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The Ultimate Factory 4x4 Shootout

In Search Of The Best Off-Road package

Sean P. HolmanPhotographer, Writer

With every Four Wheeler of the Year competition comes the inevitable deluge of mail from our readers asking how we selected the vehicles we did and why we don’t test every 4x4 on the market. Because OTY is setup to only evaluate those vehicles that are all new or significantly revised, we decided a new shootout was in order.

To answer our OTY critics, we partnered with our friends at PickupTrucks.com and invited every current 4x4 offered with a factory off-road package to Michigan to battle head-to-head for off-road package supremacy. This test would focus primarily on wheeling, with none of the scoring taking in to account how smooth of a highway ride these rigs offer, whether they have heated seats, or which truck has the best stereo. No sir, this shootout is solely about function on the trail.

For this test, we developed simple testing criteria that included four major scoring categories, each worth 25 percent of the total score. In the Empirical category, we scored areas such as performance, specifications, capability, and base price. Off-Road Package Content took in to account the upgrades and features of each off-road package. Vehicle Operation judged the vehicles off-highway performance and the functionality of its 4x4 systems, and finally, Trail Testing is how well the vehicle responded in real-world wheeling.

Answering our invite was Ford with the ’12 F-150 SVT Raptor, Jeep with a ’13 Wrangler Rubicon, Nissan with a pair of entries in the Frontier PRO-4X and Xterra PRO-4X, Ram with a ’12 Power Wagon, and Toyota sending the company’s 4Runner Trail and Tacoma TRD T|X Baja Series. General Motors was also invited, but declined to participate in our test.

Once our field of seven was assembled, we took over Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Michigan, for performance and trail testing. On the skidpad we collected our acceleration and braking data, before moving to our individual events, such as a loose, sandy hillclimb and a rocky stairstep obstacle. Each event provided valuable information and was set up in a way that we could directly compare the vehicles back-to-back.

To expand our testing outside of the controlled environment of a proving ground, we also took our fleet of four wheelers to the popular Mounds Off-Road Vehicle Area in Mt. Morris, Michigan. With our tests occurring on a rainy day, we had a chance to sample these vehicles in the mud, wet sand, and in a rock garden where the lack of grip really allowed us to see how the traction control and four-wheel-drive systems responded in less-than-ideal conditions.

After a week of evaluations, we tallied up the scores and ended up with the following results…

7th Place
2012 Nissan Xterra PRO-4X
Total Points: 54.37/100
Base Price: $30,720

Off-Road Package Contents: Electronic part-time four-wheel drive, Bilstein shocks, P265/75R16 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires w/fullsize spare, electronic locking rear differential, 4-Wheel Limited Slip, Hill Descent Control, Hill Start Assist, front tow hooks, full skidplating, auxiliary roof-mounted lighting

The Xterra offers a lot of bang for the buck. With the third-lowest starting price in the field of just $30,720, you get upgraded tires, Bilstein shocks, an electronic rear locker, and class-exclusive auxiliary lighting. We were impressed that nothing important hangs down past the bottom of the framerails and full skidplating, although thin-gauge, protects the undercarriage. The chassis, Nissan’s stout F-Alpha architecture, is shared with the Frontier pickup.

The Xterra was praised for its simple, intuitive controls, good visibility, and overall package. However, it does sit low to the ground, meaning you’ll be using those skidplates, and the interior, especially, is showing its age. Ride quality in the dirt is acceptable, but not as good as others, which is probably a result of Nissan sticking with durable leaf springs in the rear when the competition has gone to coils.

On the sandy hillclimb, the Xterra made it up after a few attempts, requiring increased momentum, helped by an engaged rear locker and a functional brake traction control system. Like the majority of the vehicles in this test, the locker can only be activated in low range. With a 33.9:1 crawl ratio, we appreciated the Hill Descent Control system when coming down. The system itself was rated mid-pack in terms of noise level and effectiveness.

While tackling the stairsteps, the Xterra walked up with minimal effort, only slowed down in a few spots by wheelbase. We found that steady throttle and a sawing action of the steering wheel worked well with the BTC system to get the SUV up and over the ledges. Unfortunately, our trail testing of the Xterra ended there.

At the top of the stair climb, one of our judges took the Xterra through some alternating moguls at a crawl and was startled when the side-curtain air bags blew, taking with them the Xterra’s chances of continuing in this shootout. All of the other vehicles in the test went through the same offset holes without any issues. As our ’09 Four Wheeler of the Year winner, there is no doubt that the Xterra would have finished higher if not for the airbag deployment.

Hot: Affordable, capable, intuitive operation
Not: Dated interior, sits low, overreactive airbags
Our Take: A good performer for the money, but we don’t like having to be wary of the airbags

6th Place
2012 Toyota 4Runner Trail
Total Points: 62.57/100
Base Price: $36,755

Off-Road Package Contents: Lever-actuated part-time four-wheel drive, Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System ($1,750 option), P265/70R17 Bridgestone Dueler HT tires w/fullsize spare, electronic locking differential, Multi-Terrain Select, Crawl Control, Downhill Assist Control, Hill Start Assist, Brake Traction Control, front tow points, skidplates

Another alumni of our FWOTY award (2010) in this test was Toyota’s 4Runner Trail. This is a real 4x4, not some crossover based on a car. Underpinning the body is a full frame, a solid rear axle, and coil springs at each corner. Aimed at wheeling enthusiasts, the Trail has distinctive front and rear fascias and unique eight-hole aluminum wheels. Our tester included the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, which uses hydraulic pressure to disengage the front and rear sway bars during certain conditions, allowing for greater articulation on the trail.

Climbing in to the 4Runner’s modern interior was the most like climbing aboard an airplane cockpit, with a bevy of buttons and switches, all displaying different hieroglyphics and acronyms denoting different functions. These controls are not only distributed throughout the dashboard, but also in an overhead console, where you least expect to find them.

One of those functions housed in the overhead console is the Crawl Control system, which is duo of knobs that allows the driver to select the severity of the terrain, and the speed at which you want the 4Runner to crawl. Essentially, it is autopilot for the rocks, working the throttle, while the driver picks the line with the steering wheel. Our testers were split as to whether it was helpful or gimmicky, as some found it effective in certain conditions, while others preferred making their own choices concerning the throttle.

Not in debate, however, was how well the Trail handled our hillclimb, where all the electronic traction aides, along with the rear locker worked together, allowing the Toyota to walk right up where other vehicles were challenged. The 4Runner similarly made quick work of the stair climb, until one of the street-oriented Bridgestone Dueler HT tires suffered a sidewall failure and had to be replaced. Fortunately the 4Runner comes with a fullsize spare.

Judges noted that the 4Runner’s Downhill Assist Control, while more than adequate, made its best impression of a machine gun on full-auto when engaged, disrupting the perception of the 4Runner having a refined personality. In the rock garden, the low-hanging undercarriage produced a symphony of crashes, scrapes, and bangs as the 4Runner slithered over each and every rock.

As much as the traction nannies shined in the climbs, they met their match in quick, loose soil where it sometimes felt like they were fighting the driver for control. On the backroads, the 4Runner’s soft suspension, which was fine for most situations, showed its weakness when the trail started to deteriorate and the 4Runner had to be slowed down to keep it off the bumpstops. Other drawbacks to the Trail were unsupportive front seats and minimalist front tow points.

Overall, the technology that is designed to make wheeling easier for the average person might be the very thing that makes the 4Runner too overwhelming for the same buyer. Likewise, experienced wheelers won’t find much need for techno add-ons, such as Crawl Control. At the end of the day most of us just want to hit the trail without having to reference a manual.

Hot: Technology, family-friendly, manual T-case lever
Not: Technology, uncomfortable front seats, weak tires
Our Take: A capable SUV, but not the best one for the trail

5th Place
2012 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X
Total Points: 63.54/100
Base Price: $30,060

Off-Road Package Contents: Electronic part-time four-wheel drive, Bilstein shocks, P265/75R16 BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires w/fullsize spare, electronic locking rear differential, 4-Wheel Limited Slip, Hill Descent Control, Hill Start Assist, front tow hooks, full skidplating

We have always liked the Frontier. With a strong V-6 and willing chassis, it is a fun truck to drive. Despite having upgraded tires, Bilstein shocks, and a rear locker, the Frontier came in with lowest base price in our group. But, like the Xterra it shares a platform with it is a bit long-in-the-tooth.

On the plus side, the interior, despite being dated, offers simple controls that anyone can easily master. The plasticky dash and door panels can be effortlessly wiped clean, and the small truck comes from the factory with a bedliner and the Utili-Track tie-down system.

In the dirt, the Frontier benefits over the Xterra from a longer wheelbase. It also comes with a rear hitch that can be used as a recovery point, unlike the Xterra, which was completely devoid of any rear tow point. We never found the electronic supervisors to be overly intrusive; although there were times when we knew they were watching.

Using a touch more speed, the Frontier climbed our loose hill a little bit easier than did the Xterra. On the stairs, the Frontier was surprisingly adept thanks to a good throttle calibration in low range, along with a well-sorted traction control system. Even in the rocks, where the Frontier should have been hampered by low ground clearance, it picked its way through, while a relatively smooth underbody helped it to slide over rocks without getting hung up.

It’s true the Frontier didn’t excite us in any large way, but we couldn’t really find fault with it either. Overall, it is a great choice as a daily driver that sees weekend-duty to the favorite camping spot. While not in the same league as some of the other vehicles in this test, this robust little pickup is a can’t-go-wrong proposition for anyone requiring a basic, rugged little 4x4.

Hot: Simple, fun, affordable
Not: Dated, not a lot of features, low clearance
Our Take: A great choice for someone looking for a nice, solid truck to get him or her up a dirt road

4th Place
2012 Toyota Tacoma TRD T|X Baja Series
Total Points: 68.33/100
Base Price: $35,255

Off-Road Package Contents: Electronic part-time four-wheel drive, Bilstein shocks, three-leaf spring pack, P265/70R16 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A tires w/fullsize spare, TRD aluminum wheels, electronic locking rear differential, 4-Wheel Limited Slip, Downhill Assist Control, Hill Start Assist, front tow hooks, full skidplating, TRD exhaust

You have to love the approach Toyota took to upgrade its Tacoma pickup. Seeing the success of Ford’s Raptor, but not wanting to play at that price point, Toyota cherry-picked the aftermarket to come up with an off-road package that transforms the popular Tacoma without the need to raid the couch cushions.

The Baja takes a standard Tacoma TRD and trims it out with TRD leveling springs in the front, paired with 60mm Bilstein monotube shocks. Out back, a new three-leaf pack and 50mm Bilstein reservoir shocks round out the suspension changes. The Baja also benefits from upgraded BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A tires mounted on distinctive TRD wheels and a TRD exhaust.

Like the TRD model on which it is based, the Baja includes an electronic rear locker, along with Toyota’s typical host of traction-watching acronyms, such as VSC, A-TRAC, HAC, and DAC. Just as with the 4Runner, the Baja is equipped with a 4.0L DOHC V-6. Curiously, it is only rated at 235hp and 266 lb-ft of torque, falling short of the 4Runner’s 4.0L V-6 (270hp/278tq), as well as Nissan’s 4.0L V-6 in the Frontier (261hp/281tq).

Our first test of the Baja in the desert (August ’12) left us with a favorable impression of the truck, but we were curious how it would perform in a more traditional off-road setting. At the Chelsea hillclimb, we found the Tacoma to be a little light on low-end torque, but were able to conquer the ascent as long as we kept the revs up. The stiffened suspension exhibited compliance, without exhibiting any wheelhop and traction was not a problem. On the downward slope, HDC operation was similar to the 4Runner, effective, but noisy.

On the stairstep challenge, the stiff frontend of the Baja made the driver work a bit harder than in the Frontier, but with the right technique, the Toyota got the job done without much drama. Despite electronics that could be invasive at higher speeds, we found they did an admirable job of aiding traction at low speeds.

The Tacoma also took surprisingly well to the rock garden. Like the 4Runner, its low frame height made choosing a proper line critical, although the Baja’s smoother undercarriage didn’t get caught up as often as the 4Runner. Just a little more ground clearance would do wonders for this mid-travel midsize.

We walked away from the test with the impression that this is a truck we could live with everyday, and while the suspension is geared toward going fast, it doesn’t detract from the Toyota’s all-around competence in the dirt. It still isn’t quite in the same league as the Raptor, but at a nearly $10,000 discount, it is about 85-percent of the way there. The Baja is a well-sorted truck in search of bigger tires.

Hot: Suspension begs to go fast, an all-around better Tacoma
Not: Tires on the small size, front suspension a bit stiff for low speeds
Our Take: Raptor fun without a Raptor price

3rd Place
2012 Ram Power Wagon
Total Points: 79.48/100
Base Price: $41,855

Off-Road Package Contents: Lever-actuated part-time four-wheel drive, Bilstein shocks, LT285/70R17 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A tires w/fullsize spare, forged-aluminum wheels, 4.56:1 gearing, electronic locking front and rear differentials, electronic-disconnecting sway bar, full skidplating, 12,000-pound Warn winch

The Ram Power Wagon, winner of our Four Wheeler Pickup Truck of the Year competition in ’05, ’10, and ’12, is no question, our favorite heavy-duty truck. Starting with the ’12 model year, the Power Wagon became available in the base SL trim level, lowering the point of entry to less than $42,000.

The Power Wagon is as comprehensive a package as you’ll find from an OE manufacturer. The shocks are upgraded, the tires are bigger and better than anything else offered in the Ram line, the front and rear axles are stuffed with lockers (the rear is a helical limited slip when unlocked), and the front sway bar can be disconnected via switch on the dash. Add to that a 12,000-pound Warn winch hidden behind the front bumper and you have a truck that is ready to go out of the box.

Disconnecting the sway bar exposes so much flexibility in the suspension that the tires will literally tuck up inside the wheelwells at maximum articulation. The Ram also has big doses of ground clearance and meaty towhooks that would make an excavator proud.

We had high hopes for the Power Wagon in this test and with a Top 3 finish, it didn’t disappoint. However, the Power Wagon did show a chink in its armor on the hillclimb where it clawed for traction, shuddering and axlehopping all the way to the top. There is no finessing the big Ram; it often required lots of throttle and brute force.

The same held true for the Power Wagon on the stairsteps, where, as one of our testers put it, “Like a bulldozer on a shale face, the Power Wagon gets the job done, but there is nothing fast or subtle in the way it goes about its business.” Here again, the Ram didn’t respond too well to finesse, but gladly tackled the obstacle with our foot in the throttle. While it was helped by a long wheelbase in most climbing activities, you can never escape the mass of the Power Wagon. In whatever you do off-road, it feels substantial and heavy.

Clearly, the rock garden was where the Power Wagon was most agreeable. With plenty of ground clearance, the Power Wagon might as well have been traveling on a dirt road. This was the one pickup that never stressed the driver in the rocks. Despite crawling during a downpour, we completed the rock garden without ever turning on the lockers. The Power Wagon always has the traction it needs, and if you want more, at the push of a button you can lock it up.

The biggest drawback to the Power Wagon is its sheer size, making it an uncomfortable partner on tight trails. Although it has good visibility to the sides, the truck’s massive hood makes seeing the trail nearly impossible. In technical terrain, driving by Braille soon becomes your greatest skillset as a driver.

Those things aside, the Power Wagon is an exceptional do-all truck. Its operation is instinctive and simple. If you need a trail-worthy pickup with ¾-ton capability, the Power Wagon is impossible to beat.

Hot: Hemi grunt, well-tuned suspension, keeps up with Jeep in the rocks
Not: Big, heavy, axlehop in sand
Our Take: No one makes a better ¾-ton for ‘wheeling

2nd Place
2012 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor
Total Points: 79.59/100
Base Price: $42,570

Off-Road Package Contents: Electronic part-time four-wheel drive, wide bodywork, Fox Racing Shox internal bypass shocks, LT315/70R17 BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A tires w/fullsize spare, cast-aluminum wheels, 4.10:1 gearing, Torsen front differential, electronic locking rear differential, full skidplating, traction control, Hill Descent Control, Off-Road Mode, forward-facing camera ($525 option), front and rear recovery points

When it comes to dirt, the Raptor is one serious truck. Wide bodywork, 35-inch tires, long-travel suspension, internal-bypass shocks, and an electronic rear locker are what come standard on the Raptor. While it may have been bred in Baja, improvements for 2012 make it even more potent everywhere else.

New to the Raptor, and possibly the most significant upgrade since the 411hp 6.2L made its debut, is a Torsen limited slip that now takes up residence in the front axle. Designed to work in conjunction with the traction control system, the limited-slip differential gives the Raptor a much-needed locker-like capability to the front axle, without any of the binding or bad habits associated with a front locker. Also available is a forward-facing camera, which answers the criticism of limited front visibility over the hood.

With these new upgrades, the Raptor proved it deserved the crown as the best factory-equipped four-wheel-drive pickup. Nowhere was this clearer than in our testing, where the Raptor aced the hillclimb with a level of smoothness and effort not seen in any other vehicle. The wide track meant that the Raptor never fell into the ruts formed by the vehicles that went before it. The Torsen and traction control are also nearly imperceptible in their operation. On the downslope, the Raptor HDC was the most refined of the group, quiet in operation, and did a remarkable job to slow the big truck down.

On the stairsteps, it took a little more technique to complete the climb. Once we figured out the right amount of throttle application that would get us up and over without allowing the suspension to fully extend and hop, the Raptor scaled the stairs with ease. Here again, the front Torsen and traction control worked well together with the rear locker.

The Raptor’s only weakness was revealed in the rock garden, where its relatively low clearance and wide track had it occasionally kissing boulders. Like the Power Wagon, though, traction was not an issue and the Raptor strolled through without its locker engaged. This was also the perfect opportunity to use the front camera, which allowed us to pick lines we normally wouldn’t be able to see.

While it may be a bit wide and low for really technical trails, the fact is that as long as it fits, the Raptor will take you anywhere you want to go. The any-speed rear locker also works in any transfer case position, and the electronic nannies can be completely defeated in Off-Road Mode.

Ford has done a remarkable job with the latest iteration of the Raptor, and has truly created the best off-road truck on the market. This solid all-around piece is what every factory ½-ton 4x4 should be aspiring to be.

Hot: Potent engine, long-travel suspension, supportive seats
Not: Thirsty V-8, it’s really wide, most expensive vehicle in the test
Our Take: The best off-road package on a pickup

1st Place
2013 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Total Points: 81.46/100
Base Price: $30,495

Off-Road Package Contents: Lever-actuated part-time four-wheel drive, monotube shocks, LT255/70R17 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A tires w/fullsize spare, cast-aluminum wheels, 4.10:1 gearing, electronic locking front and rear differentials, electronic disconnecting front sway bar, full skidplating, traction control, front and rear recovery points, 4:1 low range Rock-Trac T-Case.

It took a week of grueling off-pavement testing, but once again it was Jeep’s Wrangler that proved which company is king when it comes to making the best factory 4x4. Reading like an enthusiast’s wish list, the Rubicon is equipped with solid axles, coil springs, monotube shocks, front and rear electric lockers, and an electronic disconnecting front sway bar, which allows the flexy Wrangler to make quick work of any trail and at a price that was the second lowest in the test.

The 285hp 3.6L V-6 had no issue motivating the Wrangler up our hillclimb, but like the solid-axle Power Wagon, it did suffer from some axlehop, just nothing as violent as we saw in the big Ram. As a side note, the 3.6L absolutely screams, however all that high-rpm power comes at the expense of low-end torque, which is one of the few areas that could be improved on the Wrangler. Thankfully the manual transmission’s gears are spaced nicely, so finding the proper gear was never an issue. It also helped having a manual on the hill descent where an incredible 73.1:1 crawl ratio negated the need for an HDC system.

Using a zigzag line, the uber-maneuverable Wrangler easily conquered the stairsteps, picking off one ledge at a time. The short 95.4-inch wheelbase could sometime feel a little wonky for those who just got out of the 149-inch Power Wagon, but the adjustment was easy and the stability of the Wrangler was impressive for its short length.

When it came time to tame the rock garden, there wasn’t a vehicle more at home. The compliant suspension conformed to the boulder path and the low gearing allowed the Wrangler to just mosey along. Thanks to ground clearance, good skidplating, and rock rails, you never had to worry about placing the Wrangler perfectly. It has a margin of error built in that no other factory 4x4 can match.

During our testing, we rarely felt any electronic nannies try to take control away from the driver. The Wrangler is a driver’s machine and it is impossible to get behind the wheel and not have fun. If you’ve ever driven a Wrangler on the trail, you understand and if you haven’t, you’ll never know what you are missing.

With an unmatched mix of standard features, affordable price, and overall capability, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon comes out the winner of our first-ever off-road package shootout, making it the Ultimate Factory 4x4.

Hot: Price, maneuverable, go-anywhere capability
Not: Limited cargo room, light on low-end torque
Our Take: The best factory 4x4 available


Empirical Off-Road Package Content Vehicle Operation Trail Testing Total
Jeep Wrangler 20.21 21.83 18.17 21.25 81.46
Ford Raptor 17.29 21.44 20.48 20.38 79.59
Ram Power Wagon 18.33 23.46 20.19 17.50 79.48
Toyota Tacoma 17.08 17.31 16.06 17.88 68.33
Nissan Frontier 17.71 13.17 15.19 17.47 63.54
Toyota 4Runner 16.67 12.88 14.71 18.31 62.57
Nissan Xterra 16.88 12.98 15.38 9.13 54.37