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2016 4x4 of the Year Contenders

Which rig has what it takes to be the best?

Fred WilliamsPhotographerHarry WagnerPhotographerVerne SimonsPhotographer, WriterTrenton McGeeWriter

Chevrolet Colorado
The Chevrolet Colorado made a big splash when it was released in 2015, and Chevy has kept the momentum rolling with the release of the 2.8L Duramax four-cylinder, the first U.S.-market diesel for a midsize truck in years. One of four diesels included in our test, the little Duramax has benefitted from lessons learned in other parts of the world. It is quiet and well refined and provides plenty of torque to get the Colorado moving quickly. The expected turbo lag is very slight off the line, yet the engine winds up quickly and offers great power throughout the rpm range. Though our 0-60 test placed it ahead of only the Sprinter van, the Colorado felt peppy and our judges never used terms like sluggish or slow describing it. This may be due to the six-speed automatic, which was well tuned to keep the engine right in its optimum powerband. The diesel commands a little over a $4,000 premium over the V-6 gas engine depending on how the rest of the truck is optioned, making it a no-brainer for diesel fans.

Our Colorado arrived with the Z-71 package as well as a bed-mounted rollbar sporting two LED off-road lights, wheel flares and some low-hanging sidesteps that turned out to be aluminum. We would have left those options boxes unchecked, as it made the truck look overaccessorized. We like the look of the Colorado as-is, and these accessories just cluttered up a clean exterior. Plus, once we figured out how to turn the lights on, we discovered that the rollbar-mounted lights did nothing more than illuminate the roof of the cab, as they were not mounted high enough to actually improve forward visibility at night. As for the sidesteps, they didn't help ground clearance and proved annoying because most judges had to step over them to get into the vehicle, as opposed to stepping on them. They proved to be stronger than they looked and actually helped protect the low-hanging rockers, but by the end of the week they had quite a few bends and bruises.

The interior is put together well and ergonomic, with everything located where it should be. It is remarkably quiet at speed, and all seating positions are comfortably roomy. With overall build quality, fit, and finish light years ahead of the old S-10 pickups, it’s easy to understand why the Colorado has been so well received.

The biggest surprise about the Colorado was how capable it proved to be off the pavement. When viewed next to the Tacoma, the Colorado appeared to sit quite a bit lower thanks in part to the optional sidesteps, and in fact the front air dam was an early trail casualty (we would have deleted the air dam with the Z-71 package). But the Colorado proved to have clearance where it mattered. The suspension did an excellent job in high-speed situations and even seemed to have a slight edge over the Tacoma in terms of absorbing the bigger bumps and hits. We were impressed with the front suspension in particular, as it seemed to handle the extra weight of the diesel without any harshness or nosediving.

The traction control stayed mostly out of the way in the high-speed sections, though it did step in a time or two when it shouldn't have. In more technical sections we expected the Colorado to be bested by several of the other selectable locker–equipped vehicles in the test, but the G-80 automatic "locker," combined with the traction control system, made the Colorado very nimble; we just had to be a little more careful about the lines we picked. While good overall, one judge noted that even when turned "off," the traction control system cut engine power twice when trying to coax the truck up a ledge. Both times, the truck had bounced up the ledge only to slide back down because the system felt it knew better. On most modern vehicles the traction control system usually has different levels of "off," but we never found a way to completely disable the system on the Colorado. Still, we never felt like there was a lack of traction available.

By the end of our weeklong test the Colorado had gained several new fans. It has excellent manners on the street and is an absolute blast to drive off-road. It is an extremely well-rounded, capable truck. Add a selectable locker in the back and a way to turn the traction control truly off-off, and the Colorado has all the makings of an off-road hero.

Diesel power in a midsize truck
Excellent build quality
Well-rounded off-road

Cheesy exterior accessories
No "off" for traction control
Low-hanging air dam

Manufacturer: Chevrolet
Model: 2016 Colorado
Base Price: $35,080
Price As Tested: $46,500
Options As Tested: $11,420
Type: I-4 Duramax turbodiesel
Displacement: (L/ci) 2.8/171
Bore & Stroke (in): 3.7 x 3.93
Compression Ratio: 16.5:1
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal): Diesel or B20/21
SAE Peak Horsepower: 181 @ 3,400 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft): 369 @ 2,000 rpm
Type: 6-speed automatic
Model: Hydra-Matic 6L50
Ratios: First: 4.06:1; Second: 2.37:1; Third: 1.55:1; Fourth: 1.16:1; Fifth: .85:1; Sixth: 0.67:1; Reverse: 3.20:1
Transfer Case
Type: 2-speed active on demand
Model: Magna
Low-Range Ratio: 2.72:1
Front Type: IFS open diff with automatic disconnect
Hubs: Automatic
Rear Type: Solid
Rear Diff: Automatic locking G-80
Ratio: 3.42
Traction Aid: G-80 automatic locking differential rear
Front: Independent coilover shock; twin-tube shock absorber
Rear: Solid axle multileaf springs; twin-tube shocks
Type: Electronic rack
Lock-to-Lock: 3.25
Turning Circle (ft): 41.3
17x8 aluminum
255/65R17 Goodyear Duratrac
Front: ABS; Duralife rotors; hill descent control
Rear: ABS; Duralife rotors; hill descent control
60-0 mph As Tested (ft): 107.3
0-60 mph As Tested (sec): 12.35
Weight (lb)
Curb Weight (As Tested): 4,920
Advertised GVWR: 6,200
Trailer Tow Capacity: 7,600
Mileage (mpg)
EPA Estimate (city/hwy): 25/31
As Tested: 21.46
Dimensions (in)
Wheelbase: 128
Overall Length: 212
Overall Width: 84
Overall Height: 70 1/2
Front, Rear Track: 62 1/4, 62 1/2
Front, Rear Overhang: 21 1/2, 31 1/4
Min. Ground Clearance Front/Rear (Lowest Point): 9 (LCA)/9 1/4 (rear shock mount)

Jeep Renegade Trailhawk Like the Cherokee Trailhawk that was in last year's competition, the Renegade Trailhawk is really a car. It has a transverse-mounted front engine and lacks a real transfer case. Instead, a long driveshaft connects the independent rear axle to the transverse transmission and "low range" is achieved through planetary gears at the axles, similar to the Cherokee. The Renegade is in many ways a scaled down version of its bigger brother, and compact vehicles tend to fare better in many off-road situations. Still, the complicated four-wheel-drive system, low-slung undercarriage, and limited wheel travel left many judges skeptical.

The sole gas-powered four-cylinder vehicle of the test, this four-banger was high-revving and "buzzy," many judges noted. But the nine-speed automatic transmission did an excellent job keeping the engine in its powerband to deliver adequate, sometimes surprising acceleration. Once in the dirt, the Renegade was surefooted, stable, and fun, often handling with relative ease the bumps that made us flinch. Only the bigger bumps and rollers had us grabbing the brakes, which were very good at bringing the little SUV to a stop.

When we reached the hillclimb, however, the fun was over. Though the traction control system features terrain-based selectable modes, none of the modes could coax the little Renegade up even a third of the hill despite several different drivers and lines. The front and rear differentials on the Renegade do not have traditional traction-aiding devices like a limited slip or a locker and instead rely upon the brake-based traction control system to transfer power where needed. Unfortunately the hillclimb proved to be too much for the system, and the low ground clearance didn't help matters either. It performed better in the rocks, where we were able to coax the Renegade up several obstacles that we thought might be too challenging. While it did go up a few technical climbs, it seemed to do so under protest, with the traction control system groaning and flinching the whole way. But it made it up most of what we threw at it in the rocks, which is really the most important thing at the end of the day.

The interior and exterior received mixed reviews from our judges, though we admit that the Renegade is aimed at a much younger demographic than most of our judges. "Cute" was a common adjective. We appreciated that it had real towhooks front and rear, though we could have done without their being bright red. We found the undercarriage very well protected by skidplates, though the plastic bumpers seemed vulnerable to trail damage. The inside is well thought out and ergonomic overall, while the fit and finish are better than average for an entry-level SUV. The inside also hosts a remarkable number of Easter eggs in the form of hidden seven-slot grilles, so many that a couple of judges noted that maybe Jeep was trying a bit too hard to remind people of the Renegade's off-road heritage.

The Renegade was the only entry-level SUV of the test, and from that perspective it offers an impressive number of features and decent off-road capability. While Jeep purists may scoff at its car-based suspension and lack of a real transfer case, the Renegade does pretty well off the pavement and shines on moderate-speed fire roads. While it struggled in the rough stuff, the Renegade isn't a bad choice for a new, entry-level 4x4.

9-speed automatic
Compact and nimble
Good undercarriage protection

Low ground clearance
Complicated 4WD system
Fussy traction control

Manufacturer: Jeep
Model: 2016 Renegade Trailhawk 4x4
Base Price: $25,995
Price As Tested: $29,555
Options As Tested: $3,560
Type: I-4 2.4l MultiAir2
Displacement: (L/ci): 2.35/144
Bore & Stroke (in): 3.46 x 3.82
Compression Ratio: 10:1
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal): 87/12.7
SAE Peak Horsepower: 180 @ 6,400 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft): 175 @ 3,900 rpm
Type: 9-speed automatic Model 948TE
Ratios: First: 4.71:1; Second: 2.84:1; Third: 1.91:1; Fourth: 1.38:1; Fifth: 1.00:1; Sixth: 0.81:1; Seventh: 0.70:1; Eighth: 0.58:1; Ninth: 0.48:1; Reverse: 3.80:1
Transfer Case
Type: N/A
Model: N/A
Low-Range Ratio: 20:1
Front Type: IFS
Front Diff: PTU
Hubs: Automatic
Rear Type: IRS
Rear Diff: RDM
Ratio: 2.54:1
Traction Aid: Brake-based electronic traction control (front and rear)
Front: McPherson strut
Rear: Chapman strut
Type: Electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Lock-to-Lock: 2.75
Turning Circle (ft): 35.3
17x6.5 aluminum
P215/65R17 Goodyear Wrangler SRA
Front: Vented rotor with single-piston floating caliper
Rear: Solid rotor with single-piston floating caliper
60-0 mph As Tested (ft): 100
0-60 mph as tested (sec): 10.84
Weight (lb)
Curb Weight: 3,600
Advertised GVWR: 4,586
Trailer Tow Capacity: 2,000
Mileage (mpg)
EPA Estimate (city/hwy): 21/29
As Tested: 20.57
Dimensions (in)
Wheelbase: 101
Overall Length: 165 3/4
Overall Width: 80 1/4
Overall Height: 68 7/8
Front, Rear Track: 61, 60 1/2
Front, Rear Overhang: 20 1/8,17 3/4
Min. Ground Clearance Front/Rear (Lowest Point): 7 3/4 (center skidplate)/8 3/4 (LCA)

Land Rover Range Rover TD6 Like the G-550, the Range Rover TD6 lands squarely in the luxury SUV category and at first glance is perhaps a little out of place in our test, which places a greater emphasis on utility and off-road performance than on features and amenities. While Land Rover appeals to discerning, well-heeled consumers, the company has not forgotten its off-road roots. Underneath all the gadgets and features that one would expect to find in an $86,000 SUV, the newest Range Rover does offer good off-highway manners in addition to a comfy, well-appointed highway cruiser.

The biggest news for the TD6 is the all-new 3.0L turbodiesel engine, which received raves across the board from our judges. In addition to being amazingly quiet for a diesel, it drives just like a gas engine. There is no lag off the line like with most turbo engines, and it was quick enough to place third behind the G-550 and Rebel in our acceleration tests. That's impressive for a diesel, even more so when you consider that the TD6 delivered the best mileage of all the vehicles in our test.

The Range Rover also received very high marks from our judges for highway manners and comfort. After a short stint behind the wheel, it was easy to understand why many of our judges would pick the TD6 as their first choice for a long road trip. The heated and cooled leather seats are very comfortable, the stereo sounds great, and there are plenty of cubbies for phones, sunglasses, and other small gear. The center console even has a chilled compartment for beverages. The dash ergonomics are a little complicated but are reasonably intuitive with the exception of the transmission shifter, which several of our judges found infuriating. Simply shifting from Reverse to Drive often required staring at the shifter to see what we hadn't done right, and Park is a separate button rather than simply bumping the shifter all the way forward. Although it's something an owner would get used to, most found the shifter counterintuitive and more complicated than it needed to be.

Off the pavement, the Range Rover received mixed reviews. Like the Renegade, the Range Rover has a terrain-based traction control system. A knob near the transmission shifter enables the user to select among several settings, such as sand or snow, and the TD6 adjusts ride height, traction control, braking, and several other vehicle functions to suit the terrain. When we attempted our hillclimb early in the test, the Range Rover reached the first loose section at the base and simply refused to go farther; the electronic nannies took over and refused to allow any additional progress. It wasn't until we reached the sand area a couple days later that one of our judges figured out the "secret handshake" to turn most of the interfering systems off.

With the nannies turned off, the TD6 was a blast in the sand thanks to the healthy amount of power on tap and the air suspension that easily soaked up the bumps. Unfortunately the sand is also where we managed to rip off the front air dam, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it revealed the solid front recovery point that came in handy when a judge or two ran out of talent.

The Rover also excelled in high-speed desert terrain, where the well-tuned suspension did a great job swallowing all but the biggest dips and whoops despite the limited amount of travel from the independent front and rear suspension. The lack of ground clearance and wheel travel also hurt the TD6 in the more technical rockcrawling sections, and the plastic bumpers suffered a few rock scratches in the process.

The TD6 seemed most at home on our icy, snowy trail, where it had no problem keeping up with the group. Overall, the Range Rover TD6 offers excellent on-road manners and, on select terrain, delivered confident, surefooted performance off-road. While not the first choice for serious trail work, it is confident and capable in the environments most likely to be encountered by Land Rover buyers.

Pros Comfortable interior
Engine power and mileage
Sand and snow performance

Lack of ground clearance
Infuriating transmission shifter
Complicated traction control system

Manufacturer: Land Rover
Model: Range Rover TD6
Base Price: $71,450
Price As Tested: $86,060
Options As Tested: $14,610
Type: Turbodiesel
Displacement: (L/ci): 3.0/183
Bore & Stroke (in): 3.31 x 3.54
Compression Ratio: 16.0:1
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal): Diesel/23.5
SAE Peak Horsepower: 254 @ 4,000 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft): 440 @ 1,750 rpm
Transmission Type: 8-speed automatic
Model: ZF Model 8HP70
Ratios: First: 4.969:1; Second: 3.13:1; Third: 2.104:1; Fourth: 1.667:1; Fifth: 1.285:1; Sixth: 1.00:1; Seventh: 0.839:1; Eighth: 0.667:1; Reverse: 3.167:1
Transfer Case
Type: 2-speed with center differential lock
Model: Magna DD295
Low-Range Ratio: 2.930:1
Front Type: IFS
Front Diff: Open
Hubs: Automatic
Rear Type: IRS
Rear Diff: Optional locker
Ratio: 3.21:1
Options: Locking differential (rear) Terrain Response, Dynamic Stability Control, Roll Stability Control, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Cornering Brake Controlm Hill Descent Control, Emergency Brake Assist, Hill Start Assist, Electronic Traction Control, Gradient Acceleration Control, Gradient Release Control, and Reactive Grounding Response.
Front: SLA with twin lower links with air springs/CVD with Passive ARB
Rear: Integral link with air springs/CVD with Passive ARB
Type: Electric Power Assisted Steering rack-and-pinion
Lock-to-Lock: 2.75
Turning Circle (ft): 41
20-inch aluminum alloy
255/55R20 Goodyear Eagle F1 SUV 4x4
Front: Ventilated 13.78-inch steel disc
Rear: Ventilated 13.78-inch steel disc
60-0 mph As Tested (ft): 99.8
0-60 mph As Tested (sec): 9.77
Weight (lb)
Curb Weight as tested: 5,360
Advertised GVWR: 6,614
Trailer Tow Capacity: 7,716
Mileage (mpg)
EPA Estimate (city/hwy): 22/29
As Tested: 23.94
Dimensions (in)
Wheelbase: 114 1/2
Overall Length: 189 3/4
Overall Width: 88
Overall Height: 72
Front, Rear Track: 66 1/2, 66
Front, Rear Overhang: 17 3/4, 25 1/2
Min. Ground Clearance Front/Rear (Lowest Point): 8 (LCA)/8 1/2 (leading arm)

Mercedes-Benz G-550
We were a little surprised when Mercedes-Benz agreed to hand over one of its priciest, most exclusive vehicles for us to flog on for a week. With an as-tested price north of $125,000, it seems unlikely that a typical G-550 would get subjected to brush scratches and trail bruises. But although the G-550 might be more at home on the streets of Beverly Hills than in the middle of the desert, it packs some serious hardware to make it a major contender off the pavement.

New for 2016 is the 4.0L twin-turbo V-8, an engine that produces more than enough power to get the G-550 anywhere needed in a hurry. It was the quickest vehicle in our 0-60 test by nearly half a second, and it delivered the best braking performance in our test. Even more impressive, it did both with an as-tested curb weight of 5,900 pounds.

Delivering all that power to the ground is a full-time four-wheel-drive system that sends power to solid front and rear axles filled with locking differentials. You read that right. The G-550 is the only vehicle available brand new in the United States with solid axles stuffed with lockers (other than the Jeep Rubicon). Combine that with a supple coil-spring suspension and you have all the ingredients of a trail hero.

Make no mistake, the G-550 is a blast to drive on the street. The engine has a bit of turbo lag off the line, but once they spool up the power comes on like a freight train. The seven-speed automatic transmission can be controlled via wheel-mounted paddle shifters, which ups the fun factor that much more. In fact, there's so much power on tap that the G-550 quickly commands respect because it has more than enough power to get you into trouble in a hurry.

Straight-line acceleration is one thing, but cornering is another. On twisty mountain roads the G-550 has a surprising amount of body roll. There were a few instances of pucker factor where our judges came into a corner a little hot and the G-550 suddenly felt very top-heavy. Still, this is a drawback we will gladly accept in exchange for solid axles and a simple suspension.

The exterior of the G-550 is all business and reminds us of its 1970s military vehicle roots. Some judges found the exterior dated, while others appreciated the no-nonsense look.

The interior is where the platform most shows its age, as it seems that every inch of the dash and center console area are crammed full of controls and knobs for all of the accessories and options you would expect on a luxury SUV today but which were unimaginable back when the platform was designed. The not-a-touchscreen display on the center of the dash looks like an afterthought, as does the basketball-hoop single cupholder. The overly complicated transmission shifter bothered some judges, though the controls for the transfer case and lockers were pretty intuitive. Even the seats, while comfortable, had us constantly fiddling with the controls to get just right. The rear seating area also seemed cramped to some judges, making us wonder why the vehicle is so popular among urban pop stars.

Off the pavement, however, the G-550 was rock solid. Though the aforementioned body roll hurt performance on high-speed fire roads somewhat, it had all the equipment to be a trail hero and tackled the hillclimb with ease despite the street-oriented tires. The suspension offered plenty of travel in technical sections, while the lockers made it more or less point-and-shoot. In fact, the suspension performed so well that the lockers were often not needed.

By the end of the week the G-550 had gained a lot of fans amongst our judges, though few of us are in the tax bracket that can afford this luxo-wheeler. The suspension appears to be the easiest to modify of all our testers, and adding some better tires would enhance off-road capability even further. We would be the first in line for a stripped-down (read: much less expensive) version of the G-550, as it is a solid foundation to be a hardcore off-roader and would make great competition for the JK Unlimited.

Loads of power
Front and rear lockers
Solid front and rear axles

Cluttered dash controls
Lack of rear passenger room
Lots of body roll

Manufacturer: Mercedes-Benz
Model: 2016 G-550
Base Price: $119,900
Price As Tested: $125,075
Options As Tested: $5,175
Type: V-8, liquid cooled, twin turbo
Displacement: (L/ci) 4.0/ 244
Bore & Stroke (in): 3.27 x 3.62
Compression Ratio: 10.5:1
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal): 91/25.4
SAE Peak Horsepower: 416 @ 5,250 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft): 450 @ 2,250 rpm
Type: 7-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel mounted shift paddles
Model: 7G-Tronic
Ratios: First: 4.38:1; Second: 2.86:1; Third: 1.92:1; Fourth: 1.37:1; Fifth: 1.00:1; Sixth: 0.82:1; Seventh: 0.73:1; Reverse 1: 3.42:1 Reverse 2:2.23:1
Transfer Case
Type: 2-speed transfer case, fulltime with locking center differential
Model: N/A
Low-Range Ratio: N/A
Front Type: Solid
Front Diff: manual locking
Hubs: Automatic
Rear Type: Solid
Rear Diff: Manual locking
Ratio: 4.38
Traction Aid: locking differentials (front and rear) and 4-Wheel Electronic Traction System (4ETS)
Front: Rigid Axle with longitudinal and transverse links, coil springs, gas-pressurized shock absorbers, stabilizer bar
Rear: Rigid Axle with longitudinal and transverse links, coil springs, gas-pressurized shock absorbers
Type: Hydraulic assist recirculating ball box
Lock-to-Lock: 3.25
Turning Circle (ft): 44.6
7.5J x 19 aluminum alloy
P275/55R19 Pirelli Scorpion Zero
Front: Internally vented rotor 12.4-inch discs
Rear: Internally vented 10.7-inch discs
60-0 mph As Tested (ft): 95
0-60 mph As Tested (sec): 7.92
Weight (lb)
Curb Weight (As Tested): 5,900
Advertised GVWR: 7,056
Trailer Tow Capacity: 7,000
Mileage (mpg)
EPA Estimate (city/hwy): 13/14
As Tested: 12.24
Dimensions (in)
Overall Length: 188 1/2
Overall Width: 81 1/2
Overall Height: 77 1/2
Front, Rear Track: 59 3/4, 59 3/8
Front, Rear Overhang: 17 1/4, 27
Min. Ground Clearance Front/Rear (Lowest Point): 9 1/4 (differential)/9 1/2(differential)

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
Perhaps the most unlikely candidate to ever enter our 4x4 of the Year competition, the Mercedes Sprinter was also the most surprising vehicle in our test. A giant box on wheels, Sprinter vans are meant to do work, whether it's delivering cargo around town or transporting tools and equipment to the jobsite. They are not really meant or intended for serious off-road work, but they are now available with four-wheel drive, which is what made the Sprinter eligible for our competition.

From the very first day, the Sprinter was the workhorse of the bunch. Even before the test started we used it to pick up judges from the airport, where we had no problem negotiating heavy traffic. And more than once it hauled all of our gear from one test area to the next with plenty of room to spare. Most of our judges appreciated the no-frills, utilitarian interior of the Sprinter. The cavernous cargo area had some of us dreaming up layouts for a mini-RV or expedition vehicle. The Sprinter is in many ways a blank slate that allows it to be customized to serve any number of purposes.

The Sprinter doesn't feel as large as it really is thanks to excellent visibility from the driver seat and plenty of power on tap. The 3.0L diesel and five-speed automatic transmission are well refined, with the transmission receiving particularly high marks from judges. Acceleration was excellent for a vehicle of this size and weight (albeit unloaded), and the transmission did a great job keeping the engine in its optimum powerband. Braking was adequate, but a few judges questioned how well they would fare with a full cargo in the back. Only in typically tight Southern California parking lots did we really feel the Sprinter's bulk. The backup camera was a welcome, often-used feature.

The interior controls were well laid out and easy to use while lacking the unnecessary bells and whistles of most other vehicles in the competition. Only the transfer case control buttons seemed a little strange, with pictures where simple “4-Hi” and “4-Low” labels would have sufficed. The judges' praise for the transmission extended to its shifter, a stick mounted on the dash within easy reach of the driver. We weren't afraid to climb in with muddy feet thanks to the rubberized industrial-type flooring, and the rest of the interior looked like it could be hosed out with a pressure washer. It's no surprise why the Sprinter is such a popular work truck.

Even with all of the high marks on the street, we didn't expect much from the Sprinter off the pavement. After all, it's a cargo van. But we were in for another surprise. While the Sprinter was unable to make it up our hillclimb (no delivery guy who wanted to keep his job would have any business attempting our test hill), it was an absolute hoot in high-speed fire road sections. Several judges noted that they were able to drive the Sprinter way faster than prudent in the high-speed sections. The front suspension did an amazing job soaking up all but the biggest bumps without the expected wallow or body roll.

Speaking of the suspension, out back are typical leaf springs with a solid axle, but up front is a strange combination of IFS with a single fiberglass transverse-mounted leaf spring and struts. It's odd, but it works.

The biggest disappointment on the Sprinter was the transfer case, which does not lock the center differential in 4-Lo. Instead, it offers only a 35 percent front and 65 percent rear split, and the low-range ratio is a paltry 1.4:1.There were several situations in which progress was halted due to the front or rear axle not receiving power when they should have. This seriously hampered the Sprinter's low-speed technical trail performance, and on top of that the traction control system often stepped in when it shouldn't have. On one snowy, icy trail it became clear that the traction control system was tuned for slightly higher speeds than we were driving, so carrying a little momentum in some sections (which the supple suspension was able to handle) made all the difference.

The BFGoodrich All-Terrains certainly helped and were among the most aggressive tires on our test vehicles.

While it's no shocker that the wheelbase didn't help in the more technical sections, the ground clearance was surprisingly good for a vehicle of this size. However, the low-hanging retractable cargo door step was an early casualty and is an option box we would leave unchecked if we were buying one for off-road use. Still, we were pleasantly surprised that a utility vehicle of this size held its own in our test.

Excellent visibility
No-frills interior
8-speed automatic

No 4-Lo transfer case lock
Braking a bit sluggish
Slow speed traction control

Manufacturer: Mercedes-Benz
Model: 2016 Sprinter 2500 Crew Van 144-Inch 4x4
Base Price: $38,270
Price As Tested: $57,440
Options As Tested: $19,170
Type: V-6 Turbocharged Diesel
Displacement: (L/ci) 3.0/183
Bore & Stroke (in): 3.268 x 3.622
Compression Ratio: 18.0:1
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal): Diesel/24.5
SAE Peak Horsepower: 188 @ 3,800 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft): 325 @ 1,400 rpm
Type: 5-speed Automatic
Model: NAG1
Ratios First: 3.595:1; Second: 2.186:1; Third: 1.405:1; Fourth: 1.00:1; Fifth: 0.83:1; Reverse: 3.167:1
Transfer Case
Type: 2-speed with 65% rear, 35% front
Model: N/A
Low-Range Ratio: 1.4
Front Type: IFS
Front Diff: N/A
Hubs: Automatic
Rear Type: Solid
Rear Diff: N/A
Ratio 3.923:1
Traction Aid: Electronically controlled traction system (4ETS) (front and rear)
Front: Transversally mounted monoleaf spring; reinforced shock absorbers; stabilizer bar
Rear: longitudinally mounted leaf springs; reinforced shock absorbers
Type: Rack-and-pinion
Lock-to-Lock: 3.375
Turning Circle (ft): 47.6
6.5Jx16 aluminum alloy
265/75R16 BFGoodrich KO2 All Terrain
Front: Disc
Rear: Disc
60-0 mph As Tested (ft): 134.7
0-60 mph As Tested (sec): 14.43
Weight (lb)
Curb Weight: 6,040
Advertised GVWR: 8,550
Trailer Tow Capacity: 5,000
Mileage (mpg)
EPA Estimate (city/hwy): 21/29
As Tested: 17.38
Dimensions (in)
Wheelbase: 145 3/4
Overall Length: 239
Overall Width: 96 1/2
Overall Height: 100 1/4
Front, Rear Track: 67 7/8, 68 1/4
Front, Rear Overhang: 25, 38
Min. Ground Clearance Front/Rear (Lowest Point): 8 1/2 (LCA)/9 5/8 (rear lower shock mount)

Nissan Titan
It has been a long time since Nissan last designed the Titan, and there has been a lot of buzz about its new 5.0L Cummins V-8 turbodiesel engine. We were excited about getting our hands on this all-new truck and the all-new engine to see if it truly filled the "whitespace" (Nissan's term) between 1/2-ton and 3/4-ton trucks.

With a GVWR of 8,990 pounds and a towing capacity of 11,784 pounds, the Titan was capable of hauling the most weight out of all our testers this year. It comes with an as-tested curb weight of 7,240 pounds to match, which beat the Sprinter by over half a ton. And the Titan feels every bit as heavy as those numbers. While it was easy for our judges to compare the Titan to the Ram Rebel (exterior dimensions are similar), the Titan is really closer to a 3/4-ton than a 1/2-ton truck. We expected the Titan to be a little heavier due to the diesel engine, but when we put the Titan on a rack we understood where the weight was located. The frame is very beefy, as is the rest of the drivetrain behind the engine. Our tester was also equipped with a clean, built-in fifth-wheel receiver hitch, which is a nice option for the towing crowd. This truck was clearly designed to be a workhorse.

Unfortunately all of that weight hurt acceleration, braking, and mileage. The Titan finished towards the back of the pack in both our 0-60 acceleration and 60-0 braking tests while delivering a disappointing 12.54 mpg, besting only the gas twin-turbo G-550 in fuel economy. The numbers reflect our seat-of-the-pants driving impressions, as the Titan was casual about getting up to speed but seemed better about coming to a stop quickly. A few judges would have liked to spend time with the Titan loaded or towing a trailer, as on paper it has all the equipment needed to haul some serious payloads.

Nissan did a great job on the interior design and ergonomics. Our judges had little to complain about. We were thankful that it had a "normal" transmission shifter after fighting with several other test vehicles.

The exterior styling is a bold move for Nissan and received mixed reviews from our judges, which is to be expected. The bed storage and tie-down system drew a lot of praise, with adjustable tie-down anchors that attached to rails mounted to the bedsides and the floor and a bed extender that doubled to secure smaller gear. The integrated fifth-wheel hitch was recessed completely in the floor with no obstructions for cargo to get hung up on.

The weight that hampered performance on the street also didn't do the Titan any favors off-road. Though a stiffer ride was to be expected with the high GVW, at times the Titan felt more like an old solid axle truck than one equipped with IFS and modern struts. High-speed dirt roads became moderate-speed roads, and rough trails featured a lot of head-toss for occupants. There was some wheel hop from the leaf-spring solid rear axle, but not nearly as bad as many other trucks we have driven. The low-hanging front skidplate made contact with the ground quite often, as did the protruding front towhooks.

The rear locker was a welcome and oft-needed addition, but the traction control system was a conundrum. On our hillclimb it worked well with the rear locker to get the big truck to the top without any drama, but in the sand it immediately cut power and sank like a stone, where the truck stayed stuck for the duration. At one point four judges were bodily pushing the Titan forward in the sand and the computer kept grabbing the brakes, halting progress. Only locking the transmission in First gear seemed to fool the traction control system into allowing enough wheel speed to keep the truck moving. Without the rear locker some of our off-road test sections would have been impassable for the Titan, even areas where the Rebel went with ease despite the lack of a locker.

Overall, we had high hopes for the Titan but had to acknowledge that it fell short of expectations in several key areas.

Sturdy and solid
Best bed storage system of the group
Rear locker

Stiff suspension
Low-hanging undercarriage
Intrusive traction control

Manufacturer: Nissan
Model: 2016 Titan XD Crew Cab PRO-4X
Base Price: $50,970
Price As Tested: $58,285
Options As Tested: $7,315
Type: Cummins V-8 Turbodiesel Displacement: (L/ci) 5.0/305
Bore & Stroke (in): 3.70 x 3.54
Compression Ratio: 16.3:1
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal): Diesel/26
SAE Peak Horsepower: 310 @ 3,200 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft): 555 @ 1,600 rpm
Type: 6-speed automatic
Model: Aisin A466ND
Ratios: First: 3.742:1; Second: 2.003:1; Third: 1.343:1; Fourth: 1.00:1; Fifth: 0.773:1; Sixth: 0.634:1; Reverse: 3.539:1
Transfer Case
Type: 2-speed part time
Model: Magna TX91A
Low-Range Ratio: 2.717:1
Front Type: IFS
Front Diff: AAM 235 mm (9 1/4) open
Hubs: Automatic
Rear Type: Solid
Rear Diff: AAM 250 mm with GKN LDC3-2 manual locking differential (PRO-4X)
Ratio: 3.916:1
Traction Aid: Vehicle Dynamic Control, Traction Control System, Hill Start Assist, Hill Descent Control (front and rear)
Front: IFS double-wishbone; 36mm stabilizer bar; Bilstein Monotube coilover shocks
Rear: Solid axle with multileaf; 18mm stabilizer bar
Type: Hydraulic-assist recirculating ball
Lock-to-Lock: 3.75
Turning Circle (ft): 53.8
18x7.5 aluminum alloy
275/65R18 General Grabber APT
Front: ABS; Electronic Brake-force Distribution; 14.17-inch vented disc
Rear: ABS; Electronic Brake-force Distribution; 14.37-inch vented disc
60-0 mph As Tested (ft): 109.5
0-60 mph As Tested (sec): 11.77
Weight (lb)
Curb Weight: 7,240
Advertised GVWR: 8,990
Trailer Tow Capacity: 11,784
Mileage (mpg)
EPA Estimate: N/A
As Tested: 12.54
Dimensions (in)
Wheelbase: 151 1/2
Overall Length: 245 1/2
Overall Width: 98 1/4
Overall Height: 78
Front, Rear Track: 69, 68 1/2
Front, Rear Overhang: 28, 32 1/4
Min. Ground Clearance: N/A

Ram Rebel
The Ram Rebel is much more than a Ram 1500 with an appearance package, but the developers are quick to point out that it is not their response to the Ford Raptor. While the Rebel shares a basic suspension design with its more pedestrian counterpart, the Rebel has a lot of tricks intended to tweak the 1/2-ton Ram for off-road enthusiasts. The bold styling cues give the Rebel a very distinctive look, while the air suspension system makes the Ram quickly adaptable to different types of off-road terrain.

There's no denying that the exterior of the Rebel makes a bold statement. With the unique grille, vented hood, and giant lettering across the tailgate, you won’t confuse a Rebel with a regular Ram 1500. While some of our judges didn't mind the restyled nose of the Rebel, most agreed that the huge tailgate lettering would be the first to come off if it were parked in their driveway.

Under the hood is a 5.7L Hemi that now makes 395 hp and 410 lb-ft of torque, which is more than enough to get the Rebel moving with authority. The prodigious amounts of power on tap, combined with the air suspension system that did an excellent job holding corners on twisty mountain roads, made the Rebel genuinely fun to drive on the street.

The interior layout of the Rebel was among the best of the group, with radio, climate, and even ride setting controls right where they are supposed to be. There was, however, one notable exception: the transmission shifter. Instead of a column or console-mounted lever, the Ram now has a rotating knob on the dash to control gear selection. Therefore, shifting is similar to changing a radio station, which takes some getting used to and is a little unsettling.

Our tester was equipped with optional Ram Boxes, which offer convenient lockable storage for items like tools and recovery gear. The bed also included a good cargo management system, though we found the one in the Titan to be a little more versatile.

Though the Rebel is equipped with air suspension, both payload and towing capacity are no different than a regular Ram. The air suspension is ride-height adjustable and even has little tricks like being able to lower the rear suspension to make loading and unloading cargo easier. Different ride settings are driver-selectable, and some settings switch automatically. For example, the Rebel lowers itself above certain speeds for better stability and aerodynamics.

As versatile as the suspension seemed, it did have a few shortcomings. Our judges noted that the suspension tended to get a little sloppy on high-speed desert roads, which is really where it should have stood out as the frontrunner. It seemed particularly susceptible to whoops and had quite a bit of nosedive at times. At slower speeds, however, the supple suspension was a welcome change and did a very good job keeping the tires in contact with irregular terrain.

We expected the Rebel's performance would suffer due to its not having a locking rear differential, but the limited slip and traction control system made short work of our hillclimb and a few other steep, loose sections of trail. The Rebel was surefooted, stable, and among the best in terms of ground clearance, thanks in part to having the largest tires in the test. When ground clearance came up short, the Rebel's beefy front skidplate took over. The Rebel includes extra skidplating over a standard Ram, but oddly, Ram engineers neglected to add any protection to the gas tank, which seems like a natural thing to do.

Taken as a whole, the Ram Rebel is a solid off-road performer with a pretty cool suspension system that could use additional refinement in a couple of areas. The 1/2-ton truck market is crowded, but the Rebel offers several features not available anywhere else.

Lots of power
Interior is well laid out
Good traction control

Transmission shifter knob
Suspension sloppy at high speeds
Obnoxious badging

Manufacturer: Ram
Model: 2016 Rebel 1500 Crew Cab 4x4
Base Price: $45,100
Price As Tested: $53,175
Options As Tested: $8,075
Type: 5.7L V-8 Hemi MDS VVT
Displacement: (L/ci) 5.7/348
Bore & Stroke (in): 3.92 x 3.58
Compression Ratio: 10.5:1
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal): 87 acceptable, 89 recommended/32
SAE Peak Horsepower: 395 @ 5600 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft): 410 @ 3950 rpm
Type: 8-speed automatic, Torqueflight 8HP70
Ratios First: 4.71:1; Second: 3.14:1; Third: 2.1:1; Fourth: 1.67:1; Fifth: 1.29:1; Sixth: 1.00:1; Seventh: 0.84:1; Eighth: 0.67:1; Reverse: 3.295:1
Transfer Case
Type: Part-Time
Model: BW 44-45
Low-Range Ratio: 2.64:1
Front Type: IFS
Front Diff: ZF 215mm
Hubs: Automatic
Rear Type: Solid
Rear Diff: Chrysler Corporate 235mm (9.25) Optional Limited Slip (Anti-Spin)
Ratio: 3.92:1
Traction Aid: Brake-based electronic traction control (front and rear)
Front: Upper and lower A-arms; air suspension; stabilizer bar
Rear: 5-link with track-bar; air suspension; solid axle
Type: Electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Lock-to-Lock: 3.25
Turning Circle (ft): 39.4
17x8 aluminum
P285/70R17E Toyo Open Country A/T
Front: Power Assist ABS with dual-rate 13.2-inch vented disc, 2 piston caliper
Rear: Assist ABS with dual-rate 13.8-inch disc
60-0 mph As Tested (ft): 101
0-60 mph As Tested (sec): 8.31
Weight (lb)
Curb Weight: 5,920
Advertised GVWR: 6,800
Trailer Tow Capacity: 9,950
Mileage (mpg)
EPA Estimate (city/hwy): 15/22
As Tested: 13.3
Dimensions (in)
Wheelbase: 140 1/2
Overall Length: 229 1/4
Overall Width: 97 1/4
Overall Height: 77
Front, Rear Track: 69 1/4, 68 1/4
Front, Rear Overhang: 24 1/2, 31 1/4
Min. Ground Clearance Front/Rear (Lowest Point): 9 1/2 (center skidplate)/9 (rear lower shock mount)

Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road
Toyota is no stranger to our 4x4 of the Year competition and has come out on top several times in the past, including last year with the 4Runner. We had high expectations for the all-new Tacoma knowing that the brand takes off-road performance seriously, and we were anxious to try out the new 3.5L V-6 engine. Toyota has long been the leader of the midsize truck market, but recently other makes have entered this turf, so it was important for Toyota to step up its game while not messing up one of its best-selling platforms.

Tacomas have always had adequate, if unremarkable power, so several of our judges were pleasantly surprised when they floored the new Tacoma for the first time. Though it finished in the middle of the pack during our 0-60 acceleration test, the engine had plenty of grunt to get the Tacoma moving at a decent clip.

Our judges were less enthusiastic about the transmission, as several noted that it hunted too much among the six speeds, even on flat ground. We would have loved to try out the available manual transmission instead. Other than the transmission, judges didn't have much to say about on-road driveability. It is good overall, with nothing sticking out as either good or bad.

On the outside, Toyota kept the exterior changes subtle, so much so that a few of our judges were unaware that this was a ground-up redesign. Overall fit and finish is typical for Toyota, which is to say very good. Inside was equally well put together and comfortable, with only a bit of wind noise noted among our testers (which may have been the result of our communications equipment). The location of the rear locker button and Crawl Controls (more on those in a moment) took a little getting used to, as they were positioned just ahead of the sunroof. But the controls themselves were intuitive and easy to use, much like the rest of the interior. Again, pretty standard fare for Toyota in terms of quality and ergonomics.

Once we hit the dirt, it was obvious we had a serious contender on our hands. High-speed desert roads were not a problem thanks to the well-tuned suspension, and the traction control system didn't get in the way like it did in many of our other testers. The hillclimb and rockcrawling sections were effortless thanks in part to the rear locker, and it held its own in the sand. In all of these situations the traction control system was actually more of a help than a hindrance, which is rare. Related to this is Crawl Control, a feature by which the driver sets the speed and steers the truck towards an obstacle, and the truck figures out how to claw its way up whatever is in front of it. It takes some getting used to and seemed a little gimmicky at first, but Crawl Control does work pretty well. While it's no substitute for an experienced driver (much like the hill descent feature), Crawl Control could be an asset to a novice off-roader. The off-road performance was all the more impressive considering the mild Goodyear all-terrain tires, one of which suffered a puncture during the test and all of which were heavily chunked by the end of the week. No matter what we threw at it, the Tacoma made it all look easy and was clearly one of the most capable off-road vehicles of our test.

The only real disappointments came when we had the Tacoma on the rack. Despite the redesign, the Tacoma has only a partially boxed frame, and it was the only vehicle that had rear drum brakes. The skidplates, while adequate, could also have been better. The Tacoma was a frontrunner for off-road performance in most judges’ eyes, but our competition takes into account far more than off-road capability. For many of our judges the question remained: Would the Tacoma do well enough in all those other areas to take the top spot, or was there another vehicle in the test that could challenge its off-road prowess?

Rear locker
Crawl Control
Good fit and finish

Rear drum brakes
Weak street-oriented tires
Below-average skidplates

Manufacturer: Toyota
Model: 2016 TRD Pro Tacoma 4x4 Double Cab
Base Price: $33,730
Price As Tested: $37,610
Options As Tested: $3,880
Type: V-6, Direct Injected, Liquid Cooled, Atkinson Cycle with Dual VVT-I
Displacement (L/ci): 3.5/214
Bore & Stroke (in): 3.70 x 3.27
Compression Ratio: 11.8:1
Fuel Req. (octane)/Capacity (gal): 87/21.1
SAE Peak Horsepower: 278 @ 6,000 rpm
SAE Peak Torque (lb-ft): 265 @ 4,600 rpm
Type: 6-speed automatic
Model: ECT Automatic
Ratios First: 3.60:1; Second: 2.09:1; Third: 1.49:1; Fourth: 1.00:1; Fifth: 0.69:1; Sixth: 0.58:1; Reverse: 3.73:1
Transfer Case
Type: Part time
Model: N/A
Low-Range Ratio: 2.57:1
Front Type: IFS
Front Diff: N/A, open
Hubs: Automatic
Rear Type: Solid
Rear Diff: Manual locking differential
Ratio 3.91:1
Traction Aid: rear manual locker, Brake-based electronic traction control (front and rear)
Front: Coil spring, double wishbone, 1.18-inch stabilizer bar
Rear: Leaf-spring suspension staggered outboard mounted gas-charged shocks
Type: Hydraulic power-assisted rack-and-pinion
Lock-to-Lock: 3.5
Turning Circle (ft): 40.6
16-inch aluminum alloy
P265/70R16 Goodyear Wrangler SRA Adventure All Terrain
Front: 10.75-inch discs, vented
Rear: Drum
60-0 mph As Tested (ft): 101
0-60 mph As Tested (sec): 10.13
Weight (lb)
Curb Weight: 4,560
Advertised GVWR: 5,600
Trailer Tow Capacity: 6,400
Mileage (mpg)
EPA Estimate (city/hwy): 18/23
As Tested: 17.28
Dimensions (in)
Wheelbase: 128
Overall Length: 211 1/2
Overall Width: 85 1/2
Overall Height: 71 3/4
Front, Rear Track: 64, 63 3/4
Front, Rear Overhang: 21, 32 1/4
Min. Ground Clearance Front/Rear (Lowest Point): 8 5/8(LCA)/9 (differential)