Every year Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine tests the factory-fresh 4x4 offerings in a no-holds-barred throwdown, with the winner being crowned 4x4 of the Year. We've tested trucks, SUVs, SUTs, and many a variation in the same test, as we feel whatever the rig is, it should excel at everything to be the winner. This year we were presented with only four rigs, but they are all extremely capable. In fact, this was the first time in 26 years of testing that all the contestants had a selectable rear locker, making this the most competent bunch of new 4x4s ever.
To participate in our thrashfest, a few requirements must be met to eliminate ringers and one-offs. We specify that each vehicle must be available to the general public by January 15 of the model year, and at least 2,500 must be planned for availability in the U.S. market. Also, we test in the real world on real trails, so vehicles must have true low-range transfer case gearing to be eligible. The ground clearance rule is important too: We must be able to crawl under the vehicle from side to side. These rules keep the All Wheel Drive crossovers from blocking the trail-and let's face it, if a vehicle can't clear a body or a parking block, how is it going to fare off road?
Also, we only test all-new or significantly changed vehicles, or models we haven't tested previously. Putting some lights on a rack doesn't qualify an old rig to compete, but beefing the horsepower rating significantly or adding lockers front and rear makes a difference, or should. Likewise, we'll even take the same model from last year's offerings if we weren't able to test it in its first eligible year.
Many manufacturers we ask simply can't participate, either because they didn't have a vehicle available to us on time or they declined for some other reason.
We grade hard on price, as the lowest-priced rig gets three times the available points in that class. Furthermore, if pricing isn't available during the test, we can't let the rig compete. We also let the OEs know that all the fancy options that don't help off road will be counted off on that price, so running-board-laden luxo-utes are usually not the best rig to send.
Regardless of what we had to work with in other years, this year was a hard-core tester's dream. The mighty Dodge Power Wagon is new with a more powerful engine, lockers front and rear in 3/4-ton solid axles with 4.56 gears, a sway bar disconnect, and our favorite item: the Warn 12,000-pound winch.
The Toyota 4Runner Trail competes with the techno-wizardry of crawl control, MTSS, A-TRAC HDC, a V-6 engine more powerful than the previous V-8, and a selectable rear locker.
The Hummer H3T is one we haven't tested in this configuration: the Alpha model with a V-8, lockers front and rear with 4:10 gears, and a 4:1 transfer case.
Rounding out the bunch is the new Ford SVT Raptor, a desert-bred high-performance factory prerunner with an off-road-tuned suspension. It also has 4.10 gears and a selectable rear locker powering 35-inch SVT Spec BFGoodrich A-T tires, the largest ever offered.
This group is truly the best of the best. Whatever rig captures this prize did so against tough competition. Let the winner take the crown!
Dodge Ram Power Wagon Crew Cab
The Power Wagon name has always stood for strength and off-road ability, and the '10 Dodge Ram Power Wagon has all that and a great place to sit and enjoy it. In 2009 Dodge redesigned its Ram 1500 series truck, and for 2010 many of the same interior upgrades and the new exterior look have been carried over to the Ram heavy-duty trucks, including the Power Wagon. This new Power Wagon has a more powerful Hemi V-8 gas engine than previous models, a larger four-door crew cab (regular cab and Quad Cab models are no longer available with the Power Wagon package), and an additional 9 inches of wheelbase (149.5 total).
The '10 Power Wagon still has much of the same powertrain and off-road attributes as the '05-'09 Power Wagons, including front and rear selectable lockers, electronic sway bar disconnect, 33-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain tires (and a suspension to clear them), tow hooks, extra skidplates, 4.56 gears, black door handles, 180-amp alternator, trailer tow package, black fender flares, cab clearance lamps, manually shifted transfer case, fog lamps, U-connect hands-free cell phone system, 17-inch aluminum wheels, and bigger, bolder graphics.
The biggest change to the Power Wagon besides the wheelbase and increased power is the styling. Our judges found both the interior and exterior appealing. The interior holds a truckload of storage cubbies, bins, and cup holders, including two gloveboxes, center consoles, and hidden in-floor storage bins.
Another change is a "Power Wagon" sticker package reminiscent of the '78/'79 Dodge Macho trucks. Dodge is likely looking for results similar to the Rubicon, where some buyers just want the special package without recognizing all the great capability.
The crew cab interior is far more livable than the old Ram, with less plastic, or at least a less perceived plastic feel. The ride quality was judged better than any 3/4-ton truck ever tested. This may be due to the retuned suspension and the hydromount rear cab mount that allows for more individual cab-to-chassis isolation. The rear seat offers so much room over the previous Quad Cab that four grown men can now enjoy four-wheeling.
One of the biggest complaints of the Power Wagon was the low-hanging rocker panels, which come down beside the framerails. The high floor also made stepping in a stretch for some drivers and rocker dings common when rockcrawling. Other issues were the hard-to-see lights on the locker and sway bar controls, and the lack of overhead grab handles for passengers getting bounced around off road.
The off-road performance of the Power Wagon was on par with its heritage; the truck was strong, heavy-steering, and properly geared (though a little lower wouldn't hurt), and it felt like a big brute in the dirt. The additional 9 inches of wheelbase were noticeable when trying to weave through rock gardens, but appreciated on steep hillclimbs. The truck battered across the high-speed off-road section of the test with judges enjoying the power but frowning on the bouncy, heavy, rough ride.
Performance on loose sand wasn't much better. Wheelhop and chassis bounce shook judges to death.
While the desert prerunning didn't suit the Power Wagon, the off-road trails, hillclimbs, and rockcrawls did. The plethora of skidplates, the strong axles and suspension, and the never-ending traction had judges calling it the best work/farm/tow/hunting truck of the group.
•"Best-riding 3/4-ton truck I've driven"
•"A bit big for tight trails, and the body hangs too low."
•"It's the rescue vehicle of the group. Unstoppable."
Ram Power Wagon Crew Cab
Price as Tested
Options as Tested
$12,050 Premium cloth 40/20/40 bench seat, Customer Preferred Pkg., Luxury Grp., Technology Grp., power sunroof, security alarm, media center CD/DVD/MP3 radio, Parkview rear backup camera, power adjustable pedals, remote-start system, under-rail bedliner
Live axle, Quadra Link
leading arms, track bar, coil springs,
stabilizer bar, gas-charged shocks
Live axle, longitudinal leaf
springs, stabilizer bar, gas-charged
shocks, auxiliary springs
Power-assisted recirculatingball with steering damper
Turning Circle (ft)
14.17-in ventilated disc
14.09-in ventilated disc
Standing 1/4-mile(seconds @ mph)
16.14 @ 81.04
Min. Front Ground Clearance
Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
Most of the 4x4s in our test have been around a while. Power Wagon was a household name since your grandfather started four-wheeling, and 4Runner and Hummer garner respect depending on which audience you mention them to. Although the F-150 isn't anything new on the 4x4 scene, Ford's new SVT Raptor is something special. All the other major 4x4 manufacturers-Jeep, GM, Toyota, Dodge, and Nissan-have designed vehicles specifically for the present-day off-road market, but not Ford. Yes, the Super Duty is a strong truck, and Broncos were legendary, but a new truck from Ford has finally shown up at the off-road party-and, boy, is it ready dance!
The Raptor package doesn't just mean pretty stickers on an F-150. Like the other contestants in this year's test, the Raptor packs a mean punch, with a 320hp 5.4L Triton V-8 (a 6.2L V-8 is due in early 2010), internal triple-bypass Fox Shox, a selectable rear locking differential, and a completely new front and rear suspension versus the standard 1/2-ton Ford. Then there is the various adjustable off-road calibrations that changes shift points and traction control settings and offer the possibility to shut off all the 4x4 nannies and let you assume responsibility for your tire-spinning, dirt-drifting, desert-racing self.
The exterior styling has wider front and rear fenders, a new hood, a new grille, and different lights, including hidden marker lights, all designed to cover and keep legal the extremely wide Raptor when running down the highway. These looks brought drool to some judges and disgust from others, but everyone agreed that it might be a bit wide for tight rockcrawling trails. However, the Raptor took to the rocks like a fat Elvis on stage (it didn't look great, but it worked out fine). The aluminum step boards (actually designed to protect the wide fenders from gravel sprayed from the front tires) held up great and took their share of rock rash without complaint.
The big and bold exterior styling of the truck carries over to the interior with bright orange accents and high bolstered seats. These seats quickly gained fame as the best seats in the test, holding us firmly in place as the truck leapt over washouts and whoops.
The position-sensitive shock tune seemed to walk over the rocks just as smoothly as it flew over the harshest desert whoops. The Raptor worked excellently in the high-speed desert section of our test, and no surprise there since we came to learn that our test crossed the same desert floor that much of the Raptor's initial development was done on.
In loose sand the Raptor's soft suspension resulted in some serious wheelhop off the line, and we never felt like the 5.4L V-8 was enough motor. In any hillclimbing scenario the Raptor had to be driven like a race truck, full throttle assaults carrying speed would take you up hills that other trucks could just crawl, but the impressive suspension allowed this type of use (abuse).
The Raptor also outperformed the Power Wagon and 4Runner on one particular high-speed asphalt section that included a variety of dips, keeping straight and true while the competition's track-bar-equipped suspension jogged side to side during axle movement.
In the end the Raptor is a niche vehicle. Although it's a truck, it's not rated to tow or haul like the Power Wagon, and although it's comfortable, it is still only offered as an extended cab, so the 4Runner has it beat for people-hauling duties. Nonetheless, this is a very impressive machine.
•"Not a crawler, but you don't buy a Raptor to crawl."
•"It looks cool, drives fast, and seems to take any abuse."
•"You can fly this thing."
"Hotchkiss" type live axle ,
leaf springs, outboard internal-bypass shocks
Turning Circle (ft)
13.8-in ventilated disc
13.7-in ventilated disc
(seconds @ mph)
16.03 @ 82.05
EPA Estimate (city/hwy)
Min. Front Ground Clearance
Hummer H3T Alpha
The Hummer brand is in a state of flux. It has new Chinese owners, but no one is sure yet what effect this will have on future products. Selling Hummer means that GM has lost its strongest off-road vehicle. We have tested a Hummer almost every year for the past seven years, and it has never won our test for some reason or other. Unfortunately for Hummer, this year was no different. The truck we tested, an H3T Alpha with a 300hp 5.3L V-8, should have been a serious contender, but halfway through our second day of testing the truck slid off a rock in our rockcrawling test and the aluminum rear driveline broke in two.
We foresaw great things from this truck, what with its V-8 power, front and rear locking differentials, big aggressive Bridgestone tires, and a nimble suspension. Unluckily, the driveshaft injury would prove fatal to the Hummer's chances. We have had other trucks with aluminum driveshafts across this same section of rocks, and have damaged and repaired them in prior years, but in this case a replacement couldn't come without a two-day delay. The judges decided in a meeting to repair the shaft (a truly amazing job by All-J Products in Big Bear, California, www.boulderbars.com) and limp it along with the troupe until the replacement arrived. However, because the vehicle had missed at least a day of testing, we figured that it was likely out of the running. The repaired rear shaft lasted an amazing 175 miles at highway speeds, and we were less than 10 miles from the replacement driveshaft when it came apart and sent the H3T to the sidelines for good with a now busted rear yoke.
The H3T is an amazingly capable truck nonetheless and would be perfect for the small family that likes to get out and explore yet still needs load-carrying ability. The front and rear lockers and V-8 power mixed with a 4:1 low range transfer case should make it the perfect trail machine.
The high-belt-line low visibility has always been one of our complaints of this truck, and its 134-inch wheelbase puts it in fullsize truck territory even though its 65-inch track is narrow like a mini truck or SUV. This gives the truck a long, narrow, weird look from the outside but isn't as noticeable inside. In fact, it's a very comfortable size for both urban and trail driving while still bringing a lot of storage space-but only1,031 pounds of cargo, the least in the test. However, due to the spring-under rear suspension the H3T doesn't suffer the rear axlewrap that the Raptor does.
We also still hate how tight the doors are to the seat controls, making it hard for fat-handed people to get comfortable. Plus foot room is cramped with the engine tunnel impeding throttle foot space. The giant sunroof is still best in class and does relieve much of that trapped-in-a-cave feel Hummers have. The high doors' small windows have always hindered trail visibility but also give a secure feeling inside during high-speed driving. This is the "function follows form" styling Hummer has come to be known for, like it or not.
Hummer's have always fallen just shy of First Place, and this year's predicament pushed it out of the running completely. Will the Hummer brand prosper under its new owners? Will the rumored two-door Wrangler-fighter H4 ever make it to production? Will Hummer someday win our truck test even after so many disappointing attempts? Will GM bring some new capable 4x4 to the market? We hope the answer to all is yes.
•"I can't see out!"
•"You can tell the V-8 has been electronically governed."
•"Dead in the water."
Toyota 4Runner Trail
The Toyota 4Runner is 25 years old, and although the Land Cruiser and FJ Cruiser are touted as Toyota's most capable off-road vehicles, the '10 4Runner Trail is probably better than both. Unlike the '03-'09 4Runner, this new SUV no longer has the gas-guzzling V-8 option (even though it requires premium fuel), but now comes with a higher-horsepower 4.0L V-6 (270 versus the 4.7L V-8's 260). A 2.7L four-cylinder is also available.
The new 4Runner has a specific off-road package called Trail, which includes a lever-actuated transfer case; Toyota's A-TRAC brake-based traction control; Toyota's Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS), which determines if and when the sway bars need to be disconnected and does so automatically; and the Crawl Mode traction control. Crawl Mode, when engaged (must be in low range), allows the driver to select among five speeds and, through the engine and brake controls, keeps the vehicle moving either up- or downhill at a controlled pace while locking and unlocking the wheels with or without traction. In fact, in Crawl Mode the driver doesn't even need to touch the pedals, allowing him to focus on the steering. The 4Runner also has Downhill Assist Control (DAC) helping to keep the truck from running away on steep descents.
These systems are all common to the 4Runner and the 200 Series Land Cruiser ('06 andnewer). However, the 4Runner Trail goes even further by now offering the Multi Terrain Select System, which helps tune the amount of wheelspin allowed for the specific terrain. Set it to Mud and Sand, and the wheels can spin up. Dial it to Moguls or Rocks, and wheelspin decreases. To ensure that the 4Runner Trail keeps trucking no matter what, there is also a tried-and-true selectable locking differential in the new-for-2010 1/4-inch-larger-than previous-ring-gear rear axle, something the Land Cruiser is missing.
So how does all this electro-gizmodry really work in the dirt? Compared to the high-dollar Land Cruiser it's missing only the big V-8 power (we missed the old 4.7's low-end get up and go), but compared to the trucks in this year's test it did amazingly well for a little rig. Though the vehicle is low and rides on the least impressive tires of the test, it seemed to rockcrawl just fine. The multitude of traction control options could assist almost any driver up the trail. In the high-speed section it rode better than the Power Wagon, but not as good as the Raptor. And though it lacked the all-important horsepower for the sand, it seemed to outshine both trucks by having enough power and traction for its light weight.
The hillclimbing ability didn't impress anyone, but also didn't seem terrible. In fact the 4Runner performed like an incredibly vanilla truck-no complaints, but nothing to rave about either.
The many traction settings seemed to work just as designed, but it was confusing trying to find the best setting for the obstacle in front of the Toyota, especially since some controls were above the rearview mirror while others were down below on the center console.
The same "adequate but not exciting" can be said for the ride and drive and the exterior and interior styling of the 4Runner. The Toyota has big plastic knobs, groovy futuristic gauges, light steering, plenty of room for four people, and an exterior styling that looks stout but not enticing. While the Raptor has pizzazz and the Power Wagon sheer brute strength, the 4Runner stands out less but is still a very capable 4x4. It's the type of vehicle that could sneak in and win our test because it's OK at everything and terrible at nothing.
•"4WD controls are overly complex, but it is capable."
•"It seems to do no wrong but I don't love this truck."
•"Too many computer gizmos."