when the competition has gone to coils.
On the sandy hillclimb, the Xterra made it up after a few attempts, requiring increased momentum, helped by an engaged rear locker and a functional brake traction control system. Like the majority of the vehicles in this test, the locker can only be activated in low range. With a 33.9:1 crawl ratio, we appreciated the Hill Descent Control system when coming down. The system itself was rated mid-pack in terms of noise level and effectiveness.
While tackling the stairsteps, the Xterra walked up with minimal effort, only slowed down in a few spots by wheelbase. We found that steady throttle and a sawing action of the steering wheel worked well with the BTC system to get the SUV up and over the ledges. Unfortunately, our trail testing of the Xterra ended there.
At the top of the stair climb, one of our judges took the Xterra through some alternating moguls at a crawl and was startled when the side-curtain air bags blew, taking with them the Xterra’s chances of continuing in this shootout. All of the other vehicles in the test went through the same offset holes without any issues. As our ’09 Four Wheeler of the Year winner, there is no doubt that the Xterra would have finished higher if not for the airbag deployment.
Hot: Affordable, capable, intuitive operation
Not: Dated interior, sits low, overreactive airbags
Our Take: A good performer for the money, but we don’t like having to be wary of the airbags
2012 Toyota 4Runner Trail
Total Points: 62.57/100
Base Price: $36,755
Off-Road Package Contents: Lever-actuated part-time four-wheel drive, Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System ($1,750 option), P265/70R17 Bridgestone Dueler HT tires w/fullsize spare, electronic locking differential, Multi-Terrain Select, Crawl Control, Downhill Assist Control, Hill Start Assist, Brake Traction Control, front tow points, skidplates
Another alumni of our FWOTY award (2010) in this test was Toyota’s 4Runner Trail. This is a real 4x4, not some crossover based on a car. Underpinning the body is a full frame, a solid rear axle, and coil springs at each corner. Aimed at wheeling enthusiasts, the Trail has distinctive front and rear fascias and unique eight-hole aluminum wheels. Our tester included the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, which uses hydraulic pressure to disengage the front and rear sway bars during certain conditions, allowing for greater articulation on the trail.
Climbing in to the 4Runner’s modern interior was the most like climbing aboard an airplane cockpit, with a bevy of buttons and switches, all displaying different hieroglyphics and acronyms denoting different functions. These controls are not only distributed throughout the dashboard, but also in an overhead console, where you least expect to find them.
One of those functions housed in the overhead console is the Crawl Control system, which is duo of knobs that allows the driver to select the severity of the terrain, and the speed at which you want the 4Runner to crawl. Essentially, it is autopilot for the rocks, working the throttle, while the driver picks the line with the steering wheel. Our testers were split as to whether it was helpful or gimmicky, as some found it effective in certain conditions, while others preferred making their own choices concerning the throttle.
Not in debate, however, was how well the Trail handled our hillclimb, where all the electronic traction aides, along with the rear locker worked together, allowing the Toyota to walk right up where other vehicles were challenged. The 4Runner similarly made quick work of the stair climb, until one of the street-oriented Bridgestone Dueler HT tires suffered a sidewall failure and had to be replaced. Fortunately the 4Runner comes with a fullsize spare.
Judges noted that the 4Runner’s Downhill Assist Control, while more than adequate, made its best impression of a machine gun on full-auto when engaged, disrupting the perception of the 4Runner having a refined personality. In the rock garden, the low-hanging undercarriage produced a symphony of crashes, scrapes, and bangs as the 4Runner slithered over each and every rock.
As much as the traction nannies shined in the climbs, they met their match in quick, loose soil where it sometimes felt like they were fighting the driver for control. On the backroads, the 4Runner’s soft suspension, which was fine for most situations, showed its weakness when the trail started to deteriorate and the 4Runner had to be slowed down to keep it off the bumpstops. Other drawbacks to the Trail were unsupportive front seats and minimalist front tow points.
Overall, the technology that is designed to make wheeling easier for the average person might be the very thing that makes the 4Runner too overwhelming for the same buyer. Likewise, experienced wheelers won’t find much need for techno add-ons, such as Crawl Control. At the end of the day most of us just want to hit the trail without having to reference a manual.
Hot: Technology, family-friendly, manual T-case lever
Not: Technology, uncomfortable front seats, weak tires
Our Take: A capable SUV, but not the best one for the trail