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2012 4x4 Of The Year

Solid Axle Slugfest

Fred WilliamsPhotographer, Writer

Some of the greatest battles have never been fought. Mr. T versus Chuck Norris, a grizzly bear versus a lion, the Millennium Falcon versus the USS Enterprise; the Michelin man versus Frosty the Snowman, King Kong versus Godzilla (actually, Kong and Godzilla did battle in a 1962 film, but you get the point). The reason for this diatribe is to set the scene for one of the greatest battles for off-road supremacy of all time. (Please reread that last sentence in your boxing announcer voice to get the full gist of where we are heading.)

Our 30th Anniversary 4x4 of the Year test took on a bizarre dreamlike aura as two of the greatest 4x4s ever built came to blows. Both vehicles have front and rear locking differentials, big aggressive tires, proper trail gears, and similar power-to-weight ratios. One is a nimble zippy featherweight with quick, agile performance: the ’12 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. The other is a heavyweight bruiser with deep axle gears, big V-8 power, and 3⁄4-ton parts to back it up: the ’12 Ram Power Wagon.

If you are wondering where your other favorite 4x4 is, let us remind you that our test is for those vehicles that are new or that have been considerably redesigned or reengineered in a way that would affect off-road performance. The Jeep has a new engine, the Power Wagon a new six-speed transmission. With so few contenders you would think a test like this would be easy—in reality it’s just the opposite. It was one of the best yet toughest 4x4 of the Year trials we’ve ever run. Contending are two trucks with almost all the hardcore off-road requirements we have ever begged the OEMs to install—and now we had to pick just one as the best! Turn the page to see what happened.

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is in its ninth year of production, and the 2012 model is the most powerful one yet. The Jeep model that changed the playing field for affordable, showroom-sourced trail wheelers just keeps getting better. The Wrangler received a substantial interior redesign in 2011, but the big news is the more powerful Pentastar 3.6L V-6 engine for 2012. Where the prior 3.8L V-6 was ho-hum under the JK’s hood, the new V-6 is dropping 285/260 horsepower/torque numbers, an improvement over prior models of 40 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Other upgrades over the past year are improved sound deadening, fuel economy, and acceleration.

Our two-door test vehicle came in a yellow/orange paint called Dozer with a soft top, six-speed manual transmission (one of the few available in a midsize SUV), and 32-inch BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain tires. With a window sticker just shy of $30,000 the Rubicon definitely outshines its competitor in the cost arena, but what about value for those greenbacks?

A Jeep Rubicon like ours is not for everyone. If you’ve never owned or ridden in a soft-top Jeep, you may be surprised at what Jeep enthusiasts will put up with. Though quieter and better riding than any open-topped Jeep in the past 70-some years ,the Wrangler is not as civilized as most cars. In fact, the Power Wagon downright trounced it for driver comfort. However, driver comfort is the side salad of our test. Off-road performance is the meat.

The Jeep’s solid front and rear Dana 44 axles, 4.10 gears, selectable lockers, coil-link suspension, and 4:1 low-range transfer case ratio are what Jeepers were dreaming of 15-20 years ago, and for good reason. The Jeep is a fun toy in everything but high-speed desert runs, always leaving a smile on the driver’s face.

Rockcrawling is a point-and-shoot affair with twice the forward visibility of the Power Wagon. However, while rockcrawling in low range we did notice the engine would idle up at times, leaving us wishing for slower progress. Applying brakes didn’t seem to slow the Jeep as we hoped. Other times—on the hillclimb, for example—we felt the new engine wouldn’t always lug down as slow and low as we would prefer.

The more aggressive tires outperformed the Power Wagon’s All-Terrains in the mud. The slightly better power-to-weight ratio clinched the mud, sand, and acceleration titles for the little Jeep. High-speed desert runs were fun for sure, but unstable, skittish, and on the edge of control—definitely showing the short wheelbase’s limitations. Of course, that wheelbase allowed exceptional maneuverability both in town and on tight trails.

Underneath, the Jeep had fewer skidplates, but also less belly length to protect than the Ram, though neither Jeep nor Ram protect their transmission or oil pan at all. We did prefer the simple rock rails of the JK over the unprotected sheetmetal of the Ram.

The Wrangler did have certain pitfalls we’d like to see improved, such as the locker and sway bar button location and functions. First, their location is difficult to see. Second, the locker switch is confusing: down for rear on, again down for front on, again down for front off, and finally up for rear off. How about two simple switches we can see for the lockers and a third for the sway bar?

Small and frisky make the little Jeep a contender with great power for the package, a recipe that has been working since 1941.

The Good
• Fun power
• Great turning radius
• Price

The Bad
• Short wheelbase at speed
• Loud and rough on road
• Lack of skidplates

Ram Power Wagon Crew Cab The ’12 Power Wagon is almost the perfect pickup truck. It has seating for four or five people, front and rear lockers, a sway bar disconnect, and even a winch. It can tow 10,250 pounds, haul almost a ton, and still run down the highway with ease and comfort. It is a big, burly brute, and for 2012 it has a new 66RFE six-speed automatic.

The ’12 Power Wagon has a few other upgrades over the previous year’s model that are worth mentioning, such as a new steering wheel with integrated cruise control. But more importantly, the RamBox storage bins built into the bedsides are now available on the Power Wagon. The RamBox makes use of formerly useless space in the body sides while hardly reducing bed floor space; you can still fit a 4-foot-wide piece of plywood and have lockable storage in the side boxes for tools or recovery gear. However, we would like to see a design that allows for access with a truck cap, camper, or shell installed.

Unfortunately the Ram has a $53,110 price tag, almost double the two-door Rubicon.

Bad news first: The truck needs rock sliders. It’s long, hangs low, and catches rocks in the sheetmetal. And we don’t mean it needs side steps; rather, it needs proper, weight-bearing rock sliders.

The locker controls, though better situated on the passenger side of the steering wheel with a giant knob compared to the Rubicon, are hidden by the transmission shifter when in Drive. Plus, there is no dash icon showing them engaged, just tiny, nearly invisible lights that blink and blink and blink. Are they working? Yes, oh wait, now the front doesn’t seem to be locked. What is going on with these lockers?!!!

And do we have to live with the power bulge of the big hood, designed to cover the diesel engine, if we do not get a diesel engine under it? All it does is limit visibility. Can we get the lower Ram 1500 hood instead?

Finally, why are you twisting our arm to call this truck only “Ram” when right there on the dash it says Dodge?

Performancewise, the latest Power Wagon is hard to beat. It has good power (though we’d always like more) in the mud, excellent control and flex in the rocks, and better speed and stability when going fast both on- and off-road. In the sand the big truck is heavy. Wheelhop was induced, tires started digging, and we were quickly tugging it free with its mini competitor.

Oddly enough, we also lost a power steering cooler line in the dunes. Luckily we could send the Jeep for replacement fluid while the rest of the team put the hose back in its proper place. Not a terminal issue, just a loose hose clamp, but definitely annoying in the 110-degree desert sun. Once back up and running the Power Wagon dominated in the high-speed off-road section of the test, soaking up rough corrugated track that had the little Jeep slowing and skittering.

Finally, can we have a true mud tire? The BFG All-Terrains are good, but they didn’t hold a candle to the Mud-Terrains in the mud. (Captain Obvious strikes again!)

Some will say the truck is too big for four-wheeling. Not true. It is big, but an experienced fullsize truck driver can rally with the Jeep on deserted mountain roads during impromptu night wheeling trips; ask us how we know. Plus, when it comes to hillclimbing, there is something to be said for the stability of a long wheelbase. Of course, a Power Wagon isn’t as nimble as the Rubicon, nor does it turn as sharply, but for the wide-open road, whether it’s dirt or tarmac, the Power Wagon is going to be hard to beat.

The Good • RamBoxes for storage
• Comfortable place to be
• Warn winch

The Bad
• Unprotected rocker panels
• Lack of visibility
• Price

Test Structure
Category : Ranked Highest
Ride & Drive (50% of total points)
Urban/Highway Jeep Wrangler
High-Speed Dirt & Gravel Ram Power Wagon
Sand & Mud Jeep Wrangler
Rockcrawling Jeep Wrangler
Hillclimbing Ram Power Wagon
Overall Jeep Wrangler

Empirical (25% of total points)
Torque/Weight Ratio Jeep Wrangler
1⁄4-mile Acceleration Jeep Wrangler
60-0 Braking Jeep Wrangler
Load-Carrying Capacity Ram Power Wagon
Fuel Economy Jeep Wrangler
Price As Tested Jeep Wrangler
Overall Jeep Wrangler

Mechanical (10% of total points)
Engine’s Avail. Power Jeep Wrangler
Transmission Jeep Wrangler
Transfer Case Jeep Wrangler
Steering Jeep Wrangler
Brakes Jeep Wrangler
Suspension Jeep Wrangler
Overall Jeep Wrangler

4-wheeling Attributes (5% of total points)
Clearance Jeep Wrangler
Protection Jeep Wrangler
Recovery Ram Power Wagon
Overall Jeep Wrangler

Interior (5% of total points)
Ergonomics Ram Power Wagon
Appearance, Fit & Finish Ram Power Wagon
Perceived Noise Level (NVH) Power Wagon
Overall Ram Power Wagon

Exterior (5% of total points)
Body Styling Jeep Wrangler
Cargo Ram Power Wagon
Fit & Finish Ram Power Wagon
Overall Ram Power Wagon

Previous 4x4 of the year winners
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
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 auto transmission)
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

King of the Mountain Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
The Power Wagon is a hard truck to beat, but the Rubicon did just that. Before you start your hate-mail campaign let us remind you that our test is not to find the most well-rounded vehicle of the year, the best commuter or hauler of the year, or the nicest ride of the year. We’re looking for the 4x4 of the year, and when it comes to dirt the Jeep is, well, dirtier.

We’ll start by saying only one vehicle got stuck in our week of wheeling, and it wasn’t Dozer yellow. Yes, the Dodge—er, Ram—has a winch, but we never needed a winch with the Jeep. The Power Wagon got stuck in the sand, but sand is a small segment of the USA. Every state, however, has mud, and in the mud the big V-8 didn’t impress the way the spicy V-6 did. Light is might, and true mud tires don’t hurt either. Rock fields are owned by the Jeep, and though the Ram will run down the Jeep in the high speed desert tracks, just turn toward the dunes and the frisky little 4-by will scamper away.

Is the Rubicon louder on the highway and bouncier on rutted roads, and does it require three feet to drive with the manual transmission? Yes, but to some that is better. “More connected to the vehicle” was one Judge’s comment. “More fun,” said another.

If four-wheeling is your pastime, your hobby, and your escape, the Rubicon is your winner. The Power Wagon is the more well-rounded vehicle, but the Jeep is still king of the mountain. It is still the sports car of the rocks. It still lives to be dirty. But this leaves us wondering: What could they do for the Rubicon’s 10th anniversary next year? Could it get even better?