Every 12 months we pit the best of what’s new in 4x4 vehicles against one another in our 4x4 of the Year test. This is a shootout of what’s coming soon to a dealer near you, a comparison of different vehicles based on their merit as the freshest newfangled 4x4s. We do require a few things: a two-speed, low-range-equipped transfer case; availability by early the following year; and a minimum production of 2,500.
Our field of competitors for 2013 spans the spectrum of style, capability, and performance, but oddly enough they are all from the same mother ship. Spoiler alert! A Chrysler product won our test.
This year we received three contenders, the ’13 Jeep Wrangler Moab Edition, the ’13 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, and the ’13 Ram 1500 Outdoorsman Crew Cab 4x4. Each is new or has been significantly upgraded from prior models.
Our test takes these three unusual cousins through a variety of terrain, with the majority of points earned while off the asphalt. Unlike car magazines that concentrate on ergonomics and how a vehicle works on tarmac, we go straight to where you the reader likes to see your 4x4s—in the dirt, rocks, mud, and sand—to determine a winner. To that end, we consider 4x4 attributes such as recovery points and skidplates. In fact, any ergonomics we consider is based on comfort and visibility for off-road use. We spend a week running these vehicles through their paces in places few auto journalists dare to tread, and why? So we can award the best of what’s new with a title most fitting for a true four-wheeler, the 4x4 of the Year.
We require a two-speed, low-range-equipped transfer case
Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk
The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk was the most anticipated vehicle of the test. Grand Cherokees have always done well in 4x4 of the Year, and one designed specifically for off-road use had to be a contender. The list of upgrades included rock sliders, aggressive tires, a rear locking differential, additional skidplates, and unique 18-inch wheels. Plus there were the cool red towhooks, black hood decal, and red and black leather seats to give it a cool look and attitude. Unfortunately, by week’s end the Trailhawk had earned the nickname Trail Chicken. What could have been so good resulted in something only a bit better than the stock Grand we tested two years ago.
We’ll start with the good. The rock sliders are some of the best we have ever seen on a production vehicle. Tough and strong, they saved us in quite a few undesirable rock situations. The red towhooks may look flamboyant but worked excellently (too bad there wasn’t a pair on the rear bumper). Speaking of bumpers, how about something made of steel like the Wrangle Moab has?
The Jeep Grand Cherokee is an awesome driving machine. It rides great, is pretty fast, and was the best four-door SUV in our test. The interior is comfortable and would make this the perfect office-to-airport to mountain cabin commuter if we had a little place up in the hill for skiing or snowmobiling, or whatever else people do at their mountain cabin in the winter.
The four-wheel independent suspension is at home in high-speed desert romps. It was the one place the Trailhawk seemed to spread its wings and fly (sorry, we were looking for the proper time for that pun). However, we realized that the fancy air suspension still needs more work, as the Hawk works best at high speed when in the low “sport” mode. At maximum height the Grand’s suspension tops out as the tires go to full droop with an annoying clunk sound.
The Grand did earn top honors on looks and styling with the blacked out hood decal reminiscent of its Power Wagon cousin. But unlike the reliable Power Wagon locking differentials, we were disappointed with the traction control in the Grand. The Trailhawk edition with the Hemi V-8 has an electric actuated clutch-style limited slip in the rear axle. This combined with brake-based traction control up front led us to expect great things off-road. We found it didn’t always work out that way, especially when we needed it most in the rocks and hillclimb. At times we had a tire on solid granite and couldn’t get it to pull the Jeep forward, while other times the tire spun in loose gravel. So we opted to spin the tires faster, hoping the acceleration would kick in the brake traction device. All it did was dig us in deeper and lower the air suspension. Luckily other wheelers with excellent rock sliders were there to catch us.
The center-console-mounted terrain selection in this SUV leaves plenty of room for improvement. We’ve seen this style of system before in Land Rovers and Land Cruisers, but we have to say the Jeep variant still needs work. In fact, the best it ever worked was when we put it in sport mode to reduce the ride height and traction/safety nannies. Nonetheless, most judges picked this Jeep as the go-to vehicle of the test for on-road driving. Since most Americans use their 4x4s as street-driven commuters requiring just enough off-road performance for foul weather or easy dirt roads, we support the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk for that job.
• Beefy rock sliders
• Fast on dirt roads
• Suspension clunks at speed
• Needs more power
• Needs real lockers (SRT8?)
Jeep Wrangler Moab Edition
10-plus years ago a Jeep like this would have been amazing, but back then we got something even better, the Rubicon. This Wrangler Moab is the second most capable Wrangler ever to roll off the factory line, but by modern Jeeper’s standards it is undergunned. Equipped with only a rear selectable locker and tires that are only slightly more aggressive than those on a base model, this JK Wrangler, though capable, is no Rubicon. Although we dislike it compared to a Rubicon, we love it compared to a base model JK, not to mention compared to the other two competitors in our test for most terrains.
The Moab edition starts as a Sahara package and then adds front and rear steel bumpers (the front is ready to drop in a winch), 245/75R17 Goodyear Silent Armor tires on17-inch black aluminum Rubicon wheels, rock sliders, and a selectable rear locking differential. It also adds a bunch of other stuff that does nothing to improve off-road performance, such as a Power Bulge hood, leather seats, a black gas door, and a bunch of electrical gadgets.
The single locker and body armor are the most important options for dirt use. The 3.73 gears are just not low enough with the manual transmission. Where we often crave a stick shift, this time we longed for an auto with its torque converter, or some proper low gears.
We foresee many a new Jeep buyer being dazzled by the off-roady looks of the Moab and taking it home. Plus, we can’t deny it may be a good starting point to build off of, except for one big flaw: the price. When our test took us to a local Jeep dealership to swap in a new alternator (yes, we killed the Wrangler’s high-mounted alternator by splashing through a big mud puddle, a weird fluke that Jeep engineers claim to have never duplicated), we perused the new car lot and found a ’13 black two-door, soft-top Rubicon for a price $1,725 less than the Moab! We were amazed.
The Wrangler Moab is the smallest, most agile, lightest, least expensive, and only dual-solid-axle-equipped vehicle of the three in our test. The Moab has the tallest tire (though all three share the same tread pattern) and has recovery points at each corner (though some judges disliked the fact that the Moab uses shackle hangers and not towhooks). The Moab climbs better, crawls better, and even outshined the competition in the dunes, though it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence on the high-speed sections. In the mud the little Jeep V-6 winds up and spins with glee while the short wheelbase bounces through the ruts and turns on a dime. The armor is appreciated, as we didn’t leave the trail with the normal Jeep JK dented plastic bumper of years past.
So it should win, but will it? The engine either needs more low-end grunt or lower gears, as we said earlier. Better yet, just choose the automatic. The transmission seems to need a better mount because the shifter rattles like crazy at high speeds off-road. However, every judge still chose the manual over the competing autos. The Power Bulge hood isn’t bad, but half the judges wondered what the point of it was. The leather seats are nice, but not as nice as in the Grand Cherokee where you expect them to be. The soft top on the Wranglers just keeps getting better, but some judges just prefer a steel or hard roof above their heads. Plus, the virtues of a small off-road powerhouse often result in diminished attributes for cargo and highway driving.
This Jeep is an oddity. It looks better than it actually is, but it is better than most of the others.
• One selectable locker
• Bumpers and rock sliders
• Great visibility
• Only one selectable locker
• Expensive for off-road value
• Geared too high
Ram 1500 Outdoorsman
In our Dec. ’12 issue we told you about the new Ram 1500 (“First Drive: Ram 1500 Refresh”) and gave you the inside scoop on the new Pentastar V-6 option, eight-speed transmission, and air-spring suspension. The truck we are testing here is similar but with the Hemi V-8 and the old six-speed automatic transmission.
Ram Truck’s goal is to build the most fuel-efficient half-ton truck on the market; however, we tested just a portion of those eco-upgrades. It does have the four-wheel air suspension and electric steering rack, which help lower the truck for better aerodynamics and reduce parasitic power loss due to a steering pump. We didn’t get to test the V-6 engine with eight-speed transmission or the grille-mounted shutters that bypass air around the engine bay for improved mileage when cooling isn’t needed, but these are options you should consider if you’re looking for a truck with maximum fuel economy.
This new Ram has kept the solid rear axle with five-link suspension but replaced the coil springs with air springs. The front also received air springs, and this allows the vehicle to be raised and lowered depending on off-road use and speed. Plus, the air suspension can level out the truck depending on load, all aspects that make this half-ton one of the most dynamic in the market. The Ram’s air suspension, which is developed off the Grand Cherokee’s Quadra-Lift design, seems better tuned than the Grand. It doesn’t top out and clunk when tested in its highest position.
Compared to the two Jeeps in our test, the Ram stood apart as a great truck but just an average 4x4. We can appreciate the power of the Hemi for mud and sand, the long wheelbase for hillclimbing, and the height offered by the air suspension when in the rocks. We wouldn’t mind seeing a selectable rear locker such as other trucks in this segment offer instead of the Eaton clutch-style limited slip, though we felt the traction control in the Ram outperformed that in the Grand Cherokee. Plus, the truck acts weird in low-range crawling: When you release the brake pedal there is a second of lag before it will start to crawl forward—great on hills, odd on rocks.
The body styling of the Ram trucks, where the body hangs down low for better aerodynamics, is again a hindrance off-road. We would appreciate a set of quality rock sliders similar to those on the Trailhawk or Moab. Maybe in a special half-ton Power Wagon Light version?
We expected the Ram to take the cake in the high-speed off-road section but found it light in the rear and less stable in corners than the Grand. We do find the RamBox bedside cargo boxes priceless for stowing a dirty tow strap and other recovery gear, and the fact that they lock with key fob is brilliant. We would like to see them designed to work with a camper shell, though.
The Ram felt more powerful and was extremely smooth-riding and all-around more useful than the other two 4x4s in our test. From a seat-of-the-pants standpoint, the big truck just seemed to get up and go better than the similar-powered Grand. However, the visibility doesn’t compare to the Jeeps for technical off-roading, and the length can also be a problem in the same situations. The Ram earned a solid second place in almost every driving category and would have won if we were looking for the best truck in the lineup—but we were judging best 4x4.
• Good power and sound
• Ride and cargo capacity
• Locking RamBoxes
• Wheelbase and visibility
• Low-hanging rocker panels
• No locking rear differential
Category... Ranked Highest
Ride & Drive... (50% of total points)
Urban/Highway... Jeep Grand Cherokee
High-Speed Dirt & Gravel... Jeep Grand Cherokee
Sand & Mud... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Rockcrawling... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Hillclimbing Jeep Wrangler Moab
Overall Jeep Wrangler Moab
Empirical (25% of total points)
Torque/Weight Ratio... Ram 1500
1⁄4-mile Acceleration... Jeep Grand Cherokee
60-0 Braking... Jeep Grand Cherokee
Load-Carrying Capacity... Ram 1500
Fuel Economy Jeep Wrangler Moab
Price As Tested... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Overall (tie)... Jeep Grand Cherokee Jeep Wrangler Moab
Mechanical (10% of total points)
Engine’s Avail. Power... Ram 1500
Transmission... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Transfer Case... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Steering... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Brakes... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Suspension... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Overall... Jeep Wrangler Moab
4-wheeling Attributes (5% of total points)
Clearance... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Protection... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Recovery... Jeep Grand Cherokee
Overall... Jeep Wrangler Moab
Interior (5% of total points)
Ergonomics... Jeep Grand Cherokee
Appearance, Fit &... Finish Jeep Grand Cherokee
Perceived Noise Level (NVH)... Ram 1500
Overall... Jeep Grand Cherokee
Exterior (5% of total points)
Body Styling... Jeep Grand Cherokee
Cargo Ram... 1500
Fit & Finish... Jeep Grand Cherokee
Overall Jeep... Grand Cherokee
Previous 4x4 of the year winners
2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon JK (3.6L V-6)
2011 Land Rover LR4 HSE
2010 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor (5.4L V-8)
2009 Suzuki Equator Crew Cab RMZ-4
2008 Toyota Land Cruiser
2007 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon JK (3.8L V-6)
2006 Dodge Ram 1500 TRX4
2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee (IFS)
2004 Volkswagen Touareg V-8
2003 Lexus GX 470
2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee (4.7 HO V-8)
2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee (5-speed automatic)
2000 Toyota Tundra
1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee (4.7 V-8 Limited)
1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee (5.9 V-8 Limited)
1997 Jeep Wrangler Sport TJ
1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee (w/ center diff lock)
1995 Dodge Ram (2500 V-10 longbed Club Cab)
1994 Dodge Ram (1500 V-8 shortbed regular cab)
1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee
1992 Chevrolet Blazer (fullsize)
1991 Dodge Dakota
1990 Nissan Pathfinder (4-door)
1989 Toyota pickup
1988 Jeep Cherokee (4.0 engine)
1987 Nissan Pathfinder (2-door)
1986 Ford Ranger
1985 Isuzu Trooper II
1984 Jeep Cherokee (2.8 engine)
1983 Chevrolet S-10 Blazer
Wrangler Repeats as 4x4 of the Year
If you bring a knife to a gun fight you’ll probably lose, but if you bring a knife to a spoon fight you’ll probably win. This year’s 4x4 of the Year winner is a really good knife. It works better than the rest and looks the part. While the Ram truck fulfills the needs of a buyer looking to haul and commute, and the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is a great asphalt and dirt road machine, the Wrangler Moab is truly a better 4x4.
The Wrangler Moab gives the driver a fun vehicle for almost every off-road terrain and at a price nearly $10,000 less than the competition. The bumpers and rock sliders protect it from rocks and other off-road hazards. The short-wheelbase coil-sprung suspension is nimble and great for technical four-wheeling. Visibility is on par with the Grand Cherokee (and way better than the Ram), but the smaller size and better traction of the Wrangler allows you to put it in places the Trailhawk wouldn’t go.
It really boggles our mind that no other manufacturer has decided to compete with the Wrangler. With the basic design, simple styling, and rugged drivetrain, it’s no wonder the Wranglers are breaking sales records. Jeep keeps offering more and more unique packages, whether in paint schemes, tire and wheel choices, or short-run special editions, Jeep seems to make a fresh new Wrangler for just about every taste.
The Moab is a great step up from a base model Wrangler, but we would like to see one with fewer accessories if possible to bring the price down. Maybe just bumpers, sliders, and a rear locker—no leather, navigation, fancy wheels, or bulging hood. Just meat and potatoes, hold the garnish. In fact, this Jeep Moab is very similar to many of the trails in Moab, Utah, which look extreme, but with the great sandstone traction they really aren’t that bad.
We have no doubt the Moab Wranglers will sell, and for many it will be the perfect 4x4. We may complain about gearing and too much fancy stuff, but the fact is it’s perfect for the average Jeeper and way better than what most of us grew up thinking a Jeep offered. The single rear locker brings both off-road performance and challenge without making the Jeep a point-and-shoot crawler nor a floundering trail clogger. The interior upgrades are really nice to have, even if they seem over the top for an open-topped Jeep. And all said and done, it just upholds the heritage as a fun, capable, no-nonsense (OK, maybe a little nonsense) 4x4—and that is why it won.