I am a fan of the Dakar Rally and was lucky enough to ride in a chase vehicle for three stages of the event one year, back when it started in Paris and ended in Dakar, Senegal. Ever since I got to see what those vehicles could do -- all day long, for two weeks, over brutal terrain -- I was hooked.
I continue to follow the race every year. As I watched the stage-by-stage results this year, I noticed an unexpected trend: Minis were doing really well. I don't think the Mini Countryman has that much SUV capability, yet when the race was over, three of the top five winners were driving Mini Countrymans (Countrymen?). Meanwhile, a company has built a truly awesome twin-turbo BMW X6 that raced in the Baja 1000 and is going to do more off-road racing this year. An X6? Really? Are cats and dogs going to live together? Has up become down? What's going on here? Am I going to have to rethink my opinion of crossovers and their off-road prowess?
The short answer? No. As a staunch Mini fan in our office (who's also quite level-headed) reminded me, the Minis and the X6 were essentially race vehicles that resembled the stock models, but that was about all they have in common. There'll be no hard-core Mini trail rides or tow tests anytime soon. It was appropriate that the Mini was in the Car division, but it's still strange that Hummers and Hiluxes are also considered Cars. But there's a reason for that categorization, and there are specific rules that put vehicles into those groups. In Dakar, the Car division contains any vehicle that isn't a motorcycle or ATV and weighs less than 7716 pounds (or, for fans of the metric system, a nice even 3500 kilograms).
The Truck division includes any vehicle that weighs more than 7716 pounds, and if you've seen any coverage of the race (or read our coverage starting on page 20 in this issue), you know there's not much gray area between the two. The Truck division is composed of vehicles that are so massive and capable, when it comes to this rally, they put light-duty trucks and SUVs to shame. In that context, it actually makes sense to call trucks and SUVs cars.
These little terrors rocked Dakar, beating out trucks and SUVs in their class.
But this shock to the system -- that car-like Minis, racing in the same category as trucks and SUVs, did so well in Dakar -- brings up another issue, this one related to Truck Trend. Here, the vehicles aren't nearly as easy to categorize. Best In Class gets tougher every year, thanks to the ever-changing world of sport/utilities. It's easy to define trucks and full-size SUVs, but we keep having to fine-tune the categories for the rest of them. I can attribute a lot of these little problems to growing pains in the evolution of the sport/utility and the rise of the crossover. In the past, we tried to separate the sport/utilities into categories such as AWD Crossover, Midsize SUV -- with three winners there -- and Compact SUV. But it was getting tougher to decide what was a crossover and what was a midsize SUV. After you finish putting the full-size SUVs in their own category, there are still plenty of vehicles that have three rows of seats, tow more than 5000 pounds, yet are not body-on-frame vehicles. Is a vehicle like the LR4 not a genuine sport/utility? Of course it is.
When we split the vehicles into the aforementioned categories, some of which were defined by wheelbase, there were cases where vehicles that compare in real life ended up in different groups, because one had a wheelbase that was 0.1 inch too long to be considered "compact." That's just wrong, and it was something we had to address this year.
Instead of looking at wheelbase length and the use of all-wheel versus four-wheel drive, we separated them by luxury versus mainstream vehicles, and defined the categories within those based on towing capacity. A vehicle's towing capacity says a lot about the vehicle itself. It not only shows what the crossover/SUV is meant to do, but it's safe to say that the higher the towing capacity, the more likely the platform is tougher, more durable, and better suited to working. Not only that, but we believe we've done a much better job of making sure competitive vehicles are in the same category. For now, we still include vehicles that tow 3500 pounds or less. One exception to the "if it can't tow, it isn't built to work" rule is the Jeep Wrangler. The maximum towing capacity of that vehicle is 3500 pounds, yet I think everyone can agree the Wrangler is one of the toughest vehicles out there. So we put it into the group called Hard-Core 4x4. Take a look and see what you think of the changes we've made to Best In Class. If you have any suggestions, feel free to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.