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2015 Four Wheeler of The Year - Super Showdown

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on January 23, 2015 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Ken Brubaker

The trio of SUVs in this year’s Four Wheeler of the Year competition are a fascinating bunch. Nowadays, it seems that many nameplates are getting tacked onto SUVs that seem to be designed only for inclement weather. These three vehicles are designed to be capable off-road, and they have specific features to make that happen.

Each year we test the latest and greatest SUVs during our annual Four Wheeler of the Year event. To qualify for 2015, an SUV had to be all-new or substantially revised, have a two-speed transfer case (or equivalent), a production run of 1,500 vehicles in the U.S., and be on sale by March 15, 2015. This year, we had three vehicles in our super SUV showdown: the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, Jeep Renegade Trailhawk, and Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro.

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During the weeklong test, our panel of seven judges rotated through each of the SUVs at regular intervals. This wasn’t the first rodeo for our judges. All are experienced testers who have logged many hours testing new vehicles on- and off-road. Each judge was required to record detailed notes in their official judging book and score each vehicle in a variety of areas. You can read elsewhere in this story about how scoring is structured and the specific categories contained therein. The judge’s job was to detect each SUV’s strengths and weaknesses. To ascertain this information, we drove the vehicles almost non-stop for five days in a wide variety of terrain. We tried to include every type of environment that you may encounter. In addition to many types of paved roads, we piloted the SUVs in a variety of off-road conditions like water, loose dirt, sand, and for the first time in many years, and maybe ever at Four Wheeler of the Year, snow. You can read more about testing later in the story.

When testing was complete, all three of the vehicles were sporting dinged-up skidplating, one had tweaked plastic on the front bumper, one had a disconnected front air dam corner, and one went home on a rollback. Also when testing was complete, we had respect for all three of these rigs. Not one was a “penalty box.”

So what’s new with these three rigs? What qualities did they have that worked well? What needs improvement? Which SUV took home the Four Wheeler of the Year 2015 honor? Read on.

3rd Place - Jeep Renegade Tralhawk

What’s New
The Renegade is all-new for 2015. It’s built in Melfi, Italy, on a platform shared with the Fiat 500L (in case you’re wondering, that’s a front-wheel-drive car). Our preproduction tester was powered by the 2.4L I-4 Tigershark MultiAir II engine mated to the segment’s first nine-speed automatic transmission. In lieu of a transfer case, the four-wheel-drive system incorporates a single-stage Power Transfer Unit (PTU) that transmits torque through a driveshaft assembly to the Rear Driveline Module (RDM). The RDM incorporates an open two-pinion differential and wet clutch assembly that governs torque distribution through an electromechanical actuator. The entire four-wheel-drive system is controlled by an external Driveline Control Module that utilizes real-time CAN data to control torque output. The Jeep Active Drive Low system creates a 20:1 crawl ratio without having a two-speed transfer case (or equivalent, like the Cherokee). Among other things, the Renegade Trailhawk offers an exclusive Rock mode in the Selec-Terrain system, increased ride height, skidplating, improved approach, departure, and rampover angles, unique wheels with more aggressive tires, improved wheel articulation, and up to 19 inches of water fording capability.

Ramp and Track
The Renegade Trailhawk traveled a so-so 34 inches up our 20-degree RTI ramp to earn a score of 336 points. At the track, the 2.4L Tigershark MultiAir II pulled the approximately 3,490-pound SUV from 0-60 mph in a respectable 10.8 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 18.1 seconds at a speed of 76.6 mph. Four-wheel disc brakes helped to reign in the Renegade from 60-0 mph in 129.2 feet, albeit with a fair amount of nose-over and rear end lift, possibly due to the front springs being out of spec, we’re told, from what will be used on production vehicles.

Exterior/Interior
It was clear that a lot of thought went into the exterior of the vehicle to integrate the Jeep look and functionality. We dug the exceptional approach and departure angles, 30.5 and 34.3 degrees, respectively, which makes the Trailhawk second only to the Wrangler vehicles and the Grand Cherokee (in the raised suspension position) in the 2015 Jeep lineup. We also liked the use of plastic along the lower body panels, which is more forgiving, less expensive, and easier to fix than metal when it comes to repairing trail damage. Judges also noted that they liked the easy-to-clean wheels and the included roof rack. One astute judge noted that the rear of the vehicle looked like a dead clown. He attributed this to the “X” on each taillamp, the red rear tow hook that looked like a tongue, and the vehicle’s color. Yep, judges analyze everything. Inside, judges felt that Jeep did an outstanding job and there was a quality feel, the controls weren’t overly complicated, and it looked good, too. We were amused at the number of Jeep-related logos and such inside, which seemed to us like the Renegade was screaming “I’m really a Jeep!”

On-Road
The Renegade garnered accolades from the judges for its on-road performance. Terms like “tossable” and “sporty” mixed with statements like, “Amazing corner-carving ability.” The electric rack-and-pinion steering had a great feel and was precise. The steering was the catalyst for one judge to write, “Confidence-inspiring feel. You can feel the road—especially in the twisty sections—way better than I expected.” The cohesiveness of the engine and transmission was also positive, and power delivery was adequate. On that topic, one judge noted, “Great combo.” Engine sounds under load weren’t all that popular, however. One judge said the 2.4L engine sounded “pathetic” when being worked.

Off-Road
With open differentials and a quasi-low range, we weren’t expecting much out of the Renegade off-road. The Renegade proved us wrong. Well, most of the time. In the sand, it was a blast. After dune carving, one judge wrote, “Way fun. Just rev it. Even better if you manually shift.” After effortlessly driving it on a rocky trail, a judge noted, “I’m shocked at where it will go!” The Renegade was easy to drive thanks in part to its tight, 35.3-foot turning diameter and the excellent visibility from the driver seat. We appreciated that the 4WD controls were easy to see and operate, too. The Renegade’s Achilles heel seemed to be hillclimbs. One long, loose dirt climb stopped the Renegade cold. Even with a long run at the hill it was unable to make the climb. It felt like it had run out of gearing, but we suspect the overactive traction control and smaller tires played a part. It just sat on the hill with the engine whining and only occasional wheelspin. In the snow it went everywhere we asked it to go, but it seemed the traction control made some deeper areas a challenge (typical for some electronic traction control systems). After driving it in the snow, a judge wrote, “It’s not an exercise in grace.” Nonetheless, it made the trek to the top of a snowy 10,000-foot-tall mountain.

Bottom Line
The Renegade is small, agile, easy and fun to drive. Power is more than adequate, its road manners are quite good, and it returns good fuel mileage. It impressed us with its ability to conquer some very rough terrain, though we think the traction control is overactive in some situations. We think the little SUV is far superior to other vehicles in the segment and thus a complement to the Jeep lineup.

Fun in the sand. Cruises around effortlessly.

What's Hot:
-Approach and departure angles
-Nimble
-Solid body structure
-Driver-seat visibility
-Simple switchgear and HVAC controls
-Fuel mileage
-Power-to-weight ratio

What's Not:
-Overactive traction control
-20:1 crawl ratio isn’t that crawly
-Needs a locker
-Sad engine sounds under load

Logbook Quotes
“Two front towhooks and one rear. More than any vehicle in its segment.”
“Traction control is overactive and will stop forward movement before it will let a tire spin. Very capable though.”
“While it does have shortcomings on serious obstacles, it can get through most places people would never dream of taking it, like to the top of a 10,000-foot mountain after a snowstorm.”

PhotosView Slideshow

2nd Place - Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro

What’s New
The new TRD Pro package fits the 4Runner with a variety of items including TRD-tuned high-performance Bilstein shocks. Compared to the non-TRD Pro 4Runner, each front shock has a larger diameter piston and shaft and each remote-reservoir rear shock has a larger piston. The TRD Pro also has TRD-tuned front springs that provide a 1-inch lift. Toyota says that the TRD Pro suspension has 0.75-inch additional wheel travel up front and 1.4 inches of additional wheel travel in the rear. Other TRD Pro features include new 17-inch TRD alloy wheels, Nitto Terra Grappler tires, TRD-stamped front skidplate, unique front grille, black badging and lower bumper accents, TRD floormats, and a TRD shift knob.

Ramp and Track
Our prototype TRD Pro tester drove 56 inches up the 20-degree RTI ramp to earn a score of 510 points. At the track, the 4.0L V-6 engine pulled the approximately 4,789-pound SUV to 60 mph from a standing stop in 9 seconds. The TRD Pro traversed the quarter-mile in 16.9 seconds at 84.4 mph. These performance numbers are almost identical to those gathered last year when testing the 2014 4Runner Trail Premium. The four-wheel vented disc brakes helped to take the rig from 60-0 mph in 132.8 feet.

Exterior/Interior
If Toyota was aiming to create a vehicle that will stand out from the crowd, they nailed it. Some judges felt it stands out because it has a “monster front end” that looks like an “angry catfish,” while others thought it stands out because of its masculine stance, lack of chrome bling, and outstanding approach angle. Other exterior notes: We all liked the plastic-protected rocker panels, but some judges were bothered by the nose-high rake of the front end. Almost all judges agreed that the interior was “dated” for the price (almost $42K), but a dated item we all liked was the manual-shift transfer case. Sadly, there are very few SUVs with that feature nowadays. Age notwithstanding, the interior is still plenty functional with good seating and easy-to-understand HVAC controls and switchgear.

On-Road
Last year we were impressed at how the ’14 4Runner Trail Premium handled on-road, and with the addition of the TRD Pro suspension components on this year’s tester, things got even better. “It’ll rip though a curvy canyon with relative ease for a heavy SUV,” noted one judge. The 4.0L engine and five-speed automatic transmission worked well together and the V-6 came alive in the higher rpms. But there were quirks. A judge noted that the brakes were touchy after an inch of pedal pressure, another judge noted hood flutter on rough roads, and another noted that while cool, the faux hood scoop complicated forward visibility.

Off-Road
Judges were very pleased with the 4Runner off-road, and it placed almost three points higher in the Trail Performance category than the 4Runner Trail Premium in last year’s competition. All of the nuances we liked about it last year are still there, but with the addition of the TRD Pro suspension components, it’s even better. Judges really liked the TRD Pro suspension and noted comments like, “The TRD Pro was in its element off-road. It dominated the sand,” and, “There aren’t many places it won’t go.” We liked the function and easy operation of the rear locker, though we wish it engaged in high range as well as low range. We were pleased to see two front and one rear tow loop, but we wish they were larger in diameter. The only place off-road that the TRD Pro was challenged was on our loose dirt hillclimb. Even with the locker engaged, the vehicle got swallowed by the dirt and the Nitto tires just dug holes. This is probably attributable to the 4Runners weight more than anything and was rectified by gathering more speed prior to the hill. We never expected the SUVs in this test to be mega capable on the rocks, but the 4Runner TRD Pro handled them with ease thanks to great approach angle, good ground clearance, and the aforementioned locker. High speed sections were a blast. One judge wrote, “The suspension is amazing. It loves speed and feels like it has a tremendous amount of well-valved suspension travel.” Finally, the TRD Pro was very capable and a lot of fun in the snow.

Bottom Line
Perhaps the most telling sign of the TRD Pro’s capabilities is that it was a staff favorite when the going got really tough. The 4Runner may be getting up in years, but the TRD Pro enhancements have taught an old dog new tricks.

The 4Runner TRD Pro is one of the most capable SUVs you can buy.

What's Hot:
-Standout appearance
-TRD Pro suspension enhancements
-Approach angle
-Ground clearance
-Lever-operated transfer case
-Rear locker

What's Not:
-Standout appearance
-Hood flutter
-Slightly nose-high stance
-Needs larger diameter tow hooks
-Interior dated

Logbook Quotes
“Getting old, but still very good at intended purpose. New shocks and tires more for exponential improvements in dirt.”
“The big Bilstein shocks have made the 4Runner an absolute pleasure to drive both on- and off-road.”
“The suspension is so dialed, it’s unreal. Off-road, speed is not a problem. It can crawl and go fast right out of the box.”

PhotosView Slideshow

Winner! - Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

What’s New
New for 2015, the 3.2L Pentastar V-6 engine in the Cherokee Trailhawk gets Engine Stop-Start (ESS) technology as standard equipment. This technology can improve fuel economy and CO2 emissions by up to three percent. Here’s the way it works in normal driving: When the vehicle brakes to a stop, fuel flow is cut and the engine turns off. When the brake pedal is released, the engine automatically restarts and the nine-speed automatic transmission is engaged. Jeep says this happens within 0.3 seconds. Naturally, it took some work to make this tech happen. At the heart of the system is a high-durability starter that’s housed in a stronger case and reduces crank time, resulting in quicker restarts. Jeep says its function is regulated by algorithms that act on the vehicle’s powertrain and chassis components. Other upgrades include heavy-duty flywheel teeth, a more robust starter solenoid, and a higher-amp AGM battery. And speaking of the battery, system voltage is constantly monitored through a battery sensor. If the battery’s charge is reduced, the system will discontinue ESS until the battery is recharged. The ESS system is automatically disabled when the vehicle is in 4-Lo, and it can be manually disabled at any time via a dash-mounted switch. The transfer case-less Cherokee Trailhawk with the Active Drive Lock system includes a selectable rear locker and continues to use a Power Transfer Unit (PTU) that splits power to the rear differential. Inside of each differential assembly is a set of 2.92:1 planetary gears that provide gear reduction.

Ramp and Track
Suspension flex didn’t seem to be the Cherokee Trailhawk’s forte. On the 20-degree RTI ramp, it traveled a not-so-spectacular 34 inches to earn a lowly score of 318 points. This was the lowest score in our trio of vehicles this year. However, the Cherokee Trailhawk redeemed itself at the track. The 3.2L V-6 yanked the approximately 4,108-pound SUV from a dead stop to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 16.9 seconds at a speed of 85 mph. These numbers were the best of our trio of SUVs this year and almost identical to the numbers posted by the 2014 Cherokee Trailhawk at last year’s Four Wheeler of the Year competition. In 60-0 mph braking, the Cherokee’s four-wheel disc brakes, antilock braking, and Firestone Destination A/T tires combined to bring the vehicle to a complete stop in a decent 133 feet.

I can’t believe how well this thing rides, despite the limited suspension travel.

Exterior/Interior
In regards to the exterior, judges praised the seemingly easy-to-replace lower body plastic pieces, the good departure angle, the easy-to-access front dual open-loop towhooks, and the single open-loop towhook in the rear, among other things. Some judges weren’t too sure about the styling, “I still hate the front end,” one wrote. Another judge noted that the rear of the vehicle looked “sporty.” In the end, styling is subjective, but function is not, and the Cherokee gathered almost an identical number of points in the Exterior category as it did last year, which is to say it did well. When it came to the interior, judges gave it high marks for its fit and finish, quality of materials, seats, navigation, and layout. Comments included, “The interior of the Cherokee is very refined and European looking;” “The quality of the materials and the fit and finish is of a high standard;” “Some of my favorite seats;” “The best navigation unit out there;” and “They got everything right on the inside. The fit, finish, and materials are all on-point.” One nit-picking judge said, “The center stack reminds me of ET’s head.” Maybe that judge just saw his reflection. Finally, we appreciated that the spare tire is located under the cargo floor inside the vehicle, not under the vehicle where it’s hard to access

On-Road
It takes a little while to get used to the ESS technology. The first time we stopped the vehicle in Los Angeles traffic and the engine shut down we panicked. Stuff like the radio and A/C continued to do their thing, but the tach tanked and there was zero sounds from the engine bay. Lift foot from brake, engine restarts like magic. After a while, we got used to the engine shutting down each time we stopped, but at first it was weird. But here’s the thing: After living with ESS for a while, it seemed odd to drive a vehicle that didn’t shut down when stopped. It seemed like a waste of fuel—expensive fuel that we were purchasing. Is the fuel savings worth the effort, hardware, and software? Is it worth having all that added tech in the vehicle? Only you can answer that, and it depends on how and where you drive. In general on-road manners, the Cherokee gained high marks. One judge wrote, “The Cherokee is a pleasure to drive on the highway.” Another said, “Comfortable, smooth ride that is perfect for a long trip.” What the Cherokee didn’t have in wheel travel on the RTI ramp, it more than made up for with a sporty handling. Its car-based DNA was crystal clear.

Off-Road
Despite the Cherokee Trailhawk’s less than stellar wheeltravel, it did very well on the trail. This is a testament to how well the traction control system and the rear locker work together to get power to the wheels. The impressive 48.4:1 crawl ratio gave us excellent crawlability, though we used the hill descent control to compensate for weak engine braking on steep hill descents. In the sand, one judge described the Cherokee Trailhawk as “super fun.” On rocky trails it was “super maneuverable.” Judges also gave it good marks due to its performance on graded roads and in desert washes. On our gnarly loose-dirt hillclimb, which posed a challenge for the other two SUVs in this test, the Cherokee churned its way to the top with no drama, leaving the judges impressed. Unfortunately, after the stellar hillclimb performance, the vehicle refused to shift out of 4-Lo and it refused to unlock the rear differential. Nothing we did would coerce the system to unlock. The vehicle was drivable, so we piloted it to a rural airport parking lot, where it was retrieved by Jeep. To Jeep’s credit, they did not ask to be dropped from competition and after inspecting the vehicle, the company promptly informed us that the problem was related to a software glitch that had already been identified and rectified. Our test vehicle’s software just hadn’t been re-flashed with the updated software. After our test vehicle’s software was re-flashed, we’re told the four-wheel-drive system returned to normal operating status, though we were not able to test it to confirm. Since the problem happened on the last day, in the last hours of competition, the judges agreed to allow the vehicle to remain in the scoring process and thus have its performance reported for better or worse. Naturally, due to the software glitch, the Cherokee lost a number of points in the 4WD System Engagement and 4WD System Operation categories.

Bottom Line
What carried the Cherokee Trailhawk to the win in this year’s three-vehicle field was the fact that it excels in a variety of areas. Even calculated with the worst possible score (zero points) in the 4WD System Engagement and 4WD System Operation categories, it earned enough points in the Trail Performance and other categories to retain the win. It trounced the other vehicles in the On Pavement and Interior categories. The Cherokee Trailhawk is a vehicle that can carry you and your passengers on a long trip comfortably, with the latest tech at your fingertips. It has sporty on-road manners and the chops to traverse tougher trails than you’d imagine. For these reasons, it’s our 2015 Four Wheeler of the Year.

What's Hot:
-ESS technology
-Power-to-weight ratio
-Smooth ride
-Excellent interior fit and finish

What's Not:
-Poor compression braking
-Styling is subjective
-Unusual 4WD system

Logbook Quotes
“Extremely likable car-based SUV that’s way more capable and fun in the dirt than you’d ever imagine.”
“I like the look of the Cherokee. I also wear a lot of flannel. Make of that what you will."

PhotosView Slideshow

How We Test ’Em
On day one of our weeklong Four Wheeler of the Year test, we traveled to Willow Springs International Raceway, near Lancaster, California, where we used a RaceLogic Performance Box to gather acceleration and braking data. We then convoyed to the desert via winding paved roads, and along the way we gathered data on how the vehicles handled in the twisty environment. For the next three days we tested the vehicles in a wide range of terrain. We spent time in every type of driving situation you can imagine: from stop-and-go city driving to wide-open highway. Since we’re an off-road magazine, we spent the majority of time in the dirt, water, mud, sand, and rocks. Each day of driving began shortly after sunup and ended well after sundown. We traveled to both high and low altitudes, we drove in the dark, and this year, for the first time in recent OTY history, we were able test in snow at high elevation. On the last day, we made the trek back to the Los Angeles area, which completed the test. In the end, we logged about 900 miles on each vehicle

How We Score ’Em
Our scoring procedure utilizes five weighted categories. Here’s the breakdown: 30 percent Trail Performance (how a vehicle performs in specific wheeling environments and off-road-centric features like 4WD system operation, tires, traction aids, and so on), 25 percent Empirical (RTI, acceleration, braking, price, and so on), 20 percent On Pavement (handling, ride quality, steering feel, and so on), 15 percent Interior (instrumentation, ingress and egress, seat comfort, storage, and so on), and 10 percent Exterior (appearance, stance, body protection, and so on).

Judges Picks
Scoring gets thrown out the window here. We asked the judges which vehicle they’d most like to own, and why, based on their own personal wheeling style and preference. Here’s what they chose.

Ken Brubaker, Four Wheeler Senior Editor
This is easy. The 4Runner TRD Pro. This SUV was fun on the road and a hoot in the dirt. It’s sort of the Ford SVT Raptor of SUVs. It’s amazing what the TRD/Bilstein suspension did for the 4Runner platform. As a bonus, it has cool stuff like a lever-operated two-speed T-case, full frame, and electric rear locker. Oh, and think it looks really good, too.

Ali Mansour, Jp Technical Editor
Of the three contenders, only two make it on my radar. There are not many scenarios in which I could ever see myself opting for the Renegade. The Cherokee, on the other hand, I have grown very fond of. Inside, it is extremely well laid out and feels peppy on- and off-road. Compared to other small SUVs in its class and price range, it is by far one of the nicest and without question the most capable off-road. The fact that it got stuck in low range was a real blow to an otherwise great vehicle. Ultimately, despite all of the Cherokee praise, the Toyota 4Runner simply kicked butt in this competition. I don’t care for the slightly nose-high stance of the 4Runner but very much so appreciated the great approach angle. Sure, I can still pick at some of the more dated features on the interior and mention that the sheetmetal echoes and appears to be paper thin. But, when you combine a locking rear diff, a well-tuned suspension, great tires, ample ground clearance, and a strong engine, the 4Runner takes top pick in my book.

Greg Smith, Four Wheeler Art Director
It’s a close call between the Toyota 4Runner and the Jeep Cherokee. The best part about the 4Runner is that I felt it would not let me down when negotiating off-road obstacles, mostly due to its good ground clearance and approach angle. The Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, on the other hand, has many good traits including it’s surprising off-road capability, great handling on pavement, and a well-designed interior—all packaged together in a vehicle that suits my needs.

Agustin Jimenez, TEN Staff Editor
Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro. Why would I choose the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro over the others? I’d take off-road prowess over on-road handling any day of the week. The ’15 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro is an absolute trail machine, and although it’s hard to get used to the catfish-like appearance up front, it definitely makes up for it with off-road performance. The 60mm Blistein shocks really soak up the rough trails and whoops. On the flip side, it doesn’t sacrifice its handling characteristics despite being a big, heavy SUV. It’s the perfect rig for heading to Baja to prerun or just spectate at the races. It has plenty of room for gear inside and is, in my opinion, the off-road enthusiast’s choice of rig from this year’s contenders.

John Cappa, Contributor
The Jeep Renegade Trailhawk is a fun little 4x4 to zip around in, although I can’t imagine owning it. The interior of the Cherokee Trailhawk is incredibly comfortable and it’s an entertaining 4x4 to drive, but I really can’t stand the grille. Even with its quirky top-heavy handling and dated-looking interior, the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro simply fits my lifestyle and vehicle needs better than either of the two Jeeps.

Cody Kanuscak, Contributor
The Jeep Cherokee had great control on- and off-road throughout the week. Also the best interior features that make it the most comfortable. One awesome feature is Select Terrain that helps performance in various situations. Toyota’s 4Runner excelled well with clearance, which helped it crawl around rocks and go a bit faster in the sand. The Jeep Renegade hung in there, but the traction control limitations might have me installing a winch to self-recover it sometimes! I’m going with the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk for my choice.

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