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2000 Four Wheeler of the Year

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on February 1, 2000 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Ken BrubakerMichael Rudd
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We'll skip all the millennium stuff and get right to point. We've been handing out this award for more than 25 years and testing new trucks for almost 40. One day, we're bound to get it right. However, as long as manufacturers keep coming out with new or substantially revised four-wheelers, we'll be here to test them head to head to find their strengths and weaknesses and then report what we discover.

The Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon are freshly spawned from the award-winning GMT 800 truck platform and poised to set the industry on its ear. Nissan is shaking up the compact segment with the stylish and exceptionally priced new Xterra. Ford has redefined the fullsize utility segment with its big bruiser, the new Excursion. Mitsubishi has refined the nimble Montero Sport to the point where it can now compete with more luxury-oriented compact SUVs. Finally, Isuzu has shown its brazen new attitude by unleashing one of the strangest and most competent SUVs on the market with the Vehicross. So, without further ado, we give you our six guns for 2000.

Fifth Runner-Up:MITSUBISHI MONTERO SPORT

A minor freshening for the 2000 model year, which included new sheetmetal and coil-link rear suspension, made the Mitsubishi Montero Sport eligible for Four Wheeler of the Year competition. The Montero Sport shares the same chassis with its big brother, the fullsize Montero. That's a good thing for us, because, with that more expensive chassis in a smaller package, we think it delivers more bang for our buck.

Our Montero came in XLS trim. Option-laden and draped in leather, this package is just shy of the full-tilt Limited that tops the brand. And while the equipment list nearly matches the Limited, its underhood prowess does not.

Limited Montero Sports come with a 3.5L, 200-horse V-6, but every other Sport comes with a 3.0L 173-horse mill. True, half a liter and 27 hp don't seem like a lot on paper, but with an Xterra-like 0-60 time of 14 seconds, we wish we had them.

Regardless, the 3.0L Mitsu returned a solid 16.4 mpg for our nearly 1,000-mile sojourn. Once on the open road, the Sport started to rack up points with testers. Mitsubishi redesigned the rear suspension of the Sport this year and replaced the leaf packs with a new coil-link setup. As one tester put it, "It's so smooth...and silent on the freeway." However, when the roads began to curve, the Mitsu's soft suspension left testers uninspired. We found that steering feel seemed to border more on vague than precise.

When we hit graded roads and rock-strewn desert roads, impressions once again turned favorable. The new coils did an excellent job of sucking up those broken surfaces and made for pleasurable fire-road cruising. On low-range trails, though, it soon became apparent that the Mitsu was not up to the task. A modest ramp score of 382 (just a tick better than the street-biased Yukon) and too-tall 1.93:1 low-range gears made testers use the running-start approach when tackling our various off-camber hillclimbs. Tires better suited to off-highway terrain would have helped here. On the plus side, the Mitsu's lever-actuated four-wheel-drive system was sure-shifting and had the positive engagement feel we like.

On the inside, the Mitsu had a very pleasant atmosphere. Although it seemed to be the same size as the Xterra, testers found that up front the Mitsu had "way better than expected" roominess and legroom. Likewise, all the controls were well placed and had a quality feel to them. Also, not only was ingress/egress one of the best of this year's test, rear-seat legroom felt nearly class-leading.

The Mitsubishi Montero Sport is a perfectly competent SUV. The reason for its place in our test simply speaks to the caliber of our other contenders. With an as-tested price of $32,437, it remains, much like the original Montero Sport of 1997, a good value for what lurks underneath in the compact SUV marketplace.

Good Point, Bad Point

Good: The Mitsu's air intake was one of the better ones for water crossing. Not only is this air inlet up above the headlights, but in the event of a deep-water-dunking, the water must fill the air-cleaner box and travel through a vast channel of tubes to get to the motor's EFI.

Not So Good: A speed limiter in low range? Just as the warning sticker suggests, at speeds at or near 30 mph, a limiter kicks in and shuts power to the engine. In mud and sand, where engine power and tire speed are needed, this limiter can be devastating. And it cost us a few stucks out in the sand dunes.

Fourth Runner-Up:FORD EXCURSION

If we hear, "Oh my gosh...the Excursion is soooo big" one more time, we're gonna slap somebody. Exactly where have these people been living for the past 30 years? With a wheelbase of 137 inches, the Excursion is about the same size as a regular cab longbox fullsize pickup. Deal with it, people.

Yet, in the world of SUVs, there's no denying the Excursion is the biggest beast you can buy. The Excursion is based on Ford's stout 3/4-ton Super Duty pickup chassis, and once again we must applaud Ford for building a real truck for real truck people. With rugged solid axles at both ends of its chassis and plain old leaf springs to suspend them, the Excursion has the right equipment for serious four-wheeling.

For such a large vehicle, many testers found it worked well on our tighter trail sections. Next to the Vehicross, the Excursion had the best overall articulation, ramping a solid 535. Despite looking low for serious trail use and having a mammoth wheelbase compared to the other utes in our test, we returned from some serious trails without a nick on the running boards. As one might expect, sand dunes were really not the place for this 7,400-pound tanker, and predictably, the Excursion was marooned more times than the rest of the fleet. Over washboard roads at relatively slow speeds the ride was quite good. However, as speed increased, the lack of shock damping and the heft of the solid axles started to fluster the chassis.

This was a problem for most testers on the street as well. It seemed that while the ride quality was softer than expected, the lack of shock damping predictably made the Excursion harder to handle on the twisties. Likewise, in the mechanical scoring, the big Ford lost some ground. It seemed that 31/2 tons was quite a bit of weight to move even with a 300hp V-10. Not so surprisingly, our combined fuel economy of 9.1 mpg was dismal, especially when compared to the rest of our pack, which bettered that number by 6 mpg or more.

So the Excursion isn't a rocket or a fuel miser, but that's not to say the Excursion isn't a great place to spend time. Many testers ranked the interior at the top of their test books, one remarking that it had "miles of legroom and loads of leather." And legroom is just what you'd find if you spent any length of time in the back seat. Many testers took to calling the Excursion the limousine of the pack.

If our test was based more on utility, towing ability, and the ease of chassis buildup, the Excursion, at $41,760, would have cleaned house. This, however, is a balanced evaluation, and truly specialized vehicles have a hard time racking up enough points to win. However, rest assured, when we need a hefty hauler with a chassis that's built to work, the Excursion will be at the top of our list.

Good Point, Bad Point

Good: Taking a cue from GM's Astro/Safari vans, Ford engineered the Excursion with one of the most convenient tailgate systems available. The full-length tailgate glass flips up to allow access to the two lightweight composite doors. This system allows even the heaviest packages to be shoved firmly into the cargo bay without the need to lean over a tailgate.

Not So Good: These are strong tow loops--maybe even the strongest in the industry. However, the loops are simply not large enough to handle a tow strap. Therefore, unless you bring a clevis with your tow strap (which we do), the Ford loops are useless.

Third Runner-Up:NISSAN XTERRA

The moment we saw the early design sketches of the Nissan Xterra almost two years ago, we were smitten. In the few short months the Xterra has been on sale, it has almost single-handedly revamped Nissan's image in the United States. And in the scoring books, it was no surprise that our screaming Yellow Xterra won (along with the Tahoe) in the Exterior Styling category.

Once they were behind the wheel, testers soon realized this vehicle was much more than just a pretty face. On the roads and on the trails, the Xterra simply X-celled. Based on the Frontier pickup chassis, our four-speed- automatic-equipped tester was a favorite for testers on all types of terrain.

While it wasn't the ultimate rock buggy of our group, the Xterra completed just about every task we asked of it on the tougher trails. With decent articulation (an RTI of 439), a short wheelbase, and plenty of sidewall on the 15-inch tires, the Xterra joined the Tahoe and Vehicross as our favorite trail machines of the test. The only grumblings heard about the Nissan's trail performance were the "not low enough" 2.02:1 low-range gears and the relatively invisible rear limited slip. When rocks and ruts turned to washboards, nearly every tester ranked the Xterra as the smoothest and most controlled of the group. Simply stated, ride quality was superb over this terrain, and the fact that leaf springs were doing the job made us that much more impressed with Nissan's suspension tuning.

In Mechanical scoring, testers were a bit less impressed with the Nissan's powertrain. Comments such as "a bit sluggish" and "needs more oomph" were scribbled in the test books. The slowish seat-of-the-pants feeling was backed up by the slowest 0-60 time of 14.26 seconds at the track. Yet, as always, small motors and light vehicles usually combine for impressive mileage numbers, and the Nissan turned a respectable Second Place in that category with 16.7 mpg during our 900-mile test.

On the inside, testers noticed rear-seat ingress/egress was a bit awkward. However, the legroom was tolerable for three adults once they were in there. Some noted the materials could be a bit better and the seats could use a bit more padding, while others said they preferred the more simplified interior. The dash is thoughtfully simple, and as one tester scribbled, "Sometimes less can indeed look like more."

Minor squabbles aside, once the price played into the equation, the Nissan became the smart-ute compared to some other offerings in the marketplace. With the right looks, $40,000 ride quality, and a price that fits smaller wallets, the Xterra should be a hit for Nissan for many years to come.

Good Point, Bad Point

Good: A first-aid kit tops our list of things every four-wheeler should carry. Along with a tow strap, a CB radio, a shovel, a jack, and a fire extinguisher, a first-aid kit is required on nearly every trail ride we attend. Nissan is the only manufacturer--perhaps ever--to offer one straight from the factory.

Not So Good: OK, we like the rack, but there are a few problems. The rack is rated to hold only 125 pounds and the bin, which is 30 pounds. Additionally, you can't open the sunroof without removing the bin. The plus side of this is that by removing the bin and/or unbolting the wind deflector, Xterra owners can change the look and functionality of his/her vehicle, which can be fun.

Second Runner-Up:GMC YUKON

While the chassis of our Z71 Tahoe and SLT Yukon were nearly identical (both based on GM's new GMT 800 pickup platform), the personalities of the two couldn't have been farther apart. This, at the very least, was an accolade to GM and how the company has pushed the art of truck platform sharing to the next level.

Our GMC sat quite a bit lower than the Z71 Chevy and was equipped with fairly short and fat 265/70R16 tires. It also had GM's new RTD rear suspension, which, in addition to the new five-link and coils, used a computer to monitor shock valving constantly. This suspension was geared for optimum ride quality, and in most test books, it either surpassed or tied the softly sprung Nissan in highway, washboard, and graded road categories. However, on the twisty canyon roads that lead up to Big Bear, California (our Four Wheeler of the Year base camp), we noticed that while the tires stuck rather well, the Yukon had a bit more body roll than we normally like. That's not to say it couldn't be driven hard--as one tester put it, it was "a lot more nimble that the old version...and light on its feet."

Chalk up at least part of that nimbleness to the Yukon's class-leading powertrain. For the Tahoe/Yukon and Suburban/Yukon XL, GM bumped up the power in the new 5.3L Vortec V-8 from 270 to 285 hp. Pack that much power in a relatively small package and combine it with the super-crisp-shifting 4L60E four-speed automatic and you have a big ute that scoots. At the track, a 0-60 mph time of 11.12 was only 0.1 second behind the Second-Place Tahoe.

On the trail, it was tough not to notice the low-slung body and ground-hugging running boards. We made contact with these on more than one occasion, and when combined with the soft-compound and street-oriented tires, the Yukon struggled on our more difficult trails. On the plus side, the Yukon was equipped with the NVG 246 transfer case, which in addition to providing 2WD, AWD, 4WD Hi, and Neutral had a generous 2.72:1 low range.

In interior scoring, testers simply loved the GMC, and it won that category by a solid margin. The power front leather seats were just about the most comfy and supportive thrones in the business. Ergonomically, all the gauges and switchgear were just what we like and where they were supposed to be. One tester was particularly fond of resting his hand on the shifter while he changed radio stations. While we doubt engineers designed the radio location and shifter detents for one-armed bandits, we must admit this is handy on long cruises. Rear-seat legroom, ingress/egress, and overall comfort in every seat of the GMC house (even the comfortable third row option) were far superior to the previous model.

At $42,185, our GMC would be a good choice for anyone looking for a super-comfortable fullsize sport/ute with power to spare. We'd simply delete the running boards, add the right tires, and head for the hills.

Good Point, Bad Point

Good: On both the GMC and the Chevy, GM provides a remote jumper-cable hook-up point to avoid any sparking near the battery. We think every truck should be so equipped. It's very smart.

Not So Good: We aren't the biggest fans of running boards. They not only get in the way on the trail, but they tend to dirty your pants as you get in and out of the vehicle. The Yukon's boards were the lowest in our group, and they became a serious hindrance on the trail.

First Runner-Up:ISUZU VEHICROSS

The Isuzu Vehicross was the surprise of our test this year. Some testers, who were unfamiliar with this little space buggy, scornfully sneered, "What the heck is that?" when it arrived at the track. However, as the week wore on, testers couldn't help but reward this vehicle with top marks in nearly every category.

There's no doubt this is a strange vehicle. It defies classification in the sport/ute stratum. It's part sports car, part trail Jeep, and part desert prerunner. As such, it really works well in all terrains--a cross trainer of sorts.

The 'Cross won our Mechanical section, barely edging out the Tahoe. This means testers appreciated the fact that Isuzu stuffed its biggest truck motor, the 215-horse, direct-injected, 24-valve 3.5L V-6, into its smallest chassis, the two-door Trooper platform from Japan. In plain-speak, this thing rips. At the track, the Vehicross stomped all the other vehicles by a large margin, zipping to 60 mph in 9.57 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 17.31 at 80.4 mph.

Amazingly, this performance did not pay a price at the pump. The 'Cross turned in the best mileage of the bunch with a combined mpg of 17.3.

Isuzu used sophisticated remote-reservoir mono-tube gas shocks at each corner, and although that tended to stiffen overall ride quality, it didn't take a driver long to feel the benefits. In the twisties, that means the Vehicross is probably the best-handling SUV made, save for the nearly $70,000 Mercedes ML 55 AMG. Testers loved powering this little sportster through tight switchbacks, all the while hugged in place by the super-supportive Recaro buckets.

A firm suspension does take a toll on the body over longer hauls, as mentioned. While not bone jarring, the highway ride was taut, and that made the Vehicross our least-favorite freeway cruiser. That was further aggravated by the lack of rear visi-bility, which made passing on Los Angeles' traffic-laden expressways a bit of a challenge. Despite these nit-picks, the Isuzu won our Highway category easily with a tight steering setup and slingshot-like passing power.

However, it was where the pavement turned to dirt that the Vehicross really surprised. Our Trail Performance category encompasses everything from smooth dirt roads to Rubiconesque rockclimbs, and the 'Cross won this section by a good margin. Over desert whoops, there isn't a vehicle made that can run the speeds (with control) the 'Cross can. Yes, you could overdrive the suspension and get into the bumpstops, but at reasonable speeds, the truck felt amazingly composed.

One may assume slow-speed, low-range four-wheeling could suffer due to the firm suspension, but that wasn't so. The 'Cross ramped a best-of-the-bunch 561, which is a record for an IFS-equipped 4x4. And that score, combined with the traction of the Borg-Warner Torque-On-Demand transfer case, with 2.48:1 low range and one of the tightest rear limited slips on the market, changed its nickname from space buggy to rock buggy.

Yet, once it came time to score the interior, testers became less enamored of the little cross trainer. The combination of the strange carbon-fiber door panels, a dashboard from the previous-generation Rodeo, and the head-bumper roofline made the Isuzu's our least-favorite interior of the bunch. However, if we know Isuzu, this will be addressed quickly.

The Vehicross is certainly not for everyone, and with only 2,000 available for the U.S. market each year, listing for $30,172, Isuzu knows this. Yet we applaud the company for daring to build an aggressive vehicle that excels on nearly every terrain. Anyone looking for a truck that leans heavily on the sporty side of sport/ute deserves a spin in one of these.

Good Point, Bad Point

Good: The suspension on this little prerunner took serious abuse without a peep. We particularly liked the remote reservoir shocks (seen in red). Additionally, this suspension excelled on the trail, providing the most articulation (561 RTI).

Not So Good: The tailgate of the Vehicross was a sticking point for our staff for several reasons. First, the spare tire blocks rearward visibility severely. Second, the tailgate-integrated spare is a space saver (165/90-17). And third, the tailgate always requires a key to open, and it has no grab handle to swing it open.

The Winner! CHEVROLET TAHOE Z71

The Chevy Tahoe has always been one of our favorite 4x4s--even way back when it was known as the K-5 Blazer two-door. For the vehicle's latest form, engineers at GM have really taken the fullsize sport/ute species to a higher level.

Our Pewter Metallic Tahoe came with the Z71 off-road package, and it made all the difference in the world. The Z71 sat nearly 3 inches higher than our Yukon in the test, and once we hit the dirt, those few inches were quite beneficial. With the impressive articulation of the new coil-link rear suspension (an RTI of 402) and the highest ground clearance in the test (9 inches), the Tahoe scampered up and over nearly every trail obstacle we threw its way.

As we all know, tires can change a truck's personality in the sport of four-wheeling, and the Z71 came with robust 265/75R16 Goodyear Wrangler AT/S tires. While we like the size, the fact that they are true all-terrains instead of the low-bidder specials that come on most 4x4s nowadays makes them just that much better. Also included in the package are mono-tube shocks, plenty of skidplating, and front towhooks. In the past, we've found Z71-equipped vehicles to be a bit on the firm side for fire roads and washboards, but the Tahoe rode almost as smooth over this terrain as the Yukon.

Likewise, we found the added firmness of the Z71 improved the chassis in the canyon twisties as well. Many testers found the handling of the Tahoe to be head and shoulders above the Yukon. One noted that it "corners flat...feels like it has thicker sway bars than the Yukon." The steering was also praised by more than one tester--as one succinctly put it, "Tight. Like it." Amazingly, in the highway performance section, the Z71 Tahoe scored Second, beating its more luxurious GMC brethren by 0.2 of a point.

When you combine the wonderfully dual-purpose nature of the Tahoe's chassis with what could be the best domestic V-8 currently made (save of course for the soon-to-depart Vortec 7.4), you get a vehicle with power and poise. As with the pickups, Tahoes come with a Tow/Haul mode built into the transmission that allows you to firm up transmission shift points at the push of a button. While it's meant for heavy loads, we like having a shift kit of sorts available for street use.

Like with the Yukon, nearly every tester felt quite at home behind the wheel of the Tahoe. While that was a sore point for GM trucks in the early '90s, a redesign has blessed the Tahoe with one of the most user-friendly interiors in the business. And (luckily for us) our top-line LT came with the same plush leather thrones as the Yukon.

At Four Wheeler, as you may suspect, we focus on the off-road capabilities of a sport/ute's personality. However, even though 30 percent of our scoring is done off-pavement, the remaining 70 percent is done on-pavement. To win our award, a sport/utility has to do everything well. This year, no vehicle better exemplified this balance of powers than the Chevrolet Tahoe Z71, our Four Wheeler of the Year 2000. FW

Good Point, Bad Point

Good: Towhooks, ladies and gentlemen, are where it's at. Both the Yukon and the Tahoe had them, and they worked as advertised all day long.

Not So Good: The buttons for the window and door locks, while large and easy to depress, did not function well when dirt or sand infiltrated them. We actually had to remove and clean one of the window buttons before a rear window would go up. Additionally, the auto down function of the windows was difficult to achieve any time.

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