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2014 4x4 of the Year

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on November 13, 2013 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Harry Wagner

It is time again to test the newest 4x4s. Our 4x4 of the Year test is unusual in that it is not a comparison of similar vehicles but a test of the latest and greatest in 4x4 technologies. It does require that the vehicle be off-road capable, have a drivetrain equipped with low range, be for sale early in the model year, have a minimum production of 2,500, and (most importantly) be significantly changed or improved from prior models with regard to off-road capability (a new paint scheme doesn’t cut it).

For the 2014 4X4 of the Year test we have two trucks and two SUVs (the"wagons”), and these four contenders bring an amazing array of off-road innovation. We have three vehicles with direct injection, three with forced induction, two diesels, two gas, two with fully independent suspension, one solid-axle suspension, and one with some of both. Every vehicle has heated and cooled seats and navigation screens, but only one has leaf springs. There were no driver selectable lockers in the bunch, and the steering ranged from a hydraulic pump and gearbox to an electric rack-and-pinion to one that is half-electric and half-hydraulic.

There were also plenty of dials: dials to choose gearing, to choose terrain, to choose channels, but none to choose phone numbers, thank goodness. The vehicles at times had so many options it was distracting and confusing, and other times it was fun and exciting to see how far we have come with the vehicles we drive. Though we call the 4x4 of the Year a test and a shootout, it is more a technology fair where competitors show up with all their latest, greatest offerings for the off-road market and we determine what really works and what still need some work.

The four vehicles in this year’s test are the Chevy Silverado 1500, Ram 2500 diesel, Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel, and supercharged Range Rover Sport. These contenders may seem like odd opponents in an off-road wrestle mania, but in fact they are all quite capable in their own right and have something not seen before in their market. Our question is, which 4x4 is the best of 2014 and which ones will be sent home to keep training for next year?

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2014 Chevrolet Silverado 1500
Stepping into the 2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 Z71 is like stepping into an old pair of boots that have just returned from getting resoled. It’s comfortable and capable, and you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. It has something new but still feels like the same old boot—er, truck. But that may also be the biggest problem with the Z71.

What is new for 2014 from Chevy? The new 5.3L direct-injection V-8 engine as well as a 4.3L V-6 and a 6.2L V-8. A high-strength steel frame is also new, as is electric power-assisted steering rack-and-pinion. Some suspension and brake upgrades are new too. GM also redesigned the cab and bed and interior and exterior styling and added a rear bumper step à la the now defunct Avalanche. That said, the truck feels more like an evolution than a revolution. In fact, most judges felt like the interior and exterior design was very reminiscent of the prior GM trucks.

Looking underneath, the Silverado didn’t really evoke any oohs and ahhs either. The Z71 package includes Rancho shocks, but the tires were not aggressive. The stance of the truck is not tall, and the low-hanging sidesteps seemed unusually low for an “off-road” package. The steering tie rods look just as small as they were 10 years ago. We headed to the mud with the Chevy and it sank. OK, not really, but it didn’t exactly instill confidence in the sloppy stuff. The street tires were mostly to blame here, as was the low ground clearance.

From the mud we headed up some twisty mountain roads to find rocks to crawl. We were disappointed by the lack of power coming out of corners. The six-speed transmission was constantly hunting, and the poor 5.3L was revving, whereas the eight-speeds of the Jeep and Rover seemed to always be in the correct gear. When we found rocks, the low hanging sidesteps and long length did not make for a proficient crawler. Minimal traction control didn’t help either, and we soon found the Chevy due for the recovery strap.

We were getting kind of blah feelings about the Chevy until we headed to the hillclimb where, lo and behold, it walked up like a champ. The long low truck did take a nice ding to the front bumper on the climb, and the poor front air dam ejected itself as well. Still, the wheelbase, factory rear limited slip, and well-matched transmission and transfer case gearing—plus an odd torque management scenario that seemed to pulse the throttle and in effect reduce wheel spin—allowed the Chevy to conquer the climb like a superstar. It walked right up while the others had to fight and claw their way to the top.

This one simple act somehow reinvigorated the judges to the Chevy, and the next thing you know comments like “I’m starting to really like the Silverado” were heard around mealtime, as well as “The interior of this truck is actually pretty awesome” and “It has tons of power outlets of every style from USB to 12-volt to 110” and “This truck goes unnoticed, but it’s actually really good.” We headed to the dunes next, and the Chevy was a lot of fun to bomb around in. It would have been more fun with more power (like the Rover), but it was capable, and maybe we will have to revisit the dunes with a 6.2L Silverado someday.

Overall the Silverado is a great 1⁄2-ton truck. It doesn’t drive like a sports car, but it doesn’t need to—it’s a truck. It has a ton of storage and utility and can comfortably fit four grown men and all their gear while heading to a job site, a hunting cabin, or the back forty, exactly like a truck needs to do. While the Silverado hasn’t changed much notable other than the stylingand engine, it still fulfills all the requirements of a good truck. It can haul stuff, and it can go offroad. What more do you need?

The Pros
• Comfortable interior
• Suspension, new engine
• Bumper step

The Cons
• Too low for off-road package
• Lame car tires for off-road
• Not exciting except engine

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2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited
The off-road market is enamored of the small diesel engine, so the new 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee with optional 3.0L V-6 EcoDiesel engine should be a hot seller. There is a lot to like about the EcoDiesel in the Grand Cherokee. It has more torque (420) than the 5.7L Hemi Grand Cherokee (390) we tested last year and the 5.3L Chevy (383) we tested this year, though not as much as the Rover (461) or the Ram (800). It gets better mileage than everything else we tested this year (21.2 mpg). However, the V-6 diesel only makes 240 hp and requires a fuel that is often as expensive or more than the premium fuel that Range Rover recommends in the supercharged Sport. Plus, the Diesel Grand was $4,000 more than the Hemi Grand we test just 12 months ago.

The diesel Grand is very cool, but it isn’t perfect. For instance, no one who got out of the diesel Grand thought it was as exhilarating as the supercharged Range Rover Sport. The diesel is beneficial, as it will eventually save you money at the pump (based on sticker info, it will take almost three years to pay off the price of the diesel based on fuel savings over a Hemi Grand). And other small-diesel enthusiasts who see you filling it up at the pump will think it’s cool. But in reality, performancewise (aka acceleration and driving), it is tough to beat a good gas V-8 in our minds.

So besides the diesel, how does the Grand rate in our test? We hate to describe it this way, but it’s really like the Range Rover’s little brother who hasn’t yet learned all the lessons of his more refined (and a lot more expensive) big brother. The Jeep air suspension tops out when it is raised to the highest setting and driven over rough terrain off-road, with an annoying thump sound. Of course, Rover did this also on the first iteration of air independent suspension, and we’re sure Jeep, like Rover, will figure out how to fix this in the future. Rover has apparently also fine-tuned the traction control further than Jeep because where the Jeep wanted to go the Rover actually did go.

We liked the eight-speed transmission, which, oddly enough, Rover also uses. Yes, they both run the same the ZF 8HP70 automatic transmission. However, we didn’t care for either shifter in these SUVs becuase they never seemed to allow easy quick shifting when we wanted it—but the Jeep was somewhat better than the Rover . Both have plenty of gearing options and paddle shifters that made them feel like sports cars. Of course, the biggest question is how well does the Jeep work off-road? Our poor Grand had a rough time on the test. The front and rear plastic bumpers took a beating on the rock section, and while it did great in the mud hole at the start of the event, it was all downhill from there. Even the Hill Descent Control couldn’t help.

One major problem with the Jeep is the traction control. It didn’t want to send power to the tires with traction when we needed it to. This in effect stopped forward motion. We were disappointed that the Quadra-Drive II system didn’t always live up to its claims. While we were trying to climb a rock obstacle, both rear tires were spinning but the front tire that had traction was not. Before the front tire climbed, the rear of the Jeep went sideways and came away with a dent. On the hillclimb the Jeep fared no better than the Rover, with much tire spin searching for traction.

We felt that for most of the test the Grand was trying to live up to the standard set by the Range Rover, but it was left grasping at straws compared to the more refined Rover traction control, air suspension, and underhood power. The Jeep does, however, make for a more logical vehicle purchase than the Rover in a lot of ways. It is much cheaper to buy, gets much better mileage, is still fun to drive even without 510 hp, and isn’t terrible off-road. It may not be a rockcrawler or hill climber, but as a rational family SUV it is very capable.

The Pros
• Diesel mileage & torque
• 8-speed transmission
• Well-thought-out skidplates

The Cons
• Disappointing traction control
• Low-hanging plastic bumpers
• Suspension clunks (tops out)

View Slideshow

2014 Ram 2500 Laramie
Due to technical difficulties, the Ram 2500 Laramie Longhorn showed up two days late for our test. It missed all the mud fun and most of the rockcrawling. It did, however, show up in time for the hillclimb and just about took the king-of-the-mountain crown in that single event.

The new Ram 2500 has a five-link coil rear suspension and radius-arm suspension up front. The idea behind the design is to carry over the great ride quality from the coilsprung 1⁄2-ton Ram to the heavy-duty truck, and the change to radius arms up front helps control body roll. The big truck does ride better, but not as well as we had hoped. In fact, exactly half of the judges claimed it was no better than a normal leaf-sprung 3⁄4-ton, while the other half felt it rode better than any other 3⁄4-ton truck they had ever driven.

However, when rockcrawling we really wanted better traction. Why doesn’t Ram offer a selectable rear locker in the diesel pickup like Ford does in the Super Duty? They may claim that they don’t need to since they offer the Power Wagon with dual lockers, but more people want a diesel 3⁄4-ton than a gas, and the Power Wagon is only available in gas. And here’s the clincher: Chevrolet uses the same rear AAM 111⁄2 axle as Ram in heavyduty diesel trucks, so why doesn’t Ram join forces with GM and split the cost of development? The market is ready for more capable diesel trucks. Feel free to steal our idea, Ram.

Ram claims that the 2500 has 800 lb-ft of torque, and maybe we were jaded by the extremely fast Rover, but it didn’t feel that impressive. We also found that the torque of the Cummins resulted in wheelhop compared to the other lighter competitors in the sand. During acceleration tests we just never felt the Ram could get that torque to the ground with the gut-wrenching, off-the-line punch of the Rover. Yes, it’s a big truck, but the throttle delay seemed to castrate the Cummins. On the other hand, the brakes were more than impressive, stopping the 8,000-pound Ram within a foot of its 2,300-pound lighter Grand Cherokee cousin.

Where the big truck really shined was going fast off-road and climbing up hills. The long wheelbase, linked suspension, and coils seemed to spread the load out evenly and help the Ram climbed like a mountain goat—er, we mean a big-horned sheep. And when bombing across the desert the suspension, tall-sidewall tires, and cowboy leather seats seemed to soak up the rutted two-tracks.

The 3⁄4-ton diesel Ram arrived late, was a bit too cowboy for the tastes of some city-slicker judges, wasn’t impressive in the sand, could have used a locker in the rocks, still rode like a big truck (though probably the best riding 3⁄4-ton ever), and didn’t feel as fast off the line as we expected it would given the claimed power and torque. Yet it was still the truck almost every judge would have taken home from the test for its shear usefulness. With the wheelbase, ground clearance, and weight up front, the Ram was a great hill climber and could rockcrawl OK without too much fear of rocker panel damage. It can haul more people, gear, and trailer weight than any other contender and still stop on a dime (a 121-foot dime from 60 mph). It is comfortable and roomy for a long-distance adventure both on- and offroad. It has nice big towhooks up front. The Ram Boxes make the bed perfect for all that gear you want to lock up but not store in the cab, like dirty towstraps or tools. The components are massive (the front tie rod is almost 2 inches in diameter!). With front and rear solid axles, every judge felt confident that the Ram would get them there and back, wherever “there” might be, and could be easily modified for even more capability. However, just because it fits the bill for what most of the judges could or would use in their daily lives doesn’t make it the 4x4 of the Year.

The Pros
• Great riding for a 3⁄4-ton
• Big, reliable solid axle parts
• Awesome brakes

The Cons
• No locking differentials
• Not good in sand
• Underwhelming acceleration

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2014 Range Rover Sport Supercharged
The 2014 Range Rover Sport with the supercharged V-8 is expensive, but it’s also really, really fast. It’s probably the most expensive and fastest vehicle we have ever tested on 4x4 of the Year. Sticker price on the Sport is a wallet-punching $90,585. Yes, you could get almost two Silverados for that price.

When the supercharged 5.0L comes alive it gives you neck-snapping acceleration, but then the luxury kicks in and your head is caught and cradled in a headrest made of fine pillow-top leather (we aren’t making this up). And if the acceleration wasn’t good enough, the sound it makes doing so just multiplies the fun. The luxury doesn’t stop at the headrests though. The Oxford perforated leather seats can clamp you tight with adjustable sides bolsters for high-speed driving, or they can recline, heat, or chill your back while you’re tip-toeing over rocks. Auto dimming and mood interior lighting when combined with the sliding panoramic roof and privacy glass from the B-pillar back makes this SUV into a bachelor pad like no other. If dropping your date off after a ride in this doesn’t get you a kiss good night, then there’s not much more we can do for you.

This SUV is a refined and luxurious wagon more akin to James Bond than kids watching SpongeBob, but is it also a great off-roader? In many ways, yes. We’ll start with the bad. TheRange Rover Sport has massive brakes that will sling you headfirst into the dash if you’re not buckled up (and will set off the hazard lights to warn other drivers that you have come to an abrupt stop). The brakes themselves are great, but the problem is that they require massive 21-inch wheels (20s are standard) that leave nearly no real estate for tire sidewalls. Measuring just 30.5 inches tall, the 275/45R21 Michelin Latitude Sport tires only manage roughly 4 inches of sidewall. We love the brakes, we don’t hate the wheels, but we want more tire.

We also felt the cabin was not as ergo as others in the test, but Rovers have always had a reputation for being different. When driving the (relatively) low-buck Silverado we could have found the window buttons, door handle, and HVAC control blindfolded; in the Rover, not so much. But we’re sure we would learn if we had one to drive every day.

An other complaint was the towhooks are hard to find. The front is behind the removable air dam, and the rear is a screw in I-loop found in storage with the spare tire. The gobs of power both on- and off-road are hard to beat. When we were in the sand the engine would pull hard, and then about halfway up a dune you can punch it and find a reserve tank of supercharged British ponies just waiting to stampede. That same power smoked the competition off the line from zero to 60 and gave every judge a post-driving grin.

The traction control also outshined the competition in this test. Those tall thin Michelins would barely spin a full rotation before brakes and/or the clutch-based rear locker were applied and traction regained. Plus, the six Terrain Response settings (Sport, Normal, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud/Ruts, Sand, and Rock Crawl), all controlled by a center dial, adjust everything from the transmission shift points, hill descent control, and torque delivery to the throttle response, suspension height, and application of both center and rear locking differentials. We found the settings more useful in their respective terrains compared to similar systems from other manufacturers.

With a body built out of aluminum, the Rover was almost 150 pounds lighter than the next heaviest competitor, again helping that power-to-weight ratio. Despite having the best such ratio, the Rover still wasn’t the best hill climber or mud bogger, but again tire choice and short wheelbase seemed to be the major factors there.

The Pros
• 510 hp that feels like 510
• Traction control works well
• Did we mention 510 hp?

The Cons
• Low-profile tires
• Missing front locking diff
• Sticker price

View Slideshow

Range RoverSport wins!
Horsepower has a way of winning out when all else is equal and overcoming when all else fails. We have proven this many times before in 4x4 of the Year. And when that horsepower is combined with a well-engineered off-road system, it’s really hard to beat. The four 4x4s we tested this year are not what we would consider the most capable 4x4s ever—there wasn’t a single front locker in the bunch—but at the same time each vehicle in this test is more than just a commuter car, and some (such as our winner) are respectable off-roaders. If you consider that the 510 hp under the hood would have been ridiculous in an SUV 10 years ago (our winning SUV that year had less than half that power), it’s pretty awesome how far the technology has come.

But horsepower is not the only reason the Range Rover Sport won 2014 4x4 of the Year. The ability to rise up and clear obstacles due to the air springs at each independently suspended wheel helped it clear rockstrewn trails. The brake-based traction control and mechanical rear locking differential worked almost flawlessly. The variable setting of the terrain system did more than just light up a dash light to tell you what you were driving over. The interior design had a unique feel, and the Rover has body styling reminiscent of its very early models with the rolled-edge hood and forward-slanting D-pillar. Not to mention that the level of luxury is almost as astounding as the level of capability and underbelly protection.

The Range Rover Sport isn’t perfect. First, it’s very expensive, but even with the compounded negative points that the $90K price tag earned it, the Sport’s performance points made up for it. Second, the low-profile tires on 21-inch wheels (where do you find 21-inch beadlocks?) would not be our first choice for an off-road machine. We were able to get all the required wheel spin and traction from them for the rocks and sand, plus they do grip like a vise on twisty mountain roads, but we still would have requested a more aggressive option with more sidewall. And as you would expect, it didn’t get the best fuel economy, but how would it? Every time any judge drove it he had the throttle mashed to hear the engine roar and feel the ridiculous acceleration.

We won’t even try to convince you that the Range Rover Sport is a wellrounded, budget-minded, conservative SUV. It isn’t. What it is is fun to drive. It will get you to that winter ski lodge and do it fast. It will rip down the dirt road to your hunting or fishing cabin, though you may need a buddy to haul home your kill. It will allow you to go get the kids from school even after more than a little snowfall, and when Friday night rolls around it will get you and your date to the nicest place in town whether it’s the movies or that secluded wooded place where the stars are so bright.

Every vehicle in our test is a true meat-and-potatoes truck. But where the others are burger and fries, the Sport is steak and garlic mashed. Make that Kobe steak with a $300 bottle of wine and a free-range lettuce salad, followed up by a molten lava chocolate cake actually baked over real lava.

View Slideshow

Results
Test Structure
Category... Ranked Highest

Ride & Drive (50% of total points)
Urban/Highway... Range Rover Sport
High-Speed Dirt & Gravel... Range Rover Sport
Sand & Mud... Range Rover Sport
Rockcrawling... Range Rover Sport
Hillclimbing... Chevrolet Silverado 1500
Overall Range Rover Sport

Empirical (25% of total points)
Torque/Weight Ratio... Ram 2500 Diesel
1⁄4-mile Acceleration... Range Rover Sport
60-0 Braking... Range Rover Sport
Load-Carrying Capacity... Ram 2500 Diesel
Fuel Economy... Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel
Price As Tested... Chevrolet Silverado 1500
Overall... Chevrolet Silverado 1500

Mechanical (10% of total points)
Engine’s Avail. Power... Range Rover Sport
Transmission... Range Rover Sport
Transfer Case... Ram 2500 Diesel
Steering... Range Rover Sport
Brakes... Range Rover Sport
Suspension... Range Rover Sport
Overall... Range Rover Sport

4-wheeling Attributes (5% of total points)
Clearance... Ram 2500 Diesel
Protection... Range Rover Sport
Recovery... Ram 2500 Diesel
Overall... Ram 2500 Diesel

Interior (5% of total points)
Ergonomics... Ram 2500 Diesel
Appearance, Fit & Finish... Range Rover Sport
Perceived Noise Level (NVH)... Range Rover Sport
Overall... Range Rover Sport

Exterior (5% of total points)
Body... Styling Ram 2500 Diesel
Cargo... Ram 2500 Diesel
Fit & Finish... Range Rover Sport
Overall... Ram 2500 Diesel

Previous 4x4 of the Year winners
2013 Jeep Wrangler Moab Edition JK (3.6L V-6)
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

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